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November 17, 2011

It's Not a Competition
by WomenInComedy - 11

By Contributor Barbara Holm

A few days ago, I worked the door at a comedy club and I also did a short guest spot on the show. The good thing about working the door at a comedy club is that you get to hang out and talk to other comedians a lot. The bad thing about working the door is that you’re stuck in the box office for an hour so you have to talk to other comedians a lot. As I was setting up the cash register, a more established road headliner comedian walked through the doors. Let’s call her Sally.

I said, “Hi, Sally,” (No I didn’t, because that’s not her real name, but just leave the fourth wall alone and go with me, okay?) politely as she came in.

Sally’s face went white with horror and her eyes grew big and she yelped back cheerfully, “Hi!” She disappeared into the show room and came back five minutes later and said, “Hey, Barbara.” I figured she’d forgotten my name earlier, which was fine. We didn’t know each other that well. With an overcompensating smile on her face, Sally said, “I guess I’m closing out the showcase. I’m doing my [regular] set. I’m sure you alternative hipster comics will hate it but you’ll be too busy talking about your ironic hoodies to worry about it.” She winked.

What I should have said was, “No, you’re great. We love your set.” What I actually said was, “This isn’t an ironic hoodie; it’s a UCB hoodie.”

There are not a finite number of spots for female comedians on a show bill.

I don't respond well to catty girl comments. I can’t digest an insult wrapped in a compliment burrito, especially not from people I don’t know that well. Admittedly, I can be incredibly self deprecating, but I try to draw the line when it makes others feel uncomfortable.

Sally blinked. “What’s UCB?”

My face fell, devastated that I would ever have to answer this question. “The Upright Citizen’s Brigade. You know … Amy Poehler, Matt Besser-”

Sally interrupted me, “Oh yeah, of course I know.”

Another comedian, one of my very funny friends, Jesse, approached the ticket booth and quietly started rifling through his notebook while mumbling something about feeling frustrated. “Don’t worry, Jesse,” Sally said, loud enough for the entire bar area to hear. “Barbara here will be your comedy groupie!”

My eyes went black with rage, and I felt an Eowyn from Lord of the Rings-style vehement anger as I looked at her and quietly said, “I ain’t no fucking comedy groupie.”

A comedy groupie is a woman (notice there is no derogatory word for it if a man does it) who is a fan of comedy and has sex with headlining comedians. This person is usually not a comedian herself and has also been referred to as a “starfucker,” “chucklefucker,” and other horribly offensive names. Cute young girl comics will occasionally have this title incorrectly thrust upon them. I am a comedian; I am not riding on my sexuality to get booked on shows, nor am I in comedy for any reason other than to get funnier.

A group of audience members came up to the box office so I turned my attention to them and Sally went down to the green room. When the audience members left, the show started and the box office became very slow. I picked up my copy of Mindy Kaling’s book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” (which is wonderfully well written and hilarious) and started reading. Sally came back to the box office.

“I’ve been asking about you downstairs,” she said. I looked up from my book, raising my eyebrows. “They say you’re really funny, but I said you’re too thin to be funny.”

I closed my books and folded my arms. This was another backhanded compliment designed to make me feel insecure about my comedic abilities. Deadpan, I said, “Oh, there’s a weight requirement to writing a good joke?”

I can’t digest an insult wrapped in a compliment burrito, especially not from people I don’t know that well.

Sally didn’t answer this and instead indicated my book. “Oh my gosh, that book is too cute. The cover is sickeningly adorable. Of course you’re reading something that cute.”

Defensively, I said, “What could you possibly have against Mindy Kaling?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

I gasped in horror. I was disturbed by the fact that anyone in comedy, let alone someone with a swagger, could not know who Mindy Kaling was. Luckily, before I could say anything, the manager came to tell me to come down to the showroom and get my butt on stage. I packed up the cashbox and headed down. I did really well on the show. Sally, however, bombed. As she was putting on her coat after the show, I said, “Good seeing you, Sally.”

“Good set, Barbie!” she said, in a nasally sarcastic voice.

“What is your problem with me?” I asked.

“I don’t have a problem with you,” she said, her voice rising to a higher pitch to imitate mine.

I shrugged and turned to leave. I hate that female comedians can be so passive aggressively competitive. We aren’t in competition with other women in our profession; we’re in competition with everyone. Men might try to pit us against each other so that they don’t have to compete with us, but we should never do it to ourselves. Women in comedy should work together, help each other up. It’s easier if we support each other instead of using high school passive aggressive backstabby language. There are not a finite number of spots for female comedians on a show. It’s hard enough for us to learn the complexities of the beautiful world of joke writing without having to compare ourselves to every other woman in the show. Also, the people who make comics feel jealous or competitive are exactly the people you should be friends with because they’re funny and ambitious and will push you and support you to be your best. We don’t need to put each other down to look better. I don’t know what’s going to happen with my or Sally’s careers, but I do know that I will never treat a younger funny female comic as a threat when I could be trying to make a friend.

Barbara Holm is a stand-up comedian from Seattle, Washington. She has performed at Bridgetown Comedy Festival, The Women in Comedy Festival, and Bumbershoot Festival. She has been described as clever, creative and unique.


  1. I hope that you decided to talk to "Sally" about all this before posting as this also comes off as passive aggressive.

  2. Hi Skillz,

    First off, thank you for commenting! I'm always glad when our readers give us their opinions. As far as Barbara Holm's piece goes, my opinion is that it would have been passive agressive for her to name "Sally" in the piece. It would have been passive agressive (and, yet, in no way out of the norm) for her to decide to include the experience in her set going forward. But I believe that the piece, taken as a first-person narrative detailing an experience that happened to a woman while she endeavored to create comedy, adds to the exact discourse the site for the Women in Comedy Festival was created to further. And Barbara has every right to share her story.

    And it is in that spirit that I thank you again for commenting. We don't purport to be the voice of all women in comedy, but it's my hope that we can include as many disparate voices as possible. And I hope you'll keep telling us when you think we're wrong!

    --Liz McKeon
    WICF Editor

  3. I don't think there is anything wrong with a comic not knowing who every other comedian in the world is (famous or not) -- in fact -- I think sometimes comics who are the most original are those who aren't following someone else's rules or using someone else's comedy as a guide.

    My two cents.

  4. Here's what I take from this: Always be cool to each other.
    Great read, Barbara, as usual. Thanks for sharing.

  5. First, I'd like to say Bravo to Barb for sharing an experience that was all too familiar for many of us in the comedy community. I don't find it passive aggressive in any sense, as this blog entry conveyed barbs emotion stoicly and with tact. She neither slandered the comic nor did she see it fit to wish any negativity on her whatsoever.

    Also, if you are a headliner in comedy and are not aware of fellow headliners/comics such as Mindy, UCB, or whoever, then clearly you aren't paying much attention to your surroundings...which fits the self-centered description of most comics like the one barbara has presented...I think it's important to respect and appreciate those who have paved the way for us, and if you don't know who they are, at least be open to learning, not scoffing.

    I want to scream from a mountain encouraging words for women, "but I don't have a mountain" I'll say this on a response forum...

    Comradery is essential among we end up spending most of our time in this environment, surrounded by people just like us...and if you're completely alone....where's the fun in that? Comedy is supposed to be fun right?

    I've met barbara before, and after doing a set in seattle, we developed a friendship, that has blossom into many other comedic frienships...she's a bridge builder...someone that is more interested in seeing others succeed than herself...she's selfless, with a knack for PR....Promoting the hell out of what she loves....whether it be other comedians, a book, an improv troupe, or just making a poster for someone's show....Barbara is not only "the guy", but also "the guy behind the guy" her opinion not only counts, but is something we can all learn from... If anything, the entry seems like somewhat of an olive branch to women in comedy everywhere.

    Thanks again barb, for creating something wonderful.


  6. Wow, okay, let me defend my comment. I know the comic that Barbara had an issue with. A LOT of people knew the comic Barbara was talking about. I feel that if you have a problem with someone, you should tell them..straight up. If Barbara had taken the time to talk to "Sally" before she published this, it might not have come off as so backhanded. I understand that women can be competitive and I don't deny that people have experienced these types of things, but to take one experience with one person and use it as a one-sided (every story has TWO, remember) to make a larger point, is kinda counter productive I feel. Also, please don't tell me that if I don't know who Mindy Kaling is, I don't know anything about comedy. Give. Me. A. Break. That is some elitist stuff right there. I like Barbara too, she's doing lots of good stuff in the comedy scene and again, I don't devalue her point, but she villianized a friend who she doesn't know, who she apparently took every single gesture from as a personal attack. Let's address these types of situations head on THEN write about them..

  7. Well...then why was your dear friend so rude? I feel like if you take out barbara's asides and just read the quotes, the headliner still seemed incredibly rude. Can you explain that elitist attitude? Because it seems to be quite prevalent.

  8. Again, this is one side. I don't want to go back and forth. I was just trying to make a point that we should support each other and one part of that is getting a full story and understanding of each other before deciding that a person is "passive-aggressive" or "backstabby."

  9. Skillz, I don't think that Holm was being "passive-aggressive" or "backstabby". As a comic who's been kicked in the dirt by other female comics, I feel like she was presenting a scenario that's happened to a lot of people.

    I do sketch and improv at school, so maybe stand-ups are different, and maybe I'm just a dirty liberal, but in my comedy I really need people to have my back. We even say "I've got your back" before improv shows, which is cheesy but makes me feel like I'm part of a group.

    I know stand-up is a singular art form, and I know it's competitive, but I still think that Barbara was saying she didn't want women cutting her down and that's all.

    First, you're saying that Barbara didn't know Sally well enough to judge her for being a bully.

    But to me, that's EXACTLY what Sally did wrong. She wasn't friends with Barbara, trading insults. She was someone Barbara didn't know cutting her down by objectifying her sexuality. Doesn't that strike you as bad? Not once have you said that Sally didn't say these things - rather you say Barbara complaining about these things is what's wrong.

    I know you're saying that Barbara took the insults too literally/personally. But if some stranger told you that you were a piece of meat and that you probably just wanted to fuck people you work with and that's the only reason you entered the business, you'd feel very insulted and hurt.

    I agree that all stories have two sides, and maybe Sally didn't say the things she said. But if she didn't, then your offense should be at Barbara lying, not that Barbara won't give Sally a green light to make other girls feel horrible about their bodies and careers just because she's your friend.

    Side note: Even if Sally doesn't know who Mindy Kaling (I do, and find her extremely annoying and unfunny, which is not the real point here) I think Barbara's bigger complaint was that even her comedy-related book and apparel were being used to insult her as a woman. Maybe I read wrong.

  10. I might also add that I don't know who Sally is and can't parse it from the story. But if her friends can tell who Sally is from the post because this type of cutting-down is her M.O., it really says something about that performer.

  11. Skillz: "If you have a problem, then you should tell them straight up."

    From barbara's story:

    [barb] “What is your problem with me?” I asked.

    [headliner] “I don’t have a problem with you,” she said, her voice rising to a higher pitch to imitate mine.

    .....I'd just like to point out that barbara was not passive fact...this one part is pretty confrontational and bold. The headliner can just get over herself as far as I'm concerned. And no...I still have no idea who she is. But I know that Roseanne wouldn't put up with her shit.