January 19, 2020

New TV series puts ‘real’ back in ‘reality’

Reality television shows starring women are not usually flattering. They’re full of women physically assaulting one another, getting Botox injections and spending loads of money on fur coats and jewelry.

Think about “The Real Housewives” or “Mob Wives.” 

Now, an Oxygen reality series about women wants you to laugh with its stars, not at them. “Funny Girls,” which premiered April 7, follows six comedians in their 20s and 30s as they gig around Los Angeles joking about relationships, sex and life in Hollywood; hang out with each other; and meet with bigger acts such as Margaret Cho, Loni Love and Janeane Garofalo.

The show’s cast is diverse: Yamaneika Saunders and Calise Hawkins are Black; Scout Durwood is a lesbian; and Ester Steinberg, Stephanie Simbari and Nicole Aimée Schreiber are Jewish. Some are from the East Coast, others live in L.A. full time. And as far as their professional experience goes, it ranges from more than 10 years in the comedy world.

“What’s great is that there are six women on the show doing comedy, and we are all so different,” Steinberg said. “We’re not just housewives. We’re artists, and we’re trying to say something and make an impact in some way or another.”

Along with her sister Jacklyn, Steinberg produces Kibitz Room Comedy Show, a monthly show at Canter’s Deli that features stand-up comedy — and free pickles. 

“I went there for an open mic two years ago and played my guitar and tried to make jokes,” Steinberg said. “I asked [the management] why they don’t do comedy there. They said someone tried once and it was horrible, but I’m super pushy because I’m half-Israeli, and I told them to give me a try. And they loved it.”

In the first episode of “Funny Girls,” Steinberg meets with comedian Bill Burr to discuss him doing her show at Canter’s. She also books fellow cast member Saunders to play there, but doesn’t want to book Simbari, who she doesn’t think can handle the room. (Simbari ends up going to an open mic night there and bombs.)

Simbari, who comes from a Jewish-Italian family and has opened for Whitney Cummings and Jeff Garlin, said the show is honest.

“This is about what happens on the journey. People see comics and think they can do comedy, but they don’t know what it takes. We are balancing being creative and being real people,” she said.

On and off camera, Schreiber, a Detroit native who acts and does stand-up, said she has her own reservations about comedy.

“The parts of ‘Funny Girls’ that are the most accurate are the ones that show the struggles of getting onstage and performing,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times out of the week I want to quit.”

Although the three Jewish cast members want to make it to television, they said having their lives on film wasn’t always what they expected it would be.

“It was a very interesting, illuminating and an enormous growing experience,” Simbari said. “You’re not used to having your life recorded all the time. As a comic left to your own devices, you can grow or not grow at your own pace. I had to work in a way that I hadn’t really done before.”

Steinberg said that it’s sometimes hard to watch herself on the program.

“I wanted to come off as myself. But when I watch it, I just think, ‘Why am I squinting? I leave the room and make noises and scream. I said the word ‘gem’ so many times. Why would I say that? I said the word ‘fancy’ a hundred times. Next season I won’t be saying ‘fancy’ or ‘gem.’ ”

Schreiber, like the rest, is hoping the show gets picked up for a second season — maybe more.

“I’d love to see ‘Funny Girls’ go on the road for a tour,” Schreiber said. “It’s all of our end goals to be touring comics. This is a great opportunity for us to tour the country and hone our craft.” 

Through the show, cast members also hope to break down stereotypes about women and give them more fuel to be themselves. Simbari wants women to know it’s OK for them to express what they really feel.

“Women are emotional creatures, and we are functioning in a world that doesn’t support that,” she said. “I want women to feel like they can incorporate [their emotions] into whatever it is they’re pursuing. I don’t want to suppress my emotions to be successful.”

Ultimately, the cast of “Funny Girls” aims to be more than entertaining; they want to inspire.

“It’s good for everyone who might have a dream that’s far-fetched to watch it,” Steinberg said. “We also want to be role models to women. We’re different kinds of women on television that you can look up to.”