It's a Saturday night at Tao Comedy Studio, and Nina Manni is onstage nailing a bit about male insecurity.
"Do you guys know what the worst thing you can do to a man is?" she asks rhetorically. "Emasculate him — make him less of a man, weaken him, take away his power. And you do that by yelling at him in front of his friends or changing a tire better than him."
The 38-year-old comedian, clad in a Van Halen raglan shirt, delivers the joke with tempered, well-informed indignation. And the audience is digging it. She continues: "Why isn't our government harnessing this power that women have? Why aren't I being sent to a cocktail party in Russia to correct Putin's grammar in front of a bunch of dignitaries and just let me take that motherfucker down?"
It's not that you couldn't hear Manni's act or acts like it at other L.A.-area comedy venues. But at a lot of clubs, female comedians might feel too intimidated to joke about gender, the fear being that female-centric comedy might crash and burn with male-dominated crowds.
Comedy impresario Bobbie Oliver opened Tao Comedy Studio — located on Beverly Boulevard in Fairfax — to foster provocative, issues-oriented material and to give female comedians a place where they can feel assured that the other comics on the bill, the management and the audience will all be fully on board. Her vision: no vicious hecklers, no crude sexism, no pressure to conform to the meanness that has a tendency to lurk in the dark corners of other clubs.
"So many things felt unsafe," Oliver, 47, says about her time in the mainstream comedy scene. The Georgia native's passion is palpable, onstage and off-, especially when she's discussing the deep gender unfairness she's encountered. She's like a Southern, blond Roseanne Barr; her act is imbued with the same sort of world-weariness, enhanced by a down-home accent.
Oliver bemoans a "sheer lack of opportunity" for women in comedy. "There's 20 dudes on every show and, like, one woman. Comedy festivals have just a minuscule number of women. And on television, until Samantha Bee came along, there were no women late-night hosts. Out of 48 late-night stand-up spots, two go to women." Besides Bee, Chelsea Handler and Joan Rivers' stints as a sub for Johnny Carson, late-night TV has been an all-male playing field.
Veteran club comedian Betsy Salkind, who wrote for both Roseanne and the short-lived '90s sketch show Saturday Night Special, says the late-night landscape reflects what's going on in comedy clubs all over the country. "A typical show at one of the L.A. clubs will include 14 male comics and one female comic, and she's probably not headlining," says Salkind, adding, "In the nonshowcase cities, it's three men and no women, or five men and one woman."
Salkind got her start in Boston, where she was essentially blacklisted for performing material that was perceived as too edgy. "I was actually banned in Boston from nearly every club for performing a little piece called 'The Emperor's Getting Fucked.' It was about the misogyny, racism and viciousness in comedy at the time [the early '90s] and featured a character called Lois Common Denominator. ... The system is sort of set up to allow just a few of us through, and I refuse to compete with my fellow comics for token spots. It doesn't need to be that way."
Oliver believes the lack of greater opportunities for women in comedy originates in those sorts of unaccommodating and uninclusive performance spaces. "I feel like a lot of women stay away from open mics because they're threatening, so they don't get a chance to work vulnerable or personal material," she says. "At Tao I see women work some really raw, vulnerable stuff and cry onstage while telling this story, and I watch it grow to this amazing bit, which they then take out in the world and slay with it."
Tao, which hosts shows, classes and the annual Laugh Riot Grrrl Fest, offers three open mics a week, two co-ed and one for women only. And despite the feminist emphasis, it's not uncommon that Oliver books lineups that are half men. Oliver's partner in running the venue is her husband, Chris, who, she proudly points out, is a straight white male.
Gender politics aside, open-minded Angelenos are likely to find the atmosphere refreshing at Tao. Whereas most mainstream stand-up comedy venues cultivate a cold, nocturnal feel, Tao is more like a cross between a private screening room and a yoga studio. Flickering candles sit on any available surface and Eastern religious knickknacks adorn shelves near the front of the venue.
When Oliver was living in Athens, Georgia, after college, she happened upon mystical spiritual guru Alan Watts on the radio and started digging deeply into Buddhism and Taoism. Years later, when teaching comedy, Oliver found herself answering questions about the art form with wisdom from Asian philosophy.
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"I discovered that comedy in L.A. is not about comedy," Oliver says. "It's a marketing scheme to get rich and famous. No one cared about the process. People would ask, 'What should I write about?' and I'd say, 'What are you thinking about?' Most comedy clubs were teaching the idea of a false persona, an inauthentic personality."
Oliver spent four years researching and writing a master handbook of sorts: The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause. In keeping with the far Eastern spiritual vibe, before classes she burns incense and leads her comedy students through meditation. "Using comedy powers for good and not evil actually supports Right Speech and Right Livelihood from the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path," Oliver says.
This spiritual approach might not have flown at Oliver's old comedy haunt, Pasadena's Ice House. Lest anyone think that Oliver's endeavors are completely politically correct or devoid of edge, however, her latest comedy CD is titled Feminazi Cunt.
Onstage, Manni nears the end of her set. Her material has veered from the takedown of touchy men to the sort of classic self-effacement everyone can relate to. "I have found hope in kale," she declares. "'Cause I figure if something as bitter and shitty as kale can make it, then maybe there's a chance for me."