Philadelphia all-comedy theater company 1812 Productions has spent two years researching what makes women funny. Now “It’s My Party: The Women in Comedy Project” brings those findings to the stage.
“It’s My Party” is the theatrical culmination of workshops and interviews involving over 100 women, exploring what they think is funny and how that changes as they age.
“It’s been a real exploration of how we use humor just in our day-to-day lives,” said writer and director Jennifer Childs. “For myself, it moved from being funny as a way to get attention, then at some point shifting to being funny as a way to save my soul.”
Recently Childs helped her mother celebrate her 70th birthday and her daughter celebrate her 7th. Caught in the middle, the 40-ish Childs discovered her own sense of humor evolving into a snarky Bette Davis mold.
“I started to notice that, as I was aging, my comedic stereotypes were no longer the young airhead, nor the neurotic 30-something,” said Childs. “I had an invisible cigarette in my hand all the time.”
She wanted to see what other women were joking about, so Childs talked with as many women as possible with a broad range of backgrounds, from Lucy Arnez, the daughter of Lucille Ball, to women recently released from prison staying in a halfway house.
Several workshops were held with participants divided into age groups: 21-35, 35-50, and 50+. They came together to write, riff, and share stories.
“We laughed and we cried. We made fun of each other,” said Cathy Simpson, a workshop participant who is acting in the show. “I can’t tell you how many times I just laid on the floor. People like Joilet Harris and Marcia Saunders are funny!”
The resulting play is in three parts, roughly corresponding to three stages of life. The first scene is a woman attempting to present her doctoral dissertation on women in comedy, but is constantly interrupted by a chorus of women reveling in disruptive, juvenile humor. The set is a small, restrictive classroom.
“When I was younger I felt like I was too short, too loud, my hair was too red, too big for the world. That was my first form of humor,” said Childs. “And in the middle, the set is purposefully expansive and vast, and it’s about being too small in the world, and humor is your way to get through it.”
The play presents a complicated approach to humor. All the anecdotes told on stage are real, culled from Childs’ interviews with women. Some are quite bleak, dealing with trauma, death, and violence; all are capped with a punch line, inviting the audience to laugh at something they might not be entirely comfortable with.
“When we get to the end, I feel incredibly emotional. Even just talking about it makes me feel that way,” said Susan Stevens, another workshop participant who plays a central role in the stageplay. “I do think it’s very funny, but at the end of the day we’ve hopefully said something.”
“It’s My Party: The Women in Comedy Project” is now in previews. The show runs until May 19.