Women in comedy: a topic that at this point has been deemed so vapid, so buzzy, so cliché, I’m surprised Hillary Clinton hasn’t co-opted it as a presidential campaign issue. It’s a double-edged sword that the mere mention of the phrase elicits major eye rolls. On one hand, the question of whether women are funny has become as anachronous as the GOP. Women are dominating comedy, both in front of and behind the camera. Look at powerhouses Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Maria Bamford; I could go on and on. On the other hand, what do most of these women have in common? Lack of melanin. Not that that’s so surprising, though. Reflective of western feminism, most women of color in comedy are still waiting for their turn. (Shout out to Mindy Kaling!)
The issues of representation for women of color in comedy is even more magnified in the late night landscape. In its 54 year long history, there’s only been three women late night hosts, Joan Rivers, Chelsea Handler, and now Samantha Bee. Women have fared much better in the writers rooms, but the numbers are still embarrassingly small. According to the conservative estimates of IMDB (if someone has better access, please feel free to do the math and let me know), the 10 most popular late night shows* employ a total of 155 writers. Of those, approximately 30 are women, and only eight of those women are of color. Eight women of color in a writers pool of 155. About five percent. There are more Real Housewives shows than women of color in late night.
One of those eight women of color is Full Frontal’s Ashley Black, who stood out to me after I saw her perform with her comedy troupe, Comedy People’s Time. (CPT coincidentally features three of the eight women of color writers in late night.) A self-identified Black Emily Dickinson and Ph.D. dropout, her unique path to comedy and position in the late night realm intrigued me, so I asked her if she wanted to chat.
I read a lot about the hiring practices for Full Frontal, how they tried to reach out to diverse applicants, reach out to people outside of the usual circles. Did you find out about the show through a friend or did you have an agent? Was it less informal than most late night applications?
I think their goal was to make it a lot more open than other late night processes. I think a lot of times at late night shows, it's just, “We need someone. Who knows a funny writer?” They wanted it to be more open than that, but I actually did not have an agent. I heard about it from a friend who did. He had gotten the packet and passed it on to me.
Wow, that’s very nice.
Yeah, [Laughs.] in most cases if someone sends an unsolicited packet without representation the show will not read it, but because they were trying to have a more open process they actually read my packet. That's why I was not expecting anything—I wouldn't have been surprised if they hadn't read it. The thing where I, a person who had absolutely no connection, kind of sneakily got my hands on a packet and they actually read it is unheard of.
Full Frontal is the most diverse writers room, correct?
The internet keeps telling us that! Somehow I have a feeling that Larry Wilmore's writers room might have us beat? Our office is pretty diverse, but also just very small. We only have seven staff writers, so that makes the percentages sound more exciting.
Within the late night world, do people make a big deal about your writers room?
I think the media is more excited about it than anyone. As a woman, it’s nice not to have to explain your lady jokes to your boss...but maybe our male writers are the ones who have to explain jokes now? Who knows? I think that as few as four years ago, there were no black women working as late night writers, and now there are like four. So I guess we're almost trending...
Who are your comedy influences?
It's kind of weird. I actually don't watch a ton of comedy, which I always feel bad about admitting. [Laughs.] Growing up, one of my biggest ones was Paul Mooney. Nobody knows who he is. He always writes for other people, but he's just so black. He's just too black for everything, and I love that. I am obsessed with Shonda Rhimes. Her writing style speaks to me a lot.
Aidy Bryant kind of changed my life comedically. I assistant directed a show at Second City that she was in. Watching her—everyone in the cast, but particularly her work every night—and seeing what attention to detail she put into things and the way she uses her voice and her body on stage and the way she just brought the audience to places they didn't know they wanted to go. She's just so confident and so fierce that the audience was like “Cool, we'll follow you anywhere.”
Where do you get materials or ideas for your writing?
Mostly things that are upsetting. If you read something or you see something and your body just instantly reacts—like I always say, “Oh man, that made my butthole clench”—there's something there, and those are the things that I go back to. If my body has a reaction to it, there is comedy there.
How do you approach something very upsetting or something that’s really personal or deep and make it funny?
For me, comedy is sort of my natural reaction to those feelings. There are things that are just too upsetting to deal with, but anything I could deal with, I can make comedy out of. I think even growing up, when I would get really upset about something, or my parents were mad at me, and I'd yell at my parents, they'd laugh. If I'm in a relationship, and I'm trying to express to a boyfriend that they've hurt my feelings, my way of expressing that makes people laugh. [Laughs.] I guess I'm lucky I don't have to overcome my feelings to make comedy. Me having feelings makes other humans laugh.
How do you stay motivated at work reading horrible things every day, all day?
A lot of good taking care of yourself. I'm very big on not being hungry or tired or thirsty. Those things lower your defenses, and you take things more personally when you're not well taken care of. [And] sometimes I read things instead of watching them, so if something happened on TV, I read the transcript and work from that instead of watching it. If it's too upsetting, you get a little bit of distance. Our workplace is so nice and so comfortable, and everyone is so kind, and sometimes I'll just walk up to someone else and just be like “I need to tell someone what I just read.” You commiserate.
*Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Conan, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.