This year’s New York Comedy Festival was kicked off with riotous laughter by the New York Women in Film and Television Panel “Comedy Makers: Tales from the Dark Side.” Moderated by comedian Lizz Winstead, the panel included writer Susan Fales-Hill, producer Barbara Gaines, writer and actress Jill Kopelman Kargman, director and executive producer Stephanie Laing, and writer and executive producer Elisa Zuritsky.
These hilarious women shared the ups and downs in their careers, including some horror stories from the male-dominated writers’ rooms. Highlights from this witty panel are below:
The importance of creating roles for women.
“I grew up around a lot of fantastic actresses of color,” said Fales-Hill. “This was before the days of Shonda Rhimes. Black actresses had been in for about a year and I grew up around all of these extraordinary women who could not get work…all these groundbreakers who were perpetually unemployed. And I wanted to give them jobs, basically.” There was applause. “Plus my mother always told me that I could become anything I want in the world, but if I became an actress or a nun she’d kill herself. Writing really was appealing to create roles for people who otherwise would not have them.”
Not that being in charge of the writing solves all their problems. “Not too long ago [writing partner Julie Rottenberg and I] were in a development situation with creative partners who were all men and it was really shocking how every single conference call either started with, directly to us or we were referred to as, ‘the ladies’ or ‘ladies!’ ‘Hi, ladies’ ‘The ladies feel…,'” Zuritsky said.
“That in and of itself wouldn’t have been an issue, but more and more, as we got into the development process, we realized ‘we’re barely speaking on these calls,'” she continued. “The more they called us ‘the ladies’ the quieter we were and the harder we had to fight to get our voices in. It was really interesting, we started hating them so we started saying ‘Hi, gentlemen.’ We were just like ‘What is going on?’ This was not long ago, and this was more than a decade into our careers together.”
“Men are really bad minorities.”
“In my first job on ‘The Cosby Show,’ I was the only woman in the room and I wasn’t a writer yet, I was an apprentice,” said Fales-Hill. “They were pretty sexist and they would talk about professional women as being hard bitches or whatever. And what I learned was: Does it really matter that they’re saying that? No. Lose the battle, and win the war. Over time, they all became my friends and they all became my mentors and they all became my champions. Because I didn’t sit there fighting over ‘that was a really sexist comment you just made,’ who cares, shut up, we’re trying to get the work done. And then at ‘A Different World’ it was a very female environment. Actually the men would turn really wimpy and they would say, ‘…No one’s talking sports, and I really feel discriminated against.’ Men are really bad minorities is all I can say.”
As Kargman described her experience, “When I first started writing for TV, I was at MTV for two years and it was an all male writers’ room…I felt like I was good at playing the role of being just one of the guys and I have a foul fucking mouth and I can curse with the guys and make them feel disarmed and not walking on eggshells around me in terms of sexism, and I actually really thrived at MTV.”
“So I was feeling pretty secure that ‘I work better in a men’s world,'” she continued, “even though I’m a girl’s girl. And then I got pregnant, and I show up 15 months pregnant. I had cystic acne; Helen Keller could read my face. My boss looked at me and was like ‘You’re pregnant?’ And suddenly MTV was all about youth culture, and I was extremely uncool, even though I was 7 years younger than everyone else in the room. And they never called me back again.”
“It’s interesting to hear all these different perspectives because I was not interested in placating any boys club,” Winstead added. “I find in the rooms when you end up moving up the ladder and you are running a room that has men in it, whether you’re producing or writing, I found that there is a bit of, when people accept you as the leader, they want to place some sort of ‘mommy’ figure on you. And I’m not there to take care of them; I’m there to take care of their content. That is my role, to make your content look better, not to pat you on the back for being awesome. You were hired so just continue to be awesome — unless you want to be fired.”
Having an agent doesn’t solve your problems.
Fales-Hill had a different experience: “After I finished doing ‘A Different World,’ I was with a big agency and my agent, who I thought was my buddy for nine years, said to me ‘I can’t get you a job running a white show because you’re not white and you couldn’t run a white show,'” she said. “As minorities we grew up observing the majority. And in my case I had a white daddy so I was observing them in my own home. I know more about white people than Margaret Meade knows about Samoans. It was so crazy, but then I realized… it was that I was easy to sell to UPN, the Under Paid N—– Network. I was getting other jobs on other shows, so it was like, ‘why are we going to struggle to get Susan into this room or that room when we can just stick her over here?’ At that point, I stopped being a faithful client to this agent and I called some of the other agents who had been snipping around me. I said to them, ‘Would you have a problem getting me on a show that isn’t about brown people?’ and they said ‘no.'”
The invitation that never comes.
“I grew up being so inspired, almost to an obsessive degree, by Carol Burnett, Tracy Ullman, studying television really intensely,” Zuritsky shared. “For me a big hurtle was in taking myself seriously as a writer at all. I didn’t think television writing was something that a girl from Philadelphia could do ever. I wanted to just break into writing, which for me was journalism and publishing. I sold an op-ed to the Daily News in New York, a completely blind submission. And that was a huge moment for me to just believe that someone could buy an article that I wrote. For me, that was a big turning point…I think as a woman you do expect some kind of written invitation to come. It takes a lot to realize ‘Oh, I just have to actually believe that I can do this and other people will believe it too.'”
“Yeah, that invitation never comes.” Winstead agreed. “In fact, if you are a woman or especially a woman of color, you have to take the power. You have to take it and just create and make it. People would say ‘you should try to stand up,’ and back in the 80s I would look at the landscape and I would see Joan Rivers in the early 80s and I would see Phyllis Diller, and I didn’t see myself, I didn’t see my story so I didn’t know that I could do it. The power of seeing yourself, to inspire you to do it, is tremendous.”
Letterman, championing women.
Scared of feminine power.
“There actually are a lot of women in powerful positions in Hollywood, but they’re very scared of their male counterparts,” Zuritsky shared. “Julie and I wrote a movie and we couldn’t sell the script, but it’s about a world in which men get pregnant and women don’t. It’s an alternate universe, and we heard that the women executives loved it, but as soon as they described it to their male colleagues, ‘lalalalala,’ like they couldn’t hear it.”
“I think [sex] is just the gateway to demanding power,” Winstead added. “Once you decide that you understand your body and you enjoy it and you demand the people in your life who are going to be enjoying your body to enjoy it… And as Elizabeth Warren has said, ‘If you do not have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.’ That’s a very true statement.
Just keep creating.
“The advice I would give — I’ve thought about this a lot recently — I think failure is really underrated in this society,” Zuritsky shared. “And I think that we’re not talking enough and teaching our kids enough about the importance of failing. And if you are going to be in a creative field, like writing, you have to buckle up and get that thick skin. Even if you are ‘successful,’ you are just going to fail a lot within that success, if you’re lucky enough to be successful… And I feel like I have lost a lot. I’ve had successes and failures, and it’s taken a long time to realize that it’s baked into our lives. That’s what I would tell anyone.”
The New York Comedy Festival continues November 10-15.