Breaking gender barriers through comedy

Local comedians created a new festival to highlight women and transgender comics.

Diane Bones teaches a humor writing course and sees women struggling in the industry. | LINH THAN TTN

For comedian Beth Eisenberg, the most important reason for women to be involved in Philadelphia’s comedy scene is so they can “find the right man to marry.”

Eisenberg is just ridiculing sexist beliefs about women and men, of course—particularly ones that prevail in the comedy world. Eisenberg said it’s important to realize “women are people” with “the same perspectives and talents,” which is why she, along with members of the comedy Facebook group “Improvaries,” created The Bechdel Test Fest, a new festival created by local female comedians looking to give women a platform to be recognized for their work.

“The festival came out of a couple of people saying, ‘Hey, this is cool,’ and I jumped on to help with fundraising,” said Eisenberg, who performs under the name Betty Smithsonian. “It was a very, very collaborative effort.”

Eisenberg launched an Indiegogo campaign to cover the costs of the festival, and ended up raising enough money to not only run the event, but donate to charity as well.

“We raised over $2,000 with our [Indiegogo], and individual and corporate sponsorships,” Eisenberg said. “We only needed to reserve the space and buy T-shirts for the performers, so we get to make donations to Career Wardrobe and Dawn’s Place.”

The Bechdel Test Fest will be the first annual comedy event celebrating women and transgender comedians. What started with a small group of female improvisation comedians in 2014 has grown into a full-fledged festival, which will showcase improv, sketch and stand-up.

There will be about a hundred comedians performing, Eisenberg said, including Kate Banford from Good Good Comedy and the award-winning duo Proper Dodgy.

“We wanted to include as many performances as possible, so we aren’t doing any workshops,” Eisenberg said. “But we have money reserved for next year to fill up a workshop. Someone with a bigger name that will bring in a lot of people.”

Though the organizers and participants aim to open doors for women and transgender comedians, they also hope to remind festival goers why comedy is so important.

“In this culture, white middle-class America, there is this really intense experience of what’s happening on the planet all the time, and it can be graphic and explicit and violent,” Eisenberg said. “Comedy helps us process this. My friend says she can just go to rehearsal, and not talk about work or life—she can just be there. For me, my experience is that comedy helps me reset. Comedy wakes me up.”

Eisenberg said the festival will “strengthen the comedy scene of Philadelphia within the lens of gender equality.”

“The point of Bechdel is to open up this space for all women and transgender across the country,” she added. “We need to celebrate this very strong community—we are all each other’s biggest fans.”

The more women seen on stage, being supported, the more other women will feel inspired, she added. Eisenberg hopes the festival will be a “clear example of what’s to come in the future for the female comedy world.”

“Go to any comedy club, turn on any stand-up comedy channel and you’ll see that they are dominated by men,” said Diane Bones, a Temple Writing Humor professor. “Events that encourage women to shine provide them with the extra nudge to blossom.”

Comedy is no different than any other business, Bones added, and women are still pushing through the glass ceiling. Exposing women to “smart humor from other confident women” will inspire them to share “their unique, quirky, funny view of the world,” she said.

“Bottom line, stand-up comedy—the rawest and purest form of humor—demands guts, originality and intelligence to truly captivate an audience,” Bones said. “If you can make a crowd laugh and think, gender should be irrelevant.”

Tsipora Hacker can be reached at

CORRECTION: In a version of this story that also ran in print on Jan. 26, Beth Eisenberg was identified as the sole creator of the Bechdel Test Fest. In actuality, the members of an online Facebook group called “Improvaries” created the festival. 

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