I recently started taking a solo sketch comedy class online, from a theatre in Toronto. Why not? With classes being offered online all over the world, all these opportunities are popping up that didn’t exist before social isolation. I considered taking improv classes from UCB that normally you’d have to live in NYC or LA to take, until I saw the prices. $400 USD on a freelance musician’s government issued COVID-salary? Nope.
So my sketch classes run like everything else is running right now… over Zoom. Once a week, 9 of us form into a perfect Brady Bunch cube, and hone our monologue-writing chops. Honestly unlike other kinds of comedy classes, solo sketch works pretty well in the online format. The teacher spends a portion of the class talking theory, then asks us to do some short in-class writing assignments that we take turns presenting and discussing, then she assigns us homework to hash out during the next class. I was worried two hours of an online class would seem long, but the time just flies by doing the things I love: writing and being silly with other people who love comedy.
The class itself is very diverse, always a nice change from the mostly white, gender-binary world of classical music, at least in my experience; and the teacher is a freaking delight. She is hilarious, knowledgeable, and very helpful with her feedback. So I was a little thrown off this week when we were going through one of our homework assignments: 3 pitches for a presentation-style monologue, including the “who, where, and what’s their deal.”
When it’s my turn to share, I start with two somewhat unique ideas:
1. An eccentric hurdy gurdy scholar gets increasingly distressed as his instrument starts falling apart while demonstrating it to a class of disinterested music students; and 2. The CEO of a struggling professional orchestra asks all the musicians, aged 60 and up, what they would be “willing to do online” to keep things afloat while all their live performances are cancelled. Cut to them all begrudgingly playing “virtual ensembles” in their underwear.
Then, I pitch this pretty basic one that I haven’t fully hashed out yet:
3. A witch addresses all her fellow witches in a Youtube video on how to make spells from “what you already have at home” to avoid making unnecessary trips to the grocery store during COVID. Instead of “eye of newt,” you can use eye of potato. Instead of “blood of a pig,” you can use ketchup. And so on until she realizes she has ended up with a pot of spaghetti instead of a working spell.
The teacher, very astutely, says my first idea has the most promise, the 2nd one could be good though maybe logistically complicated, but the 3rd is a bit of a “hack.” As in it’s been done a million times, and I’d have to work really hard to figure out what makes this witch different from all the rest of the witches. This is my life right now.
We give the floor to one of the few white guys in the class, and he proceeds to pitch his first idea: A magician is talking to a bunch of other magicians, about how they can adapt their skills during COVID, with an emphasis on illicit activities. Or something like that. And I’m thinking, alright, teacher! LET ‘ER RIP! Tell him that’s a hack, just like my witch idea! But to my surprise, the teacher looks down at her keyboard, pauses for a moment, before laughing for like 5 seconds. Is this a fake laugh or a real one?! I don’t know her well enough yet, but it doesn’t sound like a genuine belly laugh… Then, she PRAISES HIS IDEA… before finally telling him the same thing she told me, albeit in a much more roundabout way. More emphasis on “this is a good idea,” with only a slight undertone of “but you might want to dig a bit deeper.” What the actual fuck?
This is an enlightened teacher- I know for a fact she’s not brushing off my ideas just because I’m a woman. She has no doubt struggled a great deal to get where she is in the comedy industry, having to work 5 times as hard as all the men surrounding her. So I had to think, What’s going on here? Is my idea really just not as good? I mean, a magician… breaking the law with magic, that could be good… but how is that so much better than a witch making a horrible spell out of rotting vegetables? Then it hit me- it’s not that his idea was better, it’s that she sees potential in me, and was giving me an honest answer so I can reach it. Clearly his ideas are lacking too, but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She knows on a subconscious level, that women are used to getting constructive criticism, and men* are not. She praised him so he wouldn’t get frustrated and give up.
*I’m going to leave other labels out of this for the sake of simplicity but one could throw in white, heterosexual, and cis; though I’m only sure about 1-2 of those things in this case. Please wait while I dig this hole a little deeper…
I could be totally off-base here. I feel very hesitant even writing about this because 1. Maybe my idea did just legit suck and 2. So many feminist writers have grasped this concept and many others in a far deeper, more educated way. I’m aware there is a lot of nuance I am missing here. But I’m not writing to expose some revolutionary new piece of information. I’m not writing out of anger or resentment. I’m writing- because understanding this phenomenon helps me take this kind of discrepancy with a grain of salt. When I get constructive criticism from someone who’s opinion I value, I will take it proudly, knowing it means they recognize my talent and see my potential. When I witness a man being praised by the same person for a mediocre idea, I don’t need to interpret it as “They like him more,” or “His ideas are better.” This is just the way we’ve been trained to act as a society.
I think we owe it to men to start telling them the truth. This applies to so many situations… I could write a whole book just on how this applies in the bedroom… *clears throat and looks at the floor awkwardly* but for starters, let’s just tell them when their ideas suck. Take’em down a notch, so they don’t think every idea that comes out of their ass is fit for a Netflix special. Tell them their idea is mediocre. That they just said something offensive, or interrupted us. That they aren’t actually that good in bed. *Cough* We owe it to all the poor, oblivious, talent-lacking dudes to outline all the areas where they could use improvement. We owe it to them, so they actually have a fighting chance to GROW UP. To join the ranks of the strong, talented women who have been hearing criticism- constructive or otherwise, our whole damned lives.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a big pot of… spaghetti.