This weekend, Penn’s female musical sketch comedy group Bloomers will host its second annual LaughtHERfest, a day of celebrating women in comedy regardless of age and experience. The day includes panels, workshops and different activities, ending in an evening performance of both professional and amateur female comedians.
This year, Bloomers will be hosting an impressive lineup of female comedians who will sit on a panel, including Hillary Robbie (WME, Comedy Central), Lynn Harris (stand–up, activist, creator of Comedy for Girls) and Brooke Wurst (Penn alum, ImprovED, Triad Trust). They will also be hosting Marlena Rodriguez (The Second City, writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Emily Maya Mills (UCB LA, Key & Peele, OITNB, Parks & Recreation) and Eliza Skinner (stand–up comic and writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden, Adam Ruins Everything, Conan) who will be leading workshops and performing in the evening performance series.
Even with this exciting group of female comedians on board for LaughtHERfest, Gena Basha (C & E '18), the head writer of Bloomers and producer of this year’s LaughtHERfest, told Street that the most exciting part of the festival is “the fact that it’s bringing not only women in comedy together, but also women in comedy of so many different ages, experience levels and backgrounds.” The evening performance includes not only the aforementioned professional comedians, but also students from Bloomers, Penn's Simply Chaos and student groups from Dartmouth, Columbia, Swarthmore, Harvard, Penn State and Brown. In fact, one all–female sketch comedy troupe from Brown was inspired by and formed after last year’s LaughtHERfest, which included performances and panels with Vanessa Bayer (current SNL cast member) and Aparna Nancherla (stand up comedian and writer for Totally Biased, Conan, @midnight).
One performer of note is Sarah Wilson (C '17), former Bloomers member, stand–up comedian and president of Simply Chaos, the co–ed stand–up comedy group on campus. Stand–up comedy has been an integral part of Sarah’s life and influenced her decision to come to Penn, because Penn was the only school she applied to with a stand–up comedy troupe. “What’s interesting to me about stand–up comedy is when it gives you insight into what’s going on in someone’s mind, and when they can tell it to you in a funny way,” Sarah said.
She also admits, though, that there are challenges that come with being a female comedian. “I think a lot of times, growing up when you’re funny and a girl, you’re interpreted as being kind of weird as opposed to being known as a ‘funny guy,’” Sarah said. “There’s a kind of self–consciousness that comes with being a girl and being funny and a fear of being misinterpreted.” Gena also acknowledges that being a female comedian can be difficult, although she described it as more of a numbers game. “Regardless of whether or not someone is targeting you, it is always scary and intimidating for girls to perform and thrive where there aren’t that many girls alongside them,” Gena said.
Regardless of whether or not it’s difficult for women to perform comedy without the presence of other female comedians, it is true that in the industry and at Penn, there is a disparity in the number of comedians among the genders. Currently, only two of the nine Simply Chaos members are women. Bloomers has 38 members and Mask & Wig, Penn’s male musical sketch comedy group, has 48 members. There are eight men and four women in Without A Net, Penn’s co–ed improv comedy group.
And yet, despite these perceptional and numeral challenges, some women are taking their experience with comedy on Penn’s campus to the real world. Taiwo Sokan (College '16), a working actress in Philly, also joined Bloomers her first semester of freshman year as part of the cast. Taiwo is currently performing in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival show Cat–A–Strophe, a dark comedy produced by Fail Better Productions. She talked to Street about how her four years with Bloomers allow her to find roles and get cast in comedic productions. “I feel like comedy is where I find my comfort,” Taiwo said. “I like knowing that people are enjoying what they’re seeing, and with comedy that’s easier to tell because people laugh.”
Fortunately, challenges haven’t caused female comedy to suffer at Penn. Bloomers members across the board speak of an increased interest in female comedy, resulting in more competition in tryouts for comedy troupes and larger audiences comprised of both women and men. Taiwo recalled friendly collaborations between Bloomers and Mask & Wig throughout the years.
Considering all this, LaughtHERfest is not only needed on a college campus, but already lauded by both student comedians and professionals in the industry alike. It strives to spread the idea that anyone can make anyone laugh as long as they’re funny, regardless of gender. Gena pointed out that the presence of successful female comedians inspires women, regardless of whether or not they’re in a comedy group, to pursue comedy. “Last year we had two Penn alums, and this year we’ll have two Penn alums as well,” Gena said. “People are surprised to see they could totally do it.”