Tiffany Haddish
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Pop Culture

How Tiffany Haddish and Other Female Comedians Are Changing the Game

For the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, awards season earlier this year provided the entertainment industry with a platform to discuss sexual harassment, gender parity and generally abhorrent behavior aimed toward women. With the Oscars now far in the rearview mirror, the conversation is far from over. The movement toward gender equality is being carried on by another group of vocal women: comedians.

Samantha Bee, Sarah Silverman, Iliza Shlesinger, Hannah Gadsby, Michelle Wolf and Nikki Glaser are a few who have made treatment of women part of not just their act but their social media discourse. “I've been opening with jokes about it, and audiences aren't tired of hearing it—they're listening,” says Glaser, who in addition to doing stand-up, hosts her show You Up on Comedy Central Radio. “I've also been watching a lot more female stand-ups, and every single female stand-up that I look to and admire is talking about it, too. I thought I was all ballsy and original, but really, everyone is talking about it.”

Why are female comedians the natural messengers for the #MeToo movement? “Because we’ve been sexually harassed on a regular basis,” comedian and Night School star Tiffany Haddish tells Playboy. “Being a female comic, you’re really in a man’s world, and guys say some of the most messed-up stuff to you. When I wanted stage time, they’d be like, ‘You want five minutes? Give me five minutes.’ I never went for that. I’ll be damned if I give up my body so I can entertain a room full of people.”
She is not the only comedian finding the stand-up environment an unlevel playing field. “As a female comic, if we don't laugh off some disgusting thing a male comic says, then we're not funny,” says Glaser, who competed this season on Dancing With the Stars. “We have this added pressure of being able to take a joke because so often, they say women take everything too seriously. We have to constantly act like we're cool with everything. It's a really nice time to be able to go, ‘No, I'm not cool with that,’ and for male comics to go, ‘Actually, it's not OK for me to expect that of you anymore.’"
 
TBS’ Full Frontal With Samantha Bee head writer Melinda Taub thinks comedy isn’t just a way to educate viewers about poor behavior, but a way for women to feel like their feelings are validated by others. “I think it's very cathartic for women to see a woman on TV just fucking furious about this,” she says. “It gets old to see ourselves portrayed as victims—which I think is part of what made this movement take off. Everyone was like, ‘We're not just sad, we're really mad.’”

That’s not to say Taub hasn’t occasionally been conflicted about how to tackle sensitive topics. During the spring, her show addressed the sexual-misconduct accusation aimed toward comedian Aziz Ansari in a #MeToo backlash segment that conveyed that women are allowed to set higher standards for themselves without conflating rape with harassment or even a bad date. “I almost had a panic attack when we were taping it because I was like, ‘What if I did this all wrong?’” says Taub. “People had trouble finding the boundaries of what they were really talking about with that one in terms of whether this should be part of the #MeToo movement, or whether this is sexual assault or bad sex? To even talk about it, you had to step back and decide a bunch of things. But we are allowed to be mad about more than one thing, and we definitely are mad about more than one thing.”
Though a frequent topic in the media, the conversation about the treatment of women is still difficult to have in a work environment. As a result, political comedy has, in many ways, become one of the most important parts of our civic conversation. “I think if we would have had more women doing the kind of comedy that we're seeing now, some of this stuff might have been averted,” says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

“I think there are a lot of men out there that somehow thought that women were into this," he continues. "There are a lot of female comics out there who are, in no uncertain terms, and in some very hilarious ways, schooling people that having a guy open his pants, or drop his towel, and show you his junk is not a turn-on.”
   
But despite these vocal women using their platform to send out a strong message, do they believe change is on the horizon? “History would suggest no,” says Taub. “Let me put it this way: I'm pretty confident that a lot of men will continue to be shitty. But I think that women are going to be talking more about how shitty they are. So, hopefully, there will be more consequences for that behavior.”
When I wanted stage time, they’d be like, ‘You want five minutes? Give me five minutes.’ I’ll be damned if I give up my body so I can entertain a room full of people.
The biggest cultural change to come, thinks Glaser, is women banding together and supporting each other. “Something I've become so much more excited about is realizing that we're not competition, as much as we are support,” she says. “We need to look out for one another, and we need to be inspired by one another, as opposed to threatened. That's what's been so cool about this movement: women standing up for women.”

As far as keeping the discussion going, this marks only the beginning of #MeToo-inspired material on the stand-up front. “Material for comedians takes months and months to reach a point where it's tight enough that we can start sharing it with the world, and putting it into specials, and doing it on TV,” says Glaser. “The stuff that we've been doing onstage, you haven't even seen yet. A lot more really well-crafted material is about to pour out of us, that has been marinating and that we've been working on for months since the movement started.”

In the meantime, the change that comedians are seeing in real time is in the audience’s response to material about harassment. “Before, men were just like, ‘Oh, another female comic with a rape joke,’ and now it's, ‘Maybe I should shut up and listen. Maybe there's something to this,’” says Glaser. “It's like sneaking vegetables into brownies; comedy is a way to get across serious topics and different issues in a palatable form. They're laughing, but they don't realize they're actually learning something, too.”

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