Leaders in Laughter: How Women Comedians are Changing the World

May 31, 2016

Suzanne Leonard

We caught up with Professor Suzanne Leonard about how female comedians are inspiring change through humor.

What do you teach at Simmons?

This is my 10th year as a member of the English Department. I typically teach classes about women’s literature, media studies, gender theory and 20th and 21st century American fiction.

What made you make the move to teach at Simmons?

My work tends to be united by a focus on gender. It was a dream come true to be offered a position at a women-centered college, where I knew those interests would be supported and nurtured.

What's your favorite thing about your students?

I'm continually impressed by how savvy my students are about the world we live in. I particularly admire their capacity to diagnose and comment on our social and cultural realities — and express how they see themselves intervening in that world.

Tell us about your PLAN course — Leaders in Laughter: Women Comedians in the U.S.

My course is interested in how women comedians function as leaders who encourage social change. We rely on performances, memoirs, documentaries and interviews about female comedians and pair these with materials about leadership. For example, in a unit about Margaret Cho, we examined how her humor about her Korean heritage, her sexual relationships and her body served to “challenge the process,” which is one of the strategies that inspiring leaders employ.

What inspired you to teach a course on this topic?

My interest in female comedians started with an article I wrote about Lily Tomlin, who has been such an important figure in the history of comedy. I knew I wanted to teach a leadership course and then it occurred to me that women comedians are doing the work of great leaders: they are inspiring progress and modeling attitudinal change, all in humorous ways.

What leadership skills do students gain from this course?

One of the assignments that I'm the most excited about is the students writing and performing in a comedy sketch, à la Saturday Night Live. In conjunction with the assignment, we read recollections of comedians who worked in various writers’ rooms to understand how different personalities need to be negotiated in those spaces. 

My hope is that these activities will teach students about the process of creative collaboration, collective writing and practiced performance. I also assured them that I know not everyone feels like a gifted comedian, and we spent a lot of time working on how to balance groups — populating them with students who possess diverse skills and strengths. 

Who are some of your favorite female comedians?

My favorite comedians tend to be the ones who are not afraid to be a bit absurd and are willing to portray themselves in sometimes unflattering ways. I love Amy Poehler’s earnest optimism and naked ambition in Parks and Recreation, the antics of Issa Rae on The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, the un-selfconsciousness of Lena Dunham in Girls and the spontaneity and sheer weirdness that Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy brought to Bridesmaids

What advice would you give to students about succeeding in a male-dominated field like comedy?

We had a wonderful discussion in my class about the importance of self-advocacy, whether that means pushing back at an unfair policy or negotiating for a higher salary. This conversation was sparked by a student who wrote a very thoughtful email asking me to change a due date because she felt the expectations were a bit unrealistic. She was right — I hadn’t given the students enough time for the assignment and I agreed. We used this as an example of how standing up for what you believe and articulating your needs respectfully is a skill which is necessary everywhere, but particularly in spaces where one is marginalized in some way.

What's the most exciting part of working with PLAN? 

I've really enjoyed being able to use my specialty — feminist media studies — as a way to pinpoint and isolate skills that students can cultivate no matter what their field. I like that PLAN asked me to sharpen my understanding of this potentiality and I think that I'm a better teacher overall for having this experience. 

PLAN illustrates to students that leaders are all around them and that they can learn from leaders in all arenas, not simply the ones in their chosen fields.