Jaime Fernandez and Ta’Vi Watkins are funny women

Two comics dish on Sacramento stand-up through a female gaze

Ta’vi Watkins, ready for her close-up.

Ta’vi Watkins, ready for her close-up.

Photo by Lisa Baetz

Follow Jaime Fernandez on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jaimelikesyou. Follow Ta'Vi Watkins on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tavi.comedy.

There's everyday sexism in stand-up comedy—that's just a reality Ta'Vi Watkins says she's learned to accept.

“You're going to be the only woman on a show because having too many women on a show would just be ridiculous,” she says.

Two women is often too many, or at least, it seems that way looking at local lineups.

For local stand-up comics like Watkins and Jaime Fernandez (pictured on the cover), that means every show presents the challenge of winning over an audience that’s simply grown accustomed to men.

“Women in the audience are even tougher on girls,” Fernandez says. “They’re not just like, ’Oh is she gonna be funny?’ They’re like, ’Look at her, what’s she wearing?’”

After four years of participating in and watching Sacramento comedy shows, Fernandez has grown to believe that audiences perceive female comics differently the moment they hit the stage. The energy in the whole room instantly shifts, and it’s up to the lady onstage to break the tension.

“Comedy, I think, is selling your perspective,” Fernandez says. “If it’s four men in a row selling their perspective, even if they have original ideas, it’s still gonna be through a certain male gaze. When a girl comes up, that just changes.”

A common situation: a guy’s sex jokes will get huge laughs, but then a girl’s similarly crude humor will be met with silence. It frustrates Fernandez, who has an arsenal of crass jokes: the homeless vagina one, the small tits thing, the “clit-ar.”

“I have cum jokes that I can’t do—and I think they’re so funny—because people will be like, ’Ugh, too much, too much.’” she says. “And if a dude talks about jacking off for an hour, people are like, ’This is the best ever.’”

Fernandez teaches the intro to stand-up class at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, and she specifically warns her female students against being too vulgar. There’s a line, a double-standard. It’s best to be aware of it, she says.

Of course, none of that casual sexism compares to the horrors big-league comics started telling the national press in the past couple of years: that there’s a deep culture of sexual harassment and assault in the comedy world. Does it happen locally, too? Depends who you ask.

“I think a lot of the guys here are really good to the females,” Fernandez says. “There’s no creepy rape culture happening.”

Watkins, however, quickly points to two instances where she says she felt deeply uncomfortable in her year of doing stand-up in Sacramento. During an open-mic sign-up huddle, she says another comic groped her. “I spoke to him about it and we no longer speak,” she says.

And when Watkins opened a string of club shows for a nationally known comedian, she says she had to fend off aggressive advances from that comic’s manager. Amid repeated phone calls, invitations to hotel rooms and inappropriate touching, she tried to avoid him rather than confront him. Blame the reality of power dynamics in the entertainment business.

“No one is going to knock someone who they think can take them to the next level,” Watkins says, adding that it comes down to self-preservation. “We’re outnumbered. There are too many of them for anyone to make it an issue.”

Both Watkins and Fernandez agree that the male-to-female ratio in the Sacramento comedy scene is obscenely skewed. But Fernandez also thinks it worked to her advantage. When she moved to Sacramento, there were hardly any female comics. So, when clubs started wanting more females performing, she had an automatic leg up on the predominantly male competition. Within two years, she was working at Punch Line Comedy Club, the best in Northern California. Watkins, too, started working at Laughs Unlimited and Tommy T’s within just one year.

Of course, it could also just be that they’re both really, really funny—two personal truth-speakers that audiences quickly find relatable. Fernandez’s self-deprecating, wordy and witty style complements her dark, feminist perspective on the world. Watkins, meanwhile, unspools tales of what she sees as life’s mundane moments as a fat black woman with zero agenda and a bubbly, easygoing vibe.

Lately, though, Fernandez has been spending more time producing shows than writing and performing. In addition to teaching, she hosts the weekly open-mic at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar and books more comedy there every other Wednesday. And a few months ago, she launched Fem Dom Com, a monthly show every second Saturday at Fox & Goose Public House. The name stands for female-dominated comedy, and each show reverses the norm by touting four female comics and one token male. But, because there are so few women doing comedy in Sacramento, Fernandez has to recruit out-of-towners to keep the lineup fresh each month.

Still, there are increasingly more female comics in Sacramento—probably more than ever before. Watkins sees a lot of women at open-mics. Fernandez says her stand-up students lately have mostly been women—she pushes them toward her open-mic at Luna’s, which she aims to make a safe space for female comics.

“When girls come around, it’s important for the community to work to make them stay,” she says. “So you can go to a show and it’s not one female and 10 dudes.”