Ashima Franklin and other female comedians upend audience expectations 

Maria Bamford and comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates play the Laughing Skull this month

George Carlin once said that surprise is the essential element of comedy. Nobody who's ever been out drinking with a group of women will be surprised to discover that they can be as raunchy as men. But female comedians can still take audience expectations for genteel, lady-like behavior and knock them on their ass.

Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci's musical comedy act Garfunkel and Oates, playing the Laughing Skull Lounge March 9-10, initially comes across as the kind of chipper acoustic duo you can imagine playing children's birthday parties or opening for Lilith Fair. On their new album, Slippery When Moist, the upbeat song "Go Kart Racing" begins with a ride on a four-wheeler at a kiddie track. Garfunkel and Oates takes an adults-only detour when the driver realizes "I'm feelin' kinda funny in a Biblical way/Goddam it's shaking hard on my Georgia O'Keeffe bouquet," and the tune shifts into a tribute to female self-pleasuring.

Foul-mouthed funny women have almost always been a part of stand-up comedy, but comedians like Roseanne Barr would take the stage with obscene one-liners blazing to make their way in a male-dominated field. More recently, comics like Sarah Silverman make a point of messing with people's assumptions by cultivating ditzy, girlish stage personas to temper off-putting jokes about abortion, gynecological details, and other taboo topics. Margaret Cho began in comedy by playing up the difference between her Valley Girl voice and Korean background, but these days she primarily describes her sexploits in extreme detail.

Ashima "Skinnifine" Franklin, a rising female comic from Atlanta who can be as blunt as the late Bernie Mac, dispenses with irony and brings the most private aspects of sexuality out in the open. "I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable, and I think the way I approach it doesn't make people uncomfortable," Franklin says about her "crowd work," which often finds her asking couples in the audience about penis size and blowjob habits.

"When I ask questions like that, people are real, and they want to hear about real shit," Franklin says. "Like, there's always a white couple, and when the white girl says that she gives head, I'll say, 'You see that, you black bitches, you can learn from this shit.' And at the end of the night, everyone's going to be happy, they're gonna go home — and someone's gonna get their dick sucked."

A former waitress at Atlanta's Uptown Comedy Corner, Franklin cracks plenty of jokes about being a vengeful baby mamma: "I'll only give you drama on days that begin with 'T.' That's Tuesday, Thursday, Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow." Despite her brazen stage presence, she claims to have an old-school attitude about gender roles. During a performance she can be found identifying the independent career women in the audience and declaring, "Y'all bitches are fuckin' up my shit!" Also as part of her routine, Franklin explains that she'll be appreciative to any man who takes care of her: "Will you need me to jiggle your balls tonight, sir? Well, let a bitch know, I'll be right over here."

Franklin finds that male comics have much more license to be raw than female comedians. "It's always OK for a man to say that. Sometimes people will say, 'I can't believe a lady would say that.' But it's real shit that I'm talking about," says Franklin. "I used to get that all the time: 'You're not gonna get to the mainstream or on TV being so raunchy.' I can do clean — I've done churches, I've done schools. As for changing Ashima, I'm not going to do it."

Where Franklin has the live-wire energy of a female preacher burning up the pulpit, Maria Bamford, who performs at the Laughing Skull Lounge March 22-25, delivers her jokes with a breathy, spacey intonation that makes her seem half-exhausted, half anaesthetized. Bamford often launches into imitations of former high school frenemies, cocky would-be boyfriends, and even angry wizards, but her default voice may be the strangest of them all.

Part of Patton Oswalt's Comedians of Comedy Tour and known for playing a manic shopper on Target's Black Friday commercials, Bamford crafts surreal routines, including a description of herself talking to her 11-year-old pug as if it's George W. Bush. She occasionally drops one of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," but in her sets the surprise comes from her wholly idiosyncratic approach to comedy, with jokes that would throw you off guard whether they came from a man or a woman.


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