34: Broad Comedy

34: Broad Comedy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Broad Comedy

The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.

~Roseanne Barr

We huddled in the library, arguing in hushed voices. “You just can’t. That’s why,” my boyfriend countered.

“Am I not funny? Is that it? I should at least be allowed to audition. Is that against the regulations, too?”

“Look. It’s an all-male comedy group. You’re a girl. They’re not going to change the rules for you. It’s been around for more than fifty years, and there’s only one requirement besides humor. You can’t audition because you don’t have a…”

“Chance? The funny bone is not a gender-specific part of the anatomy. I’m as funny as any of those guys. They should let me in!” I gathered my books in a huff and left for my audition.

I was turned away immediately at the door.

My boyfriend Howie was a member of The Mask and Wig Club, the University of Pennsylvania’s guys-only comedy group. I was jealous as all get-out. Steam escaped from my ears when I met him later that night.

“Why don’t you join the all-girl comedy group instead?”

“They don’t pull in the big audiences.”

“Well, that’s ’cause women just aren’t as funny as men.”

Okay, that was it! I joined the all-girl comedy group, determined to let my funny shine. But as our spring show came and went, the frustrating truth dawned on me. A guy playing an old granny is hilarious: voice pitched in a high, wavering falsetto as “she” waggles her sandbag breasts around her waist and chucks her false teeth at her son-in-law. A girl playing an old grandpa is just, well, not that interesting. Was it possible that Howie was right? If I wanted to get the big laughs, I’d have to play with the big boys.

The next September, I pulled my hair into a high ponytail and tucked it under a military beret (very Ferris Bueller — this was the 1980s, after all). I threw on a flannel shirt, jeans and a canvas jacket, and polished it off with a pair of black high-tops. I practiced my walk in the dorm room mirror. I looked like the real thing. Now I just had to be funny.

Howie had been promoted to Chief Wigger (no joke!), but he wouldn’t be able to make the preliminary auditions, so I had that on my side. I breathed a sigh of amazed relief when they let me in the door in my slacker-boy costume. I read from the script, ironically playing the role of “the girlfriend” on a bad first date. I was a girl playing a guy playing a girl! I figured I was in good company. Shakespeare created all kinds of characters who disguised themselves as a different gender, not to mention Joan of Arc and Yentl.

I killed it! The three guys on the panel laughed and laughed. I had written my name on the casting application as Dennis. “That Dennis guy is hysterical,” one guy said to another as I was leaving. I was out of the room by the time I realized they were talking about me!

I made it to callbacks! Now I was really nervous because Howie would be there, and I thought he might be mad if he recognized me. Or worse, he might think that I was trying to undermine a sacred system, which I was.

Beneath my baseball cap, my bunched-up ponytail was dripping with sweat, and the jacket I’d borrowed was hanging off my thin shoulders. I was mid-scene when Howie stood up from the table. “Hey!” he said. “Take off your hat!”

I’m still not sure if he recognized me, or if he just hated actors in hats. But either way, the jig was up. When I took off the cap and shook out my hair, Howie’s jaw dropped. The other Wiggers fell sideways laughing, a couple of guys applauded, and somebody shouted, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all day!”

I didn’t get in.

But I didn’t give up, either. I loved comedy. So, I petitioned the school to fund a co-ed improvisational comedy group called Without a Net. We held auditions, and by that spring we performed our first show to a modest house. Word got around, and we sold out the next night. We added an extra weekend.

My relationship with Howie didn’t last long after that, but Without a Net did. They still perform on campus today, thirty years later! If you are in Philadelphia and have a hankering for a belly laugh, check out one of their shows!

It’s not that men are funnier than women, or that women are funnier than men. But we lift each other up and, together, we’re hilarious.

~Ilana Long

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