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Focusing on Female Comedians


Canadian filmmaker Gail Singer took a big chance in trying to capture the subculture of female stand-up comics in her documentary "Wisecracks," which opens today at the Nuart. Shot in 1990 at various club sites in Edinburgh, London, Toronto and Los Angeles, the film focuses on 24 comedians (including three performance groups, one from Australia), and turned out to be such a huge undertaking that several more film trips would've been necessary to complete the chore.

That can only speak well of the performers. Although Singer approached it from an ideological standpoint, the women turned out to be too rich or varied to be confined within that framework. Where once it may have been enough to nod in sympathetic earnestness over the socio-sexual barriers facing women in comedy, now we see that talent will out. As Whoopi Goldberg says in the film, "I don't talk about myself as a woman or bein' black. That's other people's problem."

Several women echo Phyllis Diller's contention in "Wisecracks" that "the double standard is there, forever. We just have to live with it." Or, like Ellen DeGeneres, will say: "It's not about my life as a woman . . . I don't separate." In either case, they get right to work at the business of being funny, unimpeded.

"There were moments when I could return to the editing room after four weeks away and find myself laughing a lot," Singer said. "When you're working with people's images day in and day out, the flick of an eye or the turn of a head is as revealing as psychoanalysis. I found myself becoming extraordinarily respectful of these women. It was a relief to find that, even under close scrutiny, their material could be so gratifying.

"In formal documentary terms, I originally thought of 'Wisecracks' as a historical illumination of a subculture, women in comedy. I was surprised to find there was so little archival material." (Film clips of Beatrice Lillie, Sophie Tucker, Molly Goldberg, Fanny Brice, Marie Dressler, Gracie Allen, Hattie McDaniel and Mae West, and others, are included in the film.) "I'd wanted to create the film with a dramatic structure, an introduction, conflict and resolution, but after shooting 40 hours of film, I had to throw out half of it and start again.

"One of the things I wanted to show is how men don't expect to laugh when they see a woman up there. In comedy, the relationship between the viewer and performer is so tightly woven that the comedy doesn't exist outside of the context both bring to it. I think men come away not realizing how their views of women have been affected."

Singer's cerebral approach to her material is obviously not that of a show-biz veteran who wanted to make a movie about her metier because she has no other frame of reference--she currently holds the Distinguished Chair in Canadian Culture at the University of Toronto. It comes instead from a career of activist filmmaking that includes 20 documentaries, one of which, "Loved, Honoured and Bruised" (made in 1979), was instrumental in bringing about new Canadian legislation on domestic violence.

Singer was born and raised in Winnipeg, and graduated from the University of Manitoba (she was a literature and zoology major) before traveling through Israel in the classic young person's odyssey of self-discovery.

"I was in Israel looking for myself and wound up in a place called Eilat, in the Gulf of Aqaba, and fell in love with a guy who was working on a documentary project about the species of fishes in the gulf," she said. "They asked me to work as a translator from French to English, and I grew addicted to diving underwater, and filmmaking itself. A year later I wasn't in love with the guy and I didn't want to dive anymore. What I wanted to do was make documentaries."

This was around the time that cable television had become a new development in Canada, and Singer went to work producing public affairs films of varying length ("My Angst series," she calls them) on topics ranging from mercury poisoning to indigenous land rights to the environmental destruction of Canada's northern rivers at the hands of the hydroelectric industry. She traveled by dogsled to film native families living at the mouth of the Churchill River on Hudson Bay. She filmed a solar eclipse in Finland. But as often as not, her social consciousness led her to make films on the experience of women, ranging from "Women in Medieval Europe" to "Abortions Stories: From North and South."

"Wisecracks," which was financed by the Canadian government for $540,000, came from Singer's attempt to create a humorous fictional movie and her decision to jump-start her comic nerve by visiting the clubs (reading Plato and Freud didn't do the job, and she did go on to make the film, called "True Confections").

"I wanted to show how modern women can make people laugh using their brains, and that they don't have to accept lesser roles--in the era of Fanny Brice, most of the writing was done by men," Singer said. "There are two main forms of comedy in America: the sitcom, which relies on social consensus, and stand-up, which is about individualism and radical ideology--though it's becoming cloned. I never thought 'Wisecracks' would be as entertaining as it's turned out to be.

"I discovered that the paradox of successful stand-up is that the performers have learned to be personal by stepping away from themselves. I wouldn't agree that the best women comics would want to be included in any 'special consideration' category. That can offer a foot in the door, but in the end, comics want to be appreciated as comics, not as members of a group."

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