A New Face of Comedy
Sarah Haskins is proving you can be feminist and funny.
Sarah Haskins makes her living making fun of commercials. She does a segment called “Target Women” for Current TV’s Infomania that mocks ads for birth control, Botox, cleaning products, and even fiber-laden yogurt. Haskins makes fun of the way women are presented in advertising because, after all, it’s all a little absurd. Every time a new segment of hers comes out, popular feminist blogs like Feministing and Jezebel repost them. At a recent feminist media conference in Boston, Haskins brought down the house. All of which means Haskins has pulled off quite a unique feat: She is funny and feminist.
Haskins is well on her way to joining the ranks of prominent female comedians who are redefining what’s funny in America. Last year, Vanity Fair declared 2008 the year of Tina Fey. This Thursday, Amy Poehler’s new show, Parks and Recreation, will premiere in a prime-time spot on NBC. Wanda Sykes, a comedian who came out publicly as a lesbian last November following the ballot defeat of California’s Proposition 8, has scored her own Saturday-night show on FOX in the old MAD TV slot. All these women identify as feminist and their comedy reflects it. Comedy isn’t just a boys club anymore.
“Women are coming through the ranks and more women are getting into it," Haskins said. “Women [are] proving that they are funny and can be funny. We are finally getting those opportunities and that opens up more opportunities.”
Haskins is quick to point out that women aren’t totally absent from comedy; some of the most beloved American comedians are Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. But for the most part women in comedy have played a supporting role, setting up the jokes for the male comedians to hit home.
Haskins got her start in comedy in high school. “I had friend who was supposed to do an independent study my senior year in high school and do a play and he sort of procrastinated and procrastinated,” Haskins said. “We ended up doing a bunch of sketches he found like Nichols and May, Kids in the Hall, and then did some improv games and I loved it. When I went to college I was actively looking for an improv group to get involved in because I just thought it was really fun.” After attending Harvard University, Haskins moved back to her hometown of Chicago to work at improv theaters like Second City’s touring group, iO (Improv Olympics), and World News Tonight.
It was in Chicago that Haskins began to perfect the art of satire. Haskins explains that at World News Tonight, “every Saturday the audience brought in newspaper articles and we did improv off them, so stuff like that was great.”
The power of Haskins’ humor is in her simplicity of pointing out how silly gender stereotypes are. Why is it that cleaning commercials always depict women wearing khaki’s and pearls anyway? What’s with all these fake scientific terms that try to sell women face cream? “I feel very lucky. I feel like I went on TV and said stuff that my friends and I have been saying, sitting on the couch eating Cheetos,” Haskins said.
When she headlined a feminist media conference in Boston at the end of March, Haskins said she was “surprised” when she saw that people were calling what she did feminist. To Haskins, her perspective is just “normal.” One woman asked her during the Q&A portion if it bothered her that her male colleagues sometimes made misogynistic jokes. Haskins laughed that she didn’t go around the office doing a “joke check.” After all, “Comedy is not always safe and nice to everybody,” Haskins said. “I don’t think we have anything on Infomania either that’s really in poor taste or that I would find extremely offensive and if it was I would probably mention it, but I haven’t encountered that problem. It’s not like a frat show.”
Haskins has found some small success with her “Target Women” segment on Infomania, but she, like others in Los Angeles, is hoping to make it big. “I just sold a screenplay with my writing partner, a friend I knew from college. That’s very exciting. The protagonists are two girls,” she said. “That’s been awesome and hopefully it’ll get made. That’s sort of the Hollywood thing and where you don’t know if any of that will ever happen.”
Hollywood is known for being a tough town for women writers. As I pointed out in a recent article, only 12 percent of screenwriters in the top-grossing films last year were women. Haskins also noted that in her own experience with peddling a screenplay she felt women in the industry were more receptive to her work. “I feel like female producers maybe on the next level like TV or film are inclined to look at a female-oriented project or pitch and be a little kinder to it. You know, maybe take a second look at it because people are looking for young female writers,” she said. “I definitely have met with more women since I’ve been out here in Hollywood.”
At the feminist conference she headlined, one exasperated feminist asked her how we could deal with the massive amounts of sexist stereotypes we see in everyday culture. Haskins responded, “By making jokes?” Most likely, Haskins is right. One of the best ways to deal with modern anti-feminist absurdities might just be to laugh about them.
Kay Steiger is an associate editor at Campus Progress.
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