It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated field.
Female comedians are still stereotyped and marginalized, and a number of unfair, reductive “women aren’t funny” generalizations have been thrown around by people like Jerry Lewis and Christopher Hitchens. (According to Forbes, last year’s top earning comedians were all men.)
But there are still a lot of powerful female voices in the world of comedy. In her 30 years as a comedian, Portland stand-up Susan Rice has seen women go from being practically nonexistent on the comedy scene to a much more commanding force. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch how women have evolved in this business and really taken hold,” Rice said during a recent phone interview. “They’re really a force now, and it’s just great.”
Rice, who will be headlining this weekend as a part of the Bada Bing! comedy series, was an actress first, working on the stage and in commercials. Her first taste of stand-up comedy came in 1983 when she was working on material for a planned one-woman show.
“I walked onstage and never looked back,” she said. “I realized I was doing stand-up, and that I could make a living at it.”
She left her bank job and started focusing on stand up, which she said tripled her income, and she eventually moved to L.A. to pursue comedy full time.
During the ’80s she performed with many household names of the era – Jerry Seinfeld, Paula Poundstone, Louie Anderson, Paul Reiser, Richard Belzer – and she got to experience that decade’s stand-up boom firsthand. “I probably got hired first out because I was a woman and that was different, and they would put me on a show to mix it up a little bit,” Rice said. “And I took advantage of that. Women approached comedy in a different way – they had to. We’d get pushed onto the backburner a lot faster than the guys would.”
Rice, though, didn’t see herself or her material as being too far removed from her male contemporaries, which actually made her stand out more. “I had the same mindset in many ways as the guys,” she said. “I didn’t talk about relationships. I was more introspective about observing things that were going on. And I was a storyteller.”
After working the L.A. stand-up beat for years, Rice moved back to Portland in 1998. She continues to perform all over the West Coast, but her role in the world of stand-up has changed.
“I’m really grateful that I’m accepted now,” Rice said. “I used to be afraid to stand in front of young kids – college crowds used to scare the bejeezus out of me. But now they look at me like I’m the crazy aunt that comes to dinner. I’m somebody familiar to them, so it’s really nice.”