Beyond Equality? | Holly Mandel

Holly Mandel has been a teacher with The Groundlings in the US and has founded her own improv school, Improvolution, bringing the character-based approach to many students in NYC. She has been touring her original talk on women’s development “Good Girls Aren’t Funny” – that she is bringing to Bristol Sunday 16th June. In this blog, she talks about fighting for what you want, beyond the term “equality”.


I have been giving my talk, GOOD GIRLS AREN’T FUNNY for over 6 years now and one of the many things I love about doing it is it pushes me to engage with it fresh each time. What is striking me about it this time? What insights have I had that might apply? What have I heard, read, saw, or experienced that might be relevant now?

A few years ago I watched a documentary by Bonnie McFarland, WOMEN AREN’T FUNNY, which was a personal exploration as an east coast stand up comedian on the topic. I don’t know much first hand about the stand up world and it was interesting to watch, trying to figure out what it must be like as a budding (or even well-established) female comic in that world – the world of having to clock time on the road, dark bars in small towns, with awful “free” housing. Besides the obvious lifestyle situations not always friendly to gals that I’d heard about (it being a boy’s club, hooking up after shows, excessive drinking) I learned about Comedy Condos…where the booking venue puts comics up for free. It’s usually a rented apartment where several comics all pile in to at once. In theory they are supposed to be clean with clean linens, etc but apparently that is usually never the case. Imagine frat houses, according to the doc. And a woman was interviewed saying she is often the only female staying in one of these glorified dorm rooms and said more or less it’s fantastic conditions for unwanted attention from the guys, at the VERY best.

It got me thinking…hell no. If I had to be a stand up, I just wouldn’t do it that way. Why do we have to do it THAT way just because that’s how a certain sector of people do it? I’d want to do it differently. My imagination went rampant…I’d rent a big house, invite all my favorite people over, we’d serve nice appetizers, wine, and do comedy but in really comfy clothes and great lighting. Ok so clearly my amazing model may never actually take off…BUT…shortly after my little insight, I have been tracking 2 things:

  1. YOU TUBE BILLBOARDS ALONG SUNSET IN LA. Driving along Sunset I saw their new campaigns for popular “comedy channels”. And much to my delight, the majority…almost EVERY SINGLE ONE…was a woman’s face.
  2. THE BOUTIQUE GYM CRAZE IN NYC. I joined ClassPass a few years ago and just about every class I attend is NOT at a huge, noisy, crowded smelly gym. It’s at smaller, clean, friendly boutique gyms, often run and owned by women. Attended by mainly women. Focusing on what women want to focus on. It’s like going to a massive Holiday Inn all your lifeand then suddenly discovering charming B&Bs. There are people who love Holiday Inns. AND there are people who prefer B&Bs. (now I am a Crossfit addict…I love the grit, grime and noisy unglamorous culture of every single Crossfit gym I go to. I ALSO love the boutique gyms for different reasons and for different styles of work outs…like Barre and Core Strength classes. I like that I have options.)

These seemingly unrelated examples struck me as being similar in a very core way: THIS is how we’re doing it OUR way.

When I was growing up in St. Louis, equality to me meant, consciously but also very subconsciously, we were allowed to do what the boys did. Which implies “getting to do what they boys do” means they have more value. Counts more. Which I believes means they – guys – count more. The water didn’t flow both ways…guys didn’t suddenly think, oh GOOD! Now we too get to do what the girls do. Clearly, the focus was on breaking down the barriers that existed between the genders. A-FUCKING-MEN. But I think right now there’s a groundswell that goes beyond this leveling of the playing field. It looks like women deciding – because we CAN – how we want to do things. How we want our comedy to look. How we want to express it and expose it. “Thanks for letting us into your world guys, but I don’t necessarily want to gothere after all. I’m interested in going over here…”

I see sketches and web series popping up daily all created, performed, directed, and edited by women. No one is asking permission any more…and anyone who IS is finding themselves banging their head against a wall that isn’t there any more. There are all-women improv teams popping up. I know so many women improvisers struggling with sexist and demoralizing moments in their classes and on stage with their ‘teams’ seeing that trying to change the current system (often created and run by straight white men…sorry dudes, it’s just true) isn’t happening very fast. So how far out and independent do women have to go to stop trying to fit into a model that doesn’t feel right or serve them? It’s certainly a moment to see two options (at least) appearing all over the map: try to fix and evolve the current model, or create your own. I’m digging the second one. I don’t think equality means, necessarily and in every case, we have the right to say, “I don’t like your model. Change it.” It’s their model, whomever THEY are. They started it, they invested in it, it’s working for them. Great. Should we let them know why it isn’t working for us? Yes. But it’s up to them to change it. I think equality means we have rights. We have the right to join their model. We also have the right to start our own.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples of how this is happening — and mind you, it’s happening without a prescribed “leader” or organization leading the way. That’s why I find it completely exciting and significant…it’s a groundswell. Women have come so far in such a short amount of time! It blows me away sometimes…our joy at collaborating, at showing up for each other, for preferring to work together, create together, BE together seems new to me. Compared to what little I have read about the amazing movement in the 60′s that changed everything. While women marched side by side and toppled buildings and walls together, the unity didn’t last. As a matter of fact, it was massive mistrust and infighting that seems to stop the Women’s Movement more than anything else from what I’ve heard about and read.

So I feel these signs are pointing to what is replacing the vacuum created by lack of opportunity and access. I once read somewhere, “Nature Abhors a Vacuum” and it seems the vacuum right now is starting to be filled by women who aren’t concerned about equality any more. They are beyond that. They are creating what they want on their own terms because they want to. And that’s fucking beautiful.


Holly Mandel will be teaching an Introduction to Character Workshop on Saturday 15th June 11am – 2pm – Tickets are £30 and can be purchased here

She will also be teaching Advanced Improv (Scenework, Character Development and Longform)Sunday 16th June 11am – 2pm. Tickets are £30 and can be purchased here

Holly will be giving her original talk Good Girls Aren’t Funny on Sunday 16th June at 8pm. Tickets are £8 and can be purchased here.

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