Punching up

Zoe Rogers wants to give everyone a seat at the table at the debut Boulder Comedy Festival

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Comedian Zoe Rogers
Matt Misisco

This is the first in a series of profiles we’ll be featuring over the coming months in the run up to the Boulder Comedy Festival. 

When Zoe Rogers decided to produce a comedy festival in Boulder, diversity was on her mind — but that was nothing new.  

Before moving to Boulder with her husband and three children a couple years ago, Rogers cut her teeth in LA’s comedy scene, a “vibrant and varied universe,” as the Los Angeles Times called it in 2017.

Coming up through the ranks, Rogers regularly found she was the only woman on a lineup. Rarely did she see comedians of color. 

“From a producer standpoint, for 60 to 90 minutes you control what’s being said and the energy that’s being created and the inspiration that could be happening, the representation that could be happening,” Rogers says. “So why are you doing this? If I wanted to hear a bunch of straight white guys I’d watch C-SPAN.” 

When Rogers launches the Boulder Comedy Festival June 4-7, she’ll be creating the environment she hoped to find when she started in comedy, an intelligent-but-not-prudish atmosphere, showcasing nationally touring comics, festival winners and local comedians with a focus on women and diversity. 

Building cred

Rogers built her cred on the comedy scene the way everyone does, performing in “itchy, dirty back rooms to like, one drunk person.” That was fine; that’s how every comic finds a voice and works out material. What wasn’t fine was the dearth of variety. Once, after a show with a strong turnout, she suggested to a club owner that she and another female comic whose work he’d expressed enjoying could both fill empty slots in a coming week’s lineup.

“‘It’s not ladies’ night,’” Rogers says he responded.

She kept going, ultimately landing gigs at meccas like the The Comedy Store, Laugh Factory and The Ice House in Los Angeles. She got TV time on NickMom and Disney, and traveled to the UK to perform at Edinburgh Fringe.

With a few years of stand-up under her belt, Rogers began producing her own shows around LA, filling the lineup with voices she felt were under-represented. She made some waves by flipping her experience as a female comic on its head, producing a show called “Token Straight White Dude” featuring — you guessed it — only one man. 

“That’s it, no more, because that’s what women hear all the time [in comedy shows],” Rogers says. 

The show — held in a private backyard after Rogers says venues refused to host something with such a “divisive” title — even got a mention from right-wing propaganda factory Breitbart, which accused “[social justice warrior] comedians” of ruining comedy with a “new wave of political correctness.”  

The view from here

If you don’t believe Rogers’ view of the comedic landscape, pros like Tina Fey have gone public with their thoughts.

In 2017, Town and Country magazine asked Fey why it was “an amazing time” for women in comedy.

“It’s a terrible time,” Fey replied. “The boys are still getting more money for garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”

“Just because (Tina) Fey is super-famous and Amy Schumer is #5 on the 2017 Forbes list of highest-paid comics and women can now be Ghostbusters does not mean we have achieved full comedy equality,” former stand-up comic Lynn Harris wrote for Time magazine in 2017. “Women comics are still fighting the unfunny fight for equal respect, equal opportunity, equal pay. Which includes fending off harassment that limits their choices and chances and is protected by ‘armies of enablers.’”

Schumer, by the way, is the only female comic to have graced the Forbes list. A comic must earn a minimum of $15 million to make the list. Schumer came in at number 7. 

“The lack of inclusion of women on the list isn’t for lack of female comics working,” Newsweek wrote last year. “[In 2018] a number of comedy specials from women were widely praised (and nominated for multiple Emmys), including Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife and Tig Notaro’s Happy To Be Here.”

You’ve likely seen one if not all of those specials, and perhaps seen one of their shows live. And yet despite their popularity, their work was never valued as highly — literally — as that of their male peers. 

That could be because as recently as 2007, editors at Vanity Fair thought it prudent to run a piece by (the now deceased) Christopher Hitchens called “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that attempted to say it was just a matter of biology — science — 3,000 words of backhanded (not to mention racist, homophobic and body shaming) compliments that reduced women to little more than baby-obsessed caregivers ruled by the phases of the moon.

“In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians,” Hitchens acquiesces. “There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.”

That was 14 years ago, you might say. But unlike Hitchens, the ethos of his article is alive and well, easily found on websites and forums like Breitbart and Men’s Rights on Reddit. 

“Funny women are leading by example,” Tyler Daswick wrote for Relevant magazine last year, outlining how female comics have often had to take behind-the-camera roles to find titanic success like Tina Fey. “How many people are following them?”

Zoe Rogers is looking to find out Boulder’s answer to that question.

Punching up

Born in New York, the youngest of four children in a “big, loud, Irish family,” Rogers was, in her words, fighting for stage time from birth. Like many kids who came of age in the ’80s, Rogers grew up on a steady diet of HBO comedy specials from George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Ellen Degeneres.

But even though she was raised in the epicenter of comedy, it wasn’t until she and her husband moved to California that she gave stand-up a try.

“I started doing comedy after my son stopped breastfeeding. I felt like he broke up with me,” Rogers jokes. “My friend, who had been doing stand-up comedy, kept telling me to take this comedy class.”

She finally did, “and it changed my whole life.”

“I love my kids and I love being a mom, but it is not surprising to anyone that it can be very isolating, like crying on the bathroom floor isolating,” Rogers says. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I had no idea what I was doing. It was like getting your dream job but you had no idea the hours that would be required of you or the fact that people, sometimes strangers, were constantly going to be assessing your performance.”

Rogers felt like she had no one to talk to about the experience, and even if she did, she worried her experience was singular.

“And when I took this class that was the first thing I talked about was just how completely crazy the expectations were (on mothers) and the way that the world felt to me since [having children],” she says. “It was the first time that this thing that felt so isolating to me was something that I could connect with other people about it. And instead of it being something that I was crying about on the bathroom floor, it was something that I was connecting and laughing with people about in a theater.”

She built her brand of comedy around motherhood without sacrificing the irreverent takes on life that make great comedy so great. 

“You don’t get any formal training for being a parent,” Rogers muses in one of her jokes. “I never got a course on hanging out with 5 year olds, but I’ve hung out with drunk girls, and it’s pretty much the same thing: They make you late for everything, they insist on wearing something ridiculous and the night ends with some kind of drama about a random tiara that no one came in with. And the car ride home is always like, ‘Are we going to McDonald’s?’”

When her family decided to pack up and move to Boulder, Rogers wasted little time getting involved in the local comedy scene. In the spring of 2019 Rogers began hosting Dairy Comedy in the Boe, and by late last year she wondered if she could produce a comedy festival in Boulder. After taking the temperature to see who might be interested, Rogers went all in, securing time and space at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder and Tilt Pinball in Louisville as venues for the four-day festival. She currently has a dozen comedians slated to perform — including Vanessa Gonzales, Heather Pasternak, Kristal Adams, Wally Baram and Tamar Kattan — and is reviewing more applications in the hopes of presenting as many as 20 acts. She’s also still in search of more sponsors and venues. 

Rogers hopes to offer sets that present different perspectives on the world without “punching down,” or, as she puts it, “shitting on people.” (Though, if I am to believe the staff at Interrobang — and I don’t — any use of the phrase “punching up” must come from people of the “high-minded, socially liberal persuasion, who hold all of the ‘correct’ opinions, and who are, almost universally, not very funny.”)

If you’re looking for the kind of queer-bashing, why-me comedy served up in recent sets by comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari, look elsewhere.   

“Humor,” as Mary Hirsch once said, “is a rubber sword — it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” 

“I have problems with the punching down theory,” Rogers says. “First, I’m not really on your side if I think you’re kind of a bully. Second, I don’t know anything about you; you’re leaving the stage and I know nothing about you. You haven’t shared anything real or vulnerable about yourself except for the demographics you hate and discriminate against. So I would have rather listened to somebody who’s being real and vulnerable that I could connect with and who didn’t just reinforce a bunch of stereotypes. That’s not new. That’s some old syndicated hate, and I just don’t have time for that.”  

ON THE BILL: Boulder Comedy Festival. June 4-7, various venues, bouldercomedyfestival.com