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NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans and Comedian Sara Schaefer Say What Needs to Be Said

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Alex Chambers: When he was a teenager Eric Deggans read a lot of movie reviews by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. He tended to have the same taste as Ebert but it was Siskel's reviews that showed him what was going on in a movie and he could decide what he thought, even if he disagreed with Siskel's take. That's a good critic. And that's what he aspires to as NPR's TV critic and media analyst. This week, Eric Deggans on the life of the critic. Then, comedian Sara Schaefer answers the question: Sara Schaefer what have you done? That's all coming up after this.

Alex Chambers: It's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers and both guests on this week's show have figured something out about saying the hard truth. Later on, we'll hear from comedian Sara Schaefer, who's got some things to say about sexism in the comedy world.

Alex Chambers: But, first we've got NPR's TV critic and media analyst, Eric Deggans. We talked about why good critics are also good journalists. And the responsibilities Deggans feels as a critic. But, we started with his origins. I mean, how many fourteen olds do you know, who say, "Oh yeah, I wanna be a critic when I grow up."?

Eric Deggans: I remember very clearly sitting down with myself, when I was in eighth grade, and trying to decide where I was going to focus myself because I grew up in Gary Indiana, my mother was a teacher and I had a decent standard of living, but I lived in a pretty tough neighborhood. And I lived in a city where sometimes people didn't get out of that city. I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me. So I had to decide what was I going to focus on. I was pretty good at writing and I was pretty good at music. I was learning how to play drums at the time and I would eventually become a professional drummer in Bloomington. I was okay at art, I could draw, but that was my weaker thing, so I wondered where could I find a job where my abilities as a musician and my abilities as a writer could come together? So I decided I would become a pop music critic for a newspaper.

Eric Deggans: I decided, probably from freshman or sophomore year in high school, that I would aim myself at that. I read every publication that did that kind of work that I could think of: Rolling Stone, even Playboy, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Sun Times. I really pursued on two tracks, getting better as a musician but also learning a lot about writing about music and being a music journalist. When I came to Bloomington I kept that up and I was even in a band called The Voyage Band that was popular in the eighties and we got signed to Motown. So I experienced what it was like to be a major label recording artist, with a label that wasn't all that interested in you. [LAUGHS]

Eric Deggans: So when that ride ended, I felt like had the equipment to actually be a pop music critic because I would understand what musicians went through to create albums, to create tours, to live that life because I had lived it. I did that for years at newspapers in Pittsburgh, New Jersey and finally in St Petersburg, Florida. I just realized at a certain point, that it is hard to stay relevant and effective as a pop music critic when you get older because so much of that is a young person's game. I found I was judging young music acts because I would hear them and I could instantly hear every band that they were influenced by and I wasn't giving them a fair shake on their own merits.

Eric Deggans: Combine that with the time I was realizing this, the pop music that was popular at the time was BritneySpears, Christina Aguilera, NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys. Stuff I didn't really like. I didn't understand why fans liked that music. [LAUGHS] It was hard for me to write about because I didn't really get it.

Eric Deggans: So eventually I just decided I want to be an Arts Critic, I want to have a national voice. But I don't want to write about pop music anymore, what could I do? I had covered for the TV critic at the St Petersburg Times, which is where I was working at the time, a couple of times. And that TV critic wound up taking a job in Philadelphia as a columnist, so she left the paper and that job was open. And I thought, where is the one place in Arts where everything happens? And that's television. If you want to write about gender, if you want to write about politics, if you want to write about race, if you want to write about social issues, if you want to write about history; whatever you want to write about there's some place on television where it's happening and you can talk about it in a review or a trend piece or a feature story.

Alex Chambers: So this has been your world since you were 14?

Eric Deggans: Well, the idea of being an Arts critic with a national voice started then.

Alex Chambers: I feel like that's unusual for a 14 year old.

Eric Deggans: Well, you've got to be focused. And I realized that the only way I was going to get out of my neighborhood in Gary and really make an impact, was by making sure I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way. The only way to do that was to be focused, was to have goals and to know what you are good at and what you're not good at and capitalize on what you are good at. I took a brief detour to see if being a professional musician would work. And for me, it didn't. And then I went back. I had this amazing period of time. I'm remembering it as a weekend. Somebody out there might remember it differently. But the band that got signed to Motown, I wound up playing two months in Japan with them.

Eric Deggans: I did my last three credits at Indiana University, by correspondence, at the same time so I would have my degree pretty much in the bag when I got back from Japan. So we played in Japan in January and February. I come back and I keep working with the ban. We played Bloomington South's Prom, I think it was a Friday or a Saturday. There was the graduation ceremony for the Journalism School, at Indiana University on a Sunday and Jane Pauley was the commencement speaker. Then I threw all my stuff in a U-Haul, I drove to Pittsburgh and I started my job as a reportef for the Pittsburgh Press that Monday.

Eric Deggans: So over a weekend I transitioned from being a musician to being a journalist and I had goals. So decisions were made for me, without me having to really think about it much. It may sound like I was really self-possessed or something, but for me it was just a way to focus and to make a lot of decisions without having to make decisions.

Alex Chambers: That's interesting. I am curious to hear about the relationship between being a critic, where you are thinking about aesthetics and style and things like that, and being a reporter. How do you think about the relationship between those two jobs?

Eric Deggans: I actually think the best critics are also good reporters because what you're really trying to do is deliver an informed opinion about something. And nothing will invalidate a critique in a reader or an audience member's mind faster than if you get something wrong that they know. That's why it's always hard to review things that have really intense and detailed fan bases. Reviewing a Star Wars TV show or movie, reviewing something in the Star Trek world, reviewing something from Lord of the Rings. If you are not extremely conversant with those fandoms and what they expect, it's easy to make a mistake that makes them all say, "Well, you don't know what you are talking about". They forget that these movies are not just made for them, they are supposed to be entertaining for anybody and everybody.

Eric Deggans: When I was coming up as a critic, when I was an intern, one of the first things I covered was a shooting in Pittsburgh. I was going to review a concert with, with MC Hammer, Guy and New Edition, it was package tour. Guy and New Edition had been feuding the whole time. Their support staff and roadies got into a fight as they were setting up the show in Pittsburgh. One of the acts' support staff shot and killed another support staff member of the other artist. I think it was somebody from Guy who shot and killed the production manager for New Edition, I think that's what happened.

Eric Deggans: So I had to instantly become more of a news reporter and helped the police reporter. The police reporter covered what happened that day and I found out that they had been feuding the night before and had gotten into a fight on stage in South Carolina, before they came to Pittsburgh. I reported all that out and my story was about that. So from the very beginning when I was even an intern, I was mixing reporting with reviewing concerts and doing feature stories and the kinds of things that you would expect a critic to do.

Eric Deggans: So what is disappointing to me is that you can get critics who are very good at telling you what they think about a TV show, but when it comes to figuring out the nuts and bolts of streaming or figuring out whether or not executives are telling the truth when they fire somebody, or figuring out why a certain TV show is in production and why another one's not. Or why an executive is actually leaving, whether what they are saying publicly is true. All that kind of stuff comes from being a journalist. So that's what I think we are losing in having smaller newspapers not hire critics, or smaller newspapers not have local people who can talk about the local actor who is starring in the CBS drama, or talk about the way in which a local community may have welcomed a national production to come in and make a film or make at TV show in their community. That's the kind of stuff that you lose when you don't have critics at smaller papers.

Alex Chambers: I feel like that's a really good explanation of why the reporting is really important and how those skills become a part of being a critic. What were some of the skills that were hardest to learn as a critic?

Eric Deggans: One of the things is understanding that your perspective is just your perspective. And what you are trying to do is make a very informed case for why you think a certain way about a certain thing. So I always start with experiencing whatever the art is; whether it's an album, or a concert, or a TV show, or a film. And then I ask whether or not it moved me. And then, whether it did or whether it didn't, trying to explain that initial reaction is where the heart of the review is. And trying to explain it in a way that would address all the questions that an average person might have about that series.

Eric Deggans: And figuring out how to discern the difference in those things takes a little bit of experience and a little bit of thought. It's the same thing when you talk about television. Am I not digging Star Wars Ahsoka because I'm not that level of a Star Wars fan? I mean I am a Star Wars fan but I didn't watch all those animated shows, where Ahsoka first appeared as a character. So am I not digging this show because I'm not that level of fan? Or am I not digging this show because they didn't do a great job of making a show that the average viewer, who is aware of Star Wars but not a super fan, would enjoy? They'd show a character looking at a wall with a bunch of drawings on it. And you would assume, "Oh, maybe that character did those drawings when they were younger", if you weren't a huge fan. If you were a huge fan you knew that character is a muralist. And a big thing for them to be looking at drawings that they made when they were a kid, when they were living on this ship that they don't live on anymore because they have a rift with the person who controlled the ship.

Eric Deggans: As a reviewer, you've got to give the average audience more than that. You can't just have somebody look wistfully at a picture on a wall and assume they are going to understand all of that. For most of them it's going to be a boring moment. That was, and remains, one of the toughest things to get out of my own perspective and try to be more objective about what I'm experiencing. And try to talk about it in a way that I can allow.

Eric Deggans: One of the things that I said in my review of Ahsoka was that there's been several Star Wars series where the first episode, or the first couple of episodes were slow paced. So maybe this will pick up, maybe it will get better. It's really hard to review a TV show these days, just based on an episode or two because they evolve and change so much over an entire season. Back in the old days, TV series tried to show you what they were in the pilot or the first two episodes. Then once you saw them you had sense of what the show was going to be like.

Eric Deggans: But that's not how modern TV series work, especially on streaming. They evolve over the course of several episodes. And you might not really have a sense of what the show fully is until you are half way into it, or even two-thirds of the way into it. And sometimes that's a process that's really rewarding. And when you finally see what the full series is, it makes sense for why the initial episodes were slow, or they seemed incomplete, or in other ways they seemed lacking. They were building a narrative and it just gained steam through the season.

Eric Deggans: But sometimes, they are that way because the show is just not good enough. [LAUGHS] So it's hard to judge, when you only see two episodes, what exactly is happening. Sometimes, you have to figure out how to tell the audience what you don't know, you try to tell them what you think you know and then you also try to allow for the fact that in the responses, people might react differently. They might see the very same thing and they might have an entirely opposite reaction.

Eric Deggans: I always tell the story about Gene Siskel, who was a long-time movie critic for The Chicago Tribune. I grew up in Gary so of course, I grew up reading Chicago newspapers. I read Roger Ebert who was at The Chicago Sun Times and I read Gene Siskel, who was the movie critic for The Chicago Tribune. And Roger Ebert was always more populist, he was always more forgiving of good films that were meant for a wide audience, like the Indiana Joneses or the Star Wars of the world. And Gene Siskel always seemed a little more intellectual, and a little more snobby. Frankly, I usually didn't like movies that Siskel liked and I usually liked movies that Roger Ebert liked. But I found that because Gene Siskel was such a great writer and such a great thinker, that I could read his reviews and I could figure out whether or not I wanted to see the movie and I could figure out what I thought of the movie, based on what he wrote. It didn't mean I agreed with him, but it did mean that he told me enough as a critic and gave me a good enough experience, that I could judge whether or not I wanted to spend my money and waste my time on it. And that's the service part of the job.

Eric Deggans: So that's what I hope to do, is to have my ideas be sharp and strong and clear enough, that even if you don't necessarily agree with me, you can figure out whether or not you want to watch what I am talking about and you'll learn something, you'll have some kind of experience. You'll come away knowing something new about what I was talking about.

Alex Chambers: Let's take a break. I'm talking with NPR TV critic and media analyst, Eric Deggans. When we come back, we'll talk about some changes in how race has functioned in media. Some of it's good news. Some of it. Stick around.

Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers. I'm talking with Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic. He wrote a book about race and media about a decade ago and it's a topic he's been thinking about for a long time. I asked him what changes he's seen and how media deals with race in his years as a critic.

Eric Deggans: If you want to look at what's happening on television, particularly scripted television and entertainment, what we're seeing is more diversity. And more importantly than seeing a lot of people of color in roles on television, or invisible areas, what we're seeing is creative people of color being given the agency and the resources to tell their own stories their own ways.

Eric Deggans: I mean to have had a couple of years where we had three or four major series based on Native Americans, mostly written by Native Americans, created by Native Americans and indigenous people, it's pretty amazing. "Reservation Dogs," "Dark Winds" on AMC. There was a series on Peacock that just ended recently. I didn't even think that would be possible when I first started covering television in 1997.

Eric Deggans: So, in some ways we have a level of diversity that we've never seen before, and it's not just about seeing more people of color on camera. We are seeing people of color creating series and given the power to cast and write them the way that they need to be written and then getting the support. Like, once the show is done and out there, the platform that built it, really making sure that people see it.

Eric Deggans: And so, I look at a show like FX's "Atlanta" where the creators behind that show, Donald Glover, especially, the star, they've been able to create a black-orientated, urban comedy, but it's very surreal, it incorporates all of these touches from other kinds of films. You could see a little bit of French impressionism in there. You could see a little bit of Ernie Kovacs in there. You could see a little bit of Monty Python in there. These are young artists who soaked up a bunch of different influences and they put it all together in a show that really breaks a lot of boundaries. And there was a time, ten or 15 years ago when if you were making a black comedy it had to be like "Fridays." And I'm not dissing "Fridays." I'm just saying that that was a very literal, authentic, street-orientated, poor black folks in South Central kind of story.

Eric Deggans: Anything other than that, the studios would say, "Well it's not going to make money because white people won't be interested, and black people won't be interested either." But these artists have been able to prove that that's not true. You watch "A Black Lady Sketch Show." You watch "Insecure." You watch "Atlanta." You watch "Lovecraft Country" on HBO. You watch "The Blackening," this film that just came out. You watch the works of Jordan Peele. Jordan Peele's whole career is based on taking racial issues and talking about them in a context that people don't expect. Either horror context or an alien story context. We're talking about zombies and dopplegangers, in the case of us. And there's lots of artists like him who are getting a chance now. Does that mean that it's happening as much as it should, or that it's always happening the way it should happen? No. And that means we have to keep pushing and we can't just let these entertainment companies sit back and say, "Okay, we solved racism in scripted media." They haven't. But it is lot better now than it was when I first started covering the medium.

Eric Deggans: What I don't think media is particularly good at yet is figuring out how to process white grievance and the backlash. How to identify it, and I do not want to say neutralize it, but process it in a way that isn't harmful. You have these media outlets out there that are profiting off the backlash. Fox News Channel is the most prominent one and the most influential one. But I would say, Newsmax and and radio people like Mark Levin and Sean Hannity. There's a whole constellation of conservative orientated media outlets that specialize in telling white people that they should feel threatened by progress and inclusion and diversity, and that they should push back against it. And the way to push back against it is to buy their products, or listen to their show, or watch their TV show, and vote for their political candidates and see the issues the way that they see them.

Eric Deggans: And I was really struck, I was in Orlando. I live in Florida now and my home was briefly threatened by Hurricane Idalia. And so I was in Orlando and I was in a hotel lobby and they just happened to have two TV's up and one was showing CNN and one was showing Fox News. And CNN was covering the approaching hurricane and they were also covering the shooting at the University of North Carolina. Fox News was covering whether or not the Federal Government was withholding information about UFO's. They were covering whether or not Joe Biden was going to go on vacation and where he was going. They were covering diversity efforts in NASCAR and whether it was somehow degrading the sport. I mean it was all this stuff. It wasn't just rooted in cultural wars and backlash nonsense. It wasn't even like the news of the day.

Eric Deggans: If you wanted up to the minute information about the hurricane, they had a little graphic in the lower right screen, Fox News did. So you could squint and see that graphic and see where the storm was, but they weren't talking about it.

Eric Deggans: Now I'm sure at some point in their day they turned to talking about the hurricane. I'm not trying to say they never talked about it, but I was sitting there for 20 minutes, eating breakfast, and I saw a news channel that was covering the news and a news channel that was covering the backlash. And whenever people talk about how we can't agree on common facts, that's why. There is an alternative news universe with a lot of made up facts and a lot of exaggerated facts, that's mostly about justifying peoples grievances. And then there's like actual news. We have all these existential crises going on that we're not really talking about. We're not talking about the fact that there's 30 per cent of the audience doesn't even believe mainstream media, and it's growing. What happens when we get to 45 per cent and 50 per cent? What happens?

Alex Chambers: Fascism.

Eric Deggans: Pretty much. Yeah, the end of democracy my man.

Alex Chambers: That's what happens. All right, one more question, it's a quick one. The life of the critic, is there a lot of disappointment in it? What's the balance of joy and critique?

Eric Deggans: I mean it's a difficult job sometimes, but my job is to find cool stuff in media and tell people about it. I feel like that's my job. So, I get to have a lot of experiences that people normally pay to have, or would pay to have if they could even do it.

Eric Deggans: So when I was a pop music critic I went to the Foo Fighters first show in New York City. I interviewed Bruce Springsteen twice. I hung out backstage with Jon Bon Jovi. As a TV journalist I visited "Saturday Night Live" three times. I've been to Conan O'Brien's talk show backstage. I've been to Colbert's show, twice. I've been to "The Daily Show," twice. I hung out with Roy Wood Jr. when he guest hosted "The Daily Show." So I get to have these experiences. I interviewed Jimmy Kimmel. I hung out and watched him tape a show and then hung out with him.

Eric Deggans: So, I get to have these experiences that people would normally love to have. So, it's a wonderful job. It's an amazing job. And most of the time it's about me trying to figure out how to find really special, interesting, transformative media and then tell people about it, or explain why something's happening. Why is this show popular now? Why is "Suits" suddenly popular now on Netflix? Why didn't something work out as well as you thought it might have? I'm a media nerd. I love doing it.

Eric Deggans: And in fact it was funny, when I applied to be a TV critic for the first time. When I applied to be the TV critic for the "St. Petersburg Times," one of the things they asked me during the interview was, "Do you like television?" And I just thought to myself, who would apply to be a TV critic who doesn't like television? Why would you do that to yourself? But what they meant was, there are some critics out there who only like PBS, or only like certain kind of television, and pretty much had contempt for the media for the most part and I'm not not like that. I love great television and I can appreciate it in a lot of different places. But it is the critic's job to speak the truth when no one else can or will.

Eric Deggans: So, sometimes it is our job to look at a show that everybody wants to love and say, the emperor has no clothes, and there's something deeply wrong with this thing that everybody wants to like. And maybe that it's Copaganda, or maybe there's a political message they're not acknowledging, or maybe it doesn't deal with female characters particularly well, or maybe it's not as diverse as you would want it to be, or maybe it's too violent.

Eric Deggans: A lot of people love the "John Wick" movies. I have a real hard time watching them because of how violent they are. It never escapes me, when I'm watching it, how many people this guy kills. And it doesn't matter that they're assassins, they're still people. It's the critics job to say the things that average people might not say, that fans don't want to be said.

Eric Deggans: And then for me, most recently it's been calling out comics that I love. I was a huge fan of Dave Chappelle's until recently. And when he did one of his most recent stand-up specials, filled with anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment I had to call him out. I've been a Will Smith fan forever. When he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars I had to call him out. I've been a Chris Rock fan forever and when he delivered a stand-up special that also seemed to condone a lot of questionable ideas I had to call him out. It's sad to see performers that you have admired for so long, when they get older not get better, not get more nuanced, not get more adept, but become less tolerant and more close-minded, and more adept at convincing people to go along with terrible ideas. That's what's scary.

Eric Deggans: So that's when the job is tough because you have to tell, the kinds of people normally I would just want to be right next to them, cheering on a performer that we love, but instead I have to go to them and say, what this person has done is terrible, and I'm not going to not say that. And a lot of fans don't want to hear that, so.

Alex Chambers: Yeah, really. All right, this is great. Eric Deggans, thanks so much for taking this time. Really appreciate it.

Eric Deggans: Thank you for having me.

Alex Chambers: Eric Deggans, he is NPR's TV critic and media analyst and he's coming to Bloomington this week. He'll be visiting with students, and he and I will be talking on stage, live at the Indiana University Cinema. That's on Wednesday. Okay. Time for another break and then we'll hear from Emmy Award winning comedian, Sara Schaefer about sexism in comedy. It'll be hilarious.

Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Sara Schaefer is a comedian. But you know what, I'm going to let Producer, Avi Forrest bring her in.

Avi Forrest: What is your ideal intro to your interview?

Sara Schaefer: I would say, just on the surface, comedian, writer and artist.

Avi Forrest: Please welcome comedian, writer and artist.

Sara Schaefer: But then I would say, a grandma with a knife. [LAUGHS]

Avi Forrest: A grandma with a knife.

Sara Schaefer: I'm not a grandma, so maybe an auntie with a knife.

Avi Forrest: An auntie with a...

Sara Schaefer: A great-aunt with a knife.

Avi Forrest: A great-aunt with a knife. Anything for music?

Sara Schaefer: I like all kinds of stuff. I mean like, truly I'm all over the map. You can pick what you think.

Avi Forrest: Welcome to the comedians, a series about comedians. What? She said she liked all kinds of music. Anyway, this time we have comedy legend, Sara Schaefer on her work, her industry and teaching comedy. To those who don't know you, what have you done? What have you done that they would know you for?

Sara Schaefer: What have you done, Sara? [LAUGHS] Well I've done a lot of random different things over the years.

Sara Schaefer: I've been doing comedy for 20 years. Along the way, I guess the highlights would be, yes, I did win two Emmy awards, but it wasn't for writing technically. I worked at "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," and I ran the, what we would call the digital experience, social media for the show. I helped launched the show online. After that I wrote for my first actual TV writing job which was for a show called, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." And yes, they do have writers. I wrote the questions. And after that I had a major dream come true which was I got my very own late night talk show called, "Nikki & Sara Live." It was on MTV.

Sara Schaefer: And then after that I've just been doing all kinds of writing work, stand-up comedy on Comedy Central. I've written for award shows, game shows, docu-series, anything you can name, I've written for it and I've written a book. I've really gone everywhere with this career. There's a lot of things I still want to do, but I feel very lucky to have gotten a lot of my dreams come true.

Avi Forrest: Yeah. And after two decades your career arguably peaks here. It's like an interview at an Indiana radio station.

Sara Schaefer: That's right, it's nothing but downhill from here. I'm really trying to savor this moment. That's why I got really dressed up for the interview, as you can see. [LAUGHS]

Avi Forrest: Yeah. To those who do not know you, how would you describe your brand of comedy?

Sara Schaefer: It took me a long time to be able to answer this question, but now I think I have a good sense of it.

Sara Schaefer: "Last week a woman sued Panera Bread for contracting E. Coli from their romaine lettuce." At this very moment when I read this, I was sitting in a Paneraeating a salad filled with romaine lettuce.

Sara Schaefer: As I've mentioned I've done so many different things, but I would say that I am smart, my comedy is smart. I don't know if I'm smart, but my comedy tries to be smart.

Sara Schaefer: What happened? What? I finished and I was like, what in the... Oh no.

Sara Schaefer: I'm a little bit of a storyteller. Very self-deprecating. I love satire and commentary on the world around us.

Sara Schaefer: I was confronted with factual information. But because it conflicted with the narrative that I needed to be true, which was that this was my annual salad.

Sara Schaefer: Pointing out the unfair and the absurd, but through the lens of, well I'm just as flawed as anyone else, with always that self-awareness coming through that I never want to sound like I am the authority on everything perfect. You know, I think some comedians do project that like, I'm the one that knows what's good, what's bad, what's right, what's wrong and you have to listen to me. And I think I take a little bit of a different tack which is, I know what's right, what's wrong, but also I'm wrong and I'm bad, and well maybe no one knows anything. That's sort of a common theme in what I talk about.

Avi Forrest: You talked a little bit earlier about your experiences with sexism in the industry, if that's accurate.

Sara Schaefer: You know, sometimes I'll talk to comedians, male comedian, peers of mine, friends of mine, and they're well-meaning, they're not bad guys or anything, but they just won't sort of really get the sort of day-to-day like weirdness of being a woman in this business still. I mean, it's way better than it was when I started, I will give it that. I mean, it's really come a long way. But it's still nagging.

Sara Schaefer: So, I have friends and I'll be like, "Do you know what it's like to be told that fundamentally as a woman you just aren't funny?" And they are like, "People aren't still saying that?" And I'm like, "Yes, they are." I mean, they say it directly or indirectly all the time on Twitter and you see it. Just spend a little bit of time on Twitter or on the YouTube comments, TikTok comments, on any woman's stand-up and you're going to find a lot of people just straight up going, "Women aren't funny." Or, "There's only a couple of funny women, she's not one of them." And that is a persistent comment that is made.

Sara Schaefer: Yeah, those people are trolls, ignore the trolls, but it plays out in ways, subtle ways, and again, it's getting better, but when I started out there was a lot of stuff where it was just fundamentally you just felt, oh, I don't belong here because I'm a woman. I'm not being taken as seriously and I'm not being treated like I actually have skills or talent the way that the other guys do. And so, I think a lot of women comedians navigate that in different ways.

Sara Schaefer: In my generation, I think and especially before me, there were so few of us that we saw each other as competition and distrusted other female comedians. But what I've seen happen over the past ten years is a great unification of female comedians. Not all, but most are like, we actually need to look out for each other because now we are wise to it, and it's like, we can't let these guys do this to us anymore and we have to take back because they are helping each other. The male comedians are helping each other.

Sara Schaefer: We need to help each other instead of acting like lone wolves, because now there's way more of us and we aren't lone wolves and we're more powerful together. And so that's been a very positive development I've noticed. And most of my closest friends are female comedians and I treasure them so much. And I did my show in New York a few weeks ago, and in the audience were a ton of female comedians that I had started out with, and it made me really emotional.

Sara Schaefer: By the end of the show I had tears in my eyes because I was just like, these people not only know exactly what I'm talking about, but they were with me when I started and they know how hard I've worked to get to this point and what I've put into this show, and it was just really an amazing experience.

Avi Forrest: What is it like for you in 2023 as a female stand-up comedian?

Sara Schaefer: Well, you know, one of the things we joke about is getting that question is one of the elements. [LAUGHS] And I hope that when you do your next interview with a male comedian you will say to him, "What is being a male comedian like in 2023?" [LAUGHS] and see what they say.

Sara Schaefer: In fact, I'll take a quick moment to just plug the book of my friend Jena Friedman, and a very funny, very smart comedian, who just put a book out called, "Not Funny." And there's a lot of stuff in there about being a woman comic, and she has a whole chapter where she interviews a bunch of famous male comedians and asks them all the questions that women comedians get and their reaction is so funny. And that's the easy one, but there's a lot that are really crazy. It's like, Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan and Fred Armisen, she got all these guys to answer the questions. It's a very satisfying chapter as a female comedian, but I recommend reading that. But I will answer you question in sincerity.

Sara Schaefer: I do think that, like I said, we're in a new era of women comics. I do think on one hand we're more powerful and more visible than we've ever been. We're more respected, we're more accepted. You do hear less of the, "Women aren't funny," comment. A lot of some of the old ways I feel don't exist. For instance, when I started out there would be maybe one or two women on a line-up at a comedy show. Now it will be half women. It will be all women and they won't say anything. It used to be if there were more than two women they would go, "What is this, ladies night? Huh? Another lady coming to the stage," they would make a big deal about it. They'd be like, "It's weird. Nobody wants this." "Sorry." Now that's very different.

Sara Schaefer: People don't bat an eye if the line-up is mostly women. No one's like, "Oh, weird. What are all the ladies doing here?" It's not like that anymore. At least in the good places.

Sara Schaefer: But I will also say that one of the things that I have noticed from a lot of my fellow female comics is we're very tired and really disillusioned after the aftermath of the initial Me Too movement. And a few, well almost all of them, all the male comedians who have been quote/unquote, "canceled" for being criminals or predators, abusive in some way, they seem to be continuing on as if nothing had happened. And, you know, that's a really complex conversation about what should happen to somebody, punishment fitting the crime, and that is a really long conversation. But what I feel, and what a lot of my friends feel, is complete and total disillusionment going, what difference did it make, you know? Because nobody cares.

Sara Schaefer: It's not that I want a canceled sex criminal or sex pest male comic to never see the light of day, or to never speak again. And it depends on if they're a criminal and they actually have committed a lot of crimes, I would prefer that they go through what we have right now, which is a criminal justice system, that's the only option we have in some cases if we cannot socially cancel them. If they belong in jail, they belong in jail. But for those other cases where it's more of harassment or those gray area cases where someone has been a predator and abusive to women in this business, and they're just sort of continuing on, there's two parts to it. One is, it's that the conditions have not changed enough. I think that's what we are frustrated by.

Sara Schaefer: It's like, I'm still vulnerable to going to a club and being on a line-up with a guy that everyone knows is a rapist and no one cares. And I have to face that when I go and be on a show with that person. And it's that feeling of, "Oh, you guys don't..." When I say "You guys," I mean other comedians, bookers, the gatekeepers, it's like, oh wow, you don't care about us at all and our safety or the other workers here safety. And that has been really distressing to experience. And so I think a lot of us are like, you know, I talk a little bit about this topic in my show, and I got critique from a critic in Australia when I did a show there who kind of suggested I didn't go far enough. But like, I didn't name names. I didn't bring out the abuse I've experienced or that I've witnessed to the light enough.

Sara Schaefer: And I thought that was, one, don't tell me how to express myself with that stuff. But also I felt very frustrated by that idea because I've experienced things by a guy that has done a lot of stuff to women, inappropriate touching and things like that in green rooms, and we tried to take him down on Twitter a few years ago, but he is not quite famous enough for it to hit and so it did nothing. [LAUGHS] We were all like, "Oh, we finally all said our piece about him and it did nothing. No-one cared." It literally just stayed with us and he just continued on as if nothing had happened.

Sara Schaefer: There's a feeling of disillusionment with that of like, what power do we have? And there's still a lot of guys who are just sort of getting away with stuff and I do not know where to go with that. I don't know where it goes from here. But to answer your question, there's a lot of positive things about being a female comedian right now, but there's also been some exhausting developments over the past few years.

Avi Forrest: Is it hard to take all of that and turn that into comedy? You just see it a different way.

Sara Schaefer: Honestly, it's been the work of a lifetime. Because there was a while where I was not complaining, but I would voice my mind on Twitter or other social media about this stuff. And I didn't find that to be a very satisfying experience because I would get a lot of harassment for saying things and it wasn't my art form. I was just like yapping and I should be able to speak wherever I want. But it wasn't giving me the feeling I wanted out of the result. I didn't feel like it made a difference for me personally. And it was like, I call it impotent rage. And Twitter is built to be that way. Just like lots of little flare ups of inflammatory arguments and then they're gone in the wind. What do we do here today? None of us got paid to do this. And so I've been working for a long time trying to figure out how can I channel this into a creative thing. And it started with these little videos I was making, audio sketches.

Sara Schaefer: And I was scared to put those things out there, but they were comedy sketches I wrote about these topics, and they hit so well and they didn't get that kind of feedback and it felt more like, oh, this really worked. I was funny and I expressed myself and I commented on something, all in one thing, and that felt very satisfying. And people really responded to it in a much stronger way than me just saying the same point flat out. And so that's where all of this kind of came from of me giving myself permission to do comedy about these things. I was worried at first, it was too navel gazey, too inside, but what I found is that all the things I'm talking about are very relatable and there is a place for this work where I'm doing comedy about comedy.

Sara Schaefer: I make sure to make it more than that, and I do regular jokes throughout my show, but it has been really awesome to say something, but say it in a really creative funny way.

Avi Forrest: What's something that you're afraid to be asked?

Sara Schaefer: The kind of question I fear would be like, "Sara, do you know what everyone's saying about you?" [LAUGHS] And then they tell you. I would be like, "No. And I don't want to know," or something like that. I don't know.

Avi Forrest: It feels like, I have anxiety. That just sounds like anxiety.

Sara Schaefer: Yeah, it is. Oh, I have anxiety. Yeah. And I mean, I'm sure there's a clever answer to that question, like, "What's a question you fear?" And it's like, "Is your name Sara Schaefer? Is your husband Scott Moran?" And it's a cop standing at your door, do you know what I mean? And it's like, "Yes." And they're like, "Ma'am, we have some bad news." There's probably that kind of thing, but in general it's probing questions that would get me into trouble are the ones that I fear, right?

Avi Forrest: Yeah. It's like, what are you afraid to be asked? "Is this yours, ma'am? We found this in your coat."

Sara Schaefer: Yeah, right. Yeah, that kind of thing. "And it's a gun." "Oh no!"

Avi Forrest: Thank you so much. It was amazing talking to you. It was like the comedian God.

Sara Schaefer: Oh, thank you. I hope I wasn't too random. Oh, please.

Alex Chambers: Comedian Sara Schaefer, talking with Producer, Avi Forrest. Schaefer is supporting the writer's strike where she recently warned that the strikers would yell until they get hoarse. So heads up.

Alex Chambers: All right, that's it for Inner States. I'm your host Alex Chambers, coming to you from the studios of WFIU, Bloomington. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at And if you like the show, you can rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen, and what's even more fun than that, although I don't know, that sounds pretty fun. But even more fun is telling a friend.

Alex Chambers: Okay, we've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers. With support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Extra thanks this week to Avi Forrest for production help on the Eric Deggans interview. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. And we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Eric Deggans and Sara Schaefer. All right, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers: You could probably figure out what that was. It was basketball. Thanks to Patsy Rahn for that recording. Until next, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Eric Deggans

NPR TV Critic and Media Analyst Eric Deggans (Courtesy of Eric Deggans)

When he was a teenager, Eric Deggans read a lot of movie reviews by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. He tended to have the same taste as Ebert, but it was Siskel’s reviews that showed him what was going on in a movie, and that helped him decide what he thought, even if he disagreed with Siskel’s take. That’s a good critic, and that’s what he aspires to as NPR’s tv critic and media analyst. This week, Eric Deggans on the life of the critic.

Then comedian Sara Schaefer talks about women in comedy, and why we don’t talk about “men in comedy.”


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Extra thanks to Avi Forrest for production help on the Eric Deggans interview.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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About Inner States