Sarah Tollemache makes her jokes wrapped in protective clothing.
Sarah Tollemache makes her jokes wrapped in protective clothing.
Photos by Daniel Kramer

Funny Business: Playing with Boys

Sarah Tollemache is onstage at the Laff Stop open mike. It's March, but she's wearing a long-sleeved hoodie; last week she wore a thick sweater. Tollemache says she has done this for years, ever since another comedian made a comment to her before she took the stage.

"[I] go up to open mike, wearing [a] T-shirt and not realizing, and he's like, 'Whoa, somebody's headlights are on,'" Tollemache says. "Now it's been my fear and I'll wear a jacket onstage, because I'm always worried that some guy in the audience will be like, 'Hey bitch, your headlights are showing.'"

Remarks like this are commonplace in the comedy business. Because some of Tollemache's material is a little dirty, some guys think anything goes.


Houston comedy clubs

After another set at open mike years ago, a male comedian came up to her and said, "'You're pretty good; I see potential in you. You know, Jane Curtain, apparently she slept her way to the top' without even skipping a beat, [he] just went straight into that," she says.

If a female comic can get past the notion that many people have that women telling jokes aren't funny, they still have some special negotiations to make in the business.

Over-appreciative Fans

Mark Babbit, a well-known former comedy club owner in Houston, said he always was more protective of women comics.

"Whenever I had a woman onstage and she was popular, I always made sure when she came off, I was there. To make sure that nothing happened I kept an eye out for them."

He points to a particular time when Janeane Garofalo was at the Laff Stop.

"I said, 'Janeane, let's get upstairs before the crowd comes,' and she says, 'No, no. I'm fine, I'm fine.'" He says the crowd started surrounding her and so he stepped in and led her away. "She grabbed my arm."

"We had a quite a few women on the road; some of them you didn't have to worry about. Kathleen Madigan could handle herself most of the time, but women who are diminutive or not really aggressive, you have to watch out for them."

Camping Out With the Boys

Housing arrangements can also present a special problem for female comics on tour. Most comedy clubs have a condo or a house for touring comedians, and since there are so few females, the lone woman often ends up with a male roommate.

"There are certain logistics to it that it's just not suited [for women]," says Rob Mongol, a local comedian who has toured nationally. "When I first started out, I could go take a bullshit one-nighter, staying in condo with some guy I just met.

"If you're a 22-year-old girl and you're going to go out to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for three days and live in a house with some guy you don't even know? I mean, if I was a girl I wouldn't do that. I know most comics are degenerate assholes. Why would you want to live with one you just met for three days? God knows what would happen."

Or as Tollemache put it:

"I don't to be in a condo where a bunch of guy comics [stay] that talk about whacking off all the time. I know those condos aren't really cleaned all the time. I'm sure if you put a black light over the room, there would be, like, DNA all over."

That aspect of the touring comic's life was one reason Dianne Cupps decided stand-up wasn't going to be in her future and she would restrict herself to improv with Paul Oddo's group, The Greatest Thing in the History of the World.

"When I first started, I totally thought I want to do this all the way," Cupps, a 29-year-old graphic designer, says. But when she found out that once on the road women are roomed with other comics, usually male, she paused.

"I was like, wait, that would be my life? I'm sorry, I'm still a girl and that would be completely uncomfortable. I was just like, 'Honestly, Dianne, are you going to try to take that path of being a road comic and sleeping in dirty hotels and drinking every night?' I just can't do that."

But 39-year-old Kristen Linder says going on the road is not a problem. A mother who lives in Conroe with her husband and kids, her day job is as a sales manager for a credit card company. She goes on the road on weekends.

And she says she has never had trouble. "I haven't had any bad experiences with that or anything. It's always a concern of my husband's and it's always a little bit weird."

She says most male comics are very understanding of her situation and more often than not accommodate her. Headliners have given up their hotel rooms so Linder didn't have to share with another male opener, and whenever she has stayed in condo, the other male comic lets her have the room that's connected to a bathroom so she doesn't have to walk around in a towel.

Women Who Talk Dirty

Cupps says there are women comics who play it clean, some who talk about being a mother and having children, but when she did stand-up, she would "play on the boys' side and tell more R-rated jokes."

"I could never tell if [the audience] liked it or if it was more shock value that I was saying these things," Cupps says.

Cupps says she had a female friend who did stand-up and would tell jokes that were well received by the audience about her problems as a mother and other women's issues like visiting the gynecologist. "Other male comics would go like, 'Oh my God, is she really talking about her tits again?' They wouldn't respect it at all."

As for sexism in comedy, Linder says the biggest problem is that female comics always carry the label.

"Men aren't referred to as 'male comics,'" Linder says, adding that women are always separated into their own category, regardless of their style.

"If there is a woman on the show, then they won't do another woman on the show. They are like, 'We already have a woman on the show,' but it's never the same thing like, 'We can't have any more guys on the show.'" Linder says the only way to get more than one woman on a show, in most cases, is to have all-female shows.


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