News Column

Portland's all-women comedy festival combines laughter, social issues for one big party

October 16, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 16--On one level, this weekend's all-women comedy festival, "All Jane No Dick" is going to be a party, bringing together successful out-of-town and popular local female comedians to tell jokes, with workshops and podcast action thrown into the mix.

But, as is increasingly the case with comedy these days, the laughs will also be a light-hearted way to touch on some substantial matters.

"We have a very political lineup this year," says Stacey Hallal, artistic director of the festival. "There are more social issues coming up in comedy."

Hallal mentions guests such as Cameron Esposito, who -- when she isn't being hailed as the "future of comedy" by Jay Leno and appearing on national TV -- talks about such topics as same-sex marriage and gay rights in her routine.

The festival lineup also includes Aparna Nancherla and Janine Brito, both writers and performers on "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," the FXX talk show that gleefully mixes comedy and controversy.

"With the Internet and being able to have a voice, a lot of women comedians are speaking out on things that are really funny," says Hallal, who is also artistic director of Portland's Curious Comedy Theater, which produces and sponsors "All Jane No Dick."

The mission of the four-day festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday, is, Hallal says, to increase the visibility of women in comedy. Which, on one hand, would seem to be less of an issue than in the past, considering such success stories as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Comedy Central's Amy Schumer, and such critically acclaimed performers as Maria Bamford and Tig Notaro, to name a few.

On the other hand, "it's still a numbers game," Hallal says. She cites this year's "Just for Laughs" festival, and its "New Faces," an important showcase for up-and-coming comics. This year's lineup (which included former Portland-based comic Ian Karmel) featured a handful of women, but the overwhelming majority were men.

"That's a statistic that hasn't changed a ton," says Hallal. "I'm really focused on increasing the visibility for women in comedy and to inspire more women to do it."

There are a "multitude of reasons" women are still underrepresented in comedy, says Hallal. "The path to becoming a successful comic and the touring lifestyle is less advantageous to women. It's a hard system to change. There aren't that many women there to pull each other up."

This is the second year of the festival, and Hallal says there's a reason why it's female performers only. "There's a real interesting conflict about inclusiveness, because I think women have been excluded from the boys' club in comedy, so a lot of womens' festivals are very inclusive, and very large, and want to include men because they don't want to make people feel left out. But for me, I wanted to keep the festival small and curated, to highlight the very best of women in comedy now. They're all the best of the best, and it will be a bunch of comics sharing points of view on the world that you usually don't get to see all at one time. And they all do it in their uniquely hilarious ways."

Among the out-of-town guests is Bonnie McFarlane, who has been doing stand-up for 20 years. "Sarah Silverman said to me that when you do an all-woman show, you basically are getting what guys get all the time," says McFarlane, who's based in New Jersey. "It's a rare thing to hang out with other women in comedy, especially when you're headlining a show."

In her years doing comedy -- which have included appearances on HBO's "One Night Stand," and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" -- McFarlane has noticed that lots of women start out pursuing a career, but "they don't follow it all the way through to the end for some reason. I think a lot of roadblocks for women come up -- marriage and babies and traveling on your own. You've got to stay at a condo with two other men, and when you try explaining that to your boyfriend back home, it's going to cause some problems. And for a mom, which I am, it's hard to go on the road to do every single show that a man can do."

McFarlane has explored one of the more frustrating obstacles women face -- the ancient, inaccurate stereotype that women aren't funny -- in a documentary, "Women Aren't Funny," which will screen at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Hollywood Theatre.

"It's a tongue-in-cheek take on it," McFarlane says, featuring interviews with a number of well-known comics, male and female. "I'm going on a quest to find out if women are funny or not, and making fun of the notion that anyone would think women aren't funny."

The Los Angeles-based Esposito, who will be performing at the festival for the second year in a row, is looking forward to coming back to Portland. "Portland is great because it's a small enough city that people really care about what's going on, but it's big enough that there's a diversity of experience and of what people are looking for. Any time you go anywhere that has that many fair trade burritos and what not, it's a great place to perform. It's like a city that's all heart."

In addition to performing on such shows as "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" and being a panelist on "Chelsea Lately," Esposito also hosts the stand-up comedy podcast "Put Your Hands Together."

"Comedy is so important right now," she says. "I think there's no greater evidence of that than 'The Daily Show' being where my generation gets its news. It's our 'Tonight Show,' and our 'Tonight Show' is politically involved. It's a great way of talking about issues. The best comics are really just being honest -- that's all you're working toward, just trying to figure out how to be more honest. For me, I'm so happy to have a chance to speak for myself as a woman, and as a gay woman. I think it's very meaningful. Without being too stoked on myself, I feel proud."

-- Kristi Turnquist

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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