Girls striving for comedy gold

GOLD Comedy is empowering girls and amplifying female voices by providing them with online and face-to-face comedy workshops. 

By Julia Migné

‘Isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?

Tina Fey’s answer to this question is the perfect reminder that though progress has certainly been made in the last decade, there is still a long way to go to bridge the abyssal gender gap in the comedy industry! 

The iconic American comedian, renowned for the sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live, replied by saying: “No, it’s a terrible time. If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”

Stand-up comedy has many benefits and can help boost a person’s confidence. ©Jenni Walkowia

A shift, though, is happening now with more and more voices calling out the imbalance in the comedy sector. And, Lynn Harris is one of them who strongly believes that it is important to amplify the voices of girls and women in the world of comedy.

The award-winning journalist/novelist and standup comic is tired of women being a genre rather than a gender in the comedy world and she is calling for a change. By bringing the art of comedy alive through an online class that she has developed, Lynn wants to give girls a voice and showcase the incredible power of comedy, be it to boost their confidence or to help them address tough topics.

Lynn talks to INKLINE about funny women, the gender gap in comedy, and what she hopes to achieve with her startup GOLD Comedy.

According to Lynn Harris, Comedy is POWER. ©Jenni Walkowiak

INKLINE: Could you tell us more about how you got into standup comedy? 

Lynn Harris: Honestly it’s super boring! I just wanted to do it and so I did it. I did what a lot of people do to make themselves get out there: I took a class. And, the class would always end with a show.

People say that your first time on stage you always do great because all your friends and family are there. Then the second time you go up it’s your worst because your friends and family aren’t there and you still have basically never done this. Anyway, I don’t remember my second time but it was sometime in 1994!

None of the successful comedians that you see got there just by waking up funny. Waking up funny is a start but they worked!

But honestly, I just wanted to do it. I liked comedy and I liked standup and my goal doing standup comedy was to just do standup comedy. Not like something on a bucket list but to actually do it for real. My goal wasn’t to do standup in order to get cast on a sitcom or to get hired for a writers room.

I: You’ve written on your website about how women are defined as a genre in comedy rather than a gender. Why do you think this gender gap is still so wide in comedy? 

L: Comedy is certainly different from any other profession. Most people are not required to buy two drinks, for example, when they are in a work setting. But, there are reasons that are particular to comedy that underscore the perpetuation of sidelining of women.

But, as with other workplaces and industries, comedy is certainly getting better. There is more and more visible and successful women or just people who aren’t straight white dudes who are joining.  Of course, there have always been women in comedy, but it’s just that the visibility and the success are related to the level of everyday access which is still more challenging for women.

GOLD Comedy works towards amplifying girls’ and women’s voices. © JenniWalkowiak

Everybody has to work really hard to be successful at comedy. Everybody. Even straight white dudes! Comedy is hard but anyone who is not a straight white dude has to work harder and that is the same as in any industry. It’s changing, but we’d like to change it faster! 

I: The idea of GOLD Comedy had been in your mind for five years following a discussion with one of your friends, what was the final trigger that finally pushed you to make it happen? 

L: Women in comedy didn’t start with Amy Poehler or Amy Schumer. It didn’t even start with the people that I grew up with such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, and Miss Piggy. But as I was kind of mulling this idea [of comedy for girls], there was more and more attention out there for women in comedy and so it just became clear to me that my idea was always good but the moment was getting better and better!

When I finally started talking about it and said I wanted to start some kind of comedy business primarily for girls, people said ‘that should be a thing and you should do it!’.

Just to be super clear though, GOLD Comedy is a for-profit. It’s not a non-profit, it’s not an organisation, it is an early stage startup. We launched with a pilot series of face-to-face classes where we bottled up the magic in terms of what we learned [doing comedy] and then we created an online class.

I: How did you meet Elsa Waithe, standup comedian and now a founding instructor at GOLD Comedy?

L: [I met Elsa when] I was first doing some research a couple of years ago. I still had my old pals from comedy and you know I thought: ‘my friends know a lot about doing comedy in the 90s and the early 2000s but I want to find out what is happening right now’.

I went to talk to younger people and one of the first things I did was to convene a group of people I didn’t know in comedy, who were just doing interesting things and Elsa was one of them!

 “It’s the outside world who has to adjust its expectations and assumptions around girls and who should be funny, loud, strong and all that.” © JenniWalkowiak

The way I found her was because she was known on the local scene here, but also because she had been involved in the Cinder Block Comedy Festival. It had gotten a lot of great press because when they first launched the festival they charged less for women, people of colour, and people with disabilities who were applying. I thought it was awesome, so I reached out to the festival saying ‘I think our values are aligned’ and that’s how I met Elsa!

She has been with me from the very beginning and since then has been the leading instructor of our online class. She’s really exceptional! 

I: What’s been the biggest challenge you faced since launching your startup?

L: I’m not sure challenge is the right word for it but one thing that is interesting is to see how assumptions are made when I describe what I do. Even if I use words that are obviously entrepreneurial like ‘I’m an entrepreneur and I’m starting a startup’, people will still say ‘how is your programme?’ or ‘how is your non-profit?’.

There is nothing wrong with non-profit organisations or programmes, not at all, but it’s interesting to wonder why people assume this. It’s aligned with the norms I’m trying to change. I think there is an assumption that men do well and women do good. So if you are looking at a woman, me, who wants to make comedy better for girls and women, there is an immediate assumption that it must be a non-profit.

The workshops usually end with a show in front of friends and family. ©Jenni Walkowiak

Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but I think the idea behind it is actually related to the kind of assumption which leads to the underpaying of women or devaluing of women who do comedy – because it’s seen as cute and nice that they get to express themselves as opposed to being work.

They should get paid for that work, they should be free of harassment there, and they should have equal opportunities in that work! 

I: What has been your best memory so far working on GOLD Comedy? 

L: I believe that girls are already funny. Girls are a riot and so it’s not like they have to change or they have to come out of their shells. They are already fine and it’s the outside world that has to adjust its expectations and assumptions around girls and who should be funny, loud, strong and all that.

That said, one of my favourite memories is about this high schooler named Emika who did my pilot class. And, I’ve booked her for shows since then. I knew her English teacher and he recommended her to my pilot workshop. He told me that the next day, after doing my one day stand up workshop,  she came running in the cafeteria and she yelled across the room: ‘Mister D, Mister D, I’m funny!’. 

Emika, one of the highschoolers who took part in the GOLD Comedy pilot workshop. ©Jenni Walkowiak

I: If you could give girls who want to do standup comedy one piece of advice, what would it be? 

L: Stay with it! Work at it, work, work, work, work! None of the successful comedians that you see got there just by waking up funny. Waking up funny is a start but they worked!

They did one million open mics and failed at most of them. They’ve been heckled. They have written jokes that they didn’t like. They have written jokes that they love that didn’t do well. They have tried the same jokes over and over in a slightly different way to get it right. They just worked.

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