The standup comic Dina Nina Martinez first organized Lady Laughs, a comedy festival for women in standup, as a way to forge an intersectional support network for female comics that she felt was missing in Madison.
“It was a couple of days after the first presidential election,” reminisced Martinez of that initial three-day fest in 2016. “The women in it needed a laugh, so they lucked out.”
Now in its third year, the Madison festival has grown: This year’s five-day affair will feature more than 90 performances from Wednesday through Sunday across four venues, featuring both local comics and others converging on Madison from across the country.
Lady Laughs has also become more than just a festival. Martinez and other Lady Laugh organizers have taken the show on the road, taking comedians on “I <3 Funny Women” tours of the Midwest. Lady Laughs now also has a sister festival in Wichita, Kansas, a place where Martinez had said she heard demand for such an event. Plus, Martinez has also been organizing comedy workshops through Lady Laughs.
“These are just ways to kind of build this army of strong, empowered women comedians,” said Martinez.
Martinez said carving intentional spaces for women in comedy has clearly made a difference. Women thrive when they’re not in a space made for men, she said.
“I’m just so shocked when women have the stage, and they’re prioritized in a space, how powerful and comfortable they look...as opposed to a normal comedy show,” she said.
The same goes for the audiences, she said. She said that she’s felt that attendees of Lady Laughs shows of all genders seem to be more at ease — especially those who identify as queer, who Martinez noted often feel especially alienated at male-dominated shows.
Plus, there’s the bonus of forging a network: Martinez said that she’s seen women who meet through Lady Laughs collaborating on shows of their own.
Martinez said that she does occasionally have to reckon with naysayers, who take issue with the mission of Lady Laughs.
“I have certainly gotten a lot of resistance in certain places, but when it comes down to it, nobody can’t tell me I can’t do it,” she said. “I feel so empowered by what happens in that week, what happens in that classroom, what happens on tour, everything else...that they can kiss my ass.”
Martinez said that this year’s festival is noteworthy not just for the non-local comics flying in — from Hatty Preston, a British actress known for her role on the E! show “The Royals,” to Christine Ferrera, a Baltimore author whose stand-up was recently featured on Adult Swim — but also for the regional performers making appearances, with women coming in from towns like Boulder Junction and Monroe.
"There are tons of local women comedians this year, which is really cool," said Martinez.
The festival is also riddled with special performances and events. The Saturday night shows at the Barrymore will be filmed as part of an “I <3 Funny Women” online streaming series. Opening night at Plan B on Wednesday features a traditional and tongue-in-cheek showcase for male performers, as well as performances from alums of the Lady Laughs comedy school. Improv performers from the Monkey Business Institute will do a show Friday night at the Nomad World Pub.
Martinez said that her aspiration is for Lady Laughs to pave the way for an even bigger event, something similar to a South by Southwest festival where women can showcase film, theater and art on top of stand-up.
“I would love to have just a few weeks dedicated to all kinds of stuff,” she said. “Something that encompasses all of who we are as women, and how we express ourselves.”
A full schedule of shows is available online at the Lady Laughs Comedy website.