It's a Tuesday night in the basement of the Rendezvous, and, up until a minute ago, the room was packed with the kind of crowd comedians dream of—attentive, polite, and quick to laugh. But that all ends when a young male comedian takes the stage with a set that revolves around domestic violence and date rape jokes. "If a girl asks to jerk me off, I'll crack her in the face," he says.
That's precisely the type of comment that doesn't go over well at this weekly open mic, known as the Comedy Womb. The crowd is stonily silent. He pushes on. "I've never understood date rape," he says, nervously running a hand through his hair. "I'd never date a girl after I raped her."
"Get off the stage," someone shouts, breaking the Comedy Womb's no-heckling rule.
"I guess I'll leave you with that," he says.
"Yes, please do," shouts another audience member.
A few people clap in relief as a female comedian—one of 12 performing this evening—takes his place.
Later, Comedy Womb founder Danielle Gregoire will call the experience a "learning lesson."
Gregoire launched the Comedy Womb as a safe, welcoming space for fledgling comedians—especially, but not exclusively, women—to practice their craft. She got the idea after attending another local open mic that featured 33 guys and no ladies. When she went to the restroom, she had an epiphany. "All the lights in the women's room were burned out," she remembers (though she sweetly declines to identify which venue). "As I was peeing alone in the dark, I thought: 'Something has to change. There needs to be a huge drive to tell women that they're valued and needed onstage.' I decided right then and there to create a comedy open mic where women felt as welcomed as men."
Gregoire found a home at the Rendezvous and opened her Womb in early April. Her rules are simple: no misogyny and no heckling. Like most women who've worked in standup, Gregoire acknowledges that the comedy world has a lady problem, a problem primarily manifested by male comedians thoughtlessly using women as punch lines while blindly ignoring how jokes about abusing or raping women—routinely the victims of real-life abuse—can alienate at least half of their audience. But Gregoire is quick to point out that it's not just men who are misogynistic. "I had a lesbian comedian who denigrated vaginas, and I told her afterward, 'Not on my stage,'" she says. "I'm trying to make people think about their jokes. Make it about you—maybe it's the same reason you don't eat tomatoes, you just don't like the texture of vaginas—not about hating women or their bodies."
To help comedians think more critically about their jokes, as well as hone their delivery, Gregoire began hosting an hour-long, $5 comedy workshop on the first Tuesday of every month, for which she actively recruits women. (After two workshops, she kicks participants out of the Womb, encouraging them to try other open mics with less forgiving crowds.) Her outreach is working: At a recent workshop, half the people in the room were women. And in a city that has up to a dozen comedy open mic nights each week, the Comedy Womb has quickly established itself as a place where comedians can find engaged, welcoming crowds, and audience members can expect upwards of 20 comedians in a night, at least half of whom are women.
"This was my first open mic ever," audience member Emily Wells said after a Womb show earlier this month. "I'm hooked. I want to try it."
Having so many women in one room joking about lady problems—otherwise known as everyone's problems, only expressed from a woman's point of view—changes the dark-basement vibe of comedy in subtle, affirming ways. It's also an implicit political act, in that it opens up a space to kick back against a misogynist comedy culture.
For instance, local comedian Danielle Radford recently came to the Womb to work on a joke about almost being drugged by a stranger, which nicely upended the power dynamic of most rape jokes. "It had to be the laziest roofie-ing of all time," Radford joked. "He held out his hand and said, 'Here, take this pill!'"
The Womb is also where comedian and feminist blogger (and former Stranger staffer) Lindy West came after she blew up the internet last week with a post on Jezebel.com and a debate on the TV show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell about whether the comedy scene has a problem with how it views and treats women. Many comedy fans responded with personal insults and rape threats. West read a harrowing selection of them in another online video, then headed down to the Comedy Womb to joke about feminism and Jabba the Hutt. "They're comparing me to Jabba the Hutt," West said. "But isn't that more insulting to him? I mean, he's an intergalactic war criminal, and I'm a feminist blogger."
"There's this mythology that women aren't funny," Gregoire says. "Clearly, that's stupid, but I think the real problem is that a lot of women don't do comedy because they fear going after a dude who's just joked about how awful women are. It's denigrating. At the Comedy Womb, you have men and women working together, and I think that creates a better environment for everyone—one in which everyone can feel valued and safe. Don't we all produce our best work when we feel that way?"