“Comedy is pure power. You’re up there by yourself. You’ve got that mic,” says Susie Essman. (Adam Sandler says the same thing in The Wedding Singer, less delicately.) When you tell a joke, you are in charge. You’re expressing your point of view, on your timing. As Joan Rivers put it: “You’re commanding them to listen to you.”
And on a good day/night, they’re not just listening. They’re laughing. Says Jamie Masada: “Making someone laugh is the greatest power any human being can have!“
That power is especially key for you. Things are changing (selectively, glacially), and there are a zillion exceptions, but girls are STILL expected to be and rewarded for being quiet, acquiescent, and polite, while boys are encouraged to be (and/or excused for being) loud, opinionated, even combative. As gender issue expert Soraya Chemaly puts it:
“We socialize girls to take turns, listen more carefully, not curse, and resist interrupting in ways we do not expect boys to. We generally teach girls subservient habits and boys to exercise dominance.”
Yep, dudes still tend to dominate conversation in workplaces and classrooms from grade school to law school. (Study upon study shows that girls and women get interrupted more than boys/men, even on television.)
Know what can help break those habits—for you and those around you? Humor. Whether your style is aggressive or subdued, humor means owning, expressing, valuing—and sticking to—your point of view.
That’s Emika in one of our workshops!
At very least, humor can help shut down interrupters. Hey, they’re just a heckler, and you’ve got the mic. (Or, as Naomi Ekperigin likes to say, “I have the talking stick, sir!”)
But it’s not only about fighting for screen time in the moment. Comedy gives you a powerful new way of speaking, taking up space, and making yourself heard.
“Comedy gives girls a new way for people to hear about their experiences,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of (among many other books) Queen Bees and Wannabes—which formed the basis for the movie Mean Girls—and founder of Cultures of Dignity. “Girls are out there for people’s scrutiny all the time, especially physically. With humor or comedy, they’re in a different kind of spotlight—one that they get to define. Comedy lets them say, ‘What I think is important.’ It gives them a new and different way to claim authority and power.”
Wiseman says girls are in the perfect place to claim the power of punching up. “Comedy can help girls process what it’s like to be a girl in this culture and give voice to it. I would love to see girls use biting humor to expose how messed up things like the hookup culture and school dress codes can be, and not even necessarily in the ways people assume,” she says. “Girls have such power to be the comics we really need: the courageous ones, the people who bear witness to the absurdities around them, and to the hypocrisy of the adults in their lives—parents, teachers, or politicians.”
Comedy (especially, but not only, standup) requires you to find and hone your authentic persona. Of course, comedians spend years developing and refining their personas. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Even for beginners, the jokes that work best are the jokes that only you could write. We can all write jokes about weird teachers or strange habits or that ridiculous night of margaritas and slapstick in a homemade hot tub in the Idaho wilderness with three cowboys named Shane, Cody, and Shane (OK, that was just me), but only YOU can have YOUR take on YOUR family, school, job, life, etc.
What’s extra powerful here is that the best comedy comes from who you already are, not who you want to be or wish you were or will be if you only try harder. When it comes to your persona, you might wind up exaggerating it a bit, but you’re not inventing it. So if you’re shy, or awkward, or think you’re too much this or too little that, well, BOOM. That thing you think is “wrong” with you or “weird” about you, or that you maybe wish you could fix, IS your persona. You don’t have to change it. In fact, please don’t. Better yet, you should double down.
Because what makes you different is what makes you funny, and what makes you funny is what makes you strong.
Here’s a great example from (an article about GOLD Comedy® #humblebrag in) New York magazine: “Thea, 13, feels like she doesn’t fit in at school. While the other kids obsess over ‘memes and anime’ and think ‘books have gone out of style,’ she’d rather read than do pretty much anything else. In her [standup] performance, Thea plays up her bookishness, using a high-pitched voice as she deadpans a joke about her classmates: ‘I don’t know all their names, but I do know their test scores.’ Comedy helped Thea turn her feelings of “being too uncool,” she says, “into something cool.”
What helped Sara Benincasa embrace her true self? Oh, comedy. “I tried to play-act at being a woman,” she says. “This false me was always pretty and always ready for anything, and fun, and carefree. The real me had a lot of things to say. The ‘me’ I created was not bold and outspoken. She was not very funny.” Becoming a comic, she says, forced her to be authentic, onstage and off. “I had to be myself or the audience wouldn’t accept it.”
That’s Uma from our workshops!
“You can’t be perfect and funny. Perfect isn’t funny,” says Lynn Johnson, founder of Spotlight Girls!
(So true. THAT is why I am EFFING SIDESPLITTING.) “Being willing to recognize the humor in your humanity and the mistakes that you make strengthens your resilience. It allows you to accomplish so much more.”
That’s especially powerful for girls, who “are under incredible pressure to be ‘perfect,’” says girls’ leadership coach Laurie Wolk. Cultivating a comic perspective, she says, “helps girls see that life doesn’t have to be so serious. They can make mistakes—and see that they survived to try again. It makes them practice being brave, which yes, takes practice. Comedy gives them a big exhale.”
See, comedy doesn’t just allow for mistakes. It requires mistakes. It encourages risk-taking. It forces you to try things out—in public!—without being 100% sure they’ll work. It helps you realize there’s only so much of a situation you can control, which is a highly annoying yet extremely healthy realization. It’s a really safe place to fail. No one ever died from not getting a laugh.
Cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, Ph.D. found that people exposed to comedy are better able to solve creative problems. He says: “Comedy is like mental exercise, and just as physical exercise strengthens the body, comedy pumps up the mind.” And that’s just from watching a lot of comedy (which we highly recommend).
Bonus: NEVER FORGET that laughter apparently improves memory.
Listen to any comic and hear how much information they convey in how few words. Listen to their use of specificity and detail. Listen to how they use words to show you what happened, not just tell you about it. Listen to how they order their words in a sentence. Narrative flow, word choice, vivid descriptions, punchy sounds: that’s not just abstract “funny”—that’s the rigor of writing. Writing, and a ton of rewriting.
That’s how comedy is the best thesaurus. It teaches you to find the exact right word. The right length, the right sound, the right meaning. Comedy teaches you to say exactly what you need to say: no more, no less. Comedy makes you an ace editor. As you write, and rewrite, you get better and faster at turning 50 words into 40 into 10 perfect gems. That’s why Kerri Louise teaches students to imagine that they’re writing their jokes as tweets: “Keep taking out words until the joke fits into that little box!”
Says Colin Lingle, Ph.D., experienced improviser and expert in political communication and civic engagement: “Building your disparate ideas into a coherent story, especially a funny one, is not the work of slackers and half-wits. Telling jokes to a live audience tunes your senses to how people react and respond as groups. This invaluable information can shape your entire life. It’s like training for the Olympics of Standing Up in Front of People. Once you learn it, any other venue seems like mini-golf, at worst.”
So many people say, “Oh, I would do comedy, but I’m too shy.” You’re shy? PERFECT. Because fun fact: COMEDIANS ARE SHY. Why do you think they like to talk on stage, or wear giant funny mustaches? So they don’t have to talk TO PEOPLE. Seriously. Carol Burnett, who describes herself as shy, has said she can perform only when she’s in character. Joan Rivers–yes, Joan Rivers—has described feeling uncomfortable chatting in real life, one on one.
Also, your comedy can be ABOUT how shy you are. (See “Comedy helps you tell YOUR story.”) Just think how many people in your audience will relate to it. And not come up and tell you that afterwards! HA!
So don’t do comedy to “fix” your shyness—but know that it can’t hurt. “Comedy is contact sport for your ego,” says Says Colin Lingle, Ph.D., experienced improviser and expert in political communication and civic engagement. “Confront a room full of skeptical sourpusses, and you will find that it’s subsequently much easier to join in any conversation. After all, you’ve been in an actual spotlight, so metaphorical one is a walk in the park.”
OH HOW WE 🧡 Aparna Nancherla
Says Aparna Nancherla: “Humor opens a lot of conversations that would be difficult or sensitive to have otherwise.” This doesn’t mean that comedy is or should be used to trivialize the significant. It means that comedy—a shared laugh, a bit of levity—can ease the way into topics that might otherwise put people on the defensive, or cause them to disengage entirely.
Here’s how Iliza Shlesinger puts it: “You can shroud an ‘agenda’ in comedy, and it’s more digestible. Of course the laughs come first, but the message is, once I’ve gotten you laughing, I want to get you thinking.”
Laughter relieves stress, this we know. But comedy is also power—over pain.
“My race and gender have been the source of a lot of pain in my life so I use humor to reassert power over the things I feel least funny about,” says San Francisco standup Allison Mick.
How does that work? “Comedy is almost a form of cognitive therapy,” says Leslie Sokol, Ph.D., author of Think Confident, Be Confident and Think Confident, Be Confident For Teens. (Sokol is also a cognitive therapist and founding fellow/past president of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, so that is not just a random metaphor.) When you write a joke about—or at least search for the humor in—something painful, she explains, you force yourself to examine it, hold it at a distance, separate yourself from it, stop it from taking you over. Over time, she says, “it pulls you toward a less negative, more healthy perspective. Comedy helps you cope.”
It worked for Annika Kastetter, a sketch comedy writer and performer at Colorado College.
“When I first became involved with comedy my freshman year, it was one of the worst times of my life,” she says. “It was a saving grace that I was able to find this thing that had such a positive and uplifting effect on me and the way that I viewed the way things were going around me.”
For Kate Lindstedt, comedy actually helps her manage depression and anxiety. She writes: “When I tell people I do comedy, their first instinct is to praise my courage. The more I elaborate about my act, the more their astonishment grows. Isn’t it scary, talking about depression and anxiety in front of so many unfamiliar faces? But the truth is, talking about my mental illness in a room full of strangers is much easier than talking about it with people I actually know.” Lindstedt is not messing around; she literally makes jokes—rueful, dark jokes, but jokes—about cutting herself. It works, in all sorts of ways. “When I make it funny and the audience laughs, they’re laughing both with me and at me. I am also laughing at me—at the me who didn’t know any better,” she says. “Laughing and talking about it as though it’s firmly in the past helps me to actually leave it there.”