Howard, Steve and I took on women in comedy in this week’s Perpetual Post. Check it out!
I’m growing tired of hearing about how Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are such funny women. I mean, yes, they are. But is this such a revelation? The amount of attention those two receive for being funny is becoming a little patronizing, because for the most part it’s the same reaction of good-natured astonishment that would be elicited by the sight of a gopher wearing chaps or a tap-dancing kitten. The implication is: Look! These women are breaking down barriers, they’ve turned our misconceptions upside down; they’re thriving outside their element! It’s as thought the general public thinks each of them woke up one day and said, “Today, I think I’ll be funny– unlike women.”
Tragically, I was never informed that women aren’t funny. As a result, I spent my clearly misguided youth worshipping witty, smart-ass female authors like Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and Cynthia Heimel. I listened to old records and radio programs and grew to love the crackling improv of Elaine May and Joyce Grenfell and the sweet guile of Gracie Allen. I rented early Saturday Night Live episodes and marveled at the physical comedy of Gilda Radner and the snarky wit of Lily Tomlin. All of these women were brilliantly funny. I guess none of them got the memo.
It’s true that my many female comic idols are often less well-known than their male counterparts. George Burns’ fame far surpassed that of his counterpart and comic foil, Gracie Allen. Ricky always told Lucy she couldn’t be in the Babalu show. Saturday Night Live, for all its talented female stars, never seemed to launch their careers as far as it did the careers of legendary comedians like Steve Martin and Jim Belushi.
Indeed, for every smart, funny female role model I discovered through books, radio and television, there were many mediums which suffered from a distinct lack of vibrant female characters—or any female characters. After all, Bugs Bunny had all the good one-liners. None of the women stranded on Gilligan’s Island had decent comic timing; Smurfette was dull as dishwater. But to me, the lesson there was still not ‘girls in general aren’t as funny as boys’—it was ‘those girls aren’t funny’. So instead I watched Murphy Brown raise hell, and dreamed of the day I would live un-chaperoned in the Plaza Hotel like bossy, outrageous Eloise.
I agree with Steve Murphy that humor thrives on awkwardness and alienation, and that an adolescent penchant for feeling like an outcast is very likely to produce an individual who is quick with a one-liner and has a Simpson’s quote for every occasion. But I disagree that humor is a defense mechanism and a means of social survival mostly for males. Rather, I think it is a natural reflex for either sex—one that, if properly nurtured and cultivated, can be merrily abused as a dysfunctional means of self-protection by both boys and girls. After all, both face a tremendous amount of pressure to fit into their respective roles—and there are always going to be those on both sides who look around and think, “Wow, this shit is hilarious.”
I also agree with Howard that individual women who are not funny are often used as an example to somehow prove that women in general are not funny—which I find unfair. Were this standard applied to men, Pauly Shore alone would irrevocably prove that all men as a rule are desperately unfunny. Which is fair to no one, except Pauly Shore.