Funny Filipinas: Comedy Manila’s female comics shake things up in male-dominated scene

Amanda T. Lago

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Funny Filipinas: Comedy Manila’s female comics shake things up in male-dominated scene

ABANTE BABAE. Khaye Asco, Issa Villaverde, Jeannie Laccay, Jeleen Cubillas, and Diana Aaron perform in a stand-up show along with host Baus Rufo and featured performer Timothy Salomon.

Amanda Lago/Rappler

The female experience – with all its struggles and pleasures – is a comedy goldmine, and with women comics taking the mic, that goldmine is finally being tapped

Women are funny. It’s a statement so plain and painfully obvious that it seems almost idiotic to say it out loud. 

But in the Filipino stand-up comedy scene, it’s something that still bears repeating. The scene itself is only starting to gain mainstream steam. And at the forefront of it are mostly male comedians – the likes of Victor Anastacio, GB Labrador, James Caraan, and Red Ollero.  

In fact, GB and Red were headlining shows on March 25 – the same day that five women came together at a restaurant in Greenhills to prove what shouldn’t need proving – that female comedians are funny as hell. Their show was aptly called Abante Babae: Pinay Stand-up Revolution.

One by one they trickled in to Don Conejos restaurant: Jeannie Laccay, Khaye Asco, Issa Villaverde, Diana Aaron, and the night’s headliner, 2023 Roast Battle champion Jeleen Cubillas who arrived last after coming straight from another show. 

Talagang sinabayan natin sila no (we really picked the same day to do a show),” one of them joked, as they piled into a makeshift green room behind the restaurant’s bar, along with the night’s host Baus Rufo and featured performer Timothy Salomon – “the diversity hire.”

The room’s walls were painted with cartoonish grey bricks, as if to recreate some sort of medieval dungeon. The musty smell in the air added to the effect. The subtle ridiculousness of it all was not lost on the women, who made cursory note of the unusual decor before settling into the pre-show wait.

They ran jokes by each other, asked for advice (“Should I try out a new joke tonight?” Issa wondered). Khaye expressed her frustration at not having a new joke to open with, and the rest of them reminded her of how funny her usual opener was.

At some point, they fell silent, each of them getting into their own pre-show rituals. Jeannie went off on her own to fix her set list and work out her material. Diana plugged her earphones in and listened to music. Issa laughed around with Baus. Khaye and Jeleen made notes, but occasionally joined the banter.

That they were able to gather five female comedians at all was a feat in itself. Most comedy line-ups in Manila are made up mostly of men. As Diana said, of say 100 stand-up comedians in the Philippines, maybe less than 10 are women. They are all relatively new to the scene too.

KHAYE ASCO. Photo by Amanda Lago/Rappler

Nung pandemic nagkahobby lahat ng tao. Yung iba naging plantita, yung iba nagbake ng sourdougheto yung nahanap namin (during the pandemic, everyone found hobbies. Some became plant parents, some baked sourdough…this is what we found),” Jeleen said. She, Diana, and Khaye started doing comedy in 2021, back when stand-up open mics were still held over Zoom. 

Issa is the newest of them, getting into stand-up in August 2022, as a way of making sense of her feelings after breaking up with her girlfriend – her first gay relationship.

“I came in at the right time kasi biglang pumapalo ngayon (now it’s suddenly booming),” she laughed.

Jeannie has been doing stand-up the longest. She’s been a fan of stand-up since 2008, and would watch shows regularly, eventually meeting GB, who she started dating in 2012 and is now her fiancé.

Since naging kami, lagi siyang nakatunganga. Kala ko magiging happy all the time pero lagi siya nakatunganga. Instead of aawayin ko siya because of it, naisip ko magcomedy kaya ako para maintindihan ko kung ano yung nasa utak niya. So nagcomedy ako because of that, so ngayon lagi na kami nakatunganga pareho,” she said.

(Ever since we got together, he was always just staring into space. I thought we’d be happy all the time, but he was just always staring into space. Instead of fighting him over it, I thought, maybe I’d try comedy too so I would understand what’s in his head. So I got into comedy because of that, so now we’re both always just staring into space.)

JEANNIE LACCAY. Photo by Amanda Lago/ Rappler

Come show time, the women emerge from their dungeon green room one by one, each with her own entrance music, to take the microphone and attempt to tickle the audience with their jokes. 

Nothing was off-limits: vaginas, breasts, penises, dirty talk, creepy men, childbirth, breastfeeding – these are things women discuss freely in private, but not on a mic, to a roomful of strangers.

The audacity

It does take a certain audacity to be a stand-up comic – you need to be able to face a crowd, tell your jokes, and keep going even when they don’t respond – which happens all the time. 

One can imagine it takes even more audacity to be a female comic, especially in conservative Philippines, where women are expected to speak and act in certain ways that do not involve curse words, or sex talk, or any mention of the word “boobs.”

When I started, a lot of them came for the male comedians talaga, the male headliners.Yung mga hindi pa sanay makakita ng confident woman joking about ano…sometimes it’s not so well-received. Usually when I do punch-up jokes din…yung parang sinasabi ko, ang creepy ng mga lalaki, ang aasim lagi…may mga times na ay, they don’t receive,” Issa shared. 

(When I started, a lot of them really came for the male comedians, the male headliners. The ones who weren’t used to seeing a confident woman joking about stuff…sometimes it’s not so well-received. Usually when I do punch-up jokes too…like when I say men are creepy, they’re so slimy…there are times where oops, they don’t receive.)

“But also it’s helped me find my own audience. I’d like to think that just doing my thing regardless has helped attract more new audiences to stand-up because finally, may ka-humor ako (people share my humor),” she said. “Hindi lang puro jakol tsaka tite (it’s not all about jacking off and penises),” she said.

Point of view ng babae ng jakol at tite (It’s a woman’s point of view on jacking off and penises),” Diana chimed in.

DIANA AARON. Photo by Amanda Lago/Rappler

That they joke about taboo topics doesn’t just invite judgment, but also sometimes harassment.

“The interaction is there, so feeling nila close na nila kami kagad. So parang ano na, mga touchy, parang wala nang boundaries. Nagsexual jokes ka na, akala nila close na kayo (they feel instantly close. So they get touchy, like there are no more boundaries. You’ve made sexual jokes, so they feel close to you already.),” Diana explained.

“There have been few incidents that I guess it’s heckling or catcalling, because I present feminine and I do sexual jokes,” Issa added.

May times lang din yung audiences na ‘ohhh I labyu, labyu.’ Di ko na alam kung nakakatawa lang ba ko or dahil babae lang ba ko (There are times that the audience would go ‘ohh I love you, I love you.’ I don’t know if I’m just funny or if it’s just cos I’m a woman),” she said.

ISSA VILLAVERDE. Photo by Amanda Lago/Rappler

The comedy scene is at least protective of them, and they always feel safe at shows. Issa shared that when they report incidents of harassment, there’s an unofficial Comedy Manila committee that takes action right away, even banning some people from certain open mics. 

“It helps that Jeannie sits on that committee, so siya yung advocate (she’s the advocate) for us. Kasi siyempre imagine kung walang babae dun. Ang daling i-dismiss eh (Imagine if there wasn’t a woman there. It would be so easy to dismiss,” Khaye said.

Changing ‘asaran’ culture

Aside from going against a socially acceptable idea of women and facing harassment, these Filipina comics have also had to deal with being the minority in the comedy world.

For the longest time, Jeannie was the only woman in the stand-up comedy scene, always referred to as “the only female in the line-up,” and even once being introduced with the line “we have a treat for you tonight.”

Nainis lang ako (I just got annoyed),” she said. “Gusto ko lang bawiin na hindi lang ito treat (I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just a treat).”

Aside from the microaggressions, she had to keep up with the scene’s strong male energy (the “frat-boy energy,” as Issa called it) – the banter, the heckling, the teasing.

JELEEN CUBILLAS. Photo by Amanda Lago/Rappler

With an all-female line-up, the energy is different – more nurturing and supportive. 

Kasi sila nagiingat din around us (they watch their words around us)she said, sharing how, in a conversation with fellow comedian Leland Lim, he said that he hopes the women can join in on the teasing. 

“Ako naman…what if we change the asaran culture into something more supportive? Nagwowork naman kami,” Issa said.

(For me….what if we change the teasing culture into something more supportive? It works for us.)

Ultimately though, being a minority in the comedy world might even be a good thing.

“There’s a market for feminine humor,” Tim pointed out. 

Kunyari nagshoshow ako puro lalaki, tas ako lang bakla, parang they like me better kasi iba yung perspective ko. May konting microaggressions, na ah, gusto ka lang niyan kasi bakla ka, kasi babae ka, but I think it’s because we’re responding to a market that has not been responded to ever since,” he explained. 

(For example, I’m at a show that’s all-male and I’m the only gay one, it’s like they like me better because my perspective is different. There are some microaggressions, like, oh they only like you because you’re gay, or because you’re a woman, but I think it’s because we’re responding to a market that has not been responded to ever since.)

The female experience – with all its struggles and pleasures – is a comedy goldmine, and with women comics taking the mic, that goldmine is finally being tapped. For the audience, that can only be a good thing – new jokes to laugh at, stories they haven’t been told before.

“A lot of our jokes din come from female-only struggles na men do not even have to deal with. Iba yung hugot (it comes from a different place),” Issa said. 

Follow Comedy Manila to find out where you can watch Issa, Diana, Jeannie, Jeleen, and Khaye. Four of them also co-host a podcast called The Lady Boses. –

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Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.