Brace Fellow Alex Westfall Recognizes Progress and History of Pioneer Female Comedians

“Let’s take a test,” said Alex Westfall ’15 to her audience in Kemper Auditorium on Monday. “How many of these seven famous quotes from comedy movies do you recognize?”

Of the seven quotes, four were from modern male comedians, and the rest from their female counterparts. The general consensus of the room: only a handful of audience members could confidently say that they recalled the three female quotes.

With this exercise, Westfall asserted that female comedians do not have the same presence as males in the same profession. Yet despite this disadvantage, women have made extraordinary bounds in comedy. Seeking to examine the identity of female comedians in the eyes of the American public in the past and what steps these women took to procure the image they have today, Westfall shared her research during her Brace Fellow Presentation “‘Fire the Girls!’: The Female Pioneers of Modern American Comedy.”

Westfall focused her presentation on Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore: two female comedians who earned their fame through situational comedy television and two who became successful through live stand-up comedy performances.

Each comedian contributed in her own way to change the public perception of female comedians, said Westfall. Ball subjected herself to self-deprecating humor on the classic 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy.”

“[Ball] was willing to take the pie, to act as the fool, yet she stayed completely feminine like the stereotypes she was held to. She was not threatening to women, because she was not sexy, but had just the right amount of attractiveness,” said Westfall.

“Lucy’s hilarious mishaps were what all real housewives of America wanted to do, they wanted to get out of the kitchen and the laundry room. She struck this nerve of frustration among American women which made her a television heroine,” she added.

In contrast to Ball, Moore became the first professional, single, independent woman who supported herself in the comedy industry.

“In a very quiet way, [Moore] made a statement about the women’s movement and the fact that women are more than housewives and mothers and nurses and they can do anything a man can do,” said Westfall.

Rivers made her impact on the comedic profession in a completely different way, as she stormed the comedic scene with her profanity and excessive cursing, actions that were unexpected of women during her time in the 1980s.

“[Rivers] absolutely caught the attention of her audiences by being incredibly quick and witty. She would make jokes about woman’s areas in her spiels, things like: giving birth, jewelry, husbands, etc…. It was really all around talked taboo subjects,” said Westfall.

“This was groundbreaking—in the beginning, it was not normal for a woman to be talking about these kinds of things. Joan was sort of a contradiction within herself, wearing beautiful long gowns and expensive jewelry while maintaining an entire routine full of cusses and toilet humor,” she continued.

Diller became excessively famous for becoming first female stand-up comedian to become successful without exclusively cursing or being profane, according to Westfall.

“She was sexually repellent. Diller would engage in a more literal method of self-deprecation compared to Lucille Ball—literally making fun of herself, wear baggy, unflattering dresses on stage and would joke about her lack of sex appeal,” said Westfall.

“Diller saw hostility mainly from males, because it seemed like she may have been smarter or wittier than them. She said that ‘women laugh quicker than men. It takes lot more to make men laugh. When the men realized I was a normal human being, they became fans,’” Westfall continued.

Westfall’s upbringing inspired her to research this topic. Raised by an ex-filmmaker and a television producer, she grew up in Manila, Philippines, where she was constantly exposed to Filipino media, most notably the over-the-top Filipino comedy shows.

“I came to see that all of them literally starred men, whether they are as themselves or in drag as females. And that women usually starred in drama oriented shows. In addition, I can probably name four Filipino stand-up comedians off the top of my head, all of which are male,” said Westfall.

Additionally, Westfall attributes her yearly visits to the Nantucket Film Festival and the comedy roundtable to her interest in the growth of female comedians. Since 2010, only one female comedian, Sarah Silverman, has appeared at the roundtable, as opposed to 15 men, according to Westfall.