Between the lines
Female comics of color face a constant challenge onstage: how to fit in and still stand out
It's a Thursday night at Jimbo's restaurant in Braintree. In a back room, Esther Ku has taken the stage as the second performer in the monthly ''Annette's Comedy Asylum." And she's not exactly killing them.
''Oh my God, the audience was so unwilling," Ku, 26, would complain the following afternoon. ''They were so quiet, weren't they?"
The Korean-American comedian started with the words, ''I don't really like being Asian, but I'm kind of stuck with it." That, at least, received a few titters. But when she continues, ''The only good thing about being Asian, really, is it helps you get into college," the crowd stays silent. It goes downhill from there as she mines the subject of Caucasians adopting Asian babies.
''Nigerian babies cost like 25 cents a day," says Ku. ''Asian babies cost a lot more because they pay off."
As the crowd erupts in pained groans and a smattering of uncomfortable laughs, Ku innocently asks, ''Did I go too far?"
Capturing the action as all of this goes down is veteran filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Ku is one of seven female comedians of color Mighty is profiling for his documentary ''KolorGirlz," which he started last summer and expects to complete by the end of this year.
Some of the others: Dorchester comedian Deb Ferrar-Parkman, who weaves jokes about her daughter's Barbie collection. Another local comedian, Tissa Hami of Weston, wrings laughs out of her predicament of being Muslim in a post-9/11 world. New York-based Karith Foster mines the subject of not being stereotypically black. Maine's Sheila Jackson talks about femininity and her personal predicament of looking like a man when she wears a dress.
Mighty chose his comedians -- rounded out by Houston's Roxanne Collins and an as-yet-unfound Latina -- based on their skills at making insightful comic observations. His documentary will include not only performance footage but in-depth interviews with friends and relatives of the comics to discover what pushes them to explore particular themes onstage.
These comics aren't necessarily eager to address issues of race, ethnicity, or gender. ''I personally don't think it matters if you're female or male," says Ku. ''What matters is if you're funny."
Nevertheless, gender and other issues come into play often in the predominantly white, male world of comedy. As Foster, 31, explains, ''It's much easier to pigeonhole people, and everybody does it."
Because of their race or ethnicity, some women comics feel pressure to work in a specific comic style. Because of their gender, they may choose to dress a certain way and tell certain types of jokes. With so few women comedians of color working in the mainstream, stereotypes hang oppressively over them.
''If you were to ask someone [to name] comedians of color," says Mighty, ''they'd say Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Cho, and they'd start sputtering after that."
Foster believes she's one of three African-American women playing mainstream comedy clubs in New York. But Farrar-Parkman, who only cops to being ''over 40," thinks the numbers are growing, at least locally.
''There are more women of color and very funny women," says Farrar-Parkman, whose involvement in the annual Women of Color Comedy Show, now called Color Struck, dates back to its beginnings at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square in 2000; the show now takes place at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway theater. She also often hosts female comedy nights.
''How long that will last," says Farrar-Parkman, who began her journey in comedy in 1998, ''is something to be seen."
Foster became a comic eight years ago after being disillusioned with planned careers in journalism and theater. ''I didn't want to be someone else," she says of her aborted acting career. With comedy, she felt she could tell the truth.
Now Foster finds herself making cultural observations in an industry where, she says, the ''stereotype [is] that women are not funny." Sure, there are plenty of women comics out there, but how many reach the level of a Jim Carrey or Dave Chappelle?
Some feel forced to incorporate scatological humor into their skits because it sells. Farrar-Parkman once found herself in a similar quandary while playing a set in Worcester. She describes her typical audience in that city as ''very blue collar" and says that ''people were drunk half the time." They'd get some of her jokes but not others. One night Farrar-Parkman found herself throwing in two swear words in a desperate attempt to reach them.
''Driving back home," says Farrar-Parkman, ''my husband said to me, 'So, you kind of used the F-word a few times.' I did, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that."
Other women conform in different ways. Foster knows one female comic who refuses to wear dresses or makeup onstage because she doesn't want to call further attention to her femininity. It sounds farfetched, but the different treatment some women receive became obvious at Jimbo's the night Ku performed. The show's host Bob Niles introduced Ku, who wore a jeans and hoodie combo, by saying, ''This girl's got an awful lot going for her. Number one, she's very smart. Number two, she's beautiful." And, no, Niles didn't comment on the looks (or intelligence) of the young male comedian who preceded Ku to the stage.
''A lot of times," says Ku, who's worked the comedy circuit for three years, ''people treat us differently because we're not a white male in the old boys' network of stand-up comedy in Boston. I just try to do my own thing, get the respect of people whether female, male, Asian, white, or black."
Like many other women in comedy, she must also endure the added burden of fighting off sexual advances. Ku often chats up male comics at clubs to network and get more gigs. She finds she has to quickly disabuse the guys of the notion that she's trolling for dates.
''They think I'm hitting on them," says Ku. ''I'm misunderstood until they see my comedy. That's the thing I struggle with. It's not a huge struggle; I just put them back in their places."
Further complicating the plight of these comics are the expectations brought on when people see their race or ethnicity. The perception, says Foster, is ''if you're black and you're a woman, you should be rolling your neck, snapping your finger, and talking about baby daddies. And, no, I don't; that's not my world."
She finds black audiences the hardest ones to play to.
''I am attractive," says Foster. ''That's another thing that might be threatening to black audiences." Previously, black female comics who found success, such as Thea Vidale or Moms Mabley, ''were sort of like Aunt Jemima; they're not threatening at all," says Foster. ''It makes it easier to laugh."
Once these comics have soothed their audiences into accepting their exteriors, they must deal with the effects of their jokes, which sometimes explore race and ethnicity. Part of that includes deciding when a joke crosses the line into racism.
Farrar-Parkman encountered this problem with a routine she does about taking a test to prove she's black. Unfortunately, the joke goes, she doesn't test well. After she fails ''Black Rage 101," she makes up for it in the Amistad portion of the test. ''I knew the meaning of the word," Farrar-Parkman says, then puts the word into a sentence: '' 'Amistad' coming to work on time from now on."
An alarmed bartender, who didn't approve of a joke that weaved Ebonics and stereotypes about black laziness into a discussion about the Africans who freed themselves from a Spanish slave ship, came up to Farrar-Parkman after her show to ask about the underlying message of the joke.
''I struggled with it," she says. ''What is the message? Is it buffoonery? Stepin Fetchitery?"
For a year, Farrar-Parkman retired the joke. Then a fellow comedian mentioned that it was a favorite from Farrar-Parkman's repertoire. Now she revives it when she has an audience that she thinks can appreciate the joke.
Ku also once found herself in an uncomfortable situation at a Chicago comedy club. She told the joke about Asian and Nigerian babies.
The underlying message of the joke is a cultural commentary about white people who adopt Asian babies, says Ku. ''How unfair it is that people purchase Asian babies like it's an investment. I don't mean to degrade Nigerian babies."
At the Chicago venue, two African-American women didn't see it that way. When they heard the joke, they demanded the producer stop the show. The women didn't get an opportunity to confront Ku later; by then, she'd already left the venue. The comic made amends by explaining the joke to them via e-mail.
''That was," says Ku, ''maybe the strongest reaction that I ever had doing a comedy show."