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1812's the Women and Comedy Project – An Interview with Jennifer Childs

Jen Childs

From April 25 to May 19, experience the culmination of 3 years interviewing, work-shopping, and exploring funny women and their stories with a three-act performance, It’s My Party: the Women and Comedy Project. 1812 Production’s Artistic Director Jennifer Childs began the project in 2010 based on two questions: “How do women use comedy and how does that usage change as they age?” Childs, through this lens, investigates “transformations—fear transforming into joy, ugliness transforming into beauty—and the unique and powerful role that comedy and laughter can play in making that transformation possible.”

1812 Productions invites you (both men and women) to participate in the project by writing a Mom Poem, a sort of mad libs experience that starts “I had this dream that I became my mother…” Selected Mom Poems will be displayed in various locations in Center City Philadelphia.

Recently, I got a chance to interview Jennifer Childs about this one-of-a-kind theatrical event and her thoughts on comedy, stereotypes, and women’s issues.

Katy Diana for CultureMob: You advertise It’s My Party as an “extravaganza,” what form will it take on stage? How did you impose structure on such a complex project?

Jennifer Childs: This is a great question – the structure was actually one of the most difficult things for me to settle on. During the workshops I experimented with so many different comedic styles and points of focus – they were all really interesting and not only relevant but necessary to the telling of this story, this experience – I didn’t feel like there was anything I could leave out. Then the interviews that I did with women in the community were so beautiful, so honestly funny, I thought “Well I can’t leave that out either”. But I had no idea how to connect it all.

So I came up with a three-act structure that functions more like a piece of music with a variety of movements that are all connected. The idea was inspired by a Rolling Stone article I read about the band Green Day whose latest album is actually three albums. Each act has its own feel, its own set and looks at a different aspect of how women are funny – three acts, three parties, three ages of comedy – but are all connected.

Act One is The Lecture and is the most straight-forward narrative piece. It’s about stereotypes and slapstick humor – it feels young, it’s about being too big for the world, too extreme. Act Two is The Ritual and looks at how we take difficult experiences and transform them into the funny stories that we tell around the kitchen table with our girlfriends over a glass of wine. It draws on stories from the interviews and from the cast. Its that middle time, that feeling-small-in-the-world time and using humor to fight through that. Finally Act Three is The Rave and it’s a rap-filled, stand-up show meets rock concert celebration of the individual humor of all of the ladies. While the feel is very contemporary, this act was actually inspired by the interviews and workshops I did with older women, one of whom said – “When I turned 60 I said f— it, it’s my party. I am living for me and no one else.” That spirit is what Act 3 is about.

KD: In your blog, I saw that you’ve been feeling pressure to try to represent every woman. How are you wrestling with that?

JC: That’s an ongoing battle but ultimately I know if I try to write for everyone I will end up writing something that is so incredibly beige and boring. I can only tell the story as I have experienced it and I’ve found with past work that the more specific I am, the more universal the work is.

KD: Have you found, with this project, that a woman’s sense of humor transforms with age?

JC: Wow – this is the hardest question to answer because that’s really it isn’t it? That’s what this whole thing was about right? This answer may be a bit convoluted because I’m still looking for the language to say what I want to say about this but here’s where I am…yes. Our humor does transform with age but not in the way I expected. I used to think that when women got older they owned themselves in a way that allowed them to care less what people thought and to be really honestly funny in their own unique ways. I think that is true but at what age that happens is different for everyone and, if we’re lucky, it happens again and again. I find that I – and I will only speak for myself – I keep rising up to meet myself – I keep finding these little oases of self-ownership where for a shining moment or two I don’t care what people think and I am free enough to be my own true unique funny.

My Mom said it best – “This growing up sh*t is hard. Even when you’re old.”

KD: There’s a part of me (as a blonde) that still enjoys a blonde joke. In your show, do you see yourself manipulating stereotypes for your own purposes, or trying to steer clear from them as much as possible?

JC: We dive into stereotypes head on and dissect them – so I guess we are “manipulating stereotypes for our own purposes.” Right now, in the first act, one of the women is lecturing on the fact that stereotypes are not funny while the other women in the scene are proving otherwise. Then, as a part of the presentation, they break down stereotypes to show exactly how and why they are funny or not funny depending on context, audience and the details of each.

KD: I’ve been reading Knowing Your Value, by Mika Brzezinski and some of it is humorous because it lays down all these hurdles and lines a woman must jump and walk in the work place to get paid what they are worth. Does your show highlight any women’s issues in the workplace and in politics?

JC: Yes – even if we do not tackle it head on, those issues lurk around all women’s humor as far as I’m concerned. Who we are as women and as comedians is shaped by the world we live in and, let’s be frank, a lot of the discussion around women’s issues of late has been insane (see Todd Akin’s legitimate rape, Bob McDonnell’s vaginal probe and Richard Murdock’s a child of rape is a gift from God comment).

KD: Who do you admire in comedy these days? What are your go to comedians for a laugh?

JC: Tig Notaro makes me laugh really hard. I recently saw Joan Rivers in Atlantic City and she was amazing – totally outrageous, totally funny. And I’m still a sucker for old stand-bys like The Carol Burnett Show, The Simpsons and anything by Mel Brooks or Christopher Guest.

KD: Say you’re at a cocktail party and you hear someone blather the stereotype that “women aren’t funny”. What you would say to them (or wish you would say to them)?

JC: I don’t think I’d say anything. I’d do an athletic pratfall and spill my drink on him. Then, in an attempt to get up from the floor while still holding my napkin full of canapés I’d use his pantlegs for leverage. Once he was on the floor with me, covered in honey-mustard dipping sauce from my pigs in a blanket, I would climb on top of him, apologize profusely, spit in my palms and say “Here let me fix your hair”, then realize that I recognize him from the Renaissance Faire where he wanted to be known as Gladfanny the Wizardtickler because that was his hobbit name and then tell everyone around us stop laughing because it isn’t funny.

KD: How do you think women will continue to shape comedy in the future?

JC: See above.

Purchase tickets on 1812 Production’s website or call (215)592-9560.  It’s My Party: the Women and Comedy Project runs from 4/25 to 5/19 at the Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancy Street, Center City Philadelphia.