On Women In Comedy


There has been a long-standing assertion in society that women just aren’t that funny. For years, people have been making the claim, both in seriousness and in jest, that women do not have the “humor gene”–and, evolutionarily speaking, haven’t really needed to. We’ve been able to reproduce and survive based on our looks, not on our wits or charms. And though there are striking exceptions sprinkled throughout the media and in our own social groups, if we were all honest with ourselves, most would say that, speaking in generalities, women are not as funny as men are.

But as a woman, and especially as a writer who often attempts humor (though are we ever really sure how funny we come across over the internet?), I cannot say that the idea doesn’t depress me. It doesn’t offend me–no, I can be a realist and acknowledge that when naming humorists whose work I truly love, the list leans far more to the male than the female column–but it does disappoint. I appreciate the idea that there are many people who will like my style of humor, just as much as I know that there are many people who won’t. That simply comes with the territory of humor itself–it’s as subjective as anything can be. But what digs at me is the idea that there will be many people who dismiss and dislike my writing simply because it comes from a woman. The concept they have about women in comedy so strongly influences their sense of humor that they often won’t read a work if they see a vaguely feminine name on the byline.

And yet, I cannot blame them. There are publications whose articles I love, yet there are choice female writers within them whose names I will avoid because their work has such an overwhelmingly “You-Go-Girlfriend” tone to it. There is an alternating need in their writing to both assert their gender equality and to clasp their hands in solid sisterhood with every other female on the planet–a tight-knit circle of ovaries that goes around and around, reaffirming its own awesomeness. And yet, I feel the exact same exasperation with male writing that goes so over-the-top in its need for masculinity and bravado that it becomes a caricature of itself. There are men’s magazines that I often feel must be satire, as no reputable publication could honestly be so absurd in its desire to assert a gender identity. We get it, you like scotch and breasts and movies where things explode.

But the difference between the two is that, with men’s humor, there is enough out there that ignores gender altogether that one has the choice. If you want to feel the solidarity of pulsing, sizzling testosterone–you know where to find it. If you want subtle political satire or dry observational humor–it’s at your disposal as well. And while there are women comics who embody this gender-neutral humor as well, they are fewer and farther between.

No, often “funny women” fall into one of two categories:

  1. The “Sarah Silverman” Type- This type of humor revolves around the idea that she is doing things that women are “not supposed” to do. She farts, burps, says offensive, racist things, and makes herself look like a perpetual fool. The little girl persona she often takes on while executing her lowest-common-denominator acts are used to heighten the “shock” felt by the viewer at seeing a woman cross these invisible gender barriers and walk, unaccompanied, into Man Country.
  2. The “Chelsea Handler” Type- This type of humor exists as a “taking back” of a woman’s identity–the idea that a woman can be sexual, liberated, indifferent, and consequence-free. The constant, overbearing divulging of extremely personal, often sexual encounters and the idolization of binge drinking, one-night-stands, emotional unavailability, and male objectification are supposed to elicit a universal cry of “Wooooh!” from the hordes of women who feel objectified and repressed and just long to, as the saying goes, “party and bullshit.”

Personally, I find both of these styles of humor to be as tired as they are pandering and unfunny. Hearing gory details of emotionless sexual encounters rehashed for their shock and schadenfreude factor, or watching someone burp the alphabet to get a covered-mouth giggle from the conservative crowd do not interest me. But then, they don’t interest me when men do them either. I don’t think bathroom humor is any more funny when done by a man–the toilet scene in Dumb and Dumber does not shock me, it only profoundly bores me, and reading Tucker Max humiliate his vapid conquests for the amusement of like-minded frat boy neanderthals is neither funny nor particularly entertaining.

But when women do these things, as a woman, I am expected to stand behind them and, to some degree, support them. Sure, they should have every opportunity in the world to try their hand at lowbrow humor, but that doesn’t mean that it’s funny. It doesn’t mean that, just because it’s a blonde woman and not a popped-collar-sporting man talking about the petri dish of a human they brought home last night and had sloppy sex with on an unfamiliar kitchen floor, it is somehow new or fascinating. It’s the same kind of schlock–banal stories of vapid encounters trying to profit off of a “shock value” that doesn’t really exist. No one is offended by your sky-high sexual partner count, they just don’t care. And as a woman, when reading about how these women are two of the biggest, most representative names in an already small field of women humorists, I cannot help but cringe in embarrassment.

It is not that I don’t think women should fart or sleep around or do whatever else they see fit to do, and if there is a personal story every once in a while that truly has some original humor value to it–by all means, share away! It is that to base your whole comedy identity on such a trite and tired concept, especially when the media is all too eager to paint a huge portion of female comedy with that brush, is the lazy way out. We are capable of being so funny as women, with unique and interesting perspectives on so many things that can be very much worth hearing, why paint ourselves into the most unfunny corner possible?

We are not men, and never will be–it’s time to stop emulating the worst aspects of “their” humor and forge, as some women have already done, our own path in comedy that stands on its merits and not on the novelty of our gender.

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image – WW2011