"I've been told by male club owners that women shouldn't talk the way I do," says comedian Stephanie Hodge. "They think my material would be funny coming from a man, but the fact that I have breasts and a 'baby-place' makes them very upset."
Stand-up comedy has often been considered men's work. Not so long ago, successful women comics were rare, and club owners willing to give women a break were even scarcer. Such hard-working pioneers as Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers certainly proved that entertainers didn't need a Y-chromosome to be funny, but the movers and shakers of comedy were members of a boys' club. And women were not encouraged to apply.
Today, the club has been thoroughly infiltrated, and several women have become power players in the comedy game. Roseanne Arnold has risen from the ranks of stand-up to become an undeniable force in prime-time television. Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner and Elayne Boosler can sell out major venues. Women comics are as likely as their male counterparts to be showcased in comedy specials on cable TV.
Despite such progress, the boys' club mentality does linger, and sexism can be a forbidding obstacle in a woman's career. The successful women comics seem to have two things in common: They're funny, and they don't play by club rules.
Hodge started doing stand-up in 1980, as the only female comic working the Minneapolis scene. Since then, she's worked in theater, film and television, but remains passionate about her comedy. She finds sexist discrimination in the comedy business to be infuriating, but not any more so than in society at large. "Let's face it, the whole world is primarily a boys' club. Mutual cooperation and respect between the sexes anywhere at any time is an awe-inspiring thing. It does happen, but it's rare and remarkable."
Early in her career, Hodge put up with a lot of ugliness, from verbal harassment to sex-for-stage-time propositions. Now that she's had some success, she's not about to forgive or forget.
"I remember being told that I was going to be paid less than a guy who had much less experience than I did, and I felt powerless," she says. "When you're coming up, you know what hurts, and you know when you're being cheated, but you don't think there's anything you can do about it. You feel the need to play every one-nighter you can get your hands on.
"Now, I refuse to go back to certain clubs. I'm not going to give anybody that mistreated me a second chance. I just tell them to be nicer to the women coming up. Every club's an educational experience and every sexist male is an opportunity to be funny."
Ellen DeGeneres' comedy career took off in 1982 when she was named Showtime's "Funniest Person in America." Her big break came in 1986 when she became the only women comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to "The Tonight Show" couch after a first appearance. "People kept telling me it was a big deal, but I knew he had to call one of us over eventually. I was happy it was me," says DeGeneres, who performs her stand-up show tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall.
The thoughtfully skewed humor that DeGeneres specializes in has earned her such tags as "the female Jerry Seinfeld" and "a distaff George Carlin," and she doesn't mind the cross-gender comparisons.
"If I were 'the female Gary Coleman' it might rub me the wrong way, but I understand people's need to label what we do. I'm just waiting for the day when I'll be myself without any other caption. And it would be nice to hear some guy called 'the male Ellen,' " she says. "But I'm in this for the long haul and I'm proud to be a girl. I don't spend any time thinking, 'If I were a guy this would be easier.' If you're funny and talented, that will carry you. Tenacity is the most important thing in this business."
Carol Leifer has become a top name in comedy, with several cable specials and dozens of "David Letterman" and "Tonight Show" appearances to her credit. Currently a writer for "Seinfeld," Leifer says she's bothered by some comedy club practices.
"It bugs me to hear women comedians still being talked about as novelty acts. Sometimes club owners won't put two women right after each other on a bill, like it's some old vaudeville rule about not having two monkey acts without a magician in between," she says.
"It's just ridiculous that a woman headliner might not get a woman opener or middle act because somebody's thinking, 'They're just going to talk about their boyfriends and their periods, so we only need one of them.' The encouraging sign is that audiences are starting to get upset if they don't see any women on the bill."