Part I. The Set-Up
Michelle Wolf’s cancellation goes to show if you’re a talk show host with great jokes and perfect sketches, it’s best if you’re not a woman. —Bess Kalb
I’ve spent the entirety of this summer simultaneously energized and exhausted by the first question that occurred to me when I read about the seven titles in Comedy Central’s 2018-2019 development lineup: Where. The hell. Are the women?
Of the five pilots ordered, three are about dudes (Robbie, Kevin vs. Josh, Verified with David Spade), while two promise to root their comedy in a female experience (Mall Town USA, Awkwafina). 3:2 might sound like a decent ratio in the notoriously sexist comedy scene, but that number is misleading. Comedy Central also picked up two new series (Alternatino with Arturo Castro, This Week at the Comedy Cellar), neither of which stars or is created by funny women, and of the two lady-starring shows on the development slate, only one—Awkwafina—was actually created by a woman. The other one, the animated comedy about a teen girl whose second home is the mall (in this economy?!), was created by a dude. A dude with great comedy bona fides! But a dude.
The fact that the sole lady-centered comedy on the list belongs to Awkwafina—breakout star of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians and all-around swag queen—is great. Step aside, all you white women who’ve taken up the token funny-lady slot of yore: Let Awkwafina through! Even with all those caveats, though, the gender split in the network’s 2018-2019 order comes out to six dude shows to one lady show—a ratio that doesn’t even manage to hit Geena Davis’ low bar of 17%. (If you want to be picky about it, you could break it out to 5:1:1, as This Week at the Comedy Cellar isn’t going to be all men. But that would be to aggressively miss the point.)
“God,” Madeline Whitby, co-creator of AwesomenessTV’s all-female sketch show, Betch, says upon hearing these numbers. “Comedy really has been a boys club! And although we always talk about how it’s such an amazing time to be a woman in comedy, because people are listening—” (“Women are ON TOP right now,” her best friend, fellow Betch mastermind, and co-interviewee, Monica Sherer, breaks in) “—the reality is, it is still a boys club. It is still really fucking hard. We do have to be loud and unapologetic. Because although it appears like women are on top, there’s still such a long way to go, and that’s proof. WOW.”
“I’m actually really surprised to hear that they’re coming out with such a male-dominated slate,” Carrie Franklin, head of production at AwesomenessTV’s digital sibling, Awestruck, says when I tell her. “But at the same time, I don’t know who Comedy Central’s audience is anymore. I watched South Park and Amy Schumer, then I watched Another Period and Broad City, but I kind of only dip back in when it’s a show that I respond to. So I don’t know who their demo is—it must be mostly male, to come up with a slate like that? But it seems like the most successful shows, the ones that [have] really landed, at least over the past couple of years, have been female-driven ones, or the not white-guys ones.”
Character actor and writer Kate Flannery (of The Office, of course, but also recently of AwesomenessTV’s All Night) is not nearly so surprised. “I feel like it’s still one for you, for the women,” she sighs, “and one, two, three, four, FIFTEEN for you, fella! There’s still inequity, for sure. I think there’s a few women that get carte blanche, but the imbalance is still great.”
Flannery’s joke statistic is, if anything, generous. Because as much as it might feel like “Where the hell are the funny women?” is the creakiest possible question to be asking in 2018, the numbers show that as far as old-school television networks are concerned, the answer is hardly anywhere. Nowhere the people in charge of programming have the eggs to test their sponsors’ jangly nerves by reading the cultural room and opening the stage to more than one or two women at a time, at least.
Here’s the thing: I do not want to write about this. I don’t want to write about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. Nor did any of the women I spoke with for this piece. What I want, what we all want, is to see a demographically proportionate share of funny women, in all their weird and specific variety, everywhere that comedy airs. It’s 2018. Women make up more than half the human population. Lucille Ball invented sitcom syndication; Jane Austen invented the romantic comedy. It ought to be a truth well and goddamn universally acknowledged by now that women are not just funny, but good for business.
“Even at the most trivial point,” Betch actor and writer Jessica Marie Garcia says, taking the point about gender inclusivity and digging in even deeper to more precisely reflect her Latinx experience, “[women], people of color—we buy things! We watch movies! If you want to make money, you understand that 1 in 4 Latinos buy a movie ticket in America. How are we not representing them and telling their stories?”
“The hurdle [still] is to get female experience equally valued with male experience,” Franklin says, touching on the same idea, especially as it pertains to her production company’s focus on the comedy of motherhood and parenting. “Because the audience has already proven that they’re there. That’s the endgame. It’s for me or for one of our talent to create a story around their [female] experience, and have that not have to change in order for a male executive to understand it.”
The Betch ladies, too, are fully aware of the hunger in the market they’re serving. “We didn’t realize that the Millennial and Gen-Z demos were underserved in the comedy space in general,” Sherer says, reflecting on the outsized response their web series has gotten on social media. “We weren’t thinking about it [when we started], we just wanted to make something fun, and with sketch we have the opportunity to go to the nth degree with the joke, to hit the nail on the head, then hit the nail on the head 47 more times. So we’re able to make [social] commentary through a comedic lens, we’re able to be honest about what it’s like to be a young woman—not just in entertainment, but in general—but we’re also able to promote being silly and stupid and ugly and crazy, and so many of our comments are like, US LOLLLLL. It’s been great to see the reaction, that we’re able to make something relatable that people understand through a comedic lens, but we do feel like [the demo] is currently underserved.”
Franklin and the Betch team may be aware of the television audience’s hunger for comedy through a female-lens, but old-fashioned TV has yet to get the memo. Because as embarrassing as that 6:1 ratio is for Comedy Central, the home for televised comedy, the numbers don’t really get better when you pull the analytical lens further out.
Which, I’m exhausted to say, I did.
Part II. The Reinforcement
Sorry to imply being a woman makes it hard to have a late night show. The literally ONEs of examples we have currently should be enough! Love and light to all the conservative men weighing in. Xos and abortion rights, Bess —Bess Kalb
Before I get into the data I gathered about the TV comedy landscape as it stands now, let me present another number that lies outside those parameters: 1.
One all-female sketch comedy show, Baroness von Sketch Show, is currently airing on American network television. It airs on IFC, which not all cable packages include. It was originally a Canadian import.
Before the first two seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show landed on IFC in 2017, the last female-led sketch show to air on linear television was Inside Amy Schumer, which wrapped its fourth and final season on Comedy Central in June of 2016. Three months prior to that, FOX tried to launch an all-female spin-off of the all-male Lonely Island crew, Party Over Here, created and executive produced by Paul Scheer and the rest of the dudes from said Lonely Island crew. It was cancelled after ten episodes, a month before Amy went off the air.
The reason I’m focusing on sketch comedy is not because I’m working off of some internal hierarchy in which sketch reigns supreme. It’s simply that, in talking with the ladies of Betch, whose all-female sketch series existed alongside AwesomenessTV’s majority-female sketch series, Hacking High School, and Seriously.tv’s all-female sketch series, Sorry Not Sorry, it occurred to me that all-female sketch comedies are a thing whose rarity makes the qualification a selling point, whereas all-male sketch comedies are just… sketch comedies. All-female sketches are no less rooted in a gendered experience of the world than are those written by all-male groups like Stella, Key & Peele, or Awesome Show, Great Job!’s Tim and Eric. It’s just that one experience is considered universal, while the other is considered niche.
“It’s tricky, because on the one hand, of course you want the world to value female experience equally with male experience,” Awestruck’s Carrie Franklin says. “But at the same time, as a network head and as a developer, I’d want to brand it as a female sketch show, because I want women to know that they will be included, and that they’re a priority. So I see both sides, which always bothers me when people give that answer. But at the same time, it’s my biggest pet peeve when an all-female or female-driven movie comes out and it’s about dating, so it’s labeled a rom-com so it can’t be taken seriously, or a woman writes a book about a relationship and it’s called chick-lit, and meanwhile men are blowing things up, and it’s considered for everyone.”
See also: every other vector of marginalized identity that isn’t considered a universal and which has even less equitable representation in the comedy scene than women do. I am acutely aware of what a tip-of-the-iceberg problem it is that I’m setting up. That said, I think it’s an iceberg worth upsetting. As with so much else in life—and as one of five hundred reasons why #representationmatters—when one style of narrative framing is thought of as belonging to a “special interest group,” while another is considered universal, we all lose out on better understanding the world as it actually is. And if we don’t have a deep understanding of the world as it is, we are going to miss so many great jokes.
Baroness von Sketch Show was just renewed for a fourth season, and that is fantastic. IFC currently has just six shows listed as active on its homepage, one of which is a clip show of 1980s fever dreams, and two others of which are Fred Armisen vehicles; to catch a piece of that pie is an accomplishment! But one-sixth is still only 17%, and while Geena Davis’ institute may have found a study that shows that people perceive crowds to have a 50/50 gender split when women’s faces reach the 17% threshold, I don’t think we, as a society, should make those our laurels upon which to rest.
To that end, what I was interested in for this specific survey was not a count of how many comedy series are being written, directed, produced, or run by funny women, nor how many ensembles in which funny women might feature prominently. My singular interest was in looking at the issue of comedic framing, on platforms both linear and digital: Comparing the number of series’ with a specifically female comedic frame to the number with specifically male (or generally ensemble) one. I am not the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: I accomplished my task with a simple search of the Wikipedia page for each network’s current programming, cross-referencing with what each network’s website listed at the time of writing and taking a rough count of how many series on each featured a majority- or all-female cast to put a lady-frame on the humor. When in doubt (TBS’ Angie Tribeca and Search Party, both of which feature dude-skewed ensembles, but are co-created by and star women), I erred on the side of the ladies.
And still, the numbers are… bad.
Bad, as in: On the Comedy Central homepage, 3 out of the 22 shows listed in the main dropdown feature ladies and lady-centric humor (Another Period, Broad City, and Inside Amy Schumer), only two of which are currently in production. If you expand the list to include all shows, the ratio adjusts to 12 out of 128. Your shaky memory of middle-school math is not failing you—women, when heading their own shows, don’t even make up 10% of Comedy Central’s library. Oh, and I know I said I didn’t bother with deeper/behind-the-scenes gender breakdowns, but Comedy Central is re-running The Office in Jordan Klepper’s old time slot these days, and Flannery shared with me the number of women who directed episodes throughout that series’ 188-episode run: 5. Five female directors, who, collectively, directed a total of nine episodes. That is quantitatively not what she said.
Bad, as in: TruTV—home of Paste favorite Adam Ruins Everything—lists At Home with Amy Sedaris, I’m Sorry, and Rachel Dratch’s Late Night Snack among the 11 series curated for its homepage dropdown. Expanded to all shows, only Amanda Seale’s Greatest Ever pop culture comedy countdown joins those three lady-led series, while the total number of series balloons to 30… 11 of which have a man’s name in the title. Between Michael Carbonaro and the boys of Impractical Jokers alone there are five unique titles, giving that small subset of men one more series than all of TruTV’s lady-centric shows combined.
As for broadcast networks, don’t expect to find any kind of laser-like focus on the female experience there. ABC has some of Paste’s favorite sitcoms, but staying true to its brand, all seven that are currently active are about families—families with funny moms, sure (including this summer’s other breakout, Constance Wu), families developed by female showrunners, too (including Nahnatchka Khan, of Fresh Off the Boat and the sorely missed Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23), but families nonetheless. NBC, similarly, is staying true to its ensemble/workplace comedy brand, and while the Peacock is now home to the entire Schurniverse, only October’s premiere of Aseem Batra’s I Feel Bad promises to bring a funny female frame to that slate. CBS, for all it gets written off as the broadcast network for the Olds, at least boasts a current ratio of one lady-centered sitcom (Mom) to four ensemble or dude-centered ones. FOX, like every corner of late night not helmed by a blonde formerly Canadian woman (RIP, The Break; RIP, The Rundown), boasts 0.
When you get to the rest of the networks—at least, the rest of the networks not catering to younger female audiences—the comedy programming on the ground is generally so thin that a single year’s shift from can make all the difference between a lineup that’s all purple, and one that’s split equally between purple and blue (never, of course, to one that’s all blue). That is, unless we’re talking about HBO, which has an extremely strong comedy slate running ten series deep, out of which only Issa Rae’s Insecure fits the female-framed comedy brief.
The only places on linear television that the ratios improve are, as I just noted, networks that cater to younger female audiences: The CW’s only pure comedies—Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—are both female-forward. Similarly, every live-action comedy on the Disney Channel, including Andi Mack, Bizaardvark, Bunk’d, Stuck in the Middle, and Raven’s Home (the most fun sitcom you’re probably not watching), features girls as both protagonists and lead goofballs, plumbing teen femininity for all the humor it’s got to give. Freeform’s representation is split, but that is because it only two half-hour comedies on its original programming slate (currently Yara Shahidi’s femme-forward grown-ish and the feel-bad frenemies ensemble comedy, Alone Together). It gets a pass from me on this brief that the prestige networks don’t, though, as the rest of its programming that skews comedic (The Bold Type; the less murder-y parts of the Pretty Little Liars franchise) also skews female—plus, it has another lady-centric comedy, Besties, joining sometime next year.
The fact that only networks whose demos are specifically young and female get anywhere close to gender parity when it comes to comedy is plenty depressing, but let me tell you the other thing that happened around the same time I read that Comedy Central announcement: I got an email from the publicist for Betch, then streaming on Verizon’s since-shuttered go90 platform (more on that later), asking if I’d like to chat with Whitby and Sherer. Then I got an email asking if I’d like to chat with Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas staff writer Kerry Coddett, who was at the time one of only 8 female writers of color out of the 155 writers then employed by late-night shows. Then I got an email from Elizabeth Banks’ digital funny ladies platform, WhoHaHa, asking if I’d like to speak to Janelle Renee Pearson, creator and star of the web series No Chill. Then YouTube Premium made Carly Craig’s Sideswiped a cornerstone in their comedy slate. Then Facebook Watch was like, hey, you want some lady comedy? Well, pretty soon we’ll give you Elizabeth Olsen and Kelly Marie Tran as sisters in a dark comedy about widowhood, but if that’s not your thing, we’ve been doing comedy for awhile now, and basically every single one of them is by and about women. A bi besties sitcom? We’ve got it. Quinta Brunson? We’ve got her. Nicole Byer? Your loss, MTV, we’ve got her, too. (Peep that solidly blue circle Facebook Watch is flaunting up above. Damn, Facebook!) Then Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes hit the web. Then Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette landed in our Netflix queues, right alongside The Break with Michelle Wolf and A Little Help with Carol Burnett. Then Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints took on Jordan Peterson on her (not-Premium) YouTube channel. Then, then, then.
If linear television didn’t want funny women to have more than a token presence on their airwaves, the Internet, it seemed, was ready to welcome them. So I scheduled some phone calls.
Part III. The Payoff
In the history late night, the industry for which I write, I can think of 5 female hosts (including Joan Rivers, who was just subbing in for Carson). Our gender is a hindrance. A lot of shows don’t have a big audience after just 10 episodes. I don’t think Wolf got a fair shot. —Bess Kalb
Once the universe was done connecting me with exactly the women I needed to talk to at exactly the right time, I had eight voices hailing (mostly) from the digital side of comedy. From AwesomenessTV’s Betch, I spoke to series creators/BFF writing duo Madeline Whitby and Monica Sherer, as well as series actor and writer Jessica Marie Garcia, who Paste readers might better recognize from On My Block—all of whom, along with Awestruck’s Carrie Franklin, were introduced above. Kate Flannery, best known from her time on The Office but recently seen on AwesomenessTV’s streaming teen comedy, All Night, spoke to how the industry has (and hasn’t) changed over time. Outside of the Awesomeness family, I spoke to Kerry Coddett, a stand-up comic and rapper who got her start making her own sketch material on YouTube, as well as Janelle Renee Peterson (creator/star of No Chill) and Ashley McAtee (director of operations) from WhoHaHa, which was originally envisioned as a central online space in which Elizabeth Banks’ team could curate all the funny women they found around the web, but is today more production-focused, like with its Series Spotlight program that launched Pearson’s No Chill.
These women all come from different backgrounds, and none aim to shape their comedy career in the exact same way, but two things they independently agreed on were 1) that letting any of the industry’s cynicism about their gender, race, etc. be an excuse for them not to achieve their creative ambitions is absolute bullshit, and 2) that the growth of robust digital platforms has, nevertheless, made it easier to get a heel (or sensible pump, or shearling slide, or good old Keds sneaker) in the comedy door.
“Anyone who lives in L.A. knows that the industry is bad,” Whitby says, explaining not just how but why she and Sherer transitioned from drama into internet sketch comedy. “When [we moved here] it was back when everyone was putting up just really bad videos on YouTube, and we were like, we could do that, but GOOD. So we did.” Their first video for AwesomenessTV—a music video parody of Kanye West’s “Clique,” featuring them as little girls at a sleepover—was Awesomeness’ first video to hit a million views. “And they were like, oh, you can STAY, whatever you want to do, you can do.”
Music video parodies are the way into comedy for many funny women who live online. In her recent memoir, Well, That Escalated Quickly, Franchesca Ramsey talks about all the music video parodies she was busting her ass over before the non-musical “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” went viral, including her Beyoncé parody, “Student Loan Countdown.” Miel Bredouw, Vine-star-turned-musical-parody-podcast-host (with Demi Adejuyigbe on Punch Up the Jam), has her “Slob on My Knob”/”Carol of the Bells” mash-up. And long before all of them, there was, of course, Garfunkel and Oates.
Coddett, who has now found a home she loves in stand-up and the Wyatt Cenac writers’ room after a frustrating slog through the persistently white improv halls of UCB, also found purchase in comedy through music video parodies. “In high school I did a lot of spoken word, then that turned into rapping, [which] gave me the courage to do comedy because I realized it was all set-up and punchlines. Then I started making music video parodies, and those turned into sketches, and the sketches turned into improv, and the improv turned into stand-up. I just decided, I’m not going to wait for someone to do this.”
Flannery is of a different artistic generation, but she recognizes that the do-it-your-damn-self option these digital platforms offer is similar to what she calls the “stage stuff” she has long relied on not to get stuck waiting for gatekeepers’ approval. “The live stuff, the self-produced stuff, like [the music parody project] I’m working on right now with Jane Lynch, it’s because I don’t want to wait for the phone to ring all the time. [Like YouTube], you’re creating something that actually exists. It didn’t exist before, and now it exists.”
The parallels extend beyond the abstract: Flannery and Lynch are about to embark on a nationwide tour in September to travel to live concerts and meet-ups with huge groups of fans. That is a YouTuber’s life. “I just hope that I can enjoy every stage of what’s happening. Joan Rivers is gone, but she was a perfect example of someone who always kept adapting.”
This is true: Joan Rivers was also a YouTuber.
Janelle Renee Pearson came to the industry through drama school, not YouTube, but she has no delusions about the powerful role online platforms play for (especially female) creators. Today’s generation of “Internet-heads,” she says, thinking of her 19-year old brother, gets their main sources of entertainment online. “They watch all these websites where [there are] all these niche shows that you don’t really know about unless you know about, you know? There is something extremely empowering about having these platforms, and having the ability to make your own work and just to throw it up on a [YouTube], or to have access to a platform [like WhoHaHa], where there’s other work that is like yours. It’s emboldening as a creator, and I think it also [creates] a reality in which you don’t have to feel stifled because you have a vagina. There are so many ways for you to get your work out there, and then after that it just becomes about consistency and how committed you are to telling your stories.”
Franklin, running what she sees as a kind of comedy incubator back at Awestruck, might take issue with Pearson’s description of “Internet-heads,” but only insofar as the fact that she knows that the audience seeking out niche comedic content online is not limited to the 19-year olds.
“When I got [to Awestruck], it was very clear that most of our audience was on YouTube and on Facebook and Instagram—that’s where Millennial moms and Millennial women live. They don’t just go to Facebook for news, they go for comedy, they go for entertainment. Female audiences are finding their next comedy stars on social platforms; they’re finding women who are going in front of a camera, who are naturally funny, maybe they’ve had a few Groundlings classes, but they’re just talking to a camera in a diary format. [These are] women who, maybe 10 or even five years ago, would have been happy to be in the writers’ room. But now they’re like, ‘No, I’m going to star in my own vehicle.’”
This, obviously, is exactly what the ladies of Betch did, tucked away in their chill digital corner, far from the eyes of the industry Old Guard that might have tried to mold their production in one specific image. And not only did they build their own vehicle to star in, they built their way into the kind of behind-the-camera set-up that female writers and comedians of Nell Scovell’s generation—hell, of most of today’s generation—could only dream of.
“We didn’t realize [when we got started] how big a boys’ club the industry was,” Whitby says, “because we were given an opportunity when we were still so young.” They’d never been in writers’ rooms dominated by men, where women were shut down every time they tried to talk, Sherer explains. “We still haven’t!” Whitby shouts. “I mean, at this point, we’ve run every writers’ room we’ve been in.” Their first, a quick one-week room they booked just to pump out sketches, was such a minimal time commitment that they lucked into getting some Mindy Project and Saturday Night Live writers—all women. “We weren’t going for an all-female writers’ room,” Sherer explains, “but we read everyone’s sketch packets, and all the women, they got our humor, they got the joke, they got the audience, they got what we were going for. And at the end of the week, all of them said, ‘Anytime you want us to come back, we will come back.’ They just said that after Betch, they felt rejuvenated and inspired to go back out and write comedy, because we were just such a supportive place for people to build their ideas.”
Pearson’s No Chill is similarly majority women-staffed. “Obviously, there is a huge awareness of the fact that this is a world dominated by men,” she says, “so especially when I’m building the set and the crew and the cast, there is the intention to be more female-inclusive. Men [already] have all of the platforms!”
Coddett obviously has no control over staffing Problem Areas (although it is notably diverse), but in her role as organizer of the Brooklyn, Stand Up! Showcase, the same precepts apply, and she tries her best to live up to them. “Some people are like, ‘I just book funny.’ Well, if you’re not funny, you shouldn’t even be a comic, so let’s just start with funny being a prerequisite for being a comedian. I don’t always get it right on every lineup, but I think it’s important that you try, because when your audience is diverse, when you have so many different types of people in the audience, why would you only want to have one perspective on stage? You’re doing your industry and your show a disservice.”
Betch co-star Garcia, responding to a related thought experiment about whether or not it would be desirable for all-male sketch groups to market themselves as all-male groups in the same way that all-female groups are sort of forced to do, takes that idea of diversity-by-dictate in a slightly less forbearing direction. “It’s funny, because when you say ‘all-female sketch group,’ I think ‘empowerment,’ but you say ‘all-male sketch group,’ I think ‘exclusivity.’ I think it’s just been tipped to one side for so long that you don’t get to have it evened out right now. We have to have our moment before we can say it’s all about equality. At this point I can’t stand when people are like, ‘Well, don’t you think it should be inclusive?’ Well, yeah, but for fucking hundreds of years [culture] has been male-dominated, so what do you want? Let me have this moment!”
Of both her own programming duties at Awestruck and the programming duties of television at large, Franklin is in agreement: “It’s incumbent upon people like me to program these things. It’s incumbent upon all of us to help and support women of color, anyone who’s not represented. We have to stop just programming for our own experiences.” To that end, she recently shepherded Angel Moore into the Awestruck family, joining GloZell Green, Linda Ruiz, and… Snooki (look, Snooki’s experiences match no one’s). She’s also excited about a future in which transwomen and transmoms will be in the Awestruck playlists.
Your linear comedy network definitely should, but just as definitely would never. At least, not yet.
Part IV. The Rimshot
I wish networks took more chances on us, stuck with us, marketed the shit out of us, and championed us. Because as Rivers and Burnett and Handler and Silverman and Bee show, we do it really well. For girls. —Bess Kalb
The giant virtual elephant in the room is go90, which looms large in the careers of half the women I spoke with, and which, as of July 30, completely ceased to exist. There’s no archive, not even through the Wayback Machine—I couldn’t even get a list of the series they had hosted to make a go90 pie for the chart in Part II. Save for the few individual clips still available on YouTube and the first two seasons, which are available on Hulu, Betch—along with the Rebecca Black-hosted Hacking High School, Anna Akana’s sci-fi comedy Miss 2059, and a dozen more I can’t remember—is officially unwatchable. Betch had just finished filming Season Seven before we spoke, so it seems impossible that the show won’t ever return, somewhere, in some measure of completeness, but as of today, the last post to the show’s IG, from July 27, is their only public reaction to the go90 news: A clip from the latest season that, in its own perfectly Betchy way, encapsulates the collective shruggie emoticon the ephemerality of living such virtual lives so often provokes.
Frustratingly, Awesomeness, which shepherded not only Betch but All Night and Netflix’s Internet-breaking To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before into the world, has also recently suffered some seismic change, as their new parent company, Viacom, announced a layoff of half the company’s staff last Friday—including the heads of both AwesomenessTV and Awesomeness Films. This doesn’t mean that Awesomeness is going away—with the runaway success of To All the Boys, the framework for inclusivity that they started building before we knew well enough to demand it seems to have finally, explosively, paid off—but it wasn’t, like, great news to have read the weekend I planned to file this piece with an optimistic kicker. While time will tell what these layoffs mean creatively, the head of the Viacom Digital Studios that Awesomeness will now be operating under, Kelly Day, was previously AwesomenessTV’s chief business officer. Brian Robbins, meanwhile—Awesomeness’ founder and the man who the Betch ladies credit effusively for believing in their vision—joined Viacom as president of Paramount Players last year. As long as Viacom doesn’t treat Awesomeness’ vision for big-swing comedy the same way they did MTV’s scripted brand, the field for many and varied funny female-led projects could easily remain fertile.
And, of course, there are all the digital platforms bigger than go90 that seem already to be buying into the profitability of programming diverse comedy. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all doing their ambitious (if still male-skewed) things, and YouTube and Facebook Watch aren’t going anywhere soon. And while Carly Craig’s Sideswiped proves YouTube is in the comedy game to win, Facebook Watch, which has approximately 100% female-centric content across its current Facebook Watch Originals comedy slate, is already running victory laps. Both Awestruck and WhoHaHa called it out by name as a top performer for their branded content. Jessica Marie Garcia just had a new series called Starter Pack, produced by AT&T Hello Labs, premiere there on August 20. Elizabeth Olsen’s black comedy Sorry for Your Loss, from indie production company Big Beach TV, drops next month. And while Facebook may be a baby platform for this kind of media, it’s not fragile.
That doesn’t mean that we, as the consumers hungry for our funny TV to be a bit more literally a boob tube, can sit back and expect the Facebooks and YouTubes of the world to give us the wide variety of lady content we want. (Never trust Facebook to do anything.) As ephemeral as television has been since it began, digital television is even more so. So if you want to see more Betches, more Kerry Coddetts, more Janelle Renee Pearsons, more Jessica Marie Garcias on network television, you may first need to pay a bit more attention to the digital (often literally) no-man’s land. It might feel gross, but if you show the corporate sponsors there that your eyeballs exist, they might in turn start murmuring to the linear Old Guard that they want that sweet, sweet non-dude demo on the Comedy Central/TBS/TruTVs of the world.
“When we wrapped Season Seven,” Whitby said near the end of our call, long before the news of go90’s demise could even start to be exaggerated, “we stopped ourselves to say, ‘Look: We stood under the rainbow for seven seasons, and we appreciate that. And now we have the confidence to jump out of that Betch bubble and go forth confidently.’”
“Yes!” added Sherer. “We’re pretty much open to anything. Anyone who wants to work with us, please hit us up!”
So, all you linear Old Guards? If you ever want to get out of the lady token game, we’ve got all your next Broad Citys and Insecures right here.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.