What not to ask female comedians (and what you can ask instead)

Women in comedy get asked all kinds of questions in interviews, during blind dates, or even in an Uber. You might be surprised at how often these ladies get the same old unoriginal, annoying, or somewhat offensive questions from just about everyone they talk to. Much like how Hollywood actresses are tired of answering, “Who are you wearing?” on the red carpet, there are a couple of questions that women in comedy are tired of getting from their friends, families, journalists, and, especially, total strangers.

We decided to ask women in comedy—satirists, humorists, stand-ups, TV producers, and sketch writers—which age-old questions they’d be happy to do away with for good. They also give us ones they wish you’d ask instead.

This does not include comments or questions that could be deemed as sexual harassment, because everyone should know not to do that to anyone, regardless of their profession. “What’s your bra size?” is just not something you should ask a co-worker or stranger.

So if you want to start a conversation with a funny lady, get out a pen and paper.

DON’T ask us to tell you a joke.

Maria Wojciechowski
Maria Wojciechowski

Most comedians will tell you that this is a pet peeve of theirs, but according to Ana Bretón, a digital producer at Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, it’s important to realize that “people who get hired in the comedy world are not the ones who are ‘on’ or funny all the time.” And even though comedians of all genders get this one, women may feel more obligated to answer because we’re afraid that if we don’t, people will use it as “evidence” that women are less funny than men.

“If you say no, things get very awkward. If you say yes, things get very, awkward. There is truly no winner in this situation,” says comedian, ComedyWire editor, and Laughspin contributor, Maria Wojciechowski.

Carrie Wittmer, co-founder of The Belladonnas and co-author of New Erotica for Feminists, also explains, “I always refuse to respond to it. At this point, I just tell people to follow me on Twitter, and they never do.” Asking this is kind of like meeting a doctor and asking them to take a look at that weird mole or asking an accountant you just met to look at your taxes right then and there. If you wouldn’t do it to people with other professions, don’t do it to comedians.

DO ask us what story we’re dying to tell.

Editor and co-founder of Reductress, Sarah Pappalardo, notes this as one of her “dream” questions, and it’s easy to see why. It goes a little deeper than the typical request of a joke and starts a real conversation. Instead of demands for entertainment, this question requires a little more thought. You just might learn something about a person’s passions.

“I’d love people to ask me about the overlap between social justice issues and comedy, and science fiction and comedy because that’s what I’m into,” says stand-up and sketch comic Megan Sass.

DON’T ask how long we’ve been in comedy…if you’ve known us for years.

Carrie Wittmer
Carrie Wittmer

“This is annoying because this is asked by [friends and acquaintance] who follow me on social media, have known me intimately for years,” says Wittmer. “It makes me feel like I need to be more aggressive about promoting myself, but there is a voice in my head that makes me feel guilty about it. I don’t think men in comedy have this problem.”

Sure, some dudes have had their fair share of flaky friends, but chances are they feel totally natural reminding people about their comedy shows without feeling like they’re being a nag. In fact, a study suggests that in general, more women are expected to provide reminders to their partners in order to get tasks done. Basically: people aren’t paying attention to what women say.

Of course, if you’ve just met a person, it’s perfectly fine to ask this question. But if you’ve known a person for years, chances are you’ve seen more than your fair share of Facebook invites to shows. Please pay attention.

DO ask what genre of comedy we do.

Contrary to some old school beliefs, “female comedian” isn’t a genre. So if you’re curious as to what to expect from a woman in comedy, you should definitely ask and she’ll be happy to tell you. Women can be goofy, or dark, or dry, or raunchy, or musical—basically, every kind of style that a (male) comedian can be. Imagine that! “In my ideal scenario, this branches off into a thoughtful discussion about my style, interests, my inspirations, and my goals,” adds Wittmer.

DON’T ask us about Louis CK…or any male comedian who is currently in the news for something terrible.

Trust us: We’ve been talking about these stories ad nauseam for years, even before the media caught wind of them. There are loads of secret-but-not-that-secret ‘women in comedy’ Facebook groups with endless threads on the topic. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be stated, but never, ever ask a woman if she’s been harassed or abused herself if she isn’t volunteering that information. That is extremely private and not there for your entertainment. “Who on Earth would ask that?” It happens. Trust us.

Jourdain Searles
Jourdain Searles

Questions about #MeToo, the latest sexual harassment allegation, or the ever-present story about a male comedian ranting about how “women aren’t funny” are pretty much the first thing that gets asked— after someone demands that we tell them a joke. This is probably because people tend to see our gender before they see us as comedians, which is why people love to qualify us as “female comedians” or “comediennes” to separate us from the boys. Topics involving us being women are the first things that come into people’s heads.

Stand-up comedian Jourdain Searles shares that the first question she’s often asked is, “What do you think of the whole ‘Women aren’t funny’ thing?”

Wojciechowski probably has the best answer for this annoying question: “Of course I think I’m funny…Why else would I be doing this?”

DO ask us who our favorite comedians are.

Instead of focusing on the negative, this question focuses on the good parts of comedy. “It’s a chance to get to talk about up-and-comers I love and friends of mine who I think are on the verge of getting big. I also get to return the question, and we usually end up having a fun conversation about comedy,” says Wojciechowski.

DON’T explain comedy to us.

This is somewhat like a civilian demanding a joke, only kind of in reverse. Instead of us telling you a joke, you want to tell us how funny you are and, if we don’t agree, it’s probably because we just don’t understand comedy. “A lot of people think that because they can make their friends laugh, they can make an audience laugh,” adds Wojciechowski. “Comedy takes a lot of failing before you get good at it.”

Megan Sass
Megan Sass

As with any other industry, women run into the problem of mansplaining all the time. If we talk about our jobs, there’s probably someone (usually a man) who wants to flex their muscles at us by telling us what a great big comedy brain he has—much bigger than our puny women brains.

According to Psychology Today, this “reinforces gender inequality” because it presumes a woman has lesser knowledge or intellectual ability due to her gender. It’s patronizing. It’s condescending. It’s sexist. If you think you’re ever falling into this trap, ask yourself, “Would I say this to a man?” If you wouldn’t, then maybe don’t. Or, think about it in the context of another profession: “Would I explain astrophysics to Neil deGrasse Tyson?” We can only hope your answer is still, “No.” So, why are you explaining comedy to a comedian?

Wojciechowski shares, “I had a Lyft driver once explain to me that comedy is ‘all about the releasing of tension,’ and then he provided the ‘perfect example’ by telling me a pun-based joke he saw on Reddit once. It was a nightmare.”

DO ask us about our creative process.

While prying into a comedian’s secrets may be a little much, stand-up comedian and Little Old Lady founder Ginny Hogan enjoys questions that “make me feel seen as a creator/writer rather than a hobbyist.” These questions are more open-ended like, “How do you brainstorm?” or, “Under what circumstances are you most productive?” Elizabeth Stamp, contributor at The Onion, concurs, saying she loves to talk about writing. “It would be fun to geek out about craft, rather than just talk about the business.”

Ginny Hogan
Ginny Hogan

DON’T ask us how much money we make.

We can tell you right now: not much. Especially since the gender pay gap extends to Hollywood. Money isn’t necessarily a measure for success in comedy and certainly not a way for you to measure how funny a particular performer is.

Hogan breaks it down by saying, “People also try to find out how much money I make doing stand up (almost zero) and writing (more than zero, but not much).” It’s also just rude to ask someone how much money they make in any other industry, so why are you asking comedians?

Even if a female writer does manage to catch a break, they only make up 33 percent of TV writer’s rooms. Yeah, money is a sore spot for us.

DO ask us how you can support our art.

Searles jokes about her dream questions, noting a few choices like, “Would you like to do a paid performance on my yacht?,” “Can I introduce you to Mo’Nique?,” “Can I pay your rent?” Asking about a comedian’s next show (and actually planning to come), reading their book, checking out their Twitter account, or reading their latest McSweeney’s piece means the world to a working artist. More importantly, those clicks, those likes, those follower counts give those women clout in a world where we have to justify our talent in comparison to men. The Onion’s Stamp adds that doing this changes the “entire conversation from, ‘What can you do for me?’ to, ‘How can we help each other?’”

Sass echoes this sentiment, saying, “I’m making comedy so people will watch it.

Andrea Romano

Andrea Romano is a freelance writer and comedian in New York City. She hosts Everything Is Bad: A Variety Show For Your Mental Health at The People's Improv Theater and makes indie films and videos on the reg. Reach out or follow her on Twitter, if you like.

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