The nagging stereotype that women — seemingly by biological design — have senses of humor that are simply not as acute as those wielded by men has been debated by everyone from Christopher Hitchens to Adam Corolla.
Although trailblazers like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller long ago shattered barriers and paved the way for the modern comedienne, and the wild success of contemporary acts like Tina Fey and Sara Silverman erased any doubt of their appeal and marketability, women in the business are still often viewed as novelties — a gimmick to break the monotony.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the notorious boys club that is the New York City stand-up comedy scene, which is still overwhelmingly dominated by male bookers, owners and club managers.
But two brilliant young New York City standouts are proving that tradition may be changing for the better, and that with the right formula, respect doesn’t have to be harder to come by just because you’re a woman.
Embracing their femininity without resting on it as a crutch — and backing it up with the age-old cure-alls of dedication and hard work — their acts reiterate the rule that all true comics take as gospel: Funny is undeniably funny.
Originally from Hersey, Pennsylvania, Michelle Wolf started in improv, hopscotched to stand-up and never looked back. A rare combination of articulate, cerebral comedy and bold, physical act-outs, Wolf is currently preparing for her second one-woman show at the People’s Improv Theater in Manhattan while honing her stand-up act at the city’s clubs and rooms.
She’s no stranger to navigating terrain dominated by men.
“I grew up with two older brothers and all I ever wanted to do was hang out with them and their friends, so I feel like I’ve kind of been in a boy’s club my entire life,” Wolf said.
As for incorporating her gender into her act, she’s doesn’t give it any more thought than she does the other factors that make her life experience her own. “It’s who you are. If you’re doing comedy that’s true to yourself,” Wolf said, “of course my stuff is going to be about being female because I am female.”
She feels that old clichés are exactly that: cliché.
“Are women funny? You can’t generalize anything like that. You can’t say, ‘This specific group of people aren’t X.’ The only thing you can say about women is that they don’t have penises, and I’m pretty sure your humor doesn’t come from your dick.”
While she acknowledges a lopsided gender ratio in her business, Wolf isn’t compelled to crusade.
“I could start a ‘Women in Comedy’ club, but while we’re talking about why there should be more women in comedy, the guys in comedy aren’t thinking about that. They’re just writing jokes. I’m just going to write jokes.”
Not only does Wolf not allow her gender to inhibit her, she harnesses her minority status as a way to separate herself from a crowded field in the most competitive city that her craft can be plied.
“I think your differences make you stand out a little bit. I’m on a show with a bunch of white, male comedians. Of course I’m going to stand out. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
A modern performer who squeezes every possible drop from modern tools, Wolf — perhaps more than any other working comedian — has found her voice, in part at least, on Twitter.
For a social medium that comics too often clog with the banality of where they’ll be performing or how a show went, Wolf’s online star shines bright.
Instead of plugs and dates and gripes, her feed is a relentless barrage of comedic gems that offer a window into her mind.
“Never get into a fight with someone near a revolving door. It’s impossible to slam and so easy to get caught in,” she tweeted. Or, “’After people lose their hands, let’s make it impossible for them to ever hold a baby!’ — guy that invented hooks for hands.”
This strategy not only lures her online followers into becoming real-life fans by letting them peek at her comedic style, but provides her with a therapeutic professional tool.
“Twitter for me is actually kind of a selfish thing that I do,” Wolf said. “I love writing jokes and it’s fun for me. When I’m in a bad mood I’ll write jokes on Twitter because it will put me in a better mood.”
But it’s also valuable rehearsal, practiced in real time. “It feels like I get to do stand-up all the time because I get to write jokes and get feedback from an audience,” Wolf said. “It’s another way to laugh and to get people to laugh. It’s kind of like a testing ground for me.”
But in the end, Wolf’s status as one of New York’s brightest young female comics can be traced to the formula common to every successful, self-determined person since time immemorial: Hard work. No Excuses.
“I’ve never had an experience where I felt my gender has kept me from something,” she said. “Maybe I do have to work twice as hard, I don’t feel that way, maybe I do. But fine, I’ll work twice as hard. I’ll work as hard as I need to work to get what I want.”
No matter how many other comics appear on the bill, and no matter how well they perform, Jessimae Peluso is impossible to forget once you see her on stage. Aggressive and beautiful, Peluso is a tireless worker whose demanding schedule afforded her barely enough time for this interview.
She will soon be returning to her hometown of Syracuse, New York, to feature for Doug Stanhope, who she — like so many other working comics — considers to be among the most important comedic voices of this generation.
With recent appearances on Comics to Watch on Comedy Central, the prestigious New York City’s Funniest Comedian Competition and regular stints on Sirius/XM, Peluso is undoubtedly a rising star in New York City.
Part of her success can be attributed to the fact that her feminine exterior masks an inner toughness that guides her through a world where the gatekeepers are usually still men.
“Comedy club managers and bookers are men,” Peluso said, “and a lot of them are old school. You have to project a certain level of confidence and of being self assured, because that’s how you get respect.”
But that respect isn’t easy to come by for anybody, and Peluso insists that a high tolerance for pain and disappointment is a necessity for any comic — no matter what their gender.
“To say that you have to have thick skin in this industry is an understatement,” Peluso said. “You have to have fucking gladiator body armor. You need Bladerunner shit. It comes with the territory. You work at a fast-food place, you leave smelling like oil. You work at a comedy club, you leave smelling like regret and self hate.”
In the last few years, Peluso has undergone a transformation in her life that is reflected in her career. She’s matured from using her femininity as a device on stage to incorporating it as part of her overall humanity.
“Starting off I was playing the cute, dumb blond,” she said. “It’s hard to go back to that once you’ve tapped into something that’s real and revealing and that shows your vulnerability. It’s hard to go back to a joke about a penis or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or whatever.”
Evolving from a female comic into a comic who happens to be female has helped her find her own unique voice that incorporates her womanhood, but doesn’t rely on it.
“Sure, there are things that a guy can do that a girl can’t do,” Peluso said, “but I may be able to do one thing that another girl can’t do.”
Not only doesn’t she feel handicapped by the fact that she’s a woman, but she uses it to her benefit in an industry dominated by men.
“I think it’s actually an advantage because there are less female comedians out there, Peluso said. “I would hate to be a white, male comic right now. You go to a comedy club, you know how many white, male comics in plaid shirts and backpacks there are? Any woman who says, ‘Oh it’s hard to be a female,’ well, maybe you’re looking at it the wrong way. Let me be the only woman on the show, I don’t care.”
And for Peluso, excuses are hard to come by if you put in the hard work.
“Whatever the outcome is,” she said, “it’s on you. Whatever you put in you’re going to get out.”
Peluso also said she is optimistic about the future role of women in comedy.
“The standard five guys and one girl, I think we’re going to see that change,” she said. “And we already are in pockets. It’s just a matter of time. It’s not that women are less funny, there are just less women doing it.”
Although she admits she’s “never felt like a girly girl,” Peluso cautions women who would try to gain acceptance by trying too hard to blend in with their male counterparts.
“You can try to be one of the boys, but you have to be careful with that. If you’re one of the boys, you have to play with the boys, and the boys play dirty and the boys play rough. You have to be tough.”
Peluso’s greatest weapon is her ability to defy expectations by understanding and predicting them.
“I know what people’s expectations are — ‘oh this blonde girl, she’s cute, her name is Jessimae’ — I know what’s probably going through their brains. But guess what, it’s going through my brain as well. I have to gain their respect and their trust so they say, ‘Oh, she’s a real person. She has pain that comes from a real place even though she’s got mascara on.’”
But the respect she gleans from each performance comes from her basic understanding of why she’s on stage in the first place.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “I just want to be undeniably funny.”
About the Author: Andrew Lisa is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from the East Coast, he has performed at virtually every major club in and around New York City, and was one of the youngest syndicated columnists at the largest newspaper syndicate in the country. He's currently a finalist in the Funniest Comic in LA contest, as well as a regular at the Garrett Morris All-Star Show at the Downtown Comedy Club.