Montreal has always been a city that loves to laugh. It is home to the world-famous Just For Laughs comedy festival and has become a hub for open-mics, weekly stand-up series, and even the occasional underground show. It rarely matters what day of the week it is, for somewhere in the city, someone is standing in front of a microphone and joking about their Tinder date or how they slipped and fell on their way to work. Yet, for many of these shows, the setlists are often guilty of what is only glaringly obvious to some: A startlingly significant majority of male performers.
Elspeth Wright, a comedian and stand-up show producer in Montreal, points out the disparity between the gender expectations of men and women, suggesting a social discouragement for women to be funny.
“Women were taught from the time we were little not to take up space, not to be loud, to be demure,” Wright said. “I think doing comedy isn’t something that’s traditionally feminine, and I think that’s scary. You think, ‘Oh, people will judge me and I can’t get away with that much because I’m a woman.’”
Despite the increased presence of popular female stand-up comics on the mainstream circuit, such as Ali Wong and Iliza Schlesinger, women remain vastly underrepresented in comedy, both at the international level and in many local scenes. Wright recalls that many times she has assumed the position of ‘token woman’ at the show, an often frustrating role.
“There are shows where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the girl of the show!’” Wright said. “First of all, I’m not a girl, I’m 32. I’m a woman.”
In the absence of welcoming spaces, comedians Katie Leggitt, Lar Simms, Lise Vignault, and Erin Hall created a comedy festival in 2015 centered on femmes and non-binary individuals. Having had its fifth annual run this past September, Ladyfest is an environment that encourages and celebrates underrepresented comedians and performers.
Sara Meleika, a comedian and two-time Ladyfest producer recalls beginning her comedy career performing there in 2016.
“It was one of the first spaces where I felt safe to try something new, and where I felt welcome and [that I] deserved room for my voice,” Meleika said.
Dedicated spaces for those other than cisgender men remove the obstacle of having to confront one’s audience with the difference in one’s identity. Each time that a performer differs in identity from their audience, their entire individuality becomes reduced to just that difference. Rather than starting from a clean slate like many men, minority comedians’ performances immediately have to demonstrate talent in order to prove that they are more than just their appearance. They must put in extra work to relax the audience into abandoning any stereotypes or expectations. In contrast, when there is a diversity of performers, comedians do not feel tokenized and subsequently have the freedom to explore their own creativity while learning from others and feeling accepted.
“There’s nobody in the audience [saying], ‘Oh, the white man’s onstage’ and judging him based on that alone,” Meleika said. “Versus, if you’re a woman you’ll be ‘the one female comic on the show’ or ‘the one brown comic.’”
Often, Meleika notes, speaking up for underrepresented performers can be taxing. It takes a lot of mental and emotional work to explain a different point of view to someone who is more focused on defending their closed-mindedness than genuinely listening. Meleika avoids such conversational dead-ends, choosing instead to focus on advocating for women, people of colour, and other minorities.
“It’s more important to empower the people who need empowerment rather than fight the people who are resistant,” Meleika said.
Stand-up comedy is a platform for sharing experiences and bridging gaps. Comedian, singer, and entertainer Tranna Wintour describes her comedy as rooted in the personal, while having the potential to relate to broader audiences.
“That’s the comedy that has always inspired me. I just think there’s real power in sharing,” Wintour said. “[Performing], to me, is so powerful. Because it’s in those moments of exchange that we learn and our points of view change.”
Yet, this sharing and personal connection only becomes available once the audience lets their guard down. When presented with difference, people from privileged backgrounds tend to linger on it, becoming unable to relax and truly pay attention to the performance. It is almost as if one’s marginalized identity acts as a muffler for their voice; only when their identity is addressed and moved out of the way can a performer be heard. To marginalized performers, this can often be anxiety-inducing and create added pressure to distance themselves from the stereotypes surrounding their identity.
“When I’m performing in a room that’s largely cisgender and heterosexual, it’s sort of like I have this obligation to identify myself as trans, and to share it right off the bat because if I don’t, the audience is sort of guessing and trying to figure me out,” Wintour said.
Furthermore, many obstacles that marginalized comedians encounter have less to do with their own hesitation and more to do with lack of access.
“The industry gatekeepers, the people who program networks and festivals and produce shows: All of the industry positions are still largely occupied by [cisgender] straight people, so it’s easier for them” Wintour said. “They’re naturally more inclined to go with what they know, and go with what has always worked for them.”
Wintour pointed out that one of the easiest ways to improve the atmosphere in a city’s stand-up circuit is simply to support minority voices by attending their shows. Supporting local comedy shows, Wintour said, is an opportunity to promote the growth of less visible individuals in an otherwise homogeneous comedy scene.
“We’re all just so used to being excited and sharing the work of mainstream and already successful artists, but they don’t need our help,” Wintour said. “It’s really the independent people who need your attention and support.”
To be a comic is to have an ability to create laughter from silence, and to connect with an audience. It is often daunting, however, to position oneself on such a pedestal of vulnerability—particularly if one identifies as femme, non-binary, 2SLGBTQIA+, or a person of colour. In many venues, individuals simply do not feel like the space is safe or meant for them.
Luckily, shows like LadyFest, Colour Outside The Lines, and many other productions throughout the year are emerging around the city, creating inclusive spaces for up-and-coming comedians. While it still needs improvements, Montreal’s stand-up comedy scene is steadily growing in its inclusivity, offering individuals with less visibility comfortable spaces to share their voice, and start conversations with others.
Elpseth Wright’s next show is on Dec. 4 at 7:30 pm, at The Diving Bell Social Club.
Tranna Wintour’s next show is on Dec. 5 at 8:30 pm, also at The Diving Bell Social Club.
Sara Meleika’s next show is on Dec. 14 at 7 pm, at Le P’tit Impro.