Interview: the Show That Proves That Women are Funny

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Childs, Artistic Director of 1812 Productions, Philadelphia’s All Comedy Theatre Company, about her new comedy, which she wrote and directed, It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project. It’s My Party began in 2010 with two questions: how do women use comedy and how does the usage change as they age. Through collage, cabaret, and stand-up Childs investigates gender stereotypes that lock women into certain roles, such as the ditz, the vamp, and the old maid.  

In some ways, the play responds to Christopher Hitchens’ provocative comment in a Vanity Fair article years ago, claiming that women aren’t funny. The first act of this compelling show had the audience laughing on the opening night last Wedensday. The all-woman ensemble includes comedic veterans of the Philadelphia theatre. The play incorporates original and devised music by the cast and the musical director Monica Stephenson, and features a set by 1812 Productions’ designer Lance Kniskern.

Full interview after the jump.

It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project
Playing at: Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St.
Through: Sunday, May 19.
Tickets: $22 to $38.
Information: 215-592-9560 or 1812 Productions’ website.

Q: Tell me how The Women and Comedy Project came about? What was your process? There are African-American Women, white women, an Asian woman, and a diverse age-range. No Latinas and or Jewish women — how did you make casting decisions and were questions of ethnicity important in your thought process?

JC: I interviewed over 100 women all along the East coast, pulling together anecdotes, stories and personal experiences. I wanted it to be racially and age diverse, but I was more interested in exploring the brains, heart and sous of these women. It would have become a different show if there was one woman representative of each “flavor” or ethnic background.  

Q: How did you arrive at the three act structure of the play?

JC: I could have written a linear 90 minute script, but I gave myself permission to stretch the form and it was very liberating.

Q: Can you briefly describe each act and what you had in mind?

JC: The first act, which I call ‘The Lecture,’ represents the youngest age, say women in their 20s who I found use humor to gain attention. It’s an age when you don’t have your own voice and you use stereotypes and imitations to find your comedic voice.  

The second Act, called ‘The Ritual,’ represents women in their 30s and 40s, when women discover that comedy can save your soul. You can use humor as a weapon to fight and survive.

Q: This is where we hear the women sharing their stories. Were these stories autobiographical or were they a composite or synthesis of the many interviews you did?

JC: They were the actresses’ own stories, that we had “workshopped.”

Q: In the second act, we hear one of the characters tell a story about learning she has breast cancer, which her mother had died of. Was this the actress’s own story, and couldn’t this be seen as potentially not funny? Or as simply “empowering” and therapeutic to share but not necessarily art or theatrically interesting?

JC: It is her own story, and I’m surprised that that’s confusing to people. I was reading about the comedienne Tig Notaro and how she was diagnosed with cancer right after her mom died, and she was so funny. It’s about owning what happens to you and not apologizing for it, and that can be funny.

Q: Tell me about the third act of the play.

JC: The third act, called ‘The Rave,’ is about the oldest age, women in their 70s, and it’s about being audacious. In naming it “the rave” I’m referencing the rave dances, but also the association with stark raving mad and the rave as a rant. By this age, women don’t care anymore. If you want to wear polka-dots, stripes and mismatched shoes, so be it. My daughter is 9 and my mother is in her 70s, and I see similarities in their not caring about what other people think.

Q: How, if at all, do you think about audience?

JC: Comedy is about audience. I think it is extremely important to connect with the audience, which I think of as the last character in the play. The show isn’t finished until there is laughter. Only then is the rhythm complete. I mean, if a joke is told in a forest and no one is there to hear it, is it funny?

Q: One of the characters says “I’m too radiant for irony.” What did you learn during your interviews about women, humor and irony, and how did this get translated into the show?

JC: I was surprised that no woman I interviewed thought she was funny. When I asked them to sing a rap I had written during the auditions — and this was a rap about being smart and beautiful and sexy — the women were tentative. Some feared that people will not like them if they sing a song like this. But this is exactly what the play is exploring — I want women to take ownership of their own goofiness. To find a way to say “this is what I want.”

Q: The danger is sounding too sincere or sentimental in this approach, right? Too much like Jack Handy’s “deep thoughts.”

JC: It’s a fine line. More and more people employ irony and cynical humor on the stage, but it’s the death of theatre if we presume that you can’t be hurt, that there’s no vulnerability. Part of comedy is precisely this threat of being vulnerable. I see sincerity and openness as being a lot braver than coming up with snarky comments. it was important to me to create something that felt honest and honored the interviewees’ stories.

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