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Today in things that make us scream incoherently

Guy Asks Brad Sherwood Why Women Are “So Bad At Improv;” Brad Sherwood Politely Responds

Someone asking badly worded question on Reddit is not news. But if the person being asked the question is Brad Sherwood and his response to the question is level-headed and classy, we will cover that. Especially if it concerns women in comedy. Because when someone poses the question: “Why are women so bad at improv?” and Brad Sherwood — pictured above on the right with frequent improv partner Colin Mochrie — can be more civilized than I could ever manage to be (and recognize the easily missed specificity of the question asked) that response merits a little coverage. I, in the meantime, will just silently rage that this is still even an issue that is being discussed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am very familiar with the sketch and improv scene here in NYC. I haven’t been involved in it in a while, but I have done both sketch — which is written and rehearsed — and improv — which is about 92% off the top of the head and unrehearsed. (Sometimes people have characters developed ahead of time.) So yes indeed, this is extremely close to my heart.

That said, seriously? People are still asking why women aren’t funny? Not even “Are women funny?” — “Why aren’t women funny?” Is this supposed to be some ironic, contrarian point of view to which people are expected to be suddenly enlightened? Or just ignorance? Or just chauvinism? Here is the first part of the question, asked by user Cptn_Janeway to Brad Sherwood of the improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?:

“This question has been bugging me for a while now and I just had to ask you. Why are women so bad at improv? Search your feelings, you know it to be true. Ive [sic] been rewatching all of WLIIA and the women are usually really bad (save: kathy greenwood sometimes.)”

So, giving Cptn_Janeway the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume that the only improv he’s ever seen is on WLIIA. First of all, I recognize the talents of the performers on the show. They’re awesome. They crack me up. But oftentimes on that show, what we see on TV is the result of something that came after the initial improvisation. Several accounts of people who saw tapings of the show describe the performers improvising a scene, then finding the game, and then doing the scene from that. And that’s what ends up on TV. That’s how improv works, but that’s also how it turns into a loosely rehearsed sketch. So while they’re improvising on WLIIA, what we see on TV might actually be a sketch that came about as a result of improv.

That all said, Cptn_Janeway might not know the first thing about improv. So we’ll forgive him for that.

Unless Cptn_Janeway was only referring to the women who perform on WLIIA. And after reading through the comment thread — which took on the completely predictable tones of both outrage at his wording and “was good until it got invaded by feminists”Cptn_Janeway acknowledged that he was referring only to women on WLIIA, and that yeah, his question sounded totally sexist.

Okay, good. But still, are the women on WLIAA “so bad at improv,” or is there more to this? Let’s dissect Sherwood’s response:


Excellent question.

Wait, what? Okay, Brad Sherwood is a comedian. I choose to believe he’s being sarcastic. Or extremely diplomatic.

Improv women have a huge hurdle to overcome when performing.

Please don’t tell me that hurdle is a penis.

They are playing with men, who bulldoze over them.

Oh. Well, that would be true of any established improv troupe, such as the one that regularly appeared on WLIIA.

Watch how many times a woman is trying to say something in a scene and gets over-talked by a guy. It is tough for a woman to break through the male energy on the show. It’s kind of like playing mental football with big, loud, impolite, excited “man-boys”. The guys are just louder, and all rushing to get their ideas heard. So, a lot of great “woman-ideas” in a scene just get missed and the woman comes across as not adding something. That is why so many successful female comedy performers and stand-ups in history have loud/brash (almost male) personalities.

As Sherwood explains, the issue is not that the women who performed on WLIIA were not funny — they were just never regular members of the troupe. Improvisers who perform with each other develop a rhythm and learn how to read each other’s minds and beats, and when a newcomer — regardless of gender — enters the mix, it’s just hard to keep up.

Improv is hard, and when you’re trying to improvise with people who have been improvising together for years, it’s even harder. For anyone. Period.

It’s easily comparable to unsuccessful hosts on Saturday Night Live. Some of those hosts happen to be women, but a lot of them are also men. They just can’t keep up with sketch comedians because they don’t perform sketch comedy, and if they do, it probably wasn’t with the cast and crew of SNL. Take Jane Lynch, an accomplished comedic actress. She comes from the heavily improvised Christopher Guest movies and most recently, is on a scripted dramedy. (Called Glee. You might have heard of it.) But in the sketch comedy format, her performance felt awkward. Some sketches were good, but the show as a whole fell a bit flat. But it was most likely the fault of the writers not knowing how to write for this kind of comedic performer, at least not in the small amount of time they had. But does that make Jane Lynch bad at comedy because she was unsuccessful on one comedy show? No way! No way in the world. Same goes for the female improvisers on WLIIA.

And again, it has nothing to do with gender. John Hamm was an awesome host. So was Anne Hathaway. But January Jones sucked. So did Robert DeNiro. And so did every single male athlete who has ever been on SNL ever. (Except for Peyton Manning. He was hilarious.)

So, can we stop talking about how women aren’t funny now? Because it’s getting old.


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  • Briana Hall

    It’s a great point, and it happens all the time in business, too. Generalizing here, but men quite often will talk over or bulldoze each other without giving it a second thought. I can say though from personal experience that when I’ve adopted the same behaviors, using my male counterparts as models, I’ve been criticized for “interrupting” and “being too aggressive.” Tsk, tsk.

  • Holly

    Love this! Anyone who says women aren’t good at improv have obviously never seen the genius of Amy Poehler on the amazing Upright Citizens Brigade television show on Comedy Central. And the gals over on Reno 911! (Kerri Kenney-Silver, who also did the hilarious The State, Niecy Nash, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Mary Birdsong) might have something to say about women not being good at improv, too. Tina Fey’s roots are also in improv and she’s fantastic. I’d like to also throw a shout out to Debra Wilson and Mo Collins and Samantha Bee.

  • Anonymous

    I’m terribly amused that such a question was asked by someone who named themselves after a female Star Trek captain.

  • Bryan Castañeda

    The question is so obviously stupid that it doesn’t deserve a response. If the person thinks women aren’t funny, fine, they aren’t. Those of use who find them funny will be over here enjoying ourselves and the questioner can join us when and if he changes his mind.

  • Anonymous

    It’s an annoying question, but the replies claiming all women are funny are just as sexist. Some women are funny, some (like me) are not, and it’s not because I am or am not a woman. 
    What I find odd about the question is that he occasionally finds Kathy Greenwood funny! Of all the women on Whose Line!
    Although now that I think about it, the women on the British Whose Line are much funnier. There are far more cast members and while there were regulars, there was much more variation. Perhaps this is proving the point that with a greater variation of people, there is more opportunity for hilarity 

  • MickieMousseau

    I don’t know if you count Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as an athlete or an actor but you have got to admit he was funny when he hosted SNL

  • Sarah

    I have so much love for Josie Lawrence.

  • Craig L Wittler

    Women in Improv? Well, go far enough back and you have Elaine May, who
    started out in the original Second City troupe and had an equal
    partnership with Mike Nichols for a decade of quality funnies. If you follow Sherwood’s observations, it
    certainly helped May that Nichols had a relatively low-key style.

    The first cast of SNL had two improv vets, Gilda Radner from Second City
    Toronto and Lorraine Newman from L.A.’s The Groundlings. Radner brought
    a bunch of characters to the show from her improv days, but I liked
    Newman almost as much for doing less extreme roles.

    Speaking of Second City Toronto, the SCTV series had several very
    underrated performers in the shadows of John Candy and Rick Moranis, not
    the least of whom were Andrea Martin (like Radner, the loud one) and
    Catherine O’Hara (like Newman, the quiet one).

    And back to SNL, most of its best female-gendered cast members have
    improv backgrounds, including Jan Hooks and Maya Rudolph from The
    Groundlings, and OF COURSE Tina Fey from Second City Chicago.

    The British version of Whose Line seemed to have somewhat stronger female performers than Drew Carey’s crew – or was it because it was British the male performers were more polite? But Josie Lawrence was a standout there and I never understood why she didn’t ‘cross the pond’ for the US edition.

    And Geek Goddess Felicia Day has an improv background that she still
    exercises as part of a 3-woman 5-man group called Hammer (Donthurt’em)
    Improv. I saw a live stream of one of their shows online last year (love
    that internet) and she was great as were her castmates Tara
    Perry and Brooke Seguin. Remember those names – if they both don’t
    become stars, Hollywood’s as screwed up as it seems.

  • Audra Goffeney

    I recently had a bar conversation after a Theatresports (TM) show about this very topic (sort of)!
    The cast for this particular night was entirely male. The performers, individually, are some of the most inspiring comedians, improvisers and actors I know (and I know a lot of talented folks). However, this particular show, the guys had a lot of trouble connecting with each other, the show was alright, the audience enjoyed themselves, but sitting, watching the show with a fellow improviser who knows these men as well, you could see them struggling with themselves and each other.
    After the show, someone asked if the dynamic would have been different if a woman had been on stage. And because I know and work with thoughtful, intelligent performers the questions rapidly became, “Who?” and “Why do we assume we weren’t listening to each other because we’re all guys?”
    We ended up spending a great deal of time talking about evolutionary psychology and how it relates to the improv world. We also talked about how good improv comes from having a diverse troupe who are willing to learn by playing with new folks.
    It’s a controlling improviser’s job to realize when they’re steamrolling and pull back, it shouldn’t be the guest’s job to call them on their crap. A good improviser knows when to drive and when to support a scene (always, always listen to your partner). Our goal on stage is to tell a story and support each other so the audience feels safe.  Bad improvisers are improvisers who are scared or ungenerous. That happens to both genders.
    I suppose I’m telling you this so you know there’s thoughtful discourse happening around the subject of gender in comedy and improv. (And also, if you’re an improviser, to say “Don’t be a douche. We’re all in this together.”)
    End Soapbox.

  • Audra Goffeney

    Carl, you’ve forgotten Viola Spolin, the most important person in improv history. She was woman before she died.

  • Eric Bazilio

    As a budding actor, I admire anyone who has a career in improvising. Having tried it few times, I’ll say that shit is scary. Scary and fun.

    Kudos to Mr. Sherwood in keeping his reply respectable.

  • Jennifer Doveton

     the real question is: why is Drew Carey so bad at improv even though he seems to exclusively work in the improv field!
    I think we have a case of when a male performer isn’t funny he’s just having and off day and when a female performer doesn’t induce laughter it’s cos she’s female.

  • Eric Bazilio

    Drew Carey has a awful lot of off days. That’s all. >.>

  • Anonymous

    This guy needs to watch the Australian “Thank God You’re Here” 
    Maybe its just Female Australian Comedians are brilliant ;-)