We all know about the difficulties actresses face as they age — but what about ageism in comedy?
Since a comedian is the writer as well as the performer, her humor gives her a tool to fight back sexism and ageism. A lot has changed since the time when the few strong women comedians, such as (early) Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, largely based their acts on self-deprecating humor. Comedy is still very much a man's world, but it’s changing — little by little.
We talked to some fabulous funny ladies — and did we ever get an earful.
Jennifer Coolidge, mid-50s
“A couple of years ago, people were opening doors for me, and just now I got a lifetime achievement award. I was thinking, ‘I’m only in my 50s, and people are applauding my exit before I’ve exited.’ … My peers look good. Why do we have to be replaced by 15-year-olds? I have nothing against the Kardashians, but why are they our superstars?”
Judy Gold, 55
“I used to be told that I was too Jewish, too loud, too gay. Now I'm being told that I "don't fit the algorithm," which is a 'kind' way of saying, "You're too old for our audience." Since when does stand-up comedy have a demographic? Joan Rivers was never more relevant than when she died at 82.”
“The best thing about being older is that nobody is pulling their pants down in front of me. Really! When I was younger, the harassment and fear of harassment made working in clubs very stressful. The benefits of aging in comedy are confidence, intuition and personal power. Older women get funnier because we don’t give a damn anymore. Older guys think their prostates are hilarious. … Boring.”
Marsha Warfield, 64
“I was just called ‘old school’ by an old dude! I don’t hide that or say I’m not. I own it. I’m an old broad! It’s not as much of a handicap anymore. But still, sometimes you’re trying to get booked [for a job] by a 20-year-old, and it’s tough. But we all have opportunity, and we defeat ourselves if we say we’re niche — women’s night, etc. … I’m a comedian!”
“Getting bookings is harder because it’s usually a 1 female-to-2 males ratio, with the women emceeing and not headlining. I try not to take it personally and just plow straight ahead. There are so many highly talented older female comedians. On the positive side, I find that the younger male comedians are more respectful and supportive than their predecessors. Good work, moms.”
Susan Jeremy, 55
“When I turned 40, I veered away from stand-up and started writing and producing my own solo shows. But I find, for critics, there is still a big disparity between male solo shows and female ones. A critic might review an older male comic with an opening line like “The ever-funny Roger ...” The same reviewer for me would say, “The seasoned Susan Jeremy,” making Roger sounds funny, while I sound like a holiday roast.”
Sandra Bernhard, 63
“I separated from the pack early on, so I always found my own way in as a comedian. As I age, I get closer to my true nature, my essence. And I’m not as jaded because I have a deeper understanding of myself. You just have to put your blinders on and keep going, keep working, keep doing what you love and have fun.”
Mariann Aalda, 70
“In stand-up, you can still get hired … but you’ve got to be prepared to be the butt of a bunch of stupid, ageist and sexist jokes. I was once introduced by a 20-something male emcee with: “And now for the geriatric portion of our set” … and then was congratulated for being able to still be awake past my bedtime. … It was a 9:30 p.m. show!”
Karen Williams, 66
“I deal with the reality of aging in the most positive and spiritual way that I can. I am aging, but I refuse to grow old. It is important to remember that aging and growing old are not the same thing. Now that I’m in my 60s, I’m writing more, performing more and sharing more. Humor has a healing power, so I feel youthful, energetic and free!”
Nora Burns is a comic, performer and writer who lives in New York City.