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St. Paul, Minn. — Stand-up, sketch comedy and improv have long been dominated by men. While there have been female comics doing routines in the U.S. since at least the late 1800s, they were never more than a handful. But in the past few decades female comics have been taking over more territory on stage and on television: Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O'Donnell to name a few. In recent years the number of roles for women at Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis have also grown, primarily because Katy McEwen and Shanan Wexler are writing them.
"People write what they know," says McEwen, "so if you're a man, you're probably not going to write a part for a woman. As women, we do the same thing. We could probably be accused of never writing parts for men, because we don't."
Comedians Katy McEwen and Shanan Wexler are going over scripts at Wexler's St. Paul home. Wexler, a new mom, says comedy is everywhere around you -- if you know how to look. In her case, her own daughter is a regular source of laughs.
Neither Wexler or McEwen found comedy early in life. McEwen moved to Minnesota from Ohio with her husband to pursue what she calls "serious theater" but then fell in love with comedy at Brave New Workshop, a local incubator for comic talent.
"I would not have considered myself a comedian up to that point - comedienne or however you say it," says McEwen. "I had taken one improv class in college and I was terrible at it because I got railroaded by all the guys in all the scenes."
McEwan says it's common for women to take a while to warm up to doing improvisation, one of the key skills in comedy.
"It's a very aggressive art form, so men tend to pick up on that faster," says McEwen. "They can just jump right out and do something whereas women tend to listen more and be a team player and so what will happen is you just sit and listen, and everybody else does."
McEwen says ironically, those skills -- listening and being a team player -- later help women to be even better comedians once they've broken through their initial hesitation.
Shanan Wexler first pursued comedy after getting a Ph.D. in theater history, theory and criticism; not exactly light fare. She began working with Brave New Workshop just as Jesse Ventura was elected governor. She says it was a comic goldmine. Still, she says, it took her a while to truly feel comfortable as a comedian.
"I've got quite a few scenes under my belt where I didn't say much, I nodded a lot and was amicable, but not funny at all," says Wexler.
Wexler says she developped as a comic by avoiding playing common stereotypes (e.g. the waitress, the wife) and by refusing to use her physical appearance as the butt of her jokes.
Brave New Workshop creates shows through brainstorming and a lot of writing. As core performers, McEwen and Wexler are involved in show production at every step. It's gotten to the point where audiences expect women to play a major part in Brave New Workshop shows. Last year Katy's husband, Caleb McEwen, and BNW alum Matthew Craig put on a sketch comedy show titled Martha Stewart: Prison Vixen. Wexler says the guys took some flack for not having any women in their show.
"We haven't had one person ask us 'where are the men? Where are the men in your show? That's ridiculous that you don't have any men.' So it's an interesting sort of double standard in that way," says Wexler.
While the goal of any sketch comedy show is to make people laugh, Shanon Wuexler says they're interested in challenging people's ideas as well.
"The theme of our show is fear," says Wexler. "The inconsequential, ridiculous fears that Americans have when they should be worrying about greater things. We're actually worried about carbs and things like that. We can't get away from the fact we're women, but we didn't go and write a feminist tract in any way."
At a recent preview night, McEwen and Wexler tried out their material on a receptive audience. Some scenes get more laughs than others, but on the whole it's a solid show, packed with skits on everything from Iraq to potty training. McEwen says she enjoys balancing humor with complex issues; it's difficult but satisfying work. What frustrates her, she says, is not seeing equally complex humor performed by women in movies.
"In film who are our comic male stars? Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller -- people who actually have comedic skills. The women? It's Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock. Not that they're not fine actresses, but what makes it funny? They fall down, or they dress funny," says McEwen.
Still McEwen says she encourages other women to get involved in comic theater. She says there's lots of work to be had.
"It's the only art form where there's got to be women in every show," says McEwen. "So really the hiring rate of men to women is much more equal than your standard theater, say for example the Shakespeare company that auditions for 32 men and two women." Shanan Wexler agrees. She says there's never a dull moment, and she feels constantly stretched to use a variety of skills.
"In terms of all around complexity -- being able to deliver a joke, be loud enough, make it look effortless, move in the dark, be quick, think on your feet -- all those things at the same time - is great," says Wexler. "You can't get bored unless you're doing it wrong."