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Telling Me I'm Funny For A Black Woman Isn't A Compliment

I love nothing more than to take a sceptical crowd, and turn their preconceived notions inside out.
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People often ask me if I find it difficult working as a comedian in such a male-dominated industry. It's a complicated question for me, because I wasn't always a comedian.

Before comedy, I worked as an engineer, building and repairing elevators.

I was also the only woman on a building site of approximately 5,000 men, and where there was only one female toilet on the entire site. So when I was caught short, I'd often wander into the nearest men's bathroom, with my hard hat pulled down over my face, a method I still often use in nightclubs.

Comedian Gina Yashere.
Comedian Gina Yashere.

I was subjected to graphic sex talk over bacon sandwiches, pictures of porn stars were stuck on every wall surface I could see and many of my coworkers felt compelled over the years to flash their genitalia at me, to "see if I was a lesbian." Presumably if I'd been straight, I would have dropped to my knees at the sight of their pasty appendages.

I also put up with an astonishing amount of racism, as more outdoor, physical work tends to attract the more outgoing type of racist, who is happily unfettered by a human resources department. I'm talking pictures of apes, and banana skins pinned to my workstation.

Compared to what I endured during that job, comedy is slightly tame. I'm not saying I haven't experienced incidences of racism and sexism, but they have been more low-key, where I was left feeling unsure if I was angry or not.

I started doing stand up comedy in the mid 90s, and there were quite a few women comics at the amateur or open mic level. As I rose up the ranks and became professional, the number of women I encountered dropped off. Not because there were none, but rather that comedy clubs tended to book women like we were novelty acts.

The vast majority of male comedians are mediocre.

One juggler, one magician, one black comic, one woman; 10 bland mediocre white males.

I was invariably the only woman on the bill, and rarely got to see my counterparts unless I was on a benefit show for a breast cancer fundraiser, or on International Women's Day.

There's been a lot of discussion on the lack of equality for women in the entertainment industry, especially in comedy. In fact, if I hear the phone ringing with one more interview request on the subject of, "Are women funny?" I swear I will gouge my own eardrums out with a spoon.

There are a lot of male comedians. A lot more than women. The vast majority of them are mediocre. Some are good, others bad.

When you see one bad comic who is a man, you don't say, "He was bad, and therefore all male comics aren't funny and I will never watch comedy again if any men are involved."

Comedian Gina Yashere performs in New York on Dec. 8, 2018.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Comedian Gina Yashere performs in New York on Dec. 8, 2018.

And yet, when I've hit the stage in the past, I've felt the crushing weight of low expectations, from both the audience, who mentally fold their arms, and a vast array of male show hosts who've brought me on stage with demeaning lines, my personal favourite being, "This next comic is a woman. Don't leave yet, we've still got a raffle!"

I'm not complaining though. I love nothing more than to take a sceptical crowd, and turn their preconceived notions inside out. If you're consistently good as a woman in stand up comedy, you will stand out.

Unfortunately, we just have to be three times better than the average dude to get half the work.

And if you're a woman of colour, add another multiple of five to the above formula. Just look at the websites of most comedy clubs in the United States, and compare the number of nondescript male headliners to the number of women headliners. Now look for the women headliners of colour.

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Unless you have massive TV or movie credits, most clubs are less likely to risk headlining a woman than they are an average white dude who may or may not have a podcast with seven listeners.

I've had no shortage of live comedy work over the years, headlining at every major club in this country and around the world. I'd like to think I'm helping in some way to dispel the "women ain't funny" notion.

If you don't believe me, come to any of my live shows or watch any of my three — yes, I said three — Netflix specials.

If you're a man, please don't come up to me after my show, and say, "I really don't like female comics, but you're great." That isn't a compliment.

I'm not a funny black comic or a funny female comic.

I'm a funny comic.

Gina Yashere will be starring at Dat Gyal Funny! - a comedy showcase featuring women of colour, on Saturday at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre as part of its Black History Month celebrations.

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