I want to start by thanking the 8th Annual Women in Comedy Festival (held each year in Boston, MA) for giving me a wonderful gift. I didn’t realize how much of a pleasure it would be to go to a panel and not hear the question, “So what’s it like to be a female in comedy?” until I spent five days among talented and hilarious women, and didn’t hear it once. Amidst a slate of over eighty shows and over two hundred performers, there were workshops, panels, and podcast recordings where I was just sure I’d hear it. But thankfully, these guests and panelists decided there were much bigger things to talk about.
I collected some of the best advice shared from some of the funniest comics working today- whether you’re looking to become a showrunner, write and perform, or even gather the courage to hit the stage for the first time, I think there’s something here for you.
From Kelly Edwards, Vice President of Talent Development and Programming at HBO:
Write what you want to write, don’t write what you think people want to hear.
After working at FOX, UPN, and NBC Universal on shows like Martin, Living Single, Clueless (before it was a TV show, and then again when it was), and now overseeing show deals at HBO, Edwards has learned a lot about translating a creator’s voice into sustainable, watchable television. At a packed workshop “20 Minutes to 100 Episodes,” she focused specifically on the journey that a stand-up comic can take to have their voice translated into a television comedy.
She shared good news first: HBO, for example, receives thousands of scripts every year through writer development programs, agents, and managers…and most of them are for dramas. Comedy, at present, stands out. However, there is a clear difference between writing what you write, and writing what you think you should write. And with so many thousands of words to get through. Edwards has learned to sniff out the difference. Write what you write best, in your own voice. That’s what will allow your script or treatment to rise to the top of staggeringly tall piles.
From Eliza Skinner, Writer for Funny or Die and The Late Late Show with James Corden:
You’ll get different advice from different sources. Learn to take some and leave some.
At the Writers and Industry panel, Eliza Skinner made a key point about the advice she’s gotten from men in contrast with the advice she’s gotten from women- and shared how it’s changed the way she now helps up-and-coming writers. In her younger years, she wrote off critical or negative counsel from other women as jealousy, while taking in praise from male comics and influences. But in reality, the critical feedback that women were giving her was often grounded in wanting to make her better- and the “good stuff” came from guys who were trying to sleep with her.
Her ultimate point in the matter was to get used to hearing negative feedback, but also to acknowledge that not all critical points made by women are designed to tear you down. Sometimes they really are given with good intentions and hopes of making your work stronger. The more you write and the longer you work, the better you should get at learning the difference.
From Eliza Bayne (TV Writer and Ghostwriter) and Jessica Pilot (Stand Up Scout and Producer):
You’re ready sooner than you think you are- and as a woman, you may get seen sooner.
Both Eliza and Jessica talked about female comics hesitating to get their work out there, or to go for opportunities, before they’re ready. The two also spoke at varying points about what women believe “ready” looks like, and how it’s often not a worry that plagues our male counterparts. Naomi Ekperigin chimed in with the story of a guy she talked to who was convinced he was ready to get booked on shows, but when pushed about how much material he had, he conceded “about four minutes.” Eliza shared that she wasn’t sure she was ready when she was tapped by Patton Oswalt to write professionally, but she went with the momentum and trusted his assessment.
And Jessica echoed that last piece, noting that a talent scout will share the best parts of your set with colleagues and decision-makers- not your explanation of what your “schtick” is. She also shared that because scouts are looking for female talent and talent that stands out, you may not always have the time you’d hope for to prepare. But they won’t tap you if you’re not qualified.
From Naomi Ekperigin (Stand Up and Writer for Broad City and Difficult People):
No one hires you as a favor…but you should still be mindful of what brings you to a room.
Few conversations about women in any field can proceed without touching on Impostor Syndrome, and the Writers and Industry Panel was no exception. When asked about it, Naomi Ekperigin talked us through her experience, realizing that seeing herself as an ill fit for the writers’ rooms she was a part of, prevented her from contributing- and therefore making her feel as though she was right. Ultimately, she realized that while knowing other comics may have gotten her to interviews or chances to write samples, they didn’t get her in the room- her ability to produce laughs did. The more she embraced that idea, the better she felt…and the better her writing got.
At the same time, she also encouraged aspiring writers in the room to beware of being “black (or female, or any other minority in the room) for the brochure.” Are you in a room to contribute, or because it looks good to have you there? You can evaluate this for yourself when offers to write are presented, or even when you’re in a room and you take note of how your ideas and perspective are received. And if you’re there just for the sake of being “the woman in the room” and not for your ideas, you do have the option of moving on.
From Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live, Imaginary Mary):
Do your comedy the way you want to do it.
In “Conversations with Funny Feminists,” Rachel Dratch was in conversation with host Pam Victor about her career and the decisions she’s made. She shared that she’s often asked if she wants to write more, as Tina Fey has with 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or produce, as Amy Poehler has done with Parks and Recreation and Broad City. But as she’s progressed, she realized that she doesn’t care for either of those things. And she’s built a career that allows her to honor that feeling, while still finding success.
Somewhat echoing the advice that Kelly Edwards shared at the start of the festival, Dratch emphasized the importance of making your own choices when pursuing a career in comedy, but also in entertainment overall. Alluding to her love of doing theater, she encouraged audience members to not follow a path they think they “should” take, but instead follow the one that works best for their talents, as well as the path they want their life to take.
The Women in Comedy Festival is held each year in Boston, MA, and sponsors events in the area year-round.