Saturday, October 20, 2007

Funny Girl: Women and Comedy

Sisters, Brothers, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend's Comedist meditation focuses on women and comedy. Aspazia last week asked whether women have to not be women to be funny. She points to Kate Clinton who argues that there is deep seated sexism in the structure of professional comedy and a piece by Christopher Hitchens that considered gender expectations that lead to women having less latitude to be funny in social situations. She looks at Sarah Silverman's schtick and asks whether to get laughs, a woman has to become a man.

The question is complicated by the fact that there are at least three different issues here that need to be separated. (1) Is it harder for women to make a living at comedy and is this the result of sexism particular to the profession or just a manifestation of the sexism in the larger society, (2) Are professional female comedians generally considered less funny unless they perform men's routines, lose feminine characteristics, or cater their material to the sexist presuppositions in contemporary society?, and (3) for non-professionals, are women discouraged from being funny in normal social situations because of gendered social norms? These are three completely different questions and let's look at them one at a time.

Brick Wall/Glass Ceiling?

There is little doubt that male comedians greatly outnumber their female counterparts. Why is this the case? Is comedy a boys' club? No doubt. Is the path to success, a path that many start and few complete one that will seem less desirable for many women given the traditional gender notions we all are indoctrinated with because you have to do years in bars full of drunk men before you get a break and once you get on the circuit, you have to travel incessantly? Sure. The pressures that keep the percentages of women down in corporate positions and academia are there in spades in professional comedy, so it should be of little surprise that there are fewer female comedians. To get farther, they have to be funnier, want it more, and work harder. You will very rarely see more than one woman on an evening's bill at a comedy club unless it is designed to be a "women in comedy" night. The playing field is nowhere near level.

Can a Woman be a Funny Woman?

But while the profession clearly selects for male comedians over female in certain ways, I don't think that a female comedian can't be female or that she necessarily has to cater her material to the sexist undertow in contemporary society. One of the most viral videos right now is Anita Renfroe's version of the William Tell Overture sung with all the traditional mom-isms. Renfroe's routine is explicitly culturally conservative, yet it is widely linked to because it is just plain funny and speaks to the exasperation of middle class white women.

If you look not at stand-up, but at the other major comic vehicle of the day, sit-coms, Bill Maher is exactly right that the overwhelming majority look like Abbott and Costello with the woman as the smart, functional straight-woman and the man as a fat, bumbling idiot. The wives are modern women with careers who get punchlines that amount to "look how stupid you are, you typical contemporary white male."

Historically, there are some big, big women in comedy, Fanny Brice, Moms Mabley (hat tip to the righteous brother Helmut for the link), Gracie Allen, and Minnie Pearl in the first half of the 20th century, Phyllis Diller, Imogene Coca, and Anne Meara in the middle part of the century and in the troupe comedy of the 60s-80s, there were the likes of Joanne Worley, Lilly Tomlin, Gilda Radner, and Bonnie Hunt.

I think there is a point to be made that some of the big names of the last couple generations of female comedians played genderless -- Whoopie Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paula Poundstone, for example. But then, one could easily point to male counterparts who did similar sorts of routines and they were hardly "masculine" comedians. Funny comes in different types and the more cerebral, observational type humor tends to be less gendered.

There has been a wave of particularly female observation, story-telling, narrative based female comedians, especially those geared towards the experiences of working class women, e.g., Rosanne Barr and Brett Butler.

There is no doubt that there are well-worn slots that women comedians can easily fall into like the dizzy blonde like Gracie Allen or Goldie Hawn on Laugh In; or the heavy tell-it-like-it-is, in your face, loud-mouth like Shirley Hemphill or Rosie O'Donnell.

Sarah Silverman and others like Lisa Lampanelli, are doing the shock comedy bit where they take lines that no longer shock coming out the mouths of male comedians, but by playing on gender roles, still may have more pop coming out of the mouth of a female comedian.

Comedy is in part a matter of current social context and there will always be a residue of contemporary biases in what we find funny, but to say that a woman has to shed being a woman to be funny, strikes me as limiting given how many different sorts of female comedians there are and have been.

Can Women Be Funny?

This one's a sociological question and surely one that varies widely. I'm wondering if Hitchen's observations hold true for upper-class white society. I grew up around a bunch of smart, funny middle-class Jews where a zinger could come from any direction. But then there is a culture of having strong women who speak their minds. I wonder about contemporary African-American culture. Wouldn't surprise me if the norms relating to gender and comedy are different. This one, I'd love to hear anecdotal thoughts on.

Let's end with a couple great lines from women comedians:

Rita Rudner: I think men with earrings are particularly well suited to marriage, they've experienced pain and bought jewelry.

Ellen Degeneres: My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.

Rosanne Barr: Women complain about premenstrual syndrome, but I think of it as the only time of the month that I can be myself.
Your favorites?