Despite the buzz around several comedy specials by female comedians this year, none will have the chance to be recognized for that success with a Grammy Award on Sunday night. That’s because, for the first time since 2007, all the nominees for best comedy album are men.
Ali Wong’s “Hard Knock Wife,” in which she told jokes about motherhood and sex (all while very pregnant), served as a fitting follow-up to her first Netflix special, which catapulted her to fame. Michelle Wolf’s “Nice Lady,” which first aired on HBO in December 2017 before an audio release within the Grammy eligibility period, was one of 2017′s most celebrated specials; months later, Wolf performed a scorched-earth White House correspondents' dinner set that turned into a First Amendment debate. Others, such as Tig Notaro (“Happy to Be Here”) and Natasha Leggero (“The Honeymoon Stand Up Special”) also released acclaimed specials within the eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018). And Hannah Gadsby’s special, in which she criticized self-deprecation and offered no escapist laughs, created immense buzz and prompted a new level of conversation about the very nature of stand-up.
After the Grammy nominees were unveiled in December, Iliza Shlesinger, who released “Elder Millennial” on Netflix in July, tweeted she hadn’t expected to receive a nod but was shocked no other woman had. “This total shut out, when so many women put out NOT JUST FUNNY FOR A WOMAN BUT FUNNY BECAUSE THEY ARE FUNNY albums this year is pathetic.”
“Hannah, Tig [Notaro], Ali and Natasha [Leggero] are out there grinding,” Shlesinger continued. “I’ve watched their careers grow as well as their fan base. Their names constantly come up in conversations about comics people love. Grammys missed out big time this time. You guys really missed a beautiful moment.”
Dues-paying members of the Recording Academy vote for nominees; they’re instructed to vote only in their areas of expertise in no more than 15 genre categories, plus the four general field categories (which include record of the year).
Perhaps the comedy-album exclusion of women isn’t so much of a shock considering the Grammy’s history with comedians. A look back at the nominees since 1959, when the Recording Academy first doled out prizes to comedians, shows a lineup of usual suspects. Unlike many of the music categories, the one for comedy albums doesn’t showcase a wildly different set of talent each year.
George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters and Bill Cosby have all received nominations in the double-digits. And of this year’s slate — Patton Oswalt, Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Fred Armisen and Chris Rock — only Armisen is a first-time nominee.
Still, fewer than two dozen women have been nominated as solo acts (as opposed to the comedy duos popular in the 1950s and ’60s). A handful have been nominated more than a couple of times: Kathy Griffin received six nods between 2009 and 2014, and Margaret Cho earned five between 2002 and 2017. Some comics, such as Sarah Silverman, have also received nominations in spoken-word categories for narrating their books.
The most recent winner, Griffin, pointed this out during her 2014 acceptance speech.
“In the history of best comedy album, only two other women have won: Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg,” she said. “I stand in great company.”
In 1971, Tomlin became the first to win on her own (Elaine May won in 1962 with her improv partner, Mike Nichols). It took more than a decade after that for Goldberg to win.
The category’s history reflects an industry that has not been historically great for women. For so many years, a woman performing stand-up was considered an oddity, the exception rather than the rule.
But as there is a larger cultural shift around gender roles and overt sexism has become less socially acceptable, that’s naturally impacted comedy, too. We’re also currently in the midst of a comedy explosion, with an expanding number of platforms that provide opportunities for comics who had been traditionally shut out from the industry to find audiences. Now, there are all kinds of comics who happen to be women, rather than performers only getting pigeonholed as “lady comics,” the kind of treatment depicted on Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
That has created space for performers such as Gadsby, who put out a special unlike any other comic. Or for Wong and Leggero, who performed their specials while visibly pregnant, unheard of even just a few years ago. Or for lesser-known comics to work out their material and emblazon their own paths.