It's fairly rare that a group of women says "Hey, let's go to a stand-up comedy show." Just how many jokes about ugly women do you want to hear? Or sit through yet more stories of henpecked husbands or getting your date drunk to get laid? If you deal with screaming kids all day, do you really want to hear overgrown ones yell on stage at night? And how many times can you hear the F-word before it ceases to be funny?
So no wonder that the Four Funny Females stand-up show sells out wherever it goes. (The recently reviewed song-and-sketch show, Women Fully Clothed, is much the same.) Women need to laugh and are starved for opportunities that aren't laced with misogynist pitfalls. Comedians like Jake Johannsen and Mike Birbiglia don't come around that often.
But here's the twist: Once men have daughters, nieces and the like, they're looking for such opportunities, too. At the final show of Four Funny Females fifth season in McKinney last Saturday, the two fellows sitting on either side of me laughed often and heartily. Even at the jokes about dud dates and disengaged dads—because the women made fun of themselves and their gender just as much.
As much as a showcase of four female comics, it was a case study in how stand-ups develop. Opening comic Jodi Hadsell, the newest of the set, already had much timing and technique, and a hearty amount of guffaw-producing stuff, but her set was still in the episodic stage, lurching from bit to bit. Event producer and relatively novice comic Laura Bartlett, had a silky smooth set with good audience rapport, but her stage persona was not yet strong enough to get the guffaws. Sherry Belle, with many years experience, had total control of the audience, super improvisational flexibility and knew just how far she could push her material, yet still spends a bit too much time in the shallows. With over a decade of stage time, and insight as the owner of the Backdoor Comedy Club, headliner Linda Stogner had an act packed with thoughtful material and structured with dynamics and tempo.
Stogner's a trip, refreshingly not normal even in her day job as KERA video professional, but always uber competent. The stage Stogner is the real Stogner with heightened contrast: spaced out, Southern and surreal, with a twisted voice that mangles vowels and a hyper-animated body that looks like a mammalian whirligig. Quirky does not even begin to describe it and she opens with a routine on quirky—a Stogner trademark. She knows what your reactions to her weirdness will be and meets them head on, mining them for laughs while pressing the edge.
I woke up this morning laughing about her train story, even though I've heard it a few times. "How many people do you know who've hit a train? Yes, hit a train. 'How do you hit a train?' someone asked. Well, in the side." She tells of inching forward at a railroad crossing to see where the train was "…and then I went left for a long time." It's not just the wording of the story; it was the distorted twang, the arm gestures, the comical faces, and the acknowledgement that "Once you hit a train, people just won't let it go." No, we won't, Linda.
There's a certain density to Stogner's humor like it has its own gravity. You truly get sucked into her world. She concludes her act thanking the audience for visiting and that's very much the truth. I can't think of another comic who can do several minutes on nature, explaining why snakes need more than one fang, looking just like Kukla in the process, and pondering the predicament of bad bird singers. Much of the bit was devoted to bugs, with a spot-on imitation of a June bug and then conjecturing about God doling out characteristics to bugs, much to the disappointment of doodle or pill bugs, imagining them to think "Roll in a ball. That's it, that's all we get?" That's the sign of a great comedian: making funny out of nothing.
Sherry Belle's trajectory is on the upswing with great leaps in confidence from a few years ago. A naturally funny person, she's the kind of Southern belle with bouffant hair who seems so sweet yet at a party, will let loose with some snarky lines that inevitably incur a listener spit take at her audacity. Her syrupy delivery is perfect for her brand of naughtiness, especially in the "Nuns of Steel" joke, which was the punchline to a wonderful routine on Catholic church services. Belle's command of the stage is much improved, with a clever way of becoming intimate with the audience, and her increasingly physical comedy was showcased in a bit about celebrating business achievements as if they were touchdowns. Still mining her deep Louisiana childhood with a pot-smoking, Harley-riding dad, I'm betting money that her recent foray into motherhood is going to deepen her act.
While Stogner and Belle have their bite, Laura Bartlett is a "nice gal"—a line much repeated among Saturday night's audience. A home favorite of the McKinney crowd, she worked the local angle, with riffs on the auditorium of the McKinney Performing Arts Center hall being the former county courtroom. She takes her faith for a ride: "You'll never see one of those fish symbols on the back of my car," she said. "That's because I'm a Christian. I don't know what my car is." And get laughs from the low charisma of tongue cancer, which she overcame. Bartlett's come a long way from stage fright so bad she looked like a gray ghost, but I can't wait until this bank executive finds her inner bad girl.
Jodi Hadsell, on the other hand, was refreshingly audacious, something that promises to accelerate her development. She plunged right into the local conservative culture, noting that McKinney is where whites that found Plano to be too liberal went to live. Tweaking the audience about her black boyfriend, she asked if there were any other persons of color in attendance and folks indicated toward the sole black ticket-buyer out of the hundreds there. Her core routine works her day job as a tech geek and the fruitlessness of trying to meet nongeeks through online dating, merging the two in a bit on men as computers, noting that one loser was "such a Dell" and indicating she was looking for a touch-screen "MacDaddy" instead.
McKinney Performing Arts Center is a commendable venue in Collin County, which has far too few. Though the seating consists of pews of hard wood folding chairs bolted to the floor, pillows are provided, and the video, sound, and lighting system is first rate. Just remember that it is in the county courthouse and being a historical building there is no marque. The town square location means that most parking is in lots a couple blocks away. Downtown McKinney rolls up the pavement well before 10 p.m., even on weekends. So if you want to get a bite at one of the many nearby establishments, do it before the show.
◊ The next performance by Four Funny Females is to be announced.