John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Women Comics Can't Stretch

by John Cantu ©

In early 1979 in response to repeated cries of female audience members "Why aren't there more women comics?" I tried an experiment with a weekly "Women Comics Comedy Night" every Wednesday. This was introduced with great fanfare and yet lasted less than three months.

When the idea was announced: comedy featuring only women, doing whatever material they wanted to do for as much time as they wanted, the moaning and groaning from the male comics began.

Ah, the negative feedback from male comics was incessant, ongoing, and vitriolic. (Didn't bother me though, I never listened to male comics because I had discovered that by and large most male comics are dickheads.)

But the experiment soon fizzled. I had to switched back to general shows within three months. And, oh I was sad when that happened. Because the women comics has brought it upon themselves with their inability to easily and readily "stretch" for time.

At the time there was a pool of about eight regularly performing female comics and maybe six would show up per show. So we'd be out of women comedians by 10:00 or 10:30pm.

Because there were so few women comics, there was mumbling and grumbling about a conspiracy to keep women out of comedy. But we had had an open mike for years for ANYONE who wanted to perform.

Every comedian had a guaranteed five-minute time slot REGARDLESS of experience or quality of material. (Open mikers would be bad - of course, they are learning the business.) So that was a bogus charge. For some reason back then, women were self-selecting themselves out of comedy.

This "Women's Night" was meant to change that - (idealistic fool that I was back then about equality). In three months, I didn't draw in one new, never been on stage before aspiring female comic. But oh, the concept drew in dykes by the motorcycle mile. It seems dykes on bikes like to laugh. Never saw so many motorcycles parked outside a comedy club before or since that time - and dykes drink. Small audience, big till - - -

And also in that brief performance time-frame, it was the only time I ever saw a woman comic get heckled by another woman with the line, "Hey baby, show us your tits!"

But what really killed the show was the women comics' inability to "stretch." In comedy club lingo, "stretch" is command given from off stage to a performer meaning that for whatever reason we are not ready with the next act so fill the time with more material, or if you run out of material go for banter. But whatever - keep talking or bullshiting.

I sometimes had male comics who had to stretch for an hour in the early days when comedy was just getting started. But a male comic would do it. Or he would do at least an extra 15 or 20 minutes.

Because we had so few women, I wanted everyone to stretch to fill the time with women performers. Because when I ran out of women comics I had to fill the remaining time with men.

So when I said, "stretch" I meant, each one should do at least twenty to thirty minutes extra so the show would go to at least 11:00pm with all women. Then it would be OK to go into after-hours with the males closing out the show.

But the women would NOT STRETCH. A comedienne might do an extra five minutes maybe, maybe even eight or ten minutes over their regular five to ten set. So we'd be out of women comics within 60+ minutes and I'd have to start putting male comics up. Which didn't make it feel like a woman's show.

And because no new females comics came forward, the rotation stayed on those primary eight performers. And after a couple months the audience started to fall off. "Women Comics Comedy Night" was dropped.

Ironically, in 1989 I was running another comedy club The Rose & Thistle. I tried the same thing. But I had learned my lesson. I only booked "Women Comics Comedy Night" once a month. (Margaret Cho was performing at my club weekly, but as a member of the improv troupe Crash and Burn.)

And I got the same results. By now the pool was up to 13 women comics and still on 6-7 showing up. Only doing a few extra minutes when I said, "stretch" and so again had to send in male comics after 10:00 or 10:30 pm.

This seemingly inability or distaste by woman comics for "stretching" puzzled and bothered me for years. I would often mull it over wondering why there was this noticeable discrepancy between male and female comics.

Finally the puzzle was solved for me by the following letter published in an issue of Fast Times. (I have permission of Valerie E. Young, the letter's author, to quote from it.)

(December 2000) Here's something else that keeps women from getting where they want to go: Most women -- including me -- cannot master the art of bullshitting.

When I give talks on the so-called Impostor Syndrome, I often use the following quotation to illustrate my point. Ted Koppel, host of ABC's Nightline, was asked how much he needed to know before going into an interview, and he answered the question this way: "When I can, I'd rather go into a program knowing as much as possible about the subject, but I don't consider it a handicap [when] I know next to nothing. . . .

"I can pick up enough information in a short period of time to be able to bullshit my way with the best of them."

Even when it occurs to a woman to bullshit her way through something, she's likely to see her need to bullshit as "proof' of her ineptness. ("If I were really smart, I wouldn't have to bullshit.")

Many men, however, see bullshitting as a real skill. Or, as someone I know recently put it, "Not only is it a skill, but when you're really good at it, you're considered 'an artist'!"

"Competence" doesn't mean being perfect, knowing everything, doing everything yourself, or otherwise being an expert. "Competence" means knowing how to use resources to get the job done. Whenever I make that point during one of my workshops, every women in the audience grabs her pen!

Valerie E. Young Professional speaker Northampton, Massachusetts vyoung(at)

NEXT: Cooperation, Sex, and Cantu (Part 1)