Breastmilk, Mermaids and Motherhood: Comedian Sarah Aswell
Until four years ago, Montana comedy maven Sarah Aswell worked as a freelance writer, taking jobs that required plenty of work. She had two young daughters, a 2-year-old and an infant, and she never slept. If the girls were sleeping, she was writing, and if they were awake, she was taking care of them. Aswell says she often felt isolated and depressed.
“I love my kids. I think they’re the best. But at the same time, I felt super trapped.”
Aswell’s husband Ben Fowlkes, co-host on the Co-Main Event Podcast and a feature writer for USA Today, went out one night with a friend to the Union Club in Missoula. There, they discovered a monthly open-mic night but were unimpressed with the comedians. The two friends dared each other to get on stage for the following month’s show. Fowlkes recalls they immediately decided that Sarah needed to be roped into the adventure, too.
“Sarah was one of the funniest people we knew,” Fowlkes says of his wife. “So, we knew that something like this would be an obvious fit for her.”
A Star is Born
Aswell agreed to taking to the stage the following month at the Union Club. When she left her house, though, she was so conditioned to frequently breastfeeding her two young daughters that her breasts started leaking immediately. She powered through, nevertheless, putting her coat on over her milky pink-cotton dress and delivering her set, opening with a simple “Hello” in a voice she describes as “monotone librarian.”
“I immediately knew that this was going to change the direction of my life and that I’d found something that was going to make me feel better,” Aswell remembers. Her set was dry, witty and included a joke about whether or not mermaid pussy smells like land.
“People just assume the starting point for all women is that we are not funny and that we don’t understand humor. And that drives me insane. It’s not even just men who assume women aren’t funny.”
Aswell says she’s asked a lot of women why they avoid stand-up comedy and the most common answer she gets is, “I’m not funny.”
The experience of performing initially gave her something to look forward to beyond work and parenting, but now she says she has found a community in comedy.
“It’s amazing how when I started doing stand-up every other aspect of my life started changing,” Aswell says, recalling the past four years. “It’s kind of wonderful to think you can make one positive change and be happier, and that kind of ripples through your whole life.”
Charley Macorn, a notable Missoula-based stand-up comedian, knew this new girl was someone to look out for when they saw her on her first night at the Union Club. “I was at the back of the bar and I was listening to Sarah, and I was really blown away.”
Once Aswell made comedy a part of her professional life, she soared. She became a successful comedy freelancer and people started offering her jobs, from writing daily posts for Scary Mommy online and penning a column in Forbes in addition to her current work as a managing editor for Submittable, a networking site where organizations and writers make connections.
Born in Pennsylvania, Aswell moved to Boston when she was a toddler. Growing up, she admits was “pretty shy but always hilarious.” Her first real experience with comedy was a deep appreciation of The Far Side, quirky one-liner comics by Gary Larsen. She also read a lot of Dave Barry, long-time humor columnist for the Miami Herald, and watched comedy on HBO.
In high school she was something of a paradox, she recalls, being both the quiet girl and the class clown. After graduation, she attended Grinnell College, a small liberal-arts college in Iowa, where she joined the improv troupe and wrote for the school’s paper as a humor columnist.
After graduating, she worked as a journalist at a small paper in Iowa, eventually making her way to Missoula in 2014 for the MFA creative-writing program at University of Montana.
Aswell now volunteers her time running workshops and shows and still performs stand-up. She has freelanced for major comedy publications around the country and has published three articles in The New Yorker. In 2018, she was named one of the Best Undiscovered Comedians in America by Thrillist and, in 2019, she had the honor of performing for HBO’s Women in Comedy Festival in Boston, her old hometown.
Beyond working a full-time job and being a mother, Aswell still fits several different local comedy functions into her weeks.
Now a seasoned veteran, Aswell uses her wits and her love for comedy to push for more representation of women, queer people and people of color on stages. She says it’s important for more narratives to be shared apart from the common white-cis-male one.
Aswell’s “Women and Non-Binary Comedy Workshop” is where she puts that mission into action. Held on the last Tuesday of every month at The Badlander bar in Missoula, the workshop is followed by an open-mic night where workshop participants get priority. Each gathering explores different topics and sometimes feature guest speakers.
Sarah says heckling is a challenge she encounters almost everywhere, particularly at places like the Union Club, where often crowds are thick and drunk. Yet, Missoula’s comedy scene is the most inclusive she’s ever seen, and she says The Badlander shows have become a safe haven for all types of people.
Comedian Charlie Macorn says Aswell has also inspired others to do things they were afraid to do. “She’s been such a great supporter, not just of me personally but of Missoula comedy and comedy in general,”
Macorn adds that Aswell encouraged them both to apply for the HBO Women in Comedy Festival; both were accepted to perform live on stage in Boston at the annual event in May 2019. (Sarah’s performance there is available on her YouTube channel.) Aswell also helps produce comedy workshops in Bozeman, although she shut down another chapter in Corvallis, Montana because she said hecklers had become dangerous on multiple occasions.
At her fourth-anniversary Union Club open-mic night, Aswell gave a set and was followed on stage by a man she didn’t know. He proceeded to make a joke about how she had a bowl cut and wondered if her vagina also had bowl cut. The punch line didn’t land; nobody laughed.
“I give a fuck because I know that sort of stuff prevents women from getting on stage and from returning to stage. And that makes me really angry. Also, it was a poor joke; nothing gets me angrier than that!”
In the past, Sarah says, she never used to confront men about personally offensive jokes but now she asks them what they mean and why they think the joke at her expense is funny. She says it makes them realize how they screwed up without her having to say anything.
Once when she was headlining a show in Great Falls, Aswell got a drink while her opener was performing. The man next to her started chatting, or rather “mansplaining,” as Aswell calls it. He asked her if she’d ever been to a comedy show before and she decided to play along. When she said no, he proceeded to explain how difficult comedy was, and started boasting about his own stand-up experience. And when the host announced her as headliner, she walked onto stage without looking back.
“It’s almost like people can’t comprehend a female comedian,” she says.
Aswell says she receives downright hate-mail. People tell her to kill herself and call her vulgar names behind the masks of fake emails and social media accounts.
“You loonie ‘Journalists’ do not dictate what funny is. The real joke is how lame you are as a writer. FUCK YOU you hysterical twit!” read the screed one man sent her in response to a movie review.
Regardless of the slanders, Aswell says she usually tries to talk out the issues. She says she even became a Twitter buddy once with a man who pointed out the way she could be perceived as racist in an article comparing Dave Chappelle and Tiffany Haddish.
“You know, I hadn’t really thought about how I was writing about people of color generally as much as I should’ve been,” she recalls.
Despite the harassing, trolling and hate, Sarah moves forward. She teaches workshops every month where she’s reached more than 100 people in just over two years. She performs on stages almost every week, locally and on the road.
“Sarah really gave Missoula something that it needed,” fellow comedian Macorn explains. “It needed someone who wouldn’t put up with the bullshit, who could see and identify the sexism that kept people out and she went right up to that door and kicked.”
A lot of the work she does is dedicated to her daughters, she explains. She wants them to grow up in a world where their voices can be heard. Aswell encourages them every day, praising their jokes. Because, as she points out, nobody ever tells little girls they’re funny.
“People never say that to my kids,” Sarah concludes. “It’s always, ‘You’re so cute. I love your skirt. You’re so nice. She’s so well behaved,’ no one’s ever like ‘that was a good joke.’ And my kids do good jokes all the time. A lot of the stuff that I’ve been talking about is for them, so that they can move through the world like regular humans.”
Aswell adds, “I hope we get to a place where we don’t have to think about the differences between men and women’s comedy. It’s just people telling their own stories.”
— Mazana Boerboom