Earlier this year there was an outpouring of stories from female comics both local and national about the sexism, harassment, and abuse they’d faced in the comedy scene. Through social media, personal blogs, and word of mouth, women united to shed light on experiences that took place everywhere from small open mikes to the largest comedy theaters in the country. But such accounts shouldn’t overshadow the real reason we need to be paying attention to these women: they’re great comedians who should be noticed for their talent and drive rather than because of scandal. The best strategy for combating sexism in the comedy world for women in Chicago is to continue to be among the strongest, funniest, and most innovative comedians working in the city. While there are countless women who deserve recognition, here are some of the performers and producers who stood out for me in 2016.
Christina Anthony, Carisa Barreca, Tawny Newsome
One of the biggest comedy shows of the year was the Second City’s collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance, The Art of Falling. Among the standout performers were the women featured in the sketch and improv portions: Christina Anthony as a lonely woman on a turbulent flight, Carisa Barreca as a new office hire in love with one of her coworkers, and Tawny Newsome (who’s now hitting it big as a cast member on the Seeso comedy Bajillion Dollar Properties) as an oracle with a penchant for crowd work.
Ariel Atkins, Clare Austen-Smith, Courtney Crary
The mission of the trio of women behind the Arts & Culture Club is to give stage time to women, people of color, and LGBTQ performers for their weekly variety show, which features stand-up, sketch, improv, poetry, storytelling, music, and more. (Full disclosure: I’ve been on the lineup.) Each show is curated by either Atkins, Austen-Smith, or Crary and is constructed around a single subject—topics range from sharks to menstruation to Beyonce. These personal obsessions open up dialogue for a diverse room of performers and audience members.
Alex Kumin has a way of talking about serious things in her comedy without shoving them in your face. Between discussing the pros and cons of jumpsuits, she manages to smartly weave in commentary on rape culture, slut shaming, and body image while still ending on a laugh. And this year Kumin started teaching Feminine Comique, an all-female stand-up class that’s introduced a whole new group of women performers to the local scene.
Through the south-Asian comedy collective Simmer Brown, Mustafa has given herself and other performers of color (male and female) a platform to discuss issues of race and gender along with the quandaries of everyday life. Since the election, Mustafa has been more vocal than ever in response to white privilege, Islamophobia, and intersectional feminism, using her comedy to speak candidly, with wit and gravitas.
The force of Helltrap Nightmare is now the poster child for comedy about gross bodily things that women shouldn’t find gross: along with hosting Helltrap and Ladylike, two shows that revel in the so-thought disgust of the female body, she creates the boob-, vagina-, and tampon-riddled posters for them. Moreover, Sherman is half of the two-female emcee duo for Cole’s infamous open mike.
SlutTalk founder Swiz takes her message of creating an open and honest dialogue about sex positivity, slut shaming, and body politics and puts a comedic spin on it with the monthly Feminist Happy Hour, an open mike featuring female- and woman-identifying performers sharing their personal “slut” stories.
The stand-up is completely uncensored when it comes to talking about marriage and motherhood, and proves that even without the glitz and the glamour she can have things her own way. She’s long made a name for herself in Chicago as the first female producer-member of stand-up standby Comedians You Should Know and is a founding member of the female comedy collective Hoo Ha Comedy. This year she recorded her first hour-long video and audio special, Mother.fucker. v