If someone were to ask you “Who’s your favorite comedian?,” who would come to mind? Would it be Richard Pryor? Jerry Seinfeld? Maybe it’s Dave Chappelle and it’s his famous catchphrase “I’m Rick James, […]!” that comes to mind. Perhaps while scanning your brain for your favorite comic, you can only recall the popular scenes from male stand-up routines seen on television.
Last month, the ethnic studies department at Mills College helped to remind the Bay Area of the need for more representation of women and gender non-conforming people in mainstream comedy.
The department hosted events throughout the month of November to celebrate the enriched culture of Native Americans. The department hosted events such as a basket weaving workshop, an Indigenous Arts Festival, as well as the Native Womxn’s Comedy show.
On the evening of Nov. 16, family, friends and strangers found their seats in the Mills Rothwell Theater. Laughs and chatter amplified in the dimly lit auditorium, as many waited for the Native Womxn’s comedy show to begin.
Laughter continued to fill the air as comic and Mills student Kelli Rutherford took the stage. Starting the show with a disclaimer, Rutherford warned “It’s going to be really hard not to laugh at my own jokes.” She continued with the warning, saying, “For those of you who know me, I get these laughing attacks” as a laughing episode was brought on. Out of concern, the crowd broke into laughter.
“I actually don’t consider myself a comedian,” Rutherford said after her successful performance. “That was my first time doing stand-up! I think that Mills was a great place to start. It was a Native comedy inspired show, which I think I (sic) made me feel more comfortable.”
Following Rutherford, Mel Miguel entered the center stage to sit comfortably on a stool. A baby picture is then projected behind them. Pictured is the young comedian dressed in a Catholic tunic and headdress. Miguel sarcastically informs the non-comedy writers in the audience that being transgender is not a joke. The crowd laughs in agreement.
“Being trans, Native and a joke maker is an interesting experience. I know that there are not nearly enough Indigenous comedians, specifically queer or gender minority,” Miguel said. “Comedy is something deeply important to me that helps me cope with the world around me, especially as a Native trans person.”
Comedian and producer, Meredith Kachel, used data to explain the imbalance of representation in stand-up comedy. The data collected shows that gender non-conforming comics make up 1% of Chicago’s underground comic scene. With the exception of the successful trans writer and comic Ian Harvie, non-conforming comics have yet to reach mainstream popularity.
Last to hit the stage for Native Womxn’s Comedy night was Bay Area comic Jackie Keliiaa. The crowd welcomed Keliiaa with an ovation as she danced to center stage. She went on to proudly joke about her singleness and her former engagement to an English man, who once used the pick-up line “I find your company more than adequate,” as she guiltily admits giving in to.
Keliiaa has been doing stand-up comedy since 2011. After her performance in the Native Womxn’s Comedy show, she said “There are just not a ton of Native comics out there, and women at that.” When speaking on identity, Keliiaa describes her love of seeing other Native American women and gender non-conforming people take the stage for comedy. “It’s like we’re all in on some inside joke,” said Keliiaa.
According to HuffPost, women make up 13% of comedians in mainstream American stand-up.
“Comedy is power,” the organization on the Gold Comedy website said. “That power is especially key for girls and women. … Things are changing (if selectively, and glacially), and there are a zillion exceptions, but girls and women are STILL socialized to be (expected to be and rewarded for being) quiet, acquiescent, and polite, while boys and men are encouraged to be (and/or excused for being) loud, opinionated, even combative.”
All three comedians who performed at the Native Womxn’s Comedy expressed gratitude toward one another’s efforts in changing the comic scene.
“Getting to work with Jackie and Kelli was great in reminding me that Native comedians (once again female or otherwise) are out there and as funny as hell,” Miguel exclaimed.
“Our headliner, Jackie Keliiaa is doing amazing work in Oakland for female comedians. I’m really excited about what she is doing and the future for female comedians, especially in the Bay Area.” Rutherford said.
“They’re such naturals! And seeing them perform for the very first time in a large auditorium with quite a few people. I was just so impressed,” Keliiaa said.
In hopes of breaking through the male-dominated realm of comedy, these three comedians are the change people need. Keliiaa performs in the Bay Area four times a week while producing her all-women comedy show “Amazonians” every month at Crooked City Cider at Jack London Square in Oakland.