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What started out as a reaction by two Boston women fighting gender inequality in the local comedy scene has grown into the city's biggest comedy festival. The Women in Comedy Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday, is now a national destination, with its message of acceptance and laughter.
It all got started when festival co-founder Michelle Barbera, who was coming up in the Boston comedy scene in the early 2000s, noticed a problem.
“I just kept seeing this pattern over and over where we would see these lineups that were almost all men, sometimes no women," she said. "And it was everywhere.”
At the time, Barbera was performing in improv troupes and dabbling in standup, and she was seeing that the gender disparity was leading to another problem.
“When you consistently have one or two women on a show and then seven or eight men, the women seem to get targeted as, 'Oh, she wasn’t funny, and there was only one woman, so therefore women aren’t funny.' Whereas maybe four of the guys weren’t funny, but they don’t get that same sort of pressure,” she said.
So in 2009, Barbera, and another Boston comedian, Maria Ciampa, launched the Women in Comedy Festival with the hopes that showcasing women would help close the gender gap.
At first, the festival was a modest affair, occurring entirely in the two rooms at Cambridge’s ImprovBoston. Today, the Women in Comedy Festival is a sprawling five-day event, hosted in 19 venues throughout greater Boston.
Since its inspiration, the scope and message of the festival has attracted some of the brightest stars in comedy, and opened some heavy doors for the stars of tomorrow.
One of those stars is Jenny Zigrino, who is an alumna of the Women in Comedy Festival and this year returns as a headliner. She got her start in comedy while a student Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and is now filming her first special for Comedy Central.
Here’s a clip from her performance on Conan O’Brien's show:
The comedy festival is now the biggest in Boston, and also a national destination. This year’s comedians include Rachel Dratch, Aparna Nancherla and Rita Rudner.
On a recent evening at The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, performers fine tune their acts in preparation for the festival.
Here's comedian Erin Spencer, who is originally from southern New Hampshire:
Spencer's set, which talked a lot about her experience as a transgender woman, is as provocative as it is funny. Since she began her transition, turning adversity into laughter has been the trademark.
Though Boston’s comedy scene used to be difficult for women to break into, let alone for transgender women, Spencer now finds it welcoming. She hopes this year’s festival will bolster the local comedy scene, allowing her to share her story and jokes with a wider audience.
“I really found a kind of a voice for myself and a community that was helpful in allowing me to be myself and talk about it, as opposed to just sort of hiding it,” she said.
Across the Charles River, Martie Cook leads a program in Comedic Arts at Emerson College, which also focuses on gender equality in comedy. She says she's seeing progress.
“For the first time, as I look at students, they are a group of people whose parents have raised them right. They are people who are accepting, more accepting than I have ever seen, and I think that is also going to help comedians in the future," she said.
Nevertheless, eight years after Barbera founded the festival, she said she still sees persistent sexism in the industry.
"It's this bias that's inside people's heads — that women just aren't as funny — that is hard for people to get over, especially when you're in an atmosphere where you are really in the minority," Barbera said.
The Women in Comedy Festival remains a corrective to that imbalance by putting women comedians in the spotlight.
"And you stop thinking about it and then you just think of them as comedians," Barbera said. "And that's what they are: They're just comedians."
And for five nights this week, the festival audience will look beyond gender and simply appreciate the performers for what they do.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Jenny Zigrino's alma mater. She attended MassArt. We regret the error.
This segment aired on April 19, 2017.