Some of the women comics performing at the Roxy Theater on Friday have done routines during vastly different circumstances than male comics.
Keema Waterfield, a Missoula memoir writer and mother, continued honing her act on stage before and after her child was born. "I just told a lot of jokes about how much I hate pregnancy, and then I told a lot of jokes with a baby strapped to me," Waterfield said.
"I told a lot of jokes at her expense that I hope she grows up to find funny," she added.
When Sarah Aswell, a freelance writer and mother, was learning stand-up, she once bombed while wearing a shirt with milk stains on her chest.
The two said the local stand-up community, which has a growing percentage of women comics, is and was an important creative outlet, providing a sense of community and a sympathetic audience.
Becky Margolis, a five-year veteran of the local scene, said "the act of getting on stage as a female comic is sort of a political act." Her material isn't even political she said, but placing her voice on center stage and airing out her insecurities, can be.
Aswell said much of the enjoyment of stand-up comes from the way we identify with the person on stage. In an example that's mostly unprintable using direct quotations, she said a woman in the audience is less likely to identify with a man discussing the relative size of his genitalia compared to the ideal than she would with a woman doing a bit about her own intimate experience with said anatomy.
A line-up of women and nonbinary comics will perform on Friday at the Roxy for a benefit to mark the 45th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
The proceeds will go to Planned Parenthood of Montana and the Susan Wicklund Fund. The Livingston-based nonprofit, which gives financial support to Montanans who can't afford abortion care, is named after an abortion care provider in the region who retired in 2009.
"Without access to safe, affordable reproductive health care, including abortion care, we'll never see as many women on stage as there should be. Reproductive rights are inseparable from equality and opportunity," said Aislinn O'Connor, a comic from Bozeman.
The University of Montana graduate cut her teeth in the Portland, Oregon, comedy scene, and joined the fund's volunteer board after moving back to Montana.
She and Aswell co-organized the benefit together. O'Connor said having different voices on stage can force people to hear "perspectives that take them out of their comfort zone." Off-stage, it leads to important discussions that can challenge you as well.
Aswell has loved stand-up since she was a kid. She didn't try it herself until she was dared several years ago.
"That's the thing that go me on to stage finally, was basically, shame," she said. "Then I caught the bug, and I couldn't stop, and I haven't stopped."
Aswell, who has a master's degree from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana, has worked as a freelance writer for a decade. She'd been more focused on bills-paying content writing than personal work when she first tried it out.
The isolation of working full-time from home while caring for two young children led to bouts of depression. "Stand-up is creative, it also lets you talk about things in your life. It's like therapy in a way," she said.
After she discovered stand-up, she would head out to catch the start of 10 p.m. open-mics, since her husband would be home and the kids in bed. "It's almost like a super-hero feeling, getting out of the house, swooping back in at 3 in the morning," she said.
She met other creative writing MFAs and young mothers like Waterfield and Margolis. She also began writing humor pieces for the first time since college. Her work has been published in the New Yorker and McSweeney's. Locally, you may have seen her arts writing in the Missoula Independent.
Her humor-writing career has "taken off since I started doing stand-up," she said, and the two practices feed back into each other. "I write bits about articles I write, I write articles about my bits," she said.
Stand-up has made her written work punchier, she said. The difference between a joke on paper and one told on stage are massive. Live on stage, you have "maybe 15 to 30 seconds to make a joke before you're lost, and then you have to make one every 20 seconds after that, which is really, really hard," she said.
They said the Missoula comedy scene as a whole is inclusive and supportive. From John Howard and Michael Beers' initial Homegrown Comedy group that started five years ago, there are now three different open mics to try out: the Union Club, the Badlander and the Roxy.
For her part, Aswell has been teaching a free monthly workshop for women and nonbinary folks who want to try.
She sees "a confidence barrier there that men don't have," she said. "I think privileged people are much more likely to have the confidence to jump on stage and think that everything's going to go OK, whereas women, starting about at the time of puberty are encouraged to be quiet and not stick out in a crowd and to be ashamed of speaking up," she said. They're taught not to express opinions and discouraged from acting inappropriately or "not being cute."
"Hopefully this show will help sort of give that nudge to women and show that yeah, we can get up there and be loud and rude just as well," she said.
Waterfield said the group is "a safe place to do it without being judged. It's like the difference between working out at a normal gym and working out a women's gym. Here's a safe place to lift those dumbbells and no one's staring at your ass or critiquing your form," she said.
O'Connor said women comics experience a particular pressure that men do not. If a man bombs, she said, nobody takes it as evidence that men aren't funny. If a woman bombs, she's proof that women just aren't funny.
However, when there's more women on stage, there's less pressure and more room to breathe creatively, she said.
"You can worry less about trying to represent something and more about the material that you want to share," she said.