Lady Comics: Who Needs Late Night? We’ve Got Tumblr
If you ask a female comedian how social media has impacted her professional life, she will likely respond like Elaine Carroll. “Social media has made my career,” says Carroll, the 30-year-old creator of the Very Mary Kate web series, a spoof of Mary Kate Olsen’s glam life in New York.
Remember just a few years back, when comedians (of any gender) relentlessly chased guest spots at the feet of David Letterman and Jay Leno? Getting a gig on late night was the ultimate career boost, but women comedians had to fight through the prejudices both professional (like infamously misogynist Letterman booker Eddie Brill) and cultural (let’s all try to forget that Christopher Hitchens essay).
But the level playing field of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr means no one gets between ambitious talent and a potentially receptive audience. All it takes is perseverance, ability, skill, and infinite patience.
“Social media has essentially become my career,” says Kate Spencer, an improv instructor and writer at VH1 who blogs on Tumblr.
Consider Ilana Glazer, a New York comedy writer who, when she and writing partner Abbi Jacobson didn’t make it into the improv groups they wanted at Upright Citizens Brigade, decided to take their brand of girl-centric comedy to the web.
“We said, ‘Eff this, we’re going to make material for ourselves,’” enthuses Glazer, the co-creator of the Broad City web series.
That was 2009. The duo now have a deal with FX.
“In the old days, if you got a spot on Carson, your life changed forever,” says Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, who blogs at the Huffington Post. “That’s not true anymore. Do we even need those shows? I don’t think we do.”
Women still represent just a fraction of writers on late-night comedy programs, and they only represent 8 percent of directors of Hollywood films. Any female comic knows the comedy industry is rife with sexism.
But social media has opened up ways around these traditional paths. A sampling of a dozen women comedians offered up Tumblr and Twitter presences that have become huge in the comedy world — not just as side gigs, but as major marketing tools for these ladies’ work.
“Social media has done the same thing for women comedians as it’s done for other movements — it’s given women a way to know they’re not alone,” says Asie Mohtarez, a New York comedian and blogger. “What it does for me is provide daily evidence of women doing it — making weird/crude jokes (gasp), videos, and other content, which I find inspiring and freeing.”
There are plenty of other examples. Late Night’s Amy Ozols and Chelsea Lately’s Jen Kirkman have become social media standard-bearers in the comedy world, getting credit for their work in the public sphere. Last year, when The Office’s Mindy Kaling set out to promote her book, she used Tumblr to do it. And Whitney Cummings combined social media and dirty jokes about Bob Saget to get a prime-time show on NBC.
But for up-and-coming comics, those outlets can be even more important. “On the internet, no one can limit you, ” Glazer says. For her, that meant constant positive reinforcement of her work, and eventually, a mainstream gig.
She joined the likes of author Mariam Kobras, who used her Twitter following to land a book deal she said had “no agent interference, no rejections, no waiting. Or Allie Hagan, a Washington consultant by day and comedian by night, who turned her Suri’s Burn Book Tumblr into a publishing contract.
“I’ve gotten several freelance gigs based on Twitter and Tumblr, and I think that’s how a lot of people find me for live stuff,” says Julieanne Smolinski, a columnist for XOJane.com. “I’ve done a couple storytelling shows and some podcasts. I am also willing to do quinceañeras and that thing where you go to high schools and tell people not to be like you.”
And, of course, Elaine Carroll of Very Mary Kate, who got a deal with College Humor after producing the series out of pocket. And then got cast on Mad Men. ”There will always be hecklers and Youtube commenter types,” Carroll says of doing comedy on the web. “But the process of something going viral is contingent on it being good. It isn’t based on gender or race or sexual orientation. If your idea is good enough (or weird enough, or contains enough cats jumping into boxes), it won’t be ignored — even if you’re a female lesbian lady woman.”
As Mohtarez puts it: “My Tumblr has helped me hone my odd and sometimes dark sense of humor, and to find a little audience for it in between reblogged photos of other people’s breakfasts and titties.”
(Photo courtesy of Ilana Glazer, at left, with Abbi Jacobson, on the set of Broad City)