The Unfunny Struggle of Some Aspiring Comediennes

Times Staff Writer

The teachers were women comics, like Monica Piper, who listed on her resume (under "training"): "brought coffee to Merv Griffin once, the way he likes it."

There was Lotus Weinstock, a veteran of both the Griffin and the Tonight shows, who issued comedic commandments such as "Thou shalt not try material on thy friends and pretend it's conversation."

And there was Carrie Snow, a woman of substantial dimensions and wearing a large pink bow. She was equally subtle with the press: "Are you the lady from The Times? Oh. If I'd known I would have been nicer sooner."


These women, and four other up-and-coming comediennes (Diane Nichols, Hilda Vincent, Melissa Harrison and Judy Toll) had come to the Comedy Store to teach and to entertain--sometimes both at the same time.

It was familiar turf as each woman had worked the club professionally as well as other comedy emporiums throughout the country. The comediennes and Gail Stocker, a manager of comics, had agreed to provide tips for 13 aspiring comediennes participating last Saturday in the USC College of Continuing Education workshop, "Women and Comedy."

Much of what they discussed was distinctly unfunny--and pointedly true. As Snow put it, "Isn't it terrible that your career and your life and your act boil down to selling drinks?"


Each woman presenter had apparently learned to accept such facts of comedic life through years of experience. While none of their names is yet a household word, nearly all had survived the struggle to reach "headliner" status (as opposed to "opening act" or "middle act").

"It's real hard for all of us," said manager Stocker, who unintentionally provoked one of the biggest laughs of the day when she recalled that she started her career as a probation officer. "You (comics) have to be on the road for a long period of time. If you're not a star, you don't get treated real well. Even if you are a star they don't treat you too well. One time, they forgot to pick up Jay Leno (a well-known male client of Stocker's) from the airport. It is still harder for women. It's real rough. It takes about five years before you make any money. If I can discourage anyone, I'll be real happy."

None of the 13 women students who showed up for the workshop seemed outwardly discouraged, though, as they heard brisk discussions on such topics as:

--Bombing ("I do it quite well--on a regular basis lately. I'm committed to it," Harrison offered. "You're not going to kill every time. I guess I learn more sometimes from really sucking the rug.").

--Why off-color humor is risky, especially for beginning women comics (according to Piper, "If you're going to do blue humor, it's very tricky for women. Very often there's nothing that makes an audience more uncomfortable than comediennes who are a little uncomfortable with themselves doing blue material. It makes them doubly uncomfortable." Vincent advised the women to rework obscene material completely: "There seems to be a double standard. If you can go on stage and create the same point of view without being smutty, you'll get the laughs.")

--The power of television ("Even your own mother likes you better when you're on television," Weinstock insisted.)

--Supporting oneself until comedy pays the bills ("My main thing was selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits," Toll recalled. Added Piper, "I left teaching. I couldn't handle the money and the prestige.")

--Benefits of telling the audience about fights that husbands or boyfriends start just before comediennes go to the club so they'll go on stage angry rather than funny ("My husband is a little hesitant to cause a fight now because he knows the whole world will know about it," Weinstock said.)

--Perils of working on the road ("There really is no hanky-panky going on (between men and women comics)," Nichols volunteered. " . . . Bartenders, by the way, will be after you like crazy, also saxophone players.")

After each of the comics had told of her start in the business, eight of the students in the workshop took advantage of the opportunity to do five minutes of their best stand-up material and receive critiques from the pros.

All were lauded for their courage and warned of potential pitfalls in their present approaches. They learned that Jewish American Princess jokes, for instance, might work on the East and West Coasts but probably won't be understood on the road. (And as the woman who told the jokes was Jewish, she was admonished that she was much smarter than her "self-hating jokes.")

A slim, Miss Teen-age America type was instructed that no audience would likely buy her material on the torture of fat thighs, no matter how universal the problem. And one woman who brought props for her act quickly learned she was virtually ensuring herself a quick, comedic death. Using a prop, she was told, immediately sets the audience up with tremendous expectations.

The most repeated advice arrived in variations on the tried-and-still-true "be yourself" theme. "If you're crazy about what Joan Rivers is doing and it's not you, you are in trouble," Harrison said.

Vincent described the same issue this way: "You have to find your core. Find the direction of your own core, that's where your real funniness is.

"Richard Pryor was always funny," she told the group, without mentioning that she had performed in sketches on Pryor's television specials. "But Richard Pryor was Bill Cosby for 10 years. When he got on his core, when he got on who he was, he was fantastic. Your core is your own feeling, your own reaction to life. Material is important, but your core is where your material comes from."

It's also where the equal-opportunity applause winner known as confidence resides. And as Weinstock eloquently put it, "Confidence speaks louder than gender."

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