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Melissa Savignano
MAG 409
Word: 1746
*Read this over. I’ll add something from a male improv performer if necessary and then I think
it’s good to go to Top Edit.- Melissa
Stereotypes about women in comedy — they’re not funny, all they talk about is tampons, they
need to be pretty, they can’t be pretty — remain in the back of Anna Philip’s mind every time
she steps on stage. But she doesn’t see them as a reason to put down the mike.
The Syracuse-based comedian relies on self-deprecating humor in her routines, commenting on
her looks and African American identity. During a 2011 show at Eastville Comedy Club in New
York City, Phillips mocked how people constantly tell her she looks like the movie character
Precious or Jennifer Hudson before she went on the Weight Watchers program. She joked with
the audience: “I see a lot of young, beautiful people here tonight. I don’t know what that’s like.”
The crowd erupts with laughter, the general response to someone openly mocking themselves on
a comedy club stage. While the response is positive, she knows that her humor will come with a
gender caveat, whether she means it or not.
“Being a woman in comedy is basically like being a woman in the world. You still feel slighting
marginalized at times” she says. “But when you’re good, you’re good.” Working hard comes
with the territory—Syracuse lacks venues for those serious about comedy.
Male comic Kelly Doane, known as “KD the Comic,” who started off in Syracuse and now lives
in Richmond, VA, says that Syracuse’s outlets don’t provide any sort of comedic power:
“Upstate New York comedy is very tough. It isn’t New York City,” he says. “It’s a lot of
comedians striving to get to a better place but there isn’t anywhere that will give you a chance.”
Taking both the entrepreneurial and creative routes of comedy, he would go straight to club and
bar owners and ask to perform instead of waiting for establishments to create events.
The War Memorial at OnCenter, The Landmark Theater, and Syracuse University occasionally
bring big name comedy acts, like Aziz Ansari and Daniel Tosh to town. Other places in town,
like Funk n Waffles, and nearby, likeSharkey’s in Liverpool, offer weekly or occasional open
mics, but they aren’t tailored made for funny business. The only true open mic comedy club
around is Wise Guys. Local talents perform in the Wednesday open mikes for just five minutes.
Only thirty percent of the performers are women, says owner David Wheeler. The club currently
features six regular female performers, according to Wheeler. Wise Guys only offers about 16
slots a week to performers and a class beforehand to help their performances. There are no
restrictions to who can step on stage, but preferences are given to loyal and consistent acts,
according to Wheeler. Wise Guys hires local talent to MC or open for a bigger name. It’s not a
launching pad but still a place for local amateurs to do what they love.
Since founding his own production company KD Productions Entertainment in 2006, Doane says
the comedy scene has seen rise to about a dozen more prominent comedians. But Doane believes
the lack of famous and respected female comedians make the game harder for the fairer sex. “It’s
tough for everyone, but tougher for females,” he says. “You’re either Ellen or Kathy Griffin.
That’s it.” But he quicker adds, “But in Syracuse, for everyone — tough period.”
Being banned from Wise Guys doesn’t make it easier on Philips.
In late 2010, Philips planned to perform at Labrador Mountain ski lodge in Truxton after
receiving an invite from Wise Guys. Back then, Philips was a weekly stable at the club. A day
before the show, a Wise Guys employee told her — via Facebook — that she couldn’t perform in
other venues in their market territories if she wanted to continue her performances at his club. If
she did, she would not be allowed back at Wise Guys. Doane isn’t allowed back for similar
reasons. Once he started helping other comics and himself get new opportunities nearby, Wise
Guys did not appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit.She told the “Jokepranos” at Wise Guys
goodbye and never returned. “It wasn’t even a rule I knew I was breaking. I simply said ‘See ya.
I’ll miss the garlic wings.’”
Once she stopped performing there, Phillips thought she’d retire from the comedy game, but
couldn’t deny her desire to perform: “I had already become addicted to it,” says Phillips. “It
forced me to broaden my horizons. I had to prove a point.”
She started driving to Rochester and Albany to stay invested in her comedy. Working comedians
in the Syracuse area travel frequently or just move away to make a run at a career in comedy.
Doane says traveling is the best way to get more face time. He adds, however, that life, jobs, and
families, can starve someone of these out of town chances. Phillips says “I’m a little nervous
about making it. I don’t want to get discovered. I can only take so many days off of work.
There’s a balance. For some people, it’s motherhood. For me it’s work. Eventually I’m going to
have to make a decision.”
Syracuse native Jessimae Peluso, who Phillips considers a mentor, moved to Boston, where open
mic nights happen almost every day of the week at various bars, restaurants, and clubs. She
started doing improvisational sketches at various venues in Boston. “I didn’t know it was
something I could do until I went to Boston and someone said I was funny,” says Peluso. “It’s
not a dig on Syracuse, it’s just not built to be a big cultural market.”
Peluso played a few self-funded shows at The Palace Cafe in Syracuse after returning home
before moving to New York City. She plays an annual show at The Palace Theater where she
breaks out her strictly Syracuse material, drawing on her favorite memories of growing up in
Syracuse: The Great New York State Fair butter sculptures, missing children at Green Lakes
Park, or stealing from the Carousel Mall as a teenager. She plans and advertises for the show on
her own; The Palace doesn’t offer much for up and comers.
As Peluso and Doane demonstrate, comedians need to find and create their own opportunities in
Syracuse. That can add up: spending more time advertising than working on new material,
angering Wise Guys, limited energy for shows. It’s a little out of city adventure that caters best
to creativity. Driving to other cities and clubs led to gigs all over the state for Philips and,
including New York City and an opening gig for comedian Tom Green in Rochester in 2011. “I
was told I was picked for Tom’s show because he demanded a female comic for his opening
act,” says Phillips. “My first thought was ‘He just wants someone to sleep with’ but he ended up
being one of the nicest people I’ve met in the business.” Philips believes being a woman doesn’t
mean she can’t be successful in her new hobby. LastMarch, Phillips participated in the 2012
Women in Comedy Festival in Boston, performing amongst known comedians like Wendy
Liebman and Peluso. The festival, which features 225female and male comedians is a stepping
stone for Phillips. “It’s a little bit more competitive than just signing up and going on stage,” she
Women who want or need to stay in Syracuse might find better luck in one of Syracuse’s five
improv troupes. Some, like Don’t Feed the Actors, have only been around since 2008. While
they provide more outlets, each troupe only has one woman, if any at all. Each troupe has around
five men. Tina Nabatachi, a performer in “Kathy’s Fur Coat,” says viewers warm up to woman
performers pretty quickly, but isn’t sure if the number will grow anytime soon. Like Phillips, she
tries to use her female perspective to her advantage. “The best things in improv come from a
place of truth. I am a woman. Let me tell you what it’s like to have big boobs,” says Nabatachi.
“I can draw on it, so making fun of marriage obsessed woman comes from a place of truth.”
She adds that women need to learn to be raunchy and outgoing quickly in order to succeed in
comedy. “I feel woman aren’t used to putting themselves out there, which is big in comedy.
We’re not taught to be risk takers. Growing up, in elementary school, the goof off is always a
guy. But women are funny.” She adds, “They might just need a few drinks in them.”
Nabatchi, a professor of public policy at SU, first got into improv to improve at entertaining her
students and reacting to any question or circumstance. She eventually got hooked and liked that
she added a female perspective to the mainly male troupes. Gender plays a big part into what
gets the biggest laughs. “I remember we got our best reactions from someone imitating Dolly
Parton and giving birth on stage,” she says.
Men in improv encourage women to join troupes and come out to workshops, a different reaction
from what female stand up comedians deal with it. Peluso constantly deals with sleazy male
comics and bookers, and audience members heckling about her looks. During what Peluso
considers one of her best auditions, a few years ago in New York City, a booker had only one
comment for Peluso: “Well, you’re pretty nice to look at but you did nothing else for me.”
Peluso left the audition fuming. Despite the audience’s laughs, she felt like she was judged in a
beauty pageant, not the field of comedy. She learned quickly to carry a “Don’t fuck with me
“Male comics will ask me to dinner after shows and it’s so obvious they don’t want to talk and
help me out. You have to ask ‘Do you want to go out to eat or do you just want to get inside my
Vagina Monologue?’”
Peluso realizes she will continue to come across those comics and bookers, but she at least
knows she has a footing outside of the central New York comedy bubble. Gender will always
come into play but with perseverance and probably a little bit of luck, she keeps focused on
what matters. Her work.
“At the end of the day, they don’t determine my career. I do,” she says. “You have enough
problems, with always being broke, always traveling. Your gender becomes a problem when you
make it a problem. The moment you make it the reason you’re not succeeding is just another