The tired stereotype that women aren’t funny is one of the most pervasive — and infuriating — myths in entertainment. Even in the era of stars like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho and countless other hilarious females, the comedy scene is still very much a boys’ club.
It’s 2016! How is this still a thing? Blame the patriarchy, says Madison comedian Dina Nina Martinez. “That’s sort of my patent feminist statement,” she says with a laugh. “But it really says it all.”
Martinez, who has been a mainstay in the local performing arts scene since she moved to Madison from Los Angeles about four years ago, is seeking to shatter comedy’s glass ceiling (or is it an exposed brick wall?) once and for all. She’s bringing in more than 70 performers from throughout the U.S. and Canada for a three-day festival showcasing the many talents of funny women. The first-ever Lady Laughs Comedy Festival runs Nov. 10-12 and features about 20 different acts at Plan B, the Frequency and on the basement stage at Glass Nickel Pizza on Atwood Avenue.
“Madison doesn’t have anything quite like this,” Martinez says. There’s the Madison Comedy Festival, which brings big-name acts to venues like the Orpheum, the Majestic, the Barrymore and the Comedy Club on State, but there’s “nothing for these women who are pounding the pavement and doing shows every night and going to open mics,” she adds.
Martinez says she’s found the comedy scene here to be more accepting and supportive than what she experienced in L.A. “There’s this amazing camaraderie from all the women here in the Midwest,” says Martinez, who for the last five years has performed at the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival. That experience inspired her to bring something similar to Madison.
Lady Laughs features an array of standup acts, improv groups, sketch comedy and storytelling. Martinez says this is a nod to the spirit of inclusivity the organizers are hoping to foster. “Everybody expresses themselves so differently, and I think it’s incredible to be able to showcase that,” she says.
Sheila Robertson, a member of Madison’s Monkey Business Institute improv troupe, has been performing since the early ’90s. “When I started playing in Madison, there were no other women in the [improv] group at that point,” she says. “It was very much a boys’ club. We did a sports-themed show; we literally wore men’s uniforms. It was just so guy-influenced, but I remember just loving it and not caring.”
Today, women make up nearly one-third of the Monkey Business troupe, and the group is performing an all-female show called “Yes Ma’am” at Lady Laughs. Robertson says the women-only environment has helped performers stretch out.
The festival also features a number of LGBTQ performers, including Marla Depew, a bisexual comic who founded Queer Comedy at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago. Martinez, who is transgender, is also bringing back “Alphabet Soup,” an LGBTQ comedy show that she emceed for a year and a half at Plan B.
And, in keeping with the spirit of inclusivity, Lady Laughs is letting a few men in on the fun with an all-male “He’s Not a Lady” showcase, hosted by Milwaukee comic Jason Hillman, who has performed with Martinez at comedy events around Milwaukee.
Hillman believes most men working in comedy are in favor of more inclusion. But, as with any traditionally male-dominated arena, there are entrenched problems. “You can talk to any woman and get a story about a dude that’s been creepy,” he says. “I had a friend who was introduced on stage as “ass and tits.” There will never be an MC who says, ‘Hey, do you want me to introduce you as cock and balls?’”
As for penises, Martinez actually uses the fact that she has one in her act. (You’ll have to see her perform to hear the punchline.) When she has the mic, she uses humor to tell her story, to fight back against the negativity and shame that surrounded her childhood.
“[Women] want to be able to be in a space where we don’t have to compete against each other and fight against each other,” she says. “We want to be on stage and tell our stories and say to each other, ‘Your stories are great — do ’em.’”