On an early fall evening, comedian Alisha Ratan is sitting outside a central Phoenix coffee shop with her improv partner, Meredith Howell. They're discussing a recent sketch they saw that left Ratan stone-faced: a tired trope where the "nice guy" main character has been dumped by his girlfriend for a "bad guy" boyfriend, and now he wants to exact revenge.
"It's lazy humor," Ratan is saying. "I've heard all of this before; I could finish this sketch for you. That's the thing of having one point of view ever expressed: it gets tired out really quickly. 'Oh, she broke my heart because I was too nice to her.'"
Not five feet away, an older white man sitting on a bench has been listening as Ratan and Howell chat about the Phoenix comedy scene and the need for different points of view. Suddenly, the man sees his moment.
"She can't handle a guy being nice to her. That'd be a good point of view, because most girls don't want a gentleman," he interjects as he gets up to leave, offering no opportunity for conversation or confrontation, not interested in entertaining an opinion that might challenge his own.
Ratan looks straight ahead and sighs.
"Speaking of," she says.
Ratan and Howell met as players at the Torch Theatre, a midtown comedy club and improv school less than a mile from the coffeehouse. After working on the same team, the two connected over being women in a close-knit comedy world, which doesn't necessarily make them outliers, but certainly places them in a minority.
"I think what we bonded over was, 'There are a lot of white guys on stage,'" Ratan says. "And more importantly, it was a lot of — I mean, I don't want to be disrespectful — but there's a lot of misogynistic humor that gets a free pass. I think we felt more and more like, 'I feel less safe as a woman onstage, and in the audience.'"
So Ratan, who is Indian-American, and Howell, who is white and part of a two-women podcast project, When Myers Met Briggs, joined forces to create Overtly Sensitive, a female comedy duo in which feminism isn't a four-letter word, it's a funny one. As Overtly Sensitive, they create sketches that call into question the power of the patriarchy — and make fun of two 26-year-olds hoping to change the world in the process.
But through their new show, Out of the Kitchen, which they produce as part of Overtly Sensitive, they're actively trying to do just that. The bimonthly variety event returns to the Newton on Friday, October 14, bringing with it a cast of comics, performers, and musicians who Ratan and Howell feel have been underrepresented on stages across town and forcing a conversation.
The show opens and closes with sketches from Overtly Sensitive but also features stand-up from comedian Alley Lightfoot, musician and performer Jacqueline Castillo, YouTube channel host and entrepreneur McKenzie Steuber, and musical improviser Carlos Clark — who, yes, is a man. The format is part showcase, part "late night," with a stand-up set, an interview, and a musical guest featuring people who identify as feminists and care about bringing those viewpoints to the stage.
But that doesn't mean this is some sort of bra-burning, men-hating group exercise. Quite the contrary. The show was born out of a desire for women to be heard and seen in a safe space ("I just want to be able to sit in an audience and not tense up my body the whole time," Howell says) where there are no token female comedians or token minority comedians. Where instead of being the sexualized butt of the joke or listening to what Ratan calls "lazy, misogynistic" humor, they're driving the narrative — even if that means poking fun at the very thing they're doing.
"We punch up and we make fun of ourselves because we think this stuff is bigger than us," Ratan says. "It's not about making us look good. Literally the last sketch we do we're making fun of ourselves as these, like, millennial pseudo-therapists being all in touch with our feelings. We make fun of that because I think that is part of feminism, and [to] disarm people. You can't say that feminism is anti-men or elite or egotistical, because we made a feminist show and we make fun of ourselves [in it]."
"We don't think feminists are perfect," Howell adds. "We don't think we're better. That's so misconstrued; it's so frustrating. [We're] giving women that space to soak it all in. I want to talk about feminism; I want to be proud of it. It's such a dirty word in the world where I'm just like, let’s just flaunt it."
Both define feminism broadly as equality: equal rights in social, economic, and political spheres. But it's also about intersectionality and opportunity, they say, the chance to speak freely about being a woman or to create multifaceted female characters on stage, to move away from having a prostitute or girlfriend in every improv scene featuring a woman and into something more dynamic, refreshing.
"We have a lot to say. We want to say it in a funny, interesting way, and we want other women in the Valley to be able to do that, too," Howell says. "We've been told as women to become smaller and quieter and to essentially not share ourselves with the world and it's like, I'm proud to be a woman. … And it's great to be a female comedian, because we go onstage and then we fucking kill."
Out of the Kitchen's first show, in August, included stand-up comedian Genevieve Rice, improv group Laura Ingalls (composed of Marisol Chavez and New Times contributor Sara Palmer), and a musical performance by Tiffany Shephard and Aaron Jardin. The response, Ratan and Howell say, was overwhelmingly positive.
"All these other women in the comedy world — stand-up and improv and otherwise — were also like, yeah, if we're being honest, if we could choose, we would rather be on a stage that's more inclusive — that gets it. That's not so ignorant or misogynistic," Ratan says. "People want this. I think why it's so successful. There were so many people like, 'Oh my god, I want to show up for that.'"
That doesn't necessarily mean there aren't local clubs or shows that also offer safe spaces to comedians, but rather that they are few and far between and are a product of their performers. Ratan and Howell mention Ladykillers, a new weekly all-female stand-up show from Hattie Jean Hayes as a big step in the same direction, and add that the Torch Theatre did its best, but still fell slightly short.
"The Torch Theatre created safe spaces, and there were people that entered those spaces and made it less safe," Howell says. "But I would say there are teachers there that do care and do reach out and do talk about these issues and talk about how to portray women on stage and talk about stereotypes and talk about punching up versus punching down and what all that looks like. Is it all of the teachers? No."
The early success of Overtly Sensitive and Out of the Kitchen — that willingness to reach out and change your surroundings within the everybody-knows-everybody improv community — has prompted the Central Avenue art house to take a look at itself and make improvements.
"For a long time, we assumed everything was fine in our community because no one ever talked about being harassed," Bill Binder, co-founder of the Torch Theatre, writes in an e-mail to New Times. "We were kind of blind to a lot of the culture of victim blaming and retaliation that made so many women feel it wasn't safe to bring these things up. We were definitely enabling some of that behavior inadvertently.
"So we've started the process of making it a safer space. We've brought those conversations more into our classes. We've worked with our teacher's [sic] to be more on the lookout for bad behavior. We've been starting to put up posters and other things to let people know how to report it and also that we will believe them; that we will work to protect the person reporting. It's definitely led to some tough and really painful conversations and decisions. In all honesty, it's been a really hard year. But we have to be better. I'm happy about our progress but I know we have more to learn."
That openness to learning might be above all else what Ratan and Howell hope to accomplish with Out of the Kitchen. Yes, selling tickets is a must, and of course they want to champion more-inclusive shows and diverse casts, but mostly they want to push this dialogue — and maybe a button or two.
"When the patriarchy lives and breathes in everything that we see and do, yeah, it's really hard to say, 'Oh, I can fix this stand-up comedy culture,' because guys don't necessarily want to listen to the things we have to say, be it on Facebook or in life," Howell says. "If they're not secure in themselves or they're not open to learning, there is no listening, there's no empathizing, there's no detaching from the ego and saying, 'What am I missing? All of these women are upset, what am I missing?' We don't like being shit on every single time we come to one of these shows."
"We really want to make [Out of the Kitchen] a stage for the larger arts community. For women who do dance, do music, photography, whatever it is, we want it to be like just a really creative space, to start that community collaboration, to have this database of all of these women who care about doing pro-women art," Ratan adds. "The community will be a byproduct of the philosophy. Right now, that philosophy is just dude humor, for and by dudes. There has been one specific point of view that's been on stages—"
"— and we want all the other points of view," Howell finishes.
See the sophomore production of Overtly Sensitive's Out of the Kitchen at 9 p.m. on Friday, October 14, at the Newton, 300 West Camelback Road. Advance tickets are available for $8 through www.overtlysensitive.com. For show details, visit the Facebook event page.
Correction: This post has been updated from its original version to correct the spelling of McKenzie Steuber's last name.