Feminist icon and women’s right activist Gloria Steinem will be hosting a night of “revolutionary laughter” that honors black women in comedy on Tuesday evening. The event is part of the “Sisters of Comedy” series, pegged as the only “all black women showcase at a top comedy club in NYC,” according to founder Agunda Okeyo (full disclosure: Agunda was an intern at Salon when I was a writer there).
Given the debate over “political correctness” currently happening in the comedy world, I jumped at a chance to get Steinem’s perspective on the issue. Last week, Jerry Seinfeld told an ESPN radio host that he’s wary of performing at college campuses because “They’re so PC.” Defending one of his jokes about the mannerisms of a “gay French king,” he followed up his remarks on Late Night with Seth Meyers, saying, “I can imagine a time — and this is a serious thing — I could imagine a time now where people would say that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion, and you now need to apologize. There’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me.”
Seinfeld is joined in his criticisms by comedy titans like Bill Burr, Bill Maher, Jim Norton and many other veterans — but the list of anti-PC critics is comprised mostly of men, in a field that has largely favored men. (Plenty of the world’s famous male comedians have remarked that women aren’t funny). It’s not a total coincidence then, that as comedy beings to diversify with forces like Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro, more comedians are being called out on jokes that could be construed as sexist or racist or homophobic.
“I haven’t noticed that comedy is PC,” Steinem told ANIMAL via email. “And anyway, ‘politically correct’ was invented by people in social justice movements to make fun of ourselves.”
“I love comedy and I’ve witnessed the past exclusion of women from it — because the power to make people laugh is a power, too,” she said.
Steinem, who is close friends with Okeyo, is a frequent guest at the Gotham Comedy Club show and was formerly a comedy writer for That Was the Week That Was. As a revolutionary herself, she says that humor is a useful tool for the powerless. “The most disempowering thing you can do to power is to not only disobey it, but laugh at it,” she says.
Her favorite comedians are Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Fey and Richard Pryor.
“Too many talented black women do not gain adequate support or notoriety for their immeasurable talent,” says Okeyo about the show, which has regularly been included as a ‘Critics Pick’ in Time Out New York. “We hope that this show with get people to know what we know, black women in stand up are diverse and amazing and the industry needs to take notice of these live performers, writers, and producers elevating the landscape,” she says. The writer and activist is planning two more shows, one at Gotham Comedy Club and another at Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, this summer.
Tuesday night’s line-up includes Chloe Hilliard from Last Comic Standing, Robin Cloud of BK Live and Yamaneika Saunders from Funny Girls on Oxygen. The 8 PM showcase has previously featured Sasheer Zamata from SNL, Phoebe Robinson from Late Night with Seth Meyers, and others.
(Photo: Greg Chow)