You know it’s not a typical alpha-male-fueled standup show when the emcee, the red-haired and tart-tongued Carole Montgomery, quips from the stage, “We have a couple of minutes before I bring up the next performer, so if you need a pee break, now’s the time.”
While a few audience members at Stand-Up New York, a Manhattan comedy club fixture since 1986, look like they still get carded, most are at the age that if someone asks for an ID it makes their day. That’s mainly because five women on the bill are too. Two years ago Montgomery, a comedy veteran of 40 years, began Funny Women of a Certain Age, a showcase featuring a rotating cast of female comics 50 and above who play in clubs and theaters countrywide. Participants have included Janeane Garofalo, Cathy Ladman, and, in the Showtime special that aired in March, Fran Drescher.
I’m not supposed to talk about sex because I’m 61. I’ll talk about whatever I want to!
In an interview a few days before the show, Montgomery explains her reason for becoming a comedy-preneur—to give her and her friends work: “Ageism is way worse than sexism. Women over 50 are dealing with both. Typically, bookers put one woman on a show to five men. Getting booked is about whether you’re hot or sexy, and when you get to a certain age you’re considered neither of those.” She adds, “I was young and adorable. Now I’m not supposed to talk about sex because I’m 61. I’ll talk about whatever I want to!”
Michael Jeffries, author of Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy, agrees. “There’s nothing about the club scene that is advantageous for middle-aged women comics—the clientele (young!), structure of the industry, travel demands—none of these factors align for them,” she says.
Breasts May Fall But Backbones Are Increasingly Firm
Montgomery and her contemporaries came up during the stand-up comedy boom that began in the late 1970s, with Saturday Night Live and David Letterman and Jay Leno helping to fuel the creation of hundreds of comedy clubs across the country. Today, as then, the scene continues to be man-centric: Forbes’ 2018 list of the 10 highest paid comedians does not include a single woman.
That statistic wouldn’t surprise Kerri Louise, who at age 50 is barely making the “of a certain age” cut. Outfitted in a silk sleeveless blouse and five-inch stilettos, she strides around the stage on this rainy June night, knocking it out of the yuks park with lines like, “My husband had to tell me I had chin hairs. … Without my readers on I couldn’t see them.” She also scores with more serious material: “After I had a kid the booker didn’t call because I ‘was busy’; he called a guy who’d just had a kid because he needed the money.”
I can’t say my age because people judge you so much in this business.
Later, Louise, who has been doing stand-up for 30 years, elaborates in a phone interview. “Opportunities were always limited for women in the field. Ageism is like adding insult to injury. Comedy Central sure won’t look at you: A ‘product’ that’s been out for 50 years can’t be the next best thing.” At this still-vibrant-but-no-longer-newbie age, it’s often harder to hang out in clubs, hoping to score a 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. spot. Louise tells me, “I have a husband, three kids. … The last thing I feel like doing is going out to try a new joke.” Yet, she adds, “Getting a laugh gives you newfound energy.”
Back at the club, I’m relieved to see it filling up as the night moves on. Vanessa Hollingshead, 58, who appeared with Carole on the Showtime Funny Women special, survived being accidentally dosed with LSD by her parents at age five, foster homes, years as an addict, widowhood, and 27 years of doing stand-up in New York. Now she puffs out her chest, under a gray t-shirt embossed with a NASA logo, and shares with the crowd what she endures living in an aging body: “The kind of compliments I get now: ‘You look like a retired gymnast.’”
Though perhaps the performer tonight with the toughest spine is Jaye McBride, who transitioned to female in 2007 and started doing stand-up in 2009. Wearing laminated thigh-high tights and her upper left arm festooned with a tattoo of a woman talking into a mic, she kills the room with, “My brother disowned me for becoming transgender. But I try to take the high road. When he and his wife had a child, I sent the nicest greeting card that said, ‘Congratulations. It’s a boy … for now!’”
Post-show, McBride confides in an email the travails of being a midlife trans woman. “It’s a triple-shit sandwich. I can’t say my age because people judge you so much in this business. More and more, women are making strides in comedy but once you add in trans, forget it. A comedy club owner will always tell you, ‘Funny is funny, and I don’t care whether someone is male, female, trans, etc., but when push comes to shove I might get tossed on a pride show or a ladies’ night but that’s it. There are exceptions, but it’s hard not to feel I’m Sisyphus.”
The Secret to Surviving
Leighann Lord, the fifth woman on the bill tonight (“I have fibroids. Fibroids are very common in women, especially black women. Half the cast of Black Panther has fibroids”), has lasted 27 years in comedy via a series of graceful transitions. While also reluctant to give her age (“Men are forgiven for getting older but for women it’s a crime—‘How could she?’”), Lord told me a few days after the show that she’s morphed from performing at colleges to corporate and private events. She’s also written books and created a podcast on dealing with aging parents.
Though the drawbacks to aging in this field are significant, the performers try to work the benefits. They learn to trust their talent and to surf the waves of a youth-obsessed culture. Though Lord rues no longer being in a world “where the industry was filled with older, more experienced comics like Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner, and Martha Warfield,” maturity has helped her become better able to handle setbacks and disappointments. “I’m not as stressed and intense as I was at the beginning of my career.”
Men are forgiven for getting older but for women it’s a crime—‘How could she?’
Instead of obsessing about the NOs, all the women I talked to now search for creative ways to circumvent doors that slam shut. Louise, the “baby” of the group, has written books and produced CDs around the theme of being a mother in addition to teaching comedy and constantly refining her material. She travels three weekends of the month, doing clubs and fundraisers. “Comediennes never retire. We’re always looking for the next job.”
Fran Drescher—who joked in the Showtime Funny Women special about a hook-up with a younger man who mistook the 61-year-old’s estrogen patch for a nicotine one, pondering in that signature Flushing, Queens, drawl, “What’s more of a turn-off, smoking or menopause?”—embraces that philosophy of always looking for the next opportunity. Indeed, she’s gone from Nanny to Granny in the upcoming NBC sitcom, Uninsured. She told me in a phone interview, “I like life to remain interesting, to have lots of different outlets and fly without a net. …That’s what stand-up felt like for me—it took me out of my comfort zone.” She has stayed relevant for decades due to possessing perhaps the most invaluable commodity—a core of strength and positivity. “I would never tolerate people trying to push me into a box.”
That surety of self is what led Carole Montgomery to create the Funny Women brand. She took what seemed unappealing to the marketplace—female comics of a certain age—and made maturing women seem so in-fashion that for the first time ever, six women over 50 starred in a TV special.
And if the brand keeps getting traction, who knows what doors will open for these women since, as Leighann Lord says, “Fame trumps age.”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist, author of three relationship self-help books and editor of the anthology How Does That Make You Feel: True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch. She has contributed to many publications including New York, Washington Post, This Week, Reader’s Digest, Observer and vox.com.