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The women's world of comedy

Several campus humor groups, including Zamboni Revolution, has helped shape the new culture of the female comedienne.

Jenna Race walks quickly down a short flight of steps and heads straight toward the right side of the wooden floor raised just a few inches off the ground. The floor is mostly used as a platform for students to easily see their professor as he or she teaches in Kittridge Auditorium in Huntington Beard Crouse Hall. But on Nov. 12 at 8 p.m., when Race walks out, that bland wooden floor becomes a bright stage.

Photo: Pamela Masin
Jenna Race and Stephen Mitchell keep the audience laughing at Zamboni Revolution's Nov. 12 show.

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Timeline: History of funny women

Race is a sophomore member of Zamboni Revolution, Syracuse University's only improv group on campus. Closely behind Race are the eight other men and women in the group forming a semi-circle for their second improv performance of the fall semester.

The audience of about 40 people talk loudly with each other, but as soon as Race opens the door for the group to enter stage left, they immediately trade talking for cheering and applauding. When the audience begins to quiet down, Derek Leach, the president of the group, walks out to the center of the stage and welcomes the crowd.

After a brief introduction he asks the audience to give them a word. "Lotion!" one audience member screams. "Motion!" another shouts. "Motion lotion," Leach jokingly questions the audience. "Alright, lets go with lotion," he tells the group. He claps his hands and only a few seconds later Race walks in from stage right.

She takes her place in one of the two chairs that occupy the middle of the stage while another member of the group sits down next to her. "Um well… It's pretty much an addiction what we have to Jergens," Race says as laughter fills the room.

All of the members of the group spend the next two hours of their night acting out scenes that deal with the two words picked by the audience: lotion and Jello. As soon as Leach picks a word, each member of the group pairs with another member to act out anything their minds can imagine that deals with the given word. What follows is part absurd, part wit and part hilariousness.

The illustration major has been performing with Zamboni Revolution since her freshman year. Her experience doing improv, however, dates all the way back to her childhood.

"I started acting when I was 9 and my acting teacher thought I was pretty funny so she recommend me to an improv class so I started taking that when I was 10 and continued that throughout middle school and high school," Race said. "I decided I wanted to do it at Syracuse. It was the first thing I looked for and I auditioned in the fall when I was a freshman and made the group."

Growing up, Race never thought about how women were perceived in comedy or that it was harder for women to be taken seriously as a comedian. Instead Race kept performing at a young age in improv groups that consisted of mainly all boys.

When her improv coach told her to audition for the Nickelodeon's "Search For The Funniest Kid In America,"a contest apart of the channel's variety-show "All That", Race did not hesitate to send in a video.

She was never crowned the "Funniest Kid in America," but that didn't stop Race from pursuing a comedy career. Neither did the stereotype that woman aren't as funny as men or the jarring statistic of the number of women in the television and film industry.

How many women are in the television and film industry?

According to "The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2010," an annual repot by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, "In 2010, women comprised 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films."

Women were most likely to work in the romantic comedy, documentary, and romantic generes, but they were least likely to work in horror, action, and of all things -- comedy.

Keith Giglio,a television, radio and film professor at Syracuse University and author of "Writing the Comedy Blockbuster" (2012), believes that although there are significantly less women working in the television and film industry, women are finding a voice in comedy.

"Comedy is always the quickest way to break in because it's cheap and you can make a lot of bang for your buck and thats where we see a great portion of women's writers doing well," he says.

Giglio still thinks it is harder for women to break in to comedy since "it's a place that's hard to change," but women who produce their own material are the one who are opening the doors for females in comedy.

Just this fall three new shows aired that star women comediennes, "2 Broke Girls" on CBS, "New Girl" on FOX and "Whitney" on NBC. All three were picked up for a full season and have millions of viewers tuning in to watch. One similarity they all share -- they are all produced by women. "2 Broke Girls" is produced by Whitney Cummings, who also produces and stars in "Whitney" and New Girl is produced by Liz Meriwether.

"I think that women today who are doing the work and not waiting around for someone come knock on their door and say 'Will you be in my movie?' Instead they're making their own."

Are men funnier than women?

Over the years, the argument of whether men are funnier than women has consistently come up in the media. Whether it be Johnny Carson noting that female comics "are a little aggressive for my taste," to Rolling Stone magazine in 1979 or Christopher Hitchen's controversial piece, "Why Women Aren't Funny" featured in Vanity Fair in 2007, the idea that women can thrive in comedy can be hard to swallow for some disbelievers out there.

In a recent study published by Springer that appears online in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review titled, "Who's Funny: Gender Stereotypes, Humor Production, and Memory Bias," both men and women were found to believe that men are the funnier sex.

First, the study asked a group of 32 men and women to write funny captions for a New Yorker Cartoon. Then the researchers asked a group of 34 men and 47 women raters to evaluate how funny the captions were without knowing the gender of the author.

Both male and female raters found that the captions written by men were funnier. The second part of the research took a different group of men and women and showed them the funniest and least funny captions from the first experiment and were told the gender of the author of the captions. The group was then given a test to see if they could remember if the author of the specific caption was male or female.

Overall, the funnier the caption the more likely the group was to remember the gender. Both genders tended to wrongly attribute funny captions to male writers and the least funny captions to female writers.

The difference between men and women in comedy

When Race joined Zamboni Revolution in the fall of 2010 the group consisted of five female members and three male members, but this year the group has six males and three females. "It's a totally different group dynamic," Race says. "You'll get different scenes out of it depending on the gender ratio."

Caroline Godden and Rachel Samples, the two other female members of Zamboni Revolution, agree that there is a difference in the way males and females perform improv.

"Even though it's all made up, you do have rules that you follow in improv," Godden says. "I think one of the biggest things that separates males and females in improv is that you can't go blue, which is like you don't resort to an easy joke or a dirty joke, curse excessively." An all male group at one of the improv competitions Zamboni Revolution attended, who told the women it was a "bold move" to have girls in their group, "went blue" throughout their improv performance, according to the three women. "Their humor was just really inappropriate. They "went blue" pretty much the whole entire time," says Godden.

Another difference they find between males and females in improv is the way audience members responds to the different genders.

"The thing is, you'll get a laugh from the audience if a boy goes out into the audience and acts female, but if a female goes out and acts male, it's a little different," says Race.

Giglio believes that although the stigma of men being funnier than women is still prevalent, there are many women changing that notion little by little. "I think women can be just as funny as men. I think what's happening is this post "Vagina Monologues", they're [women] starting to talk about things that they talk about, that they can relate to and letting me peak into their world," he said.

The history of female comediennes

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling have been on the tips of people's tongues lately as the new wave of women comediennes. But years before "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation" and "The Office" there were many leading ladies who made their mark in the comedy industry. In the 1930s until the early 1940s, the screwball comedy let women such as Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Claudette Colbert take center stage.

"It was great comedy," says Giglio. "It was women who were opinionated. They had jobs; they didn't want to be tied down; they had a point of view. I think now it's interesting that with the economy in the toilet, it's really fascinating that "Bridesmaids" is hitting and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are coming off SNL, the first two women to ever headline a weekend update, it's just that things are repeating."

Minnie Pearl, made a name for herself in the comedic realm in the 1940s when she satirized rural Southern culture for the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music concert for the next 50 years. During this time, comedy was mostly a boys club with the likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but two influential women came into the picture to show that women still had a voice in the comedy realm.

In 1951, Lucille Ball created the show "I Love Lucy," which went on to become an iconic program in American culture. When I Love Lucy ended in 1957, she bought Desilu Productions, which made her the first woman to run a major television production studio until 1967 when she sold the company.

Another woman who came into the spotlight in the 50s was Elaine May. She was one half of the stand-up comedy due Nichols and May with Mike Nichols. The two performed in comedy clubs around New York and made several TV appearances. In the 1962, the original-cast album for their Broadway show "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May" won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance.

These women (and more) are the ones who opened the door for the next generation of females comediennes -- Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin and Joan Rivers. Such shows as "Laverene & Shirley" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," came during a time when the feminist movement began to take form in 1963. These shows featured leading ladies who were independent and had strong comedic voices.

From there we get the women we know in comedy today -- Roseanne Barr, Ellen Degeneres, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kathy Griffen, Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman and yes, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Mindy Kaling. And lets not forget the powerhouse of the "Fempire," which consists of screenwriters Diablo Cody (Juno), Liz Meriwether (No Strings Attached), Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).

"I think it's a cycle repeating itself," Giglio said. "So in the 20s the thing called the Great Depression, and now we have the Great Recession and I think it's really fascinating that women comedians are coming back in to prominence."

Comedy at Syracuse University

  • Zamboni Revolution - The only improv group on campus. The group puts on three shows per semester and practices once every week. They are student-run and have auditions to become involved in the beginning of each semester
  • Humor Whore - Think Funny Or Die-esque, this website is run by students at SU that write and produces original videos.
  • Float Your Boat - An out-of-studio sketch comedy program part of CitrusTV's programing.
  • Le Orange - A satirical Tumblr about the events and culture at SU is what makes this blog a great piece of work. The writing is smart, funny and undeniably intelligent.
  • Penguins Without Pants - A sketch comedy group of SU students that performs throughout the year.
  • Woohoo Comedy Hour - Orange Television Network's comedy hour where people can perform their own material that will be shown on OTN.
  • Syracuse Basement - Think The Onion for Syracuse University. This is a website not affiliated with the university, but produces satirical "news" about what's happening on campus written by students.
  • Syracuse After Hours - A part of CitrusTV that is a talk show/sketch-comedy segment a la SNL.

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