Jani Tillery has been practicing law for seven years. But the 38-year-old lawyer would rather people came to see her when they needed a good laugh over legal advice.
She attended comedy classes and open mic nights this year dreaming to someday take the stage professionally. Knowing exposure was the next step, she applied to perform at the She-Devil Comedy Festival, a female comedy competition throughout Manhattan entertainment hubs like Broadway Comedy Club, Greenwich Village Comedy Club and The West End.
Steve Hofstetter, the festival’s co-creator and executive producer and host of FOX’s stand up show “Laughs,” had women like Tillary in mind when he started the event.
“One of the things we wanted to do was honor and expose women who were in the comedy world and give them an opportunity,” Hofstetter said.
Competitors’ exposure to the industry sets She-Devil apart from similar festivals. All of the show’s judges are members of the comedy industry, which can prove life changing for contestants.
“Three bookers from Letterman were at the final our first year when Carmen Lynch won and three months later she was on Letterman,” Hofstetter said.
Employees of HBO, FOX, MTV, journalists and owners of comedy clubs throughout the country make up the judging panel.
Hofstetter himself can be deemed a more-than-worthy judge of comedic talent. His comedy YouTube channel has over 21 million views, he’s released five comedy albums and written comedy columns for SportsIllustrated.com and the New York Times, making him a type of comedy connoisseur.
A few years ago, when he owned comedy club Laughing Devil in Long Island City, Hofstetter ran a weekly, all-female show called She Devils and watched it become the venue’s most popular set. The obvious market for female comedy inspired the festival.
But working as a comedian taught Hofstetter that the idea that woman aren’t as funny as men was commonly held in the world of comedy.
“I have seen many shows where bookers will often do one of two things with female comics, both of which are detrimental,” Hofstetter said. “One is not book someone because they think women aren’t funny. And the other is booking someone just because they’re female, even if they’re not ready yet.”
The latter, Hofstetter said, puts unprepared female comedians on stage that are not yet ready to perform well, which perpetuates the stigma.
Tillary said audience and bookers’ negative perception of female comics was obvious at her performances. Often, she is a show’s sole female performer.
“There’s always this vibe. Everyone kind of looks at you like ‘what are you going to bring to the table?” Tillary said.
After sending in 5-minute videos of material, hundreds of competitors are judged by comedy industry pros and 60 are chosen to compete. Comedians perform sets ranging from four to 10 minutes in four rounds from Oct. 22 to the 26.
Many of the contestants learn about She-Devil by being members of Comedy Soapbox, Hofstetter’s resource website for comedians with 12,000 members. His role in the national comedy club scene spreads the word as well. Hofstetter is part of a group of seven known as Comedy LLC that owns Louisville’s Laughing Derby, Mory’s Comedy Joint in Indianapolis and Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub in Ohio.
The festival’s third year will be its last in New York and it will take up a new home in Dayton, Ohio next year. Touring the country to scout stand-up talent with his show “Laughs,” Hofstetter said he realized the majority of female comedians are concentrated in New York and LA.
“We thought, we’ve got this female comedy festival, why don’t we use it to encourage female comedians from other places and create a better scene for them in other places,” Hofstetter said.