What’s it like to be a woman in comedy? “I would say it’s 1% jokes and spending 99% of my time answering this question.”
These words by comedian Aparna Nancherla resonate with many women in the business. We asked fellow comedian Jen Kober, currently featured on Netflix’s “RuPaul’s AJ & The Queen” and on Disney +’s “Diary of a Female President” if she can relate. “Oh, my God, yes. That’s brilliant,” she laughs, sensing that she is about to be asked the same question.
“I’m aghast that men do so well in comedy,” she says. “I don’t get it. I see men – mostly white boys – dominating something that seems so right for women.” Louisiana born Kober has always been a communicator. Her language, gesticulation, acting and argumentation skills became her most important tools during her childhood and earned her three national competitive speech championships during high school.
But what got her into comedy? “As a teenager, I heard about a bar in New Orleans that was doing stand-up comedy nights and I wanted to give it a try,” she recalls. “I was 16 at the time but lied about my age in order to get a slot”. It took courage, but once Kober was on stage, there was no going back.
“I remember that first routine very clearly,” she says. “I talked about how I had heard my parents having sex through the air conditioning ventilator in my room.”
She had the audience in stitches and decided to invite her parents to watch her perform again the following night. They accepted her invitation – not knowing that their daughter’s routine would reveal their own bedroom secrets. “I remember my dad turning red at first but then starting to laugh uncontrollably,” says Kober.
Not all men have shown Kober the same level of support. “I can have the audience in the palm of my hand, laughing the entire time, losing bladder control but it’s happened more than once that someone comes up to me afterwards to deliver a negative comment,” says Kober.
After a show in Canada, a man told her “you were pretty funny for a girl.” “Comments like that are easy to take to heart especially when you’re only starting out, but I’ve learned not to take it personally,” she says after pointing out that everything is subjective.
“There are entertainers who I don’t like either and that don’t speak to me,” she says. During her shows, Kober herself tries to do material that brings people together and makes them stay in the room. Either because they are enjoying her show – or because they are curious to see where she’s going next.
Kober, who received the 2018 Comedic Performance of the Year for her story “Nana Vs. OJ”, has just embarked on a 10-month long tour that will take her all over the U.S. Looks like 2020 is bound to be a big year for her. Her roles as Officer Lafayette on “RuPaul’s AJ & The Queen” and Ms. Gregory, a saucy science teacher on “Diary of a Female President” are adding to the wide spectrum of TV roles she has taken on alongside her stand-up comedy career.
When Jen reflects on how she has developed as an entertainer and on her comedy style over the years, she says,
“In the beginning of my career, my routines would often be about my size.”
Kober would win the audience over with food-loving stories and shaming of “skinny bitches.” She has since lost 100 pounds and although the “fat girl” was still very much her image, she realised that it was a filter through which she saw the world and that she needed to move away from emphasizing her size at every show.
“I guess you can say that I’ve become more daring over the years and my aim is no longer to entertain only like-minded people. That would be too easy. As an openly lesbian, left-minded woman, I’m bound to step on some people’s toes – and that’s all right,” she says.
One of the people who, with time, has distanced themselves from Kober is her mother. Kober jokes about her mother got so angry at one point got she took out a restraining order to prevent Kober from talking about her. “But I didn’t care. So I’ve been arrested five times – and let me tell you, it doesn’t give you a lot of street credit when “real” criminal women ask you what you’ve done and you say “I said something bad about my mommy,” she says and bursts into laughter.
She confesses to finding the situation difficult but remains upbeat and focused on positivity. For Kober, this means following what she seems to do best: “My focus is always about making the audience laugh so hard it hurts.” Looking at the trajectory of her success, Kober is certainly headed for greater heights.
I do notice, however, as we bring the conversation to a close and end the interview on a lighter note, that there is no mention of Kober’s age anywhere.
“Interesting observation,” she says. “I haven’t kept my age a secret deliberately but I have also not shouted it out. I was born in 1973 which makes me 46 years old – but I’ve been blessed with a baby face and good genes,” she smiles.
Jen Kober on women in comedy versus men in comedy:
“Women are so good at connecting and I have always felt that comedy is carved out for a woman’s emotional intelligence. In fact, all my role models in comedy are women. I feel female comedians tend to be more invested in what they do. Especially in the beginning of their careers, whereas guys often seem to be thinking “I’m drunk, I can tell a couple of jokes – let’s see how it goes.”