This week, Haddish is going to practise what she preaches, handing the mic over to six comedians she thinks deserve our time. The stars subvert the male, pale and stale status quo: they are mainly women of colour, and also represent queer, trans and working-class identities. The show undoubtedly breaks new ground in representation in comedy.
Haddish, who turned her hand to the art of laughter when she went into foster care aged 12, has described her candid style of comedy as a “safe space” to discuss adversity. She lived in her car while trying to land work in her 20s, then shot to fame after giving it her all in Girls Trip. Now, They Ready on Netflix will pass the baton to other comedians who have been sidelined by history.
The show also fits into a rapidly changing comedy climate, which is more diverse than it ever has been. In 2011, Shappi Khorsandi joked that she was probably the “only female Iranian comedian” – but since then, dozens more women of colour have sprung on to the scene and become household names. HBO’s Insecure blew the stage wide open for black women comics in 2016, while women of colour-fronted podcasts such as 2 Dope Queens have become mainstays of the morning commute, and standups such as Ali Wong have seen their shows go stratospheric on Netflix. But what is responsible for the boom? Historically, comedy has always been a boys’ club in which women of colour have faced lazy stereotyping and struggled to demonstrate demand for their work to white bookers. So what has sparked the change?
Not all shucking and jiving
On the come-up, the biggest issue for Tracey Ashley, one of They Ready’s comedians, was stereotyping. When she was first scouted by Louis Lee of Acme comedy club, she says Lee told her: “You’re star quality, but it’s going to be hard. You don’t fit the stereotype of what a black female comedian should be.” He was right. “Everywhere I went, people thought I was gonna get on stage, shuck and jive, and be loud,” says Ashley.
Meanwhile, both Chaunté Wayans and Flame Monroe, who will also take to Haddish’s stage on Netflix, say that being LGBT+ presented additional challenges on the comedy scene. As a self-described lesbian stud, Wayans says people often tried to make her into something she wasn’t. “People would ask me to show my breasts more, to look the way I felt the most uncomfortable. I was like: ‘I’m funny! You haven’t even seen my set yet!’”
Monroe adds that being black and trans, it was common to be outright ignored. “I worked in comedy for 10 years before men – some women as well – would even acknowledge me in the green room,” she says.
The presence of black women specifically was also highly controlled by the bookers. Ashley says: “You could go to a club and look at their calendar for the year, you wouldn’t see two women of colour … they kept us separate.”
In the UK, the British and African-Indian standup Athena Kugblenu has run into the same problems. “I still never see the other black women on the circuit, because people won’t book more than one black woman a night.”
“The biggest challenge is still getting people to see us as individuals, not a genre. ‘Black female’ is not a genre of comedy.”
That’s not to say comedians themselves don’t fall into the trap of feeling that race is their only selling point. The Afro-Latinx comedian Aida Rodriguez, who also stars in They Ready, thinks this mindset used to influence lots of performers of colour. “When I started doing standup there was a lot more divide and conquer,” she says. “This idea that there can only be one person of colour at the top – even though the Seinfelds, the Louis CKs, the Jim Gaffigans and the Jay Lenos didn’t have to operate like that.”
Ashley echoes this: “When I was coming up on the road by myself, they would pit women against each other. I would tell other women: ‘Y’all realise if we come together, we can do some groundbreaking things?’”
Throwing the rope back
Over time, a strong culture of solidarity has built up, which has played a big part in the industry shakeup. The premise of They Ready is Haddish using her platform to spotlight other marginalised comedians – but this tradition has a history.
Rodriguez met Haddish five years ago at a standup competition: “She came up to me and said: ‘I’ve heard about you, now I see why. You’re so pretty, and I want to be your friend.’ It was just like being on the playground when you’re five. It was that pure, and that sweet.”
From giving her tips (such as stop offering your labour for free) to FaceTiming her on dark Chicago walks home to make sure she stayed safe, Haddish helped Rodriguez out however she could. “She would call me in the mornings when I was taking my babies to school and give me a word of encouragement, because she knew I would be tired.”
The two made a pact “that whoever made it first would throw the rope back – and she made it first.”
Ashley agrees that getting gigs is still mainly about who you know, which makes it all the more important for women of colour to help each other up when they find success. “Friends get people in – recommendations and stamps of approval,” she says.
She remembers what Viola Davis said when she won her Emmy in 2015: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.”
The beauty of the internet as a woman of colour
Like most creative industries, much of the change in the comedy landscape undoubtedly has to do with the internet. Pointing to social media comics such as Judy Love, Kugblenu says: “Once you prove you’ve got that online audience, that’s when the mainstream starts to pay attention. At that point you’re undeniable – people can’t make excuses about what you do being ‘niche’.”
The internet allowed women to create comedy in spaces they could control. Kugblenu says that when she was starting out, most open-mics would take place in pubs and bars, which felt alienating. “They’re very white, male spaces.”
Like Judy Love, Chescaleigh Ramsey found an audience on YouTube, publishing homemade listicle-style skit videos. In a similar vein, podcasts such as 2 Dope Queens and the spinoff Sooo Many White Guys landed their stars an HBO special.
For many, Insecure, Issa Rae’s hit web series-turned-TV show, was a turning point for television. Ashley says: “When that show came out, I was so excited. Issa Rae found her lane online.”
Regardless of budget, as views, clicks and downloads racked up for women of colour online, it became obvious there was a huge appetite for it. Ashley jokes: “I finally get here, and now they’re just laying it all out. There are women of colour all over television – who just popped out.”
Bye bye boys’ club
For women of colour, it seems the scene has changed unrecognisably. As well as networking more widely – with people of colour collectives such as FOC It Up coming together – more women of colour getting recognised means more diversity in how they are portrayed in comedy. “In the past it was all stereotypes,” says Rodriguez. “But now people are speaking about politics, social issues. It’s not just comedians going on stage and giving people what they’re accustomed to seeing.”
And the more representation there is, the easier it is for others starting out. Monroe points to the prominence of other black trans people like her in the media: “With women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, it has helped. Hopefully I’ve kicked the doors open for transgender comedians coming behind me, so now they don’t have to show up and make excuses for who they are; all they have to do is show up and be funny.”
The natural next step, it seems, is for those in positions of power to give a platform to others who struggle to get on the scene – whether that’s due to racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia. Ashley agrees: “I’m hoping that what Tiffany did will open the eyes of a lot of people, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. This is the only way to move us all forward.”
Nonetheless, she already believes things have changed for good. “For a long time, we all wanted to be in the boys’ club,” she says. “That was the only place there was. But now, that’s been obliterated. That is gone now.”
• They Ready is on Netflix now