Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why I Teach an all Female Stand-up Class

For the last three years I have been teaching Feminine Comique, an all female stand-up class created by Cameron Esposito. Fem Com, as it is called by the locals, is under the umbrella of the non-profit organization Tight Five Productions* which is commandeered by Chicago’s legendary Brit, Mark Geary.

My connection to Fem Com was much like the 90’s infomercial Hair Club for Men. I was also a client. I enrolled in Fem Com** because I was a solo performer who needed to learn how to self edit and craft punchlines. A few of my friends took the class and recommended it. I loved it. When Cameron decided to move to LA she asked me if I would be interested in carrying on the Fem Com torch. I accepted.

I am often asked why Chicago needs a women’s only stand-up class. The assumption is that the  classes will teach students how to be funny, that it is anti-male, and that it is used to surpass months of attending open mics. None of these things are true. Here are a few true things about this course.

Importance of Fem Com

1.) Classes Don't Teach “How to Be Funny”

No one can teach someone how to be funny, so why take a stand-up class? Classes can provide writing exercises, feedback, and personalized direction. Classes can shake veteran comedians out of their funks. Classes can help new comedians figure out their process. Because Fem Com is geared towards women the class also focuses on exploring non-apologetic behavior and creating a female community in which women build self-worth while working together. Many students who enroll in Fem Com are not comedians. They are regular, professional women who are excited to do something that terrifies them or are looking to strengthen their public speaking know-how. Fem Com techniques translate into real world skills.

2.) Solace in Stand-up
Comedy is not a vacuum. The issues women face in the real world exist within the stand-up world. It is important to have a space to chat about this shit. Fem Com is that space. Creating a community within a community may make fellow male comedians feel excluded. But having this space available is vital for women in stand-up, in that it helps us feel less isolated. I am a stand-up who is also a female. At times I feel like Will Ferrell in Zoolander. Only when I chat with other female stand-ups do I feel like I am no longer “taking crazy pills.

3.) There is No “Right” Way to Start Doing Stand-Up

Doing open mics is not the only way to dip your toe into stand-up. Hold on! I know you are already yelling at me. Stop it. I AM NOT SAYING THAT OPEN MICS ARE NOT NECESSARY TO STAND-UP COMEDY. SETTLE DOWN! (Okay, now I’m yelling.) What I’m saying is this. The open mic culture can detour first timers. If folks aren’t able to make an open mic schedule work should they NOT pursue stand-up comedy? (Some stand-ups say yes. Those stand-ups are comedy snobs. You are still my friends but you are snobs.) No one has the same comedy path. NO ONE. If someone wants to start with a class and then ease into open mics. What’s it to you? And if they want to take a class with all women because they feel more comfortable. Who cares? If Fem Com students find they love stand-up they will need stage time and they will need to go to open mics. They will get there at their own pace. Stop being darn snobs about it.

4.) Strengthening Unheard Voices
The age old adage is that “women be shoppin” but the truth is “women be strugglin”. For a long time women have been the butt of the joke. The landscape of the world is slowly changing and comedy as a whole is sharper for it. One of the reasons for this change is that women are having their own say. It’s a slow change. But it’s happening. Older women, women of color, gay women, and transgender women are almost never heard in our major media outlets. They are heard in Chicago's Fem Com classes. Again, slow change but change none the less.

5.) Powerful Tool for Personal & Political Change

Fem Com changes how women view themselves which in turn changes how the world views women. I’m getting deep on your asses. Buckle Up.  W.E.B. DuBois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” talks about African American oppression via a white “normative gaze” that needs to be “rooted out”. Now, I am not saying women in America have the same experiences and struggles as African Americans. That would make me a simple-minded moron! But I am saying many women share a similar conflict of “gaze”. We often see ourselves through the eyes of “the other”. Fem Com tries to combat that. This class helps women see themselves through themselves and then allows them to create a persona for the stage. It’s trippy. It’s powerful. It’s amazing. And it’s the kind of shit that creates change.

Chicago provides tools to learn comedy under the radar of an industry. This creates a variety of rich, one of a kind stand-up comedians. One of those tools is Fem Com and although its existence may frustrate a few fellow stand-ups, it is needed. Fem Com isn’t an open mic replacement, it wasn’t created to shun male comedians, it doesn’t teach anyone “how to be funny". Here’s what it preaches: Don’t apologize. Don’t ask for permission. Take the microphone and tell your dang story. And most importantly, make those delightful fucks laugh!

Next Fem Com class begins on January 7th

*Tight Five Productions also has a co-ed stand-up class called Stand-up Seminary taught by Ricky Gonzalez.

**While enrolled in Fem Com I met some of my favorite comedians in this city: Kristin Clifford, Alexandra Tsarpalas, Marla Depew and I ran into my old Second City Conservatory pal, Tamale Sepp. These women are currently creating rad happenings in the Chicago comedy scene.

Staff Writer - Kelsie Huff
Kelsie is a producer, writer, storyteller and stand up comedian based in Chicago. You can catch her performing at top clubs and showcases all over town (Zanies, Laugh Factory, UP Comedy Club) as well as at her own showcase - the kates a bi-monthly show in Lincoln square.