June 10--At this year's Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival, not one of the main headliners, the people playing the Chicago Theatre and featured atop the website, is a woman.
Not Bob Newhart. Not Bill Maher. Not Russell Brand or Seth Meyers. Not even any of the four pals referred to in "David Cross and his Super Duper Pals."
Yet one of the first things Just for Laughs programming chief Robbie Praw does when you ask him about it is laugh. Why? "The conversation I had right before you was about how our Montreal festival this year is being branded by the local media as 'the year of the woman,'" says Praw.
The issue here, he says, isn't that women comics are insufficiently super or duper. It's that the ones bookers thought could sell the Chicago Theatre's 3,600 seats didn't have schedules that matched those of the festival, the fifth edition of which runs from Tuesday to June 16 around Chicago.
"If you don't think I want Lena Dunham in conversation with Tina Fey, of course I do," Praw says. But the "Girls" and "30 Rock" stars "weren't available," he says. "Maybe women are getting too big."
It's ironic, he says after his initial laugh, to have Just for Laughs asked about a lack of women in one city while in another its abundance of them is drawing notice.
From either direction, such questions underscore the attention that is paid to diversity in booking. The Cannes film festival has drawn fire in recent years for including zero, or almost zero, films directed by women in its main competition. The big Chicago music festivals, Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, may have almost comically homogenous crowds, but their bookings have been more diverse, with Pitchfork this summer showcasing arguably its deepest lineup of black performers yet.
A cultural conservative might call the attention to such matters "political correctness" or "tokenism." But Praw and programmers of other Chicago arts festivals -- film, humanities, sketch comedy -- say that a monocultural event is a boring event and one that does little to advance the art form or educate the public.
Even more basic than that, the act of holding a festival implies the presentation of a range of material.
"What is a festival?" asks Brian Posen, executive producer and founder of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which put on 162 shows during the first two weeks of January this year. "You come and get to try as many different theater companies as possible, or different bands, or different greasy, fried foods. If you just have your Bud Lights and your pierogies, you want more."
Although it is changing rapidly, Posen says, sketch comedy by tradition is "a pretty white-bread art form." So rather than taking simply those performers his adjudicating committee ranks highest on the basis of application videos, he'll put his thumb on the scale here and there.
"I look at the big picture so that it is diverse and isn't just a white-boys festival," says Posen. "We had a group from Iowa in their 50s and 60s" that didn't have the very top scores "but their score was still high enough to not compromise the integrity of the festival. We wanted them in because no one else was like that."
Sketch groups that have participated in recent years include Siblings of Doctors, whose members are of Indian heritage, and GayCo, self-explanatory. Comedy, he says, is rooted in point of view, making it vital to incorporate many points of view.
"If we have all white boys, is the Hispanic community going to come out?" Posen asks. "It's not just that different audiences generate more income, but producers want to make sure we serve the art form."
The Chicago International Film Festival pays close attention to such issues, says Mimi Plauche, programming director. Within the annual festival, a Black Perspectives program has a 17-year history, she says. There's also Reel Women, and an LGBT program called OUTrageous.
"We're a competitive film festival, and the idea is to bring the best in international and independent cinema," Plauche says. "We also try to engage the different communities in Chicago."
Knowing that there is a mandate to be diverse, she says, forces programmers to be on their toes: "It keeps us more in tune with what's happening in different filmmaking communities."
And, again, it's not bad for business. A focus last year on films dealing with the Middle East resulted in near-capacity crowds for those movies, Plauche says.
Chicago Humanities Festival programmers are similarly attuned to issues of race, gender and ethnicity, says Matti Bunzl, artistic director of the big autumn ideas gathering (that puts on other shows year-round).
"We think about that question at every single meeting," says Bunzl, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who looks at such matters through the prism of his academic discipline.
If the Humanities Fest (this year's theme is Animal: What Makes Us Human) just took a representative sample of who writes books and does scholarship, the balance would lean heavily to white males, Bunzl says.
To try to counteract that is not political correctness, he says, but a quiet form of activism in a culture that has tended to provide a better-maintained path to success for white males.
"I cannot change American culture singlehandedly," Bunzl says, "but what we can do is signal to an American culture that is more inclusive."
He has seen a change in one area: "There is much greater recognition now that diversity can criss-cross in every direction" so that you don't need an African-American or woman speaker "in order to have quote-unquote black topics represented, or female topics."
A case in point, he says, is Brown University scholar Matthew Gutmann, who will give a Humanities Festival talk this year based on a current project he calls "Men Are Animals in Love and War."
Including studies of machismo in Latin American culture and the military, Gutmann's work, Bunzl says, arises out of a nascent men's studies movement that involves "thinking in feminist terms about men."
"He is very much a feminist thinker," says Bunzl. "He just happens to be a male speaker."
Bunzl has sympathy for his counterparts at Just for Laughs, he says, because, as in the humanities, "I have no doubt that the comedy pool is overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white. ... Doing this kind of work is not easy. You balance so many things."
At Just for Laughs, Praw's initial reaction to questions about gender diversity is almost defiant.
"We don't take it into account, really," he says. "We're all just looking for the funniest people, and we try not to get too bogged down in numbers."
But continue the conversation, and it becomes clear that achieving some balance is on his bookers' minds.
"We inherently, as a reflex, try to be as diverse as possible, but we don't have control over people's schedules," says Praw.
He asks that people look at Just For Laugh's track record here -- which has included major slots for comics including Lisa Lampanelli and Ellen DeGeneres -- and see that "the heart is in the right place."
Festival attendees should check out some of the women playing this year in smaller venues, he adds, most notably Maria Bamford and Anjelah Johnson, headlining at the Park West and The Vic, respectively. And he cites Chelsea Peretti, appearing four nights at Stage 773, as somebody "everyone thinks could be the next one."
Praw says this is almost a golden age for women in comedy, with people such as Fey and Amy Poehler leading the way, as well as Amy Schumer, who was at last year's festival and now has a Comedy Central show.
Cameron Esposito is a long-time Chicago comic who moved last year to Los Angeles and will be back to open for Bamford. Esposito, while in Chicago, taught classes for aspiring women stand-ups to try to bring more of her sex into the business.
"This happens so much that now there are festivals that are only women-focused," Esposito says, including one in Portland, one in Boston and the second annual Chicago Women's Funny Festival, which ran last week at Stage 773, also the venue for many JFL shows.
Esposito says she has no doubt that Just for Laughs is "trying," but is caught up, to some degree, in the "numbers game." "They definitely sought me out. And to have a female opener for a female comic is exciting by itself."
And with her 2011 show that debuted at JFL, "Side Mullet Nation," she was, she says, "the first local comic -- male or female -- to get a solo hour spot at the fest. ... I believe that festivals want to include gals."
A big festival, she points out, has several different audiences to try to serve, including traditionalists, hipsters, and people who'll come to see those they've already seen on TV. Once you break things down that way and throw in scheduling conflicts and the relative scarcity of widely popular women, it becomes easier to understand how a Bob Newhart and Bill Maher would have the Chicago Theatre bookings.
That said, in the comedy world in general, "I still do think it takes longer for a woman to be thought of as a headliner," Esposito says.
"The thing that's still true is that when a man gets on stage, an audience knows immediately how to read him as a comic. And I think women still are, to some percentage of the audience, a novelty," she adds. Despite representing half the country, she says, "women are the counterpoint."
That will be especially true at the 2013 edition of Just for Laughs Chicago.
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