The late Christopher Hitchens' infamous 2007 screed for Vanity Fair about why women aren't funny reads today as a quaint artifact — almost like coming across a Victorian tract warning women that higher education leads to gynecological problems. As the comedic landscape continues to be sculpted by female voices — from high priestesses like Tina Fey to the more-recent ascent of Amy Schumer to countless sketch, improv and stand-up performers around the country — anyone who claims that women aren't funny can handily be dismissed as an out-of-touch crank with an agenda.
But the Chicago Women's Funny Festival, now entering its fourth year, has no political agenda. It's simply a chance to bring women in all branches of comedy from all over the country together under one roof. Heck, even dudes can perform onstage as part of "mixed" troupes.
Jill Valentine, executive producer for the festival, has been working in comedy for 15 years, including as director of operations for the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival at Stage 773, produced by Brian Posen. "I remember the younger days of Second City, when it was two women onstage and one or two women in a class and it was a real male-dominated art form," says Valentine. "Over the years it's evolved and changed. Now half the classes are women and are taught by women. I also saw the evolution of sketch comedy groups in the [Sketch Comedy] festival. At one point I looked at Posen and said 'I think it's time to see if we can handle our own festival for women.' He said 'Do it.' I put the call out and it was overwhelming. We also got a lot of responses like 'Wait — we've not done this yet?'"
This year's festival boasts 80 performances by 160 groups, including 500 female artists. Associate producer Liz McArthur says "The first year (2012) it was a free-for-all. 'Oh, you do weird dances? OK!' We haven't closed it off to anything, but now it's pretty much sketch, improv, and stand-up." This year the festival received more applications than ever. "Women in comedy have blown up so much in the last three years that I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it," says McArthur. She and Valentine perform Friday night at 8 p.m. as "Feminine Gentlemen" and on Saturday at 9 p.m. as part of the burlesque-spoof troupe, Off Off Broadzway. Valentine also performs with the rockabilly-sketch hybrid, the Tattoo Floozies, 10 p.m. Thursday.
Longtime local stand-up and WGN radio personality Patti Vasquez makes her first appearance in the festival this year, hosting "Smorgasbord," a fundraiser and sampler platter of five acts on Saturday at 6 p.m. She observes that, for women in stand-up, "It's better and it's weirder [today] because of how quickly things travel through social media. A lot of things happened quietly in the 1990s or 2000s — something [negative] happened in the club and you handled it. Now if you do come forward, you are attacked on social media, but other women are informed." (Exhibit A: comedian Tamale Sepp, a.k.a. "Tamale Rocks," who caused a sensation with her viral video exposing the two-way mirror in the women's bathroom at Berwyn's Cigars and Stripes earlier this year. Sepp performs as part of a stand-up showcase on Friday at 8 p.m.)
Many women comics, such as Schumer and Chelsea Handler, have made their mark through feminist raunch. "One of the things that I'm concerned about is that there is room for only a certain kind of comedy," says Vasquez. "I try to do a show that is late-night adult, a little naughtier. But I also have material I can do at churches."
Valentine says "Women are doing exactly what men are doing, and people are noticing that they are. A man doing something blue — people might not have noticed it. Amy Schumer or someone else doing it, people notice."
Questions of naughty content aside, the festival also allows women to re-connect with old friends and forms. South Side native Katie Rich, who worked with Second City before joining "Saturday Night Live" as a writer for "Weekend Update" in 2013, reunites with her comedy partner Holly Laurent on Friday at 10 p.m. for the improv show "Katie Rich and Holly Laurent are: Joan and Ro, NYC, 1962," in which the two play grizzled comedy vets.
Says Rich, "Most of my writing [for "SNL"] involves watching the news and trying to find a take on a story in two sentences. So I don't get that narrative expression anymore. I'm primarily a joke writer. So to get to go out there to do long-form improv soothes a part of my soul." As for the environment in the "SNL" writing room, which suffered the reputation of being a boys' club for many years before Fey became head writer, Rich says "They are looking for voices and interesting points of view. Who has a unique point of view? Who's not insane? Who's easy to work with? I can honestly say that I've never felt my gender held me back or gave me an advantage."
Gender is part of what drives Dina Martinez' comedy. The transgender Martinez, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in a small Texas town and logged many years in Los Angeles before relocating to Madison, Wisc., three years ago, uses her trans experience in her stand-up. She makes her third appearance in the festival in a stand-up showcase 10 p.m. Saturday. "It's this amazing space to share with women who are so incredibly talented and accepting," she says. Martinez adds "There haven't been a lot of adverse reactions to me as a performer. Because I'm just me and I'm charming." But she does note "I have to work hard to get into a lot of clubs. I feel like it's a blessing rather than a hindrance, because I'd rather work places that let me speak my voice than those that won't."
For McArthur and Valentine, the festival also provides what the latter calls a "slumber party" for comedians who are working five nights a week to check out the work of their peers and realize just how many of them are out there. Says McArthur, "I feel like 15 years ago, all my favorite comedians were dudes. There were a few women out there, but now it's so awesome to see so many women out there. We're just humans being funny."
- "The Women of Improvised Sondheim Project" perform an improvised musical in the style of Stephen Sondheim. June 18 at 10 p.m.
- "Hello! Gorgeous" — all-female sketch troupe from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. June 19 at 8 p.m.
- "Tales of a Stage 4 Cancer," sketch-comedy troupe that goes beyond the pink ribbon. June 20 at 7 p.m.
- "The Boys," two-person improv from Susan Messing and Rachael Mason. June 21 at 8 p.m.
4th Annual Chicago Women's Funny Festival
When: Thursday through June 21
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets: $15 ($100 for festival pass) at 773-327-5252 or stage773.com; complete schedule at chicagowomensfunnyfestival.com