Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Linda M. Grasso

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Film and Media Studies


Females, standups, comics, Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Amy Schumer, Jean Kim


In the history of comedy in America, women standup comics have taken a backseat to their male counterparts. Females have struggled against an inherent societal and male bias alleging that women cannot be funny. Even Sigmund Freud offered a medical explanation of this phenomenon in his 1905 book titled Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious stating that it was physiologically impossible for women to be funny because of the way their brains were structured. In 2007, intellectual British journalist Christopher Hitchens reinforced this theory in a Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Can’t Be Funny,” claiming that women did not have the motivation to be funny because they did not need to employ humor in order to attract the opposite sex. Regina Barreca, in her book Snow White and Why I Drifted…Strategic Use of Women’s Humor, says that women joke tellers were considered an affront to traditional definitions and concepts of what society expected of their behavior. She stated that “while men are assumed to be funny, women must prove they are funny.”

Since the 1950s when Phyllis Diller, largely acknowledged to be the first female stand-up, came to the stage, female comics have been pigeonholed in certain roles such as the prostitute, brothel madam, zany screwball, or matron. Female comics are often referred to as being subversive and masculine, so I researched the material and performance of female standups including myself to see if this was really the case.

This thesis examines Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Amy Schumer and me, Jean Kim, as case studies of the challenges that women comics face. I chose these women because they were not only successful in becoming comics on their own terms and represented different time periods in history, but they also challenged stereotypes and refused to follow the established rules of the white boys’ club. I use episodic footage from Amy Schumer’s “Inside Amy Schumer Show,” performance videos of Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, and Amy Schumer’s standup performances, as well as secondary historical sources about these comics and interviews with them to study the types of topics they chose for their performance material and the path they took to bring it to the stage or screen. By shining a light on women’s struggle in the male-dominated industry of standup comedy, I bring to the forefront common gender struggles that women face in patriarchal societies and the need for females to write their own narratives.