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.
Brian and I rented Season 1 of Saturday Night Live over the weekend. (Ok, so maybe I surreptitiously added it to our Netflix Queue, and by ‘our’ Netflix Queue, I mean ‘the Netflix Queue that Brian lacks a password for and which only I update’. Just to clarify.) I have always enjoyed watching vintage SNL. I’ve always loved Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Jane Curtain…come to think of it, maybe part of what I love is watching brilliant, hilarious women. So many wonderful female comedians got their start on that show. Sure, I also loved Chevy Chase and Steve Martin…but I couldn’t grow up to be like them. The women of early Saturday Night Live were inspiring because they were rough and tumble and edgy just like the men. They weren’t playing it for sex appeal, and even when the joke was on them, it was funny because of the characters they played, not simply because they were women. I recall disliking the show during the dark days of the early 1990s, when the cast had barely any women and most of the female characters were played by men in drag. There was something lost by not letting actual women in on the joke.
In any event, while my sister and I used to rent old episodes of SNL when we were growing up, after a long hiatus, it was rather jarring to see them again. It’s a little strange seeing legendary comedian John Belushi performing in low-rent, un-hilarious skits, back when he needed a paycheck and was willing to wear a Bee costume. Saturday Night Live has certainly been through rough patches; even classic episodes have their share of drek. But it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of the show’s primordial, formulative episodes. There was a dark, disturbing and poorly written skit featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets, since it was in the days before The Muppet Show earned them a place in the Pantheon of children’s television. There were fake commercials and a raggedy-edged Nightly News sendup. If nothing else, at least the bad skits were short. There were also several monologues by guest host George Carlin, one of which was about how stupid religion is. “Religion,” he says, “is like a lift in your shoe. If you need it for awhile, and it makes you walk straight and feel better – fine. But you don’t need it forever, or you’ll become permanently disabled.”
This blew me away. I know George Carlin has always said whatever the hell he wanted; that’s part of his greatness. But still—can you imagine a comedian on a major Network taking on religion with such frankness? Perhaps I just don’t watch enough Saturday Night Live, or enough comedians on major networks. But it was pretty great.
My favorite part of the episode was the satirical advertisement for the “Triple-Trac”, a revolutionary 3-blade razor. A simple (and very familiar) animation simulated how the first blade lifted a hair, the second primed it for being cut and the third cut it. The very idea of a triple-bladed razor was clearly unbelievably ridiculous—to a 1975 audience. The tagline said, “The three-blade razor— designed for people who’ll believe anything”. I can’t say I didn’t wince at that. How far we’ve come.