Funny For A Woman

Written by Amina Amdeen.

Images provided by Kaci Beeler and Nancy Norton.

Of all the universal truths, “laughter is the best medicine” is my favorite.

Not only has it endured the test of time, as proven by the continued importance of jokes in every culture, but it has also withstood countless social transformations. No matter what upheaval we experience in our lives, joking about our experiences has, and will always be, the best way for us to deal with changes we might not be comfortable with or happy about. Stand-up comedy is a practice rooted in this universal truth.

“… Joking about our experiences has, and will always be, the best way for us to deal with changes we might be comfortable with or happy about.”

In the United States, stand-up comedy began with late 19th century performance traditions of vaudeville, variety, and burlesque shows, as well as humorist monologues by well-known personalities. At the turn of the century, theater became a means of escape for urban populations.

However, the true stand-up comedy tradition in the US began in the 1980s. It was around this time that Nancy Norton, a hospice nurse, stumbled upon the scene. The Honolulu Comedy Club was holding a contest and, despite having never been in a comedy club before, she decided to participate. She performed for two minutes and was hired shortly after.

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Nancy Norton, Austin-based comedian. Image by Katie Day Weisberger.

“I think I’m a better healer as a comedian than I am as a nurse,” Nancy told me.

Norton left nursing and performed comedy through the 80s. She remarked that back in the 90s, the comedy scene was “kind of like a big high school where you knew almost everyone around the circuit.” The ease with which Norton found a paying gig so early in her career is worlds away from the difficulty young comics face nowadays in “vying for the same stage time.”

Even as a self-proclaimed androgynous person, Norton would regularly hear comments like, “Hey, you’re really funny for a woman.” One of the consequences of the growing stand-up comedy scene is that more diverse voices and faces are making names for themselves. While women remain a minority in stand-up, their presence is nonetheless punctuated by the unapologetic portrayal of the reality of existing as a female. The stories and jokes they share empower women and encourage them to remain authentic to their own voice.

“While women remain a minority in stand-up, their presence is nonetheless punctuated by the unapologetic portrayal of the reality of existing as a female.”

Kaci Beeler, an “improviser, actor, designer, and artist/painter,” showcases that authenticity in her work, to an extent that is difficult to deny. Beeler fell in love with collaborative artwork in the form of theater while she was in high school. In a similar manner to Norton, she didn’t have to jump through too many hoops to get her foot in the door. Because the Austin improv scene was still nascent, the Hideout Theater quickly became her home theater. In our interview, she described to me how “improv thrives on authenticity in the moment.”

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Pictured on the left: Kaci Beeler, next to a fellow performer.

“I’m always reaching for that magic feeling where the show is right on the edge of risk and failure and yet it’s succeeding and the audience is with you in that,” she said.

“It’s extremely thrilling. When it goes well, it’s like a drug to a lot of performers.”

However, Beeler’s journey has been anything but a breeze. In addition to feeling the constant pressure to “to show all of the female perspectives in one character,” especially when performing as the only woman in a show, Beeler recounted multiple instances where a fellow performer would talk over her, talk down to her, or “literally cover [her] mouth with their hands.”

“Beeler recounted multiple instances where a fellow performer would talk over her, talk down to her, or ‘literally cover [her] mouth with their hands.'”

For a while, she even doubted her ability and her place in the scene, that maybe she wasn’t “aggressive or funny enough.” However, she pointed out that, as the Austin improv scene grew, it became easier to shut out comedians who were unpleasant to work with. Coupled with her success as a performer, Beeler began to feel empowered to speak out against the unprofessional behavior of men in comedy. But it wasn’t until the recent #metoo movement, which highlighted the experiences of women who were faced with sexual misconduct from renown male comedians in positions of power, that she realized she didn’t know how.

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In regards to the allegations against Bill Cosby, Norton commented on his apparent hypocrisy. The fact that he would “lecture [other black comedians] about using foul language or sexually explicit material on stage and how it would hurt the image of black people,” while engaging in the kinds of acts alleged against him was extremely upsetting. She shared with me her belief that any high-achieving comedian or public figure is susceptible to that kind of behavior, since the personalities that tend to climb their way to the top are sometimes narcissistic personalities that “present one way to the public, and they are actually the other side of that coin.”

Like Norton, Beeler was shocked and disgusted by the allegations against beloved comedians like Bill Cosby and Louis CK. Part of the reason why it’s upsetting to hear of comedians outed with sexual misconduct, Beeler asserted, is because “when people are funny, I place them on a higher pedestal of love because they make me laugh, they make me feel good feelings. When that trust is betrayed, it’s a pretty deep cut.”

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Regardless of whatever love we have for comedians that “make us feel good things,” Beeler believes that a damaging inherent assumption is made within comedy about so-called “offensive jokes.” For Beeler, there is no excuse for misogynistic comedy. That is precisely why she is so optimistic about the #metoo movement.

Despite the criticisms against the comedy scene in Austin and nationwide, both women maintain that being a performer was their calling. Even though they have faced difficulty, they have remained optimistic about the potential for the comedy scene to accommodate diverse voices and maintain an environment that is welcoming to women. Norton advises young women pursuing stand-up comedy to “continue to do authentic comedy of substance” and to be “true to themselves, to their own voice.” She says that as women, we can acknowledge sexism and the patriarchy, but we must be wary of getting “stuck in the victim energy.”

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“I cartoon my pain, that’s my schtick, man. It’s empowering, it’s a way of getting our power back. If we can laugh at that, we can laugh at anything. Don’t let them steal more from you than they already took.”

“I cartoon my pain, that’s my schtick, man. It’s empowering, it’s a way of getting our power back. If we can laugh at that, we can laugh at anything. Don’t let them steal more from you than they already took.”

Beeler wants women in the performance theater community to assert themselves and “put [their] foot down about certain things that we let slide in the past.” She also hopes that “it keeps being a place for diverse voices.”

Aside from being the best medicine, laughter is an integral part of all of our lives. For such an important art form, the participation and representation of women in comedy is not just desired, it is critical. 

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