In recent years, women have made impressive strides in male-dominated fields. Four Funny Females is a Dallas-favorite comedy troupe. These four creative, humorous ladies, Laura Bartlett, Jan Norton, Sherry Belle, and Linda Stogner, have defied the norms for women in entertainment. While each of the women usually perform their own bit, as opposed to performing as a four-piece, collectively they have become a strong force on Dallas’s comedy scene.
On a cloudy afternoon on Friday the 13th, I am joined by Laura, the founder of the foursome, in a Starbucks in Uptown Dallas. I’m set to meet with Laura, Sherry, and Linda that day. Jan would later speak with me over the phone. Laura is the owner of her own PR firm, Laura Bartlett PR. Sherry works in account services. Jan and Linda are the founders of Dallas Backdoor Comedy Club.
Laura is the first to join me at Starbucks. We find a table, and Sherry joins us shortly after.
“Check out my sweet parking job,” Sherry says, pointing to her incorrectly-parallel-parked white SUV.
Laura asks if I’m ready to get started, and I wonder if we should wait for Linda.
“Linda was having a bit of car trouble when I spoke to her,” Laura says. “She’s kind of accident prone. Anything bad that can happen to her will.” She joins us shortly.
When I bring up bad times in the entertainment industry, the women are quick to answer with various anecdotes of their experiences. Many revolve around misogyny.
“It’s very cronyistic,” Laura says. “I think we would’ve better been received as welders. Nationally, things have gotten better, but in Dallas, I think if we hadn’t formed Four Funny Females 12 years ago, things probably wouldn’t be any different.”
Sherry is quick to blame industrial misogyny on fragile masculinity.
“I think male ego is highly involved,” Sherry says. “If a woman goes on stage to open a show, and she kills it, the male comedian will think, ‘Oh man, I just got outshined by a chick.’”
Jan expresses that the audience, on some occasions, seems conditioned to believe that the comedic abilities of women don’t measure up to those of men. She notes that upon realization that a female comedian is set to perform, the audience will often emit moans and groans, as they feel that a female comedian can’t possibly be as funny as a male.
“Emcees have introduced me saying ‘our next comic is a female,’” Jan says. “It’s weird because when you’re on stage, you’re the captain of the ship, but even in the audience, women feel better in the hands of a man.”
Linda, on the other hand, is more hopeful, anticipating a better future for female comedians.
“It’s always been a guys’ world,” Linda says. “I think the current political climate is encouraging women to be themselves and to create hilarious material. We’re not completely there yet, but it’s getting better.”
Sherry adds that the number of men in the audience has grown throughout the years.
“When we first started, the audience would be 90 percent female,” Sherry says, “but now, women are bringing their boyfriends and husbands, so it’s almost an even split.”
As a troupe, the ladies try to keep their humor clean. They have used this “safe for work” approach since their early beginnings at Backdoor Comedy Club in Dallas.
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“A lot of the people who started off at Backdoor Comedy Club have gone on to make it big in Hollywood,” Jan says. “Because we insist on keeping our material clean, we’re able to come up with original jokes and not rely on vulgarities.”
Comics like Cristela Alonzo and Johnny Hardwick are just a couple of the big names who got their start at Backdoor Comedy Club, and they were able to do so by keeping it tame, and for simply being their true, authentic selves.
By staying away from “blue humor,” the raunchy, sexual humor popularized by the likes of Amy Schumer and Whitney Cummings, the ladies feel that they are better able to relate to the audience.
“Our audience sees us as their funny friends,” Laura says. “We try [to avoid talking about politics] because it’s very polarizing. We’re not gonna talk about who we’ve slept with and we’re not gonna drop F-bombs. If people want to be sworn at, they can just go to work.”
Despite their efforts to keep their humor innocuous, the women have occasionally stricken nerves.
“One time, I had done a bit about my dog,” Linda says. “I have this joke about my dog on a treadmill, and this lady was super invested in it. She comes up and tells me, ‘We’re gonna talk about this later.’”
The lady chided Linda, upset that she’d made light of what she considered animal cruelty.
The audience plays a big role in how the women create their routines. By making note of reactions from the audience, they are able to keep delivering new and fresh material.
“You see a lot people in the audience nudging elbows like, ‘look here’s my favorite part,’ so we have to change it up,” Laura says. “It’s really special that we have people come see us multiple times.”
The ladies also consult their friends and family when coming up with new routines. Sherry, who is married to a fellow comedian, will often exchange bits with her husband. This plays a big role in helping her decide which jokes align with her style.
“My husband and I don’t find each other funny,” Sherry says. “We have two totally different styles of humor. We pitch each other jokes back and forth, but if he laughs, I won’t use it. That’s how I know it won’t fit my brand.”
While discovering your stylings and finding your voice can be challenging, each of the ladies offer advice to young women wanting to break into comedy.
“Cool the jets on your ego,” Jan says. “Be true to your voice, be willing to learn, and be fearless. If you mess up, you might get embarrassed, but it’s not going to kill you.”
Like Jan, Sherry also emphasizes the importance of authenticity.
“Don’t create a persona on stage that goes against the grain of who you really are,” Sherry says. “The audience won’t buy it.”
Linda notes that she doesn’t recommend anyone pursue comedy unless they are truly passionate about the art.
“It’s a very hard road trying to make comedy a career,” Linda says, “but making people laugh is the highest high. Don’t do it unless you love it, love it, love it.”
Laura recommends that anyone facing adversity tie their misfortunes in with their comedic bits. She feels this allows for emotional release.
“Comedy was very cathartic to me,” Laura says, “I started doing it four years after my divorce. It was perhaps the least funny time of my life, but I had to take the plunge. It was such a healing thing for me. When I meet people with an inkling of humor, I always recommend that they try comedy.”