photo: Reuters

Amy Schumer recently laughed her way to the bank as the first-ever woman to make Forbes' highest paid comedians list. Over the past year, she's raked in more than $17 million, landing her on the list's fourth spot after Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, and ventriloquist Terry Fator.

Though Schumer's history-making milestone is ostensibly reason to celebrate, Forbes' Associate Producer, Madeline Berg, said the reason a woman hasn't joined the ranks of highly paid comedians until now points to systemic sexism within the industry. 

"For the first time ever, a woman made the list with earnings of $17.5 million. But, unfortunately, the world of comedy seems to still be stuck on the stereotype that 'women aren't funny,' making it difficult for women to break into the world of stand up and be taken seriously," Berg told The Independent. "Luckily, Schumer, along with other contemporary female comics, are paving the way."

Also this year, Tina Fey offered some insight that made the position of female comics sound anything but lucky. Despite common assertions that the popularity of people like Schumer and Melissa McCarthy means the industry is improving for women, Fey claimed it's actually a "terrible time" to be a woman in comedy, adding, "If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less."

So, just how much of a trickle-down effect is Schumer's success actually having for women outside of Hollywood, particularly in regards to pay? We spoke to women in New York City's stand-up community to find out.

To get a feel for how fairly women comedians are being compensated, you first have to look at their main stomping grounds — comedy clubs.

Notoriously, comedy clubs are known to underpay their comedians, or even to not pay them at all (something New York's prestigious Upright Citizens Brigade theater has come under fire for). Regardless of gender, performing stand up involves a high likelihood of getting stiffed. But are women comedians getting the yet-shorter end of the stick at these joints? Some would argue, yes.

"The difficult thing is that every club has their own way of paying out comedians and their own business model," Chelsea Taylor, a New York comedian who co-runs a weekly stand up series, Side Ponytail, said. "A lot of these places, they don’t pay anybody. They'll pay in drink tickets or something, which is silly. I believe that if you have a show that charges at the door, then you should pay your comedian."

Many do pay (in cash, to be clear — who can pay rent with drink tickets?), but only select performers. Typically, as Taylor explained, comedy clubs will book a headliner, a feature, a host, and sometimes a guest comedian or two for a night's lineup. Out of this group, the headliner is often the only one to truly be compensated — and, far more often than not, that headliner is male.

"Clubs, not just in New York, but all over the country, notoriously pay female headliners way less and book female headliners not as often," Taylor said. "That’s the main thing, is that clubs very rarely book female headliners. And when you’re coming up in comedy and you’re seeing that, it can be really discouraging."

Carolyn Busa, who co-produces Side Ponytail alongside Taylor, shares a similar view.

"In general, you’ll get a lot of lineups where there’s a 'token girl,'" Busa, who's been in New York's stand-up scene for about eight years, said. "There will be a lot of dudes with one or two girls that are basically fulfilling a quota. I’ve definitely done shows where I was the only girl, and it’s crazy to me that that still happens."

Data compiled over the past two years by two PhD-holding comedians, Raj Sivaraman and Jono Zalay, supports Taylor and Busa's experiences. After examining clubs across the country, their preliminary findings, which they plan to publish next year, suggest that clubs are only booking a small fraction of the available women comedians out there in their top slots.

"You get a selection bias where people go, 'Oh, this woman is funny,' and that woman gets all of the opportunities over any other woman," Sivaraman explained. 

Conversely, when looking at a sampling of men booked in clubs' headlining spots nationwide, they found a much wider pool of comedians.

If pay inequality exists because women typically aren't getting booked in top slots, having women be the ones to book shows seems like a solution for better representation. The reality, though, isn't so simple.

Certainly, there have been some high-profile examples of men selecting lineups with a sexist bias, like Eddie Brill, who was fired from booking "The Late Show With David Letterman" in 2012 after openly admitting he booked fewer women because "a lot of female comics ... to please an audience, will act like men." Another well-documented incident in 2014 involved a female comic being dropped from a club's lineup because they'd booked "too many women on the bill" — meaning three out of nine was "too many."

You'd think having women be the ones to book shows would help eliminate that line of thinking and improve things for female comedians. But a lot of people in booking positions already are women, and it's not necessarily helping. In fact, as Amy Hawthorne, a booker at New York Comedy Club, said, it could even be contributing to the bias female comedians face.

"There is this old guard of female bookers who act like the women who got into positions of power in the '70s and '80s in other fields, when you had women who felt like, 'There’s only a place for one woman at the table. I’m going to be that woman,'" she said. "And they made decisions maybe at the expense of other women, instead of bringing them up with them. So you still have this old guard of female bookers who bought into that lie, that women comedians can’t carry a show."

What Hawthorne is describing here is a classic example of tokenism and further proof that, as she puts it, "comedy still has ideas that, in any other industry, would sound outrageous." 

Chris Mazzilli, an owner and booker at Gotham Comedy Club — who Schumer credits as her first champion in her autobiography — agreed there's internalized sexism in the industry.

"It’s a very biased world, and in the comedy community, some people just want to see male stand ups, period. We hear it all the time on the club level. People don’t even give [women] a shot," he said, adding that the idea that women aren't funny still plagues corners of the community. "And it’s not just men who think that. It's women who think that, too."

Touring — one of the main ways comics grow their exposure (and, concurrently, their bank accounts) — poses unique challenges for women, too.

According to writer and comedian Janelle James, finding a more senior comedian willing to take you on tour with them is a major challenge for female up-and-comers. That's because the majority of those senior headlining comedians are male, and taking a woman along as an opener costs them more.

"One of the big things with stand up ... is a headliner will take you on the road with them, and that’s how you get your experience doing theaters, bigger places [with] bigger audiences," James explained. "Most headliners are men, and they’re less likely to take a woman on the road because we cost more. We need our own room. Whereas dudes will go on the road together and sleep in a car or crash in the same room."

There's also an element of headliners opting to book friends as their openers, too, James said. 

"Because most headliners are men, most of their friends are men, and they usually take a man on the road. It’s easier," James said, adding that "once I get the headliner status, I’m probably going to take a woman, too, because I want to hang out with another chick."

Schumer herself has taken female comedians with her on the road — like Bridget Everett, who opened for the entirety of her 2014 Back Door Tour — and it's great that she's doing her part to give other women a boost in that regard. But considering she's the first woman to achieve her level of success, it makes sense that, like James said, there are fewer opportunities for other women comedians to find that same degree of mentorship.

Inequality persists outside of the club scene as well, carrying over into business negotiations and opportunities for other comedic projects.

Clubs may be a stand-up mainstay, as well as a core way of getting exposure for rising talent, but considering the meager earnings they offer, most comedians don't rely on them alone for income. 

As Forbes noted in its story on Schumer, working on multiple projects “is par for the course for women in entertainment, who often have to work more —  readily combining film and TV roles with endorsement deals and commercial work  —  to earn the same amount as their male counterparts.”

This also holds true for up-and-comers like Negin Farsad, a Muslim-American stand-up comic who also writes and creates books, shows, and movies. As a self-described "piecemeal" comedian, comparing your earnings to others' when their sources are so scattered can be difficult, but Farsad admits she has feared being paid less than her male peers.

"I’ve signed some deals and stacked some shows and sold some things," Farsad said. "I have felt generally like, 'Wow, this is lower than what I’ve heard talked about from my male counterparts.'"

For women comedy writers seeking TV gigs at, say, Adult Swim, discrimination has taken on a more concrete form. Earlier this year, the channel came under fire after releasing their upcoming slate of TV projects. Out of the 47 creators listed behind those projects, not a single one was female. And last month, Executive Vice President and Creative Director Mike Lazzo exacerbated the situation by claiming the reason so few women were leading Adult Swim projects is because "when you put women in the writers room, you get conflict, not comedy." 

While Farsad herself has gotten plenty of writing gigs, she's still seen her earnings potential impacted by bias another way — a pressure to collaborate with men on projects.

"There’s this thing that comes up that’s like, 'Are you willing to work with another writer to develop shows?'" Farsad said. "And by and large, they’re talking about, “Are you willing to work with a white male writer to create a show?” 

I’m like, 'Why would I need the help of a white guy to create a show?'

After looking at all of the obstacles that make comedy a hostile field for women — what can be done to incite true change and guarantee more equal pay?

photo: Splash

While Schumer's Forbes induction has served to encourage some — "It’s like, that’s someone who was doing what me and my peers are doing, and now here they are," Busa said — clearly it does little to actually clear the nuanced obstacles women comics face towards getting fairly paid. So, where to go from here?

James advocates for more women to, like her, ask male peers what they're making — and then insist on the same.

"I just simply ask dudes, 'Hey, when you did this club, how much did you make?' So I can almost make sure I get paid the same amount a man would," she advised. "In the corporate world, it's rude to ask someone else how much they're making — which, I guess, was by design to keep us from making the same amount. But in comedy, I just ask, 'How much did you get?' And then I want the same or more."

Putting the onus on individual women comics to ferret out the information for themselves, though, seems inadequate as an industry-wide solution. To that end, Farsad proposed that the comedy world follow models created by startups designed to heighten transparency.

"There are some trends in the startup world that are interesting; they’ll publish what everybody makes, and that can be useful so that we know how much we’re getting screwed," she said. "I think that would solve a big problem, just knowing what everyone’s getting."

Others, like "Guys We Fucked" podcaster and comedian Corrine Fisher, say the key to a more equal comedy playing field lies not with Hollywood-backed performers like Schumer, but with audiences.

"(Inequality) is also the fault of the audience, not just the industry," Fisher said. "The industry has to work at the end of the day via money, so if audiences aren’t willing to come out and see a female headliner, is that really the industry’s fault? If even women aren’t supporting women or going out to see women-headlined shows, how can we expect to get paid just as much?"

As Schumer herself exemplifies, though, that's one pattern that definitely is changing — not only was she the first-ever female comedian to headline New York's Madison Square Garden, but on October 18, she did so in front of a sold-out crowd. That's more than 18,000 seats filled to see her, showing that audiences are speaking, and that they're doing so in favor of women on the stand-up stage. It's time the industry as a whole took note.