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When It Comes to Female Comedians, HBO Is Still Making Up for Lost Time

The progress of women comics has moved at a much slower pace than women-led series on the network.
  • Phyllis Diller, Wanda Sykes, and Yvonne Orji (Photos: Everett Collection, HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    Phyllis Diller, Wanda Sykes, and Yvonne Orji (Photos: Everett Collection, HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    As HBO celebrates its 50th anniversary, much has been made of the channel’s shifting image over the years. Now seen as one of the most exciting platforms for creative freedom (or at least it was before David Zaslav came along), for the majority of its existence, this was mostly only true for men. For The New York Times, John Koblin detailed HBO’s transition from “a channel for men” to female-centered content and creators. HBO’s early success with women-led dramas eventually gave way to experimental shows Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Lena Dunham’s Girls, but women-led comedies moved at an even slower pace.

    Today, HBO isn’t particularly known as a powerhouse for new stand-up comedy. Established comedians now make up the majority of its content, but the ’80s and ’90s stand-up boom allowed HBO to make a name for itself. The freedom provided on a cable network helped big names like Chris Rock and George Carlin reach new heights, but few female comedians were given the same opportunity. HBO’s On Location was its first comedy series that allowed comedians to be as explicit as they wanted. Premiering in 1975, greats such as Redd Foxx, Steve Martin, and Rodney Dangerfield lent legitimacy to the show while others like Billy Crystal used the show to establish themselves. Over On Location’s 14-year history, only four women were granted specials: Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldberg, and Roseanne Barr. 

    Fields, Goldberg, and Diller were already established names, while Barr was given her special after the success of her network TV show. As a woman, you had to be a household name to get the same opportunities as male comedians. Obviously, there were more than three great female comedians during On Location’s run, but believing men controlled the remote, the network felt no need to give them the spotlight. HBO would debut One Night Stand in 1989, a weekly series that featured an astounding two to three female comedians per season. Across 65 episodes over three years, eight women were given a chance to make a name for themselves. This would establish names like Ellen DeGeneres and Joy Behar. 

    It wasn’t until the premiere of Def Comedy Jam in 1992 that female comedians were given almost equal footing with men. From its debut episode featuring Yvette Wilson, Def Comedy Jam featured at least one woman almost every episode. While this might’ve been an indication HBO was no longer prioritizing men in its stand-up programming, that didn’t hold true. Two years after Def Comedy Jam premiered, HBO Comedy Half-Hour debuted, reusing the same formula as One Night Stand: only two to three female comedians allowed per season. Def Comedy Jam’s focus on black viewers as a whole most likely allowed it to exist outside of HBO’s demand for male-focused content. Despite being the network that platformed Tracey Ullman’s sketch comedy as early as 1993, HBO still didn’t seem to think female comedians could make white men laugh.

    The 1996 debut of If These Walls Could Talk starring Demi Moore may have helped HBO realize that women are a viable audience and led to an eventual green light for Sex and the City, but stand-up comedy remained male-dominated. As late as 2010, the channel’s top executive, Michael Fuchs, stated that the “man of the house” decided whether they’d purchase HBO or not. Women may have watched Sex and the City or If These Walls Could Talk, but, in his view, it was only because their husbands made it happen.

    When One Night Stand returned for a single season in 2005, Caroline Rhea and Bonnie McFarlane filled the two-female-slot quota. In 2008, when Down and Dirty with Jim Norton premiered, that slot was cut in half, leaving Whitney Cummings as the lone woman across four episodes. Meanwhile, Ellen DeGeneres was finally promoted to the ranks of Chris Rock, George Carlin, and Jerry Seinfeld when she starred in two specials: 2000’s The Beginning and 2003’s Here and Now. Additionally, Wanda Sykes was given the 2006 special, Sick and Tired and 2009’s I’ma Be Me after appearing on Def Comedy Jam. Despite a wealth of female comedians who were introduced on Def Comedy Jam and HBO Comedy Half-Hour, only two managed to crack HBO’s comedy glass ceiling.

    What followed was six years of Dennis Miller, Lewis Black, Chris Rock, and Bill Maher specials dominating the network. Despite Sykes getting multiple Emmy nominations, it wasn’t until 2015 that HBO seemed to realize there’s money in female stand-up specials. Perhaps this is because they were facing competition from Netflix and Comedy Central. That same year, Netflix debuted specials from three women: Iliza Schlesinger, Jen Kirkman, and Anjelah Johnson. HBO answered this challenge with Tig Notaro’s Boyish Girl Interrupted and Amy Schumer’s Live at the Apollo. Both specials would receive award attention and are still considered some of the best HBO has ever produced. 

    This slow evolution cost HBO a generation of young, female comedic talent. And HBO still largely relies on established female names for their specials. Yvonne Orji's and Amanda Seales’s work on Insecure led to their specials. Nikki Glaser, Whitney Cummings, Michelle Wolf, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, and Rosie O’Donnell make up the majority of female comics currently available on the platform. In comparison to Netflix and Peacock, which have focused resources on smaller names and alternative comedy, HBO still feels like it requires the blessing of a male comedian before it’ll invest in a woman. Amy Schumer’s special was directed by Chris Rock. Marketing focused on Schumer, dressed in men’s clothes, drinking and smoking with the tagline “She’s a lady,” assuring men she wouldn’t rile their delicate sensibilities. Additionally, Tig Notaro received her special after creating the Louis CK-produced album Live, an album she originally didn’t want to release until CK convinced her to under his label.

    According to Nielsen, HBO Max’s current viewers are 52% women while the cable channel has an even 50/50 split. The early idea that “men controlled the remote” was an untrue assumption that proved detrimental to HBO’s current lost ranking as a major source for new comedic voices. HBO Max has recently released a series of showcases such as 2021’s Comedy Chingonas, which focused on Latina comics, and 2021’s Queer Comics to Watch (full disclosure: I’m in that one) to make up for lost time. Still, it feels as though HBO, a channel that was once able to launch comedians into superstardom, blew a major lead by the time it realized overlooking 50% of the population might not have been a good idea.

    Ashley Ray is a comedian and pop culture expert. You can follow her at @theashleyray