Diversity in comedy has been all the buzz as of late, and on February 20, 2014, New York Women in Film and Television joined the conversation with Laughing Matters: Diverse Voices From the World of Comedy, a panel of seven female comedians. With much laughter and a riveting discussion, Laughing Matters unfolded into a memorable night.
Producer and NYWIFT board member Ylana Kellar expressed the event’s significance. “It was important to me, as a woman of color with a disability, to produce an event that spoke to [diversity]. I wanted everybody at the table,“ Kellar said. “I’ve done a lot of panels…I am proudest, of all, of this one.”
Members of the panel comprised multiple, intersectional identities, spanning various ethnicities, faiths, physical abilities, family structures, and age. Each speaker addressed the challenges and triumphs of working in comedy. As moderator, award-winning director and actor Yvonne Russo navigated the audience through common themes like self-acceptance, visibility, and representation, and bringing empowerment and change for diverse identities in film and television.
Monique Marvez, a comedian and top-rated San Diego radio host, spoke on self-acceptance both in and outside the industry. “I talk about how to make myself happy, and then I say, ‘If you make yourself happy, that’s the most magnetic thing in the world,’” Marvez said. “If you want someone to pick you — you pick you.”
Actor, improv-comedian and community organizer Keisha Zollar described her experience being “strange and black” on the improv scene. “I accepted my strangeness being a black woman in a group of weirdos,” Zollar said. “It’s okay for white men to be strange, but a black woman has to be ‘normal’ or ‘sassy.’”
Visibility and representation were also talked about, with disability receiving the level of conversation it deserves.
“Hollywood is nowhere near accepting the fact that we’re a part of the diversity community,” shared Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and advocate. “We want to see physical disabilities played by the physically disabled.”
Nina G, who refers to herself as the world’s only female stuttering comedian, explained she doesn’t make herself the joke, but the jerks of the world. “I think the disability community finds that refreshing,” she said.
Indeed, comedy acts as a space for people to express frustration through humor. As with actor and comedian Kate Rigg, who found comedy while “looking for a space to express rage and pain.”
“I think that when you are one of the few speaking for an underrepresented community,” Rigg said, “that often your community is desperate to hear you speak.”
The discussion ended with calls to action and a more DIY approach.
Negin Farsad, who writes, directs and produces in addition to performing as a comedian, started creating her own media when she grew tired of being called “too ethnic” or “not ethnic enough.” On the topic of television, she noted that “if we see more people of color in control, you will see more diversity.”
Comedian Angela Scott emphasized the importance of “making your own voice, and speaking your own voice.“ She urged performers not to hurt themselves by playing into the stereotypes.
The questions raised at Laughing Matters are relevant not just for those of underrepresented identities, but for all audiences. Diversity doesn’t simply increase a group’s visibility; it transforms and enriches the medium.
“Women sharing laughter on stage is one step away from women being objects, and one step closer to being subjects,” Rigg said.
— SONTENISH MYERS (NYWIFT intern)