Women’s work

For DePaul female comics, the personal is both political and hilarious


Performer Christian Borkey on stage during a performance. They are a part of DePaul Improv and Sketch Comedy (DISC) and the comedy group 2002 Chicago Bulls. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Zimmerer)

Emerging from the January chill in her overalls and pink knit hat, Kristi Durkin rushes to sit down, rummages in her pockets for a scrap piece of paper and a pen, and begins to write a sketch idea on the back of a receipt. It’s an idea for a character based on the guy in her previous film class who began a conversation with her with “a few questions” he had about Aziz Ansari.

“He’s definitely going on my shit list.” she said. “My shit list isn’t necessarily people who have wronged me, just people who have had some kind of effect on my life.”

Along with the mansplaining, bespeckled, flannel wearing, “BoJack Horseman” fanatics that comprise her majority male film and television classes, her shit list also includes, but is not limited to; her grammar school teacher who was “a little slut shamey,” old friends from high school, Trump supporters from her hometown, and at the very top, death.

Following the death of her brother in her senior year of high school Durkin, a comic who uses her life as the primary inspiration for her work, had to find a way to make death funny.

It’s not that hard, she argues.

“Death is funny on its own”, she said. “People go nuts for it just because it’s so uncomfortable and relatable.”

And as a young woman in today’s comedy sphere, Kristi Durkin and other female comedians are definitely not afraid to make people uncomfortable.

Kristi Durkin during one of her performances. She often uses her life as inspiration. (Photo courtesy of Knowltan Holland)

“What’s funniest about femininity is what is kept secret,” said Christian Borkey, a DePaul student and member of both the DePaul Improv and Sketch Comedy Group (DISC) and the comedy group 2002 Chicago Bulls. “I try to not have a lot of traditionally masculine traits in my characters, because a lot of people think that if I’m a gross woman—and gross is usually associated with masculinity—the grosser a woman is, the funnier she is.”

For female comedians, navigating the world of what has traditionally been seen as funny in comedy is difficult, “There’s always a Jimmy, a John or a Steve.” said Durkin. “Late Night and most comedy has always been not just a guy but a super, khaki wearing, Jimmy Fallon type who, believe it or not, is actually kind of shitty.”

But as narratives around identity, diversity and inclusion in the improv and sketch comedy worlds are changing, so are how they express themselves.

“Having women in comedy gives comedy another perspective on the human experience that it doesn’t typically get with (exclusively) men,” said stand-up comedian and DePaul student Sydney Florsheim.

“I would rather have my own voice than play a mom,” Durkin said.

“The go-to in improv is ‘honey I’m home.’ The only time I’ll ever break an ascent is when I’ll say ‘dinner? I just got home from being the CEO of McDonalds.’”

Borkey agrees. “A lot of men will give themselves the power in the scene,” she said. She added that even though improv is supposedly built on a free flowing and democratic creative structure, the underlying patriarchal power dynamics are not lost on the women performing in scenes.

Playing the mom or the girlfriend is not the only thing that Durkin and many other women have come to expect when entering an improv sketch.

“I was called a bitch at the DePaul improv auditions… (a man) called me a ‘stupid bitch’ and that happens a lot,” Durkin said.

“A lot of men will give themselves the power by saying ‘hey babe’ or ‘fuck you’ and start conflict scenes … no one in the Bulls has ever called me a bitch and we’ve sold out shows. You don’t need to call someone a bitch to be funny,” said Borkey.

As Borkey said, so much of womanhood is funny—even the parts that can sometimes be violating. When Durkin was called a bitch during her audition she said she turned it around and made it funnier, getting a bigger laugh than her partner.

Whether it’s Durkin talking about the unsolicited naked pictures women often receive from men, Borkey reliving the trauma of puberty in middle school or Florsheim talking about guys that have ghosted her, these women use comedy to show women in the audience that they are not alone.

“The more personal and vulnerable the material, the more relatable and funny it is,” said Florsheim. “I personally definitely get more laughs with a larger female audience.”

This catharsis of female camaraderie found between the audience and the performer is felt on both sides. “It definitely helps boost my self-confidence,” said Florsheim, even when she’s talking about her negative encounters with men.

“So often we say ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we did this’ and then everyone says ‘yeah’ and then no one ever does it,” said Borkey. “Just to go out and do it … do it even if it’s something you’re afraid of.”

Florsheim agreed that it was definitely worth the nerves. “I have had friends and strangers telling me I should give comedy a go for years, so I stuck my leg out, and I did it.”

The fearlessness Borkey and Florsheim want to instill in women looking to enter comedy is one that women hear often, to lean in and make sure they prioritize their voices. In a society that dictates to women how much space they are allotted, how much time they are afforded and which words they can say, taking up so much space and being so loud can be a radical act, especially in a male-dominated space.

“Everything we do is political, because politics is just who gets what and why do they get it and those things are time and money and energy, which is connected to comedy,” said Borkey, who added that  the radical act of making people laugh is “universal.”

“It’s the best way to get across a message,” she said.

Finding the confidence to make sure their voices are heard or the ability to be radical doesn’t seem to be a problem for this new generation of female comedians.

“I want anyone who doesn’t agree with me to fight me,” said Durkin.