More Than Just a Giggle-O
Ladies Are Funny Festival brings the distaff laffs and more
I mean, seriously.
Is there anyone out there who still thinks a person has to have some veiny tallywhacker dangling between the legs in order to make other humans laugh about something? Is that notion even a factor in these enlightened times?
In these times, enlightened or otherwise, I'd suggest that: 1) it's dead obvious that humor is not a gender-based phenomenon, and 2) we need, as always, all the laughs we can get. And we can get a lot of laughs, thankfully, from all over, from men and women, on a near-constant level – thanks to live performances and film distribution and Netflix and YouTube and so on.
But this article's focus is on live performance and on funny women. Because that's what and who will be happily crowding the Austin entertainment schedule this weekend: the fifth annual Ladies Are Funny Festival, featuring stand-up and sketch and improv and, OK, even a few short films, from women from all over the country.
Julie Gillis: And Canada.
Austin Chronicle: Well, yes, that is out of the country.
Gillis: You have to have a passport.
Kerri Lendo: You have to fly from there.
So, yes, women from all over the country and beyond, for three days and nights of comedy showcases and workshops and parties, as produced by Julie Gillis, with much help from Kerri Lendo, on the second stage of Salvage Vanguard Theater, just a little east of Manor Road's burgeoning restaurant row.
We spoke with Gillis and Lendo recently to find out what we can expect to see at the festival and why a female-centered event like this one is as reasonable as it is funny. (Full disclosure: Julie Gillis is a contributor to the Chronicle’s Gay Place Blog.)
AC: Julie, this is your first year producing. How did you get involved with LAFF?
Gillis: I was part of Girls Girls Girls, which is a musical improvisational comedy troupe here in Austin. And we decided to pull together as many local and Texan female troupes as possible for a whole weekend of comedy. And it was less of an actual festival and more of a weekend of women, and we just grew from there, we had great houses, and all the women involved just really loved it, so we just kept going.
AC: And when LAFF started out, it was more or less improv-based.
Gillis: And now we have sketch and stand-up; we have films ...
Lendo: Yeah, when was stand-up added?
Gillis: I think we started with the second year. We wanted women from every avenue of comedy, and we've pretty much got it.
AC: And do you have name comics, any nationally renowned people coming down?
Gillis: Selena Coppock is a pretty popular New York comedian; she's pretty well-known.
Lendo: Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting. They actually come to LAFF every year, and they've been to the Edinburgh Festival for the past three years; they've made a good little name for themselves. We love that they come back every year – it shows that we're doing something right. And Jen Kwok is another one from New York; she's been in a bunch of magazines.
AC: And where else are women coming from outside of Texas?
Gillis: Philadelphia. Toronto.
Lendo: And Los Angeles. Chicago. And somewhere in the South.
Gillis: The major centers, the big cities, always come. One of our goals for future years is reaching out to smaller cities. Right now we get a lot of comedians from L.A. and Chicago coming down.
AC: And do you cherry-pick the acts, or is it open submission?
Gillis: It's open submission, and we usually give everybody about a month from when we announce it until we do our screening. And we have a small group of people screening all the submitted videos, and we make decisions in terms of balance and diversity and, of course, quality.
AC: So Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting comes back every year ...
Lendo: And Selena's come every year, too.
AC: ... and who are the new ones this year?
Lendo: In terms of stand-up, a lot of them. Jen Kwok is new. Sharon Houston, from Los Angeles, who I met at the Women in Comedy Festival in Boston. Cynthia Levin – she's one of our biggest names in stand-up – has tons of TV credits and is really popular in L.A. And Aparna Nancherla; she's been on NPR and, uh, Reader's Digest. She's really growing, and we're glad we got her now. Locally, LaShonda Lester will be doing her one-woman show.
Gillis: And we're doing a blue show on Friday, so we'll be featuring some dirty stand-ups, and the Sarah 7 troupe's doing a naughty sketch show, and there'll be some stories from Bedpost Confessions.
AC: So there's a great diversity of acts, and everyone's female ...
Lendo: No, we have a couple of males.
Gillis: Curtis Luciani, he's part of Girl Embassy World Team. And Michael Brockman and Jason Laney have both performed, playing keyboards with Girls Girls Girls. And then two years ago we had Jay Bird, who performed stand-up with Mocha Jean Herrup.
AC: So it's not terribly exclusive?
Gillis: I'm really interested in this festival being focused on women and women's comedy, and I'm very well aware that women come in all shapes and sizes, and in many cases, there's been transitions from gender, you know, male-to-female, and drag queens and drag kings. So we're open to anybody, really, as long as it's focused on women.
AC: And how important is it to have a festival focused on women when, these days, supposedly it's equal opportunity for everyone, South by Southwest Comedy, ah, notwithstanding?
Lendo: There's been a lot of change even since I started six years ago, but I still overhear conversations between men and women that are – like, at the Funniest Person in Austin contest, someone was talking about "The Girl's Spot," and I was like, "I can't believe you think that exists for us." And everyone still experiences that, even though it's getting better. And in terms of South by Southwest, they're working with us this year; they have people coming out to watch the comics, so hopefully we can be a part of getting more women at South by Southwest Comedy – that'd be great.
Gillis: Jane Curtin was on Oprah recently with many members of Saturday Night Live, and they were talking about how it was to be a woman writer and performer on SNL in the Seventies. And I remember growing up and watching Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner and thinking that they were amazing. And it was sort of shocking for me to hear that there was some push back at that time from the men. I think that, for me, it comes down to: People really like what they like, and they like what they see reflected of themselves in the world. Women are funny; men are funny; humans are funny. There are definitely people that I don't find funny, but I can't essentialize that based on gender. Maybe some men don't like the stories women tell, and maybe some women don't like the stories men tell, but that doesn't mean that the stories themselves aren't actually valid or true – or funny.
Lendo: I feel like, in comedy, there's a stereotype of it being very raunchy and male. And a lot of people don't go out to experience it, because they have this idea that it's gonna be just some depressing male on stage. Which isn't really true anymore. But still there might be people coming out to see the LAFF, because they feel it might speak to them more. And then, hopefully, they'll go see more comedy – all year round.
Gillis: I think people want to see women do what they do, to hear them tell their stories. So as long as there's an audience for women-focused comedy, as long as women want a space to have that dialogue – and to have men join us in that dialogue – we'll produce it.
Lendo: The important thing about LAFF is that we've found that there definitely are people who want to come see it. As we've been planning, we've gotten so much support locally, even from businesses who are so into the idea of a Ladies Are Funny Festival. As soon as we put the event up on Facebook, it totally blew up and we started selling tickets. And beyond just the performing aspect, women like meeting each other, especially when they're coming back over years – it's like a big reunion. I think all the discussions we have and the stories we share are really inspiring. That's what I took to the Women in Comedy Festival, and now, months later, a lot of those people are coming down here.
AC: Do you think there'll ever be a time when a LAFF will be redundant because women will be so much a part of the scene? That, eventually, it wouldn't really be any different from going to the FPIA or to any other comedy festival?
Lendo: For the love of God, I hope so.
Gillis: I think all social change looks forward to a day when, say, LGBT centers aren't needed on campus because LGBT youth feel safe and can express themselves and don't need those resources. Or at least it'll be something that's less controversial. So maybe there will be a wide variety of LAFF festivals across the U.S. because it's such a unique niche. So rather than "It's about damned time," it'd be more like, "Oh, that's a really fun festival." I think we'll see more integration over the years, but I also don't see anything wrong with highlighting unique contributions.
Lendo: I think there will always be women's comedy shows, but hopefully the festivals in the future will have a ... different tone, y'know?
Gillis: I think our festival is mostly just celebratory. We have an amazing group of people here in Austin – it's a damned egalitarian town, it's a wonderful place to live – and all the people who've participated in LAFF over the years have been incredibly positive. It's a giant playground, in my perspective, and we get feedback all the time from men and women in the community that LAFF is a really fun part of their year. They enjoy it, and we enjoy producing it.
The fifth annual Ladies Are Funny Festival runs Thursday-Saturday, May 5-7, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.ladiesarefunnyfest.wordpress.com.