Writer: Irene Huhulea
Editor: Sarah Todd
For comedians Carolyn Castiglia and Lane Moore, painful topics mean opportunities for entertainment and connection.
Sharing stories about her affairs with married professors, Joan Rivers discovered that there was power in “talking about things that were really true.” As one of the trailblazers of women’s comedy, she helped pioneer a move away from formulaic joke telling by focusing on material that spoke to (and for) an audience. And she wasn’t alone. Many female comedians have used personal stories as a way of connecting with audiences and pushing the envelope on topics that have historically been considered unacceptable for women. More recently, TV shows like “Broad City” and movies like “Trainwreck” have emphasized how female comedians use their own challenges to connect with audiences by poking fun at everything from money problems to relationships in a way that is at once self-aware and relatable.
Veteran comedians Carolyn Castiglia and Lane Moore are part of this tradition. Both women have a strong presence in the New York comedy scene, and they have a lot in common—particularly the way that they’ve tapped into some of their own personal struggles in order to create shows that are entertaining, engaging and incredibly timely.
Moore’s interactive show “Tinder LIVE!” tackles the hilarious and painful nature of modern romance. Together with a panel of other comedians, Moore flips through a series of Tinder profiles, offering pointed comments about potential matches. “Tinder is all about looking closer,” Moore quips, voicing the frustration many feel with dating apps. “I hear from so many women that itʼs just exhausting and outlandish and ridiculous and that coming to the show and seeing me feel unafraid to say all of the things theyʼre thinking is really cathartic,” she explains, illustrating how the show helps audiences work through some of their own dating traumas.
Meanwhile, Castiglia’s “Right Now!” offers a funny and insightful look at women’s issues through a format that is part talk show and part musical comedy. Covering everything from slut-shaming to self-confidence and the vanity of social media, the show develops a warm, engaging atmosphere, while simultaneously levying a powerful critique at a society that still minimizes the struggles and achievements of women. For Castiglia, it’s about discussing truths that women deal with on a daily basis. “My viewpoint in comedy is one of pain and struggle,” she explains, emphasizing the grittiness that underlies much of the show’s humor. “A lot of my material is autobiographical and I’m talking about my life in a way that’s really bare and honest,” she says, explaining how her personal experiences allow her to address topics like sexual assault, which is both an ever-present threat and a conversational taboo for women.
Castiglia and Moore’s show concepts have been shaped by decades of professional comedy, and by a lifetime of funny but difficult experiences. But what they have in common extends beyond their willingness to delve into hard topics—it’s a shared vision that comedy is as much about connection as it is about entertainment. Tapping into personal difficulties is a way of highlighting these connections, and creating a vulnerable atmosphere that fosters a collective experience.
For Castiglia, the way to do this is by confronting the issues head-on. “You can’t take topics off the table,” she says. “People do that out of fear. They think they’re doing it out of respect, but they are disrespecting people who have had very real traumatic experiences by telling them that something that has touched their life in a profound and scary way is not fodder for something beautiful.” Rather than shying away from sharing painful experiences, Castiglia suggests facing these topics with courage and honesty, allowing them to permeate through the show and find points of connection with the audience.
Moore agrees, explaining that her comedic interest in online dating arose out of a desire to connect with those who had experienced its many quirks. “In the very beginning I wanted it to feel like a huge group of friends going through Tinder together,” she explains. “Even though I don’t know my audience in a personal way, on some level I absolutely do because I was on Tinder for so long and I know exactly what it’s like there.” By involving her audience in the process of sorting through potential mates, Moore highlights the ridiculously transactional nature of dating apps, and also our own willingness to play the game.
Although honest, open discourse seems to dominate women’s comedy, it’s important to note that this type of humor is not exclusive to women. Popular male comedians like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari have also developed their comedic styles around their personal struggles, discussing their dating mishaps and friendships in ways that are both poignant and hilarious. But though comedians have many things in common irrespective of gender, both Moore and Castiglia acknowledge that the expectations and struggles for female comedians are somewhat different.
For example, the level of effort required to start and maintain a career in comedy. “No one ever really talks about it, but all the comedians I know, especially women in comedy, are beyond exhausted all the time,” Moore says, referring to the pressure to work constantly, and to make the most out of every available opportunity. “You just feel like you need to be doing 40 projects every day or you’re basically dead.”
Castiglia agrees, emphasizing the fact that in a comedic landscape that seems to offer increased opportunities and visibility for women, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the amount of work required to keep pace. Especially since that pace is often different for men and women. “You see a lot of guys who are just three to seven years in make it, and I can’t point to a single woman who’s made it in that short of a timeframe,” she says, acknowledging that while comedians like Amy Schumer have had some success early in their careers, they have nevertheless had to wait longer for the same commercial opportunities as their male counterparts.
While the longer career trajectory for female comedians presents many challenges, it also offers comedians like Castiglia and Moore an opportunity to develop strong and lasting relationships with their audiences, turning the vulnerability of their comedy into something much more important than just a series of commercial successes. For these comedians, it’s an opportunity to share the kind of material that makes a difference in their lives and in the lives of those it touches. “I would never trade cleaner, more polished material for an industry opportunity because what I do means so much to me,” Castiglia says, explaining the importance of taking chances and pushing boundaries.
Above all, it’s about community. For Castiglia and Moore, the ability to create funny and engaging material out of difficult experiences offers them a chance to work through some of their own struggles while at the same time offering a voice to those who need one. “Comics have an innate skill of turning devastation into laughter and you have to have experienced some kind of devastation in order to be able to do that,” Castiglia explains, highlighting humor’s capacity to overcome adversity. Moore agrees, emphasizing the therapeutic value of comedy, and the reason why so many women embrace it as both a form of entertainment and a profession. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have comedy or art or music as a coping mechanism,” she says. “It sounds really sad but my therapist tells me that humor is the highest level of coping or something, so apparently it is not in fact sad, it is genius.”
While industry opportunities and commercial success may be more elusive for women in comedy, the value of their work is unparalleled. Bringing together innovative formats, phenomenal talent and a unique ability to turn pain into laughter, these comics offer something that is hard to find anywhere else—a community of women who are willing to face shared truths with humor and aplomb.