Comedy and burlesque have been kissing cousins since the very beginning, back in the early 1900s.
Holly Harvest — one of the spearheads of Louisville’s burlesque boom and co-founder of Bourbontown Burlesque — is doubling down on that comedy/burlesque connection with “Women Ain’t Funny,” an evening of giggles and jiggles that exclusively features women and queer performers on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7-8.
Harvest came to burlesque through the flow arts and hula hoop dancing. Soon after, she got booked to perform a fire-based act in an evening that included burlesque. It piqued her interest, so she began performing burlesque numbers and traveling to other cities to showcase her striptease abilities.
She began organizing shows, with a focus on bringing in traveling performers, encouraging a cross-pollination with burlesque scenes in Chicago, Nashville, Indianapolis and beyond.
After organizing several successful shows, Harvest took a break to create something else with her Bourbontown co-founder, Tom Foolery.
“We just had a baby, and the majority of the time I was pregnant was us watching standup,” says Harvest.
Inspired by watching all that comedy, she decided to highlight the connection between comedy and burlesque and produce a show that featured not only comedians but humorous burlesque numbers.
“In the 1900s, comedians and magicians hired strippers to come perform at their shows to draw people in,” explains Harvest. “So the comedians were usually the ones producing the show, leading the show, choosing the girls and such.”
Harvest has a wealth of information on the history, which she says is a passion of hers, as it offers a glimpse into the struggles and successes of the women in a different age.
“They were stepping up above their means through this,” she says. “It’s a window into finding space to go beyond the social norms. And they were making decent money. Some of the top people were making $4,000 a week, which … I’d be cool making that now.” (Back then, she pointed out, it was a ton of money.)
Unsurprisingly, the connection between comedy and burlesque came with plenty of sexism, which affected women’s paychecks and artistic agencies simultaneously.
“If a comedian found out that one of the featured dancers was what they called ‘a talking girl,’ which is someone they considered smart enough to have lines in the show, they would make her come into the comedian’s act and be a part of their act,” says Harvest.
In other words, the comedian could throw away a woman’s act so she could come set him up for a good punchline. And then there was the punch to their paycheck. Featured dancers made more money than “talking girls.”
“So the women were scared to look smart and be able to talk. Because you didn’t make as much money,” says Harvest.
Women shying away from comedy in the 1920s probably wasn’t the beginning of sexist attitudes about women being funny, but it sure didn’t help. It’s an idea that still permeates plenty of places in the standup world, despite a plethora of women in the industry, as well as an increasing number of folks who identity as trans, queer or nonbinary.
“I want to challenge the statement that women aren’t funny and bring people into that satirical place, and watch the out-of-control performances,” Harvest says.
Modern burlesque walks a fine line — empowering women and encouraging them to love their own bodies, while also flirting with the male gaze. “Women Ain’t Funny” walks that line as well.
“It’s holding a space to showcase (women and queer people), but it’s also for dudes,” she adds.
Harvest describes the evening another way.
“We can’t promise we’re not going to talk about our periods, but we also have tassels and booty.”
Her knowledge of the history of burlesque and its sexism around comedy was bubbling away in the back of her mind, but Harvest wasn’t originally planning to focus the first funny evening on women and queer performers.
“It kind of came about organically,” she says. “I knew I wanted Rose Whip as my headliner, because I’d seen them do some really campy burlesque. And I realized there were some local women comedians that were really getting a name. And I started thinking about how there are still people who think women aren’t funny.”
That thought turned into a title for the first burlesque comedy event.
“And to me, it’s more like a challenge,” she says.
Despite the that title, Whip and some of the other performers in the show identify as queer or trans, but Harvest felt the name still fit.
She began by looking at Louisville-based burlesque performers she had already seen do comedic work, and she quickly recruited Ethel Lovelace, Beatrix B. Naughty and Lola Dee Licious.
To source comedians, she started to look around the local scene, quickly settling on Mandee McKelvey and Kate Sedgwick. She also reached out to Gwen Sunkle, a burlesque performer from Indianapolis who has been moonlighting as a standup comedian.
You can expect more comedy and burlesque from Harvest and Bourbontown, and Harvest hopes to continue to include hot-button topics.
“I definitely see myself using this concept again — this is just the one I wanted to start with,” she says. “I would love to be able to produce events that marry burlesque and politics … One of the roots of burlesque is gathering people to laugh about what’s going on in politics.”
You have a chance to catch “Women Ain’t Funny” three times this weekend — on Friday, Sept. 7, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 8, at 8 and 10 p.m., at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $15.