UNFUNNY: The Suppression Of Female Voices In Comedy

The results are in… We find women funny.

alex jackman
Jan 6, 2017 · Unlisted

The other night I was watching comedian Jen Kirkman’s new Netflix stand-up special, Just Keep Livin? (10/10, would recommend). In it she explains that some people think women aren’t funny. It’s hardly an original observation — the myth that women aren’t funny has been around since always. But today, with more evidence to the contrary than ever before, it is even more disturbing.

The myth that women aren’t funny probably (read: definitely) stems from the same systemic misogyny that holds women back in every industry. Women must work twice as hard to get half as much — half as much recognition and half as much money. It’s the same reason we elected an unnaturally orange businessman, whose only contribution to society is his gif-able stupidity, to be our next President — opposite possibly the most qualified candidate in history. Because she has a vagina, had a period, and sent some fucking emails.

The myth that women aren’t funny probably (read: definitely) stems from the same systemic misogyny that holds women back in every industry.

Books by bestselling authors Jen Kirkman, Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling.

And it’s not just on television — funny ladies are also dominating bookshelves. From Chelsea Handler (five bestsellers, her own publishing imprint) to Mindy Kaling (two bestsellers and counting), over the past ten years The New York Times’ best sellers list has been dominated by funny female voices and their stories. These women are not just funny on the stage and screen, they’ve also become masters of the written word. There’s an intelligence in this that we can forget to acknowledge when someone is only seen on screen — though the intelligence and wit is present there as well.

If we accept the old adage, and acknowledge that we are putting our money where our mouth is or voting with our dollars, then the results are in, people… We find women funny. We find women funny because they are.

In a 2007 essay for Vanity Fair, renowned and reviled writer Christopher Hitchens posited that women’s lack of humor (presented by him as fact, not opinion) is caused by their need to bear children. They are too serious to be funny because life itself, which does seem a serious matter, rests in their hands (or wombs). If this is “in fact” why women are less funny, then now, when the 21st century woman is not necessarily here only to breed, even he would have to take a second look at and update his argument.

“Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous.”

— Christopher Hitchens

The comedy world, like most things built by men, is not built for women. There is no paid maternity leave in a grueling tour schedule, there are few female club owners giving stage time to other women to see their stories represented. Add to that that, at their most successful, a comedian will become a sort of celebrity - an institution notoriously unkind to women and especially aging ones, and you’ve got what seems like a recipe for disaster. You may believe a career has expired before it’s even begun (which takes a long ass time). To that I answer: Joan Rivers.

“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”

— Joan Rivers

I don’t just think women are funny, I think they are more funny, the most funny. Maybe it’s because I relate to them more, maybe it’s because I don’t wince when they objectify the opposite sex in their acts, because in this case the opposite sex could stand a turn being the ones objectified. Maybe it’s because great comedy is born in the face of hardship — and women do have it harder. Maybe it’s just because I live in a bubble of my own design — In my entertainment, as in my “real life,” I surround myself with powerful (smart, beautiful, strong, hilarious) women because I like them more. They’re my people. But I’m not the only one. Turn on the television, go to a bookstore. They are everywhere, and they’re there because they make us laugh.

As with almost any problem, there is a solution. I believe it is this: Exposure. We must be exposed to, and expose others to, female comedians until, like burned skin finally tans, we accept a truth universally unacknowledged: Women are funny. On her late night E! show Chelsea Lately, Chelsea Handler had on three comedians per night for a roundtable discussion. Many of these comedians were women, and many of them have gone on to successes at rates of speed they maybe otherwise wouldn’t have. Notice I didn’t say successes they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Comedy is an industry of sisters doing it for themselves, hustling for decades before attaining what others may see as success.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

— Madeleine Albright

This is something that we need more of. The “Chelsea Effect” is what happens when women support other women. There is space for everyone, and when you have a platform you should lift others into that space with you. Chelsea’s latest show Chelsea streams on Netflix in 190 countries, giving her an audience larger than any other late night talk show — all of which are hosted by white men.

Lena Dunham uses her newish platform for a similar good. Since the success of GIRLS, with creative partner Jenni Konner, she has built Lenny, a weekly newsletter and now publishing imprint. With Lenny, and their production company A Casual Romance, and the podcast Women Of The Hour, they can sprinkle their fairy dust on, and hand the microphone to, other voices — voices that may not otherwise be heard. Voices of women with stories to tell and jokes to be heard. If exposure is how we solve this problem, we may well be on our way.

In Jen Kirkman’s special (Just Keep Livin? Netflix. Now.), just before telling a story about her period, because women, she answers the “women aren’t funny” argument with what should be simple logic: “‘Women’ is not a type of comedy. Women is a type of person.” She’s right — and they’re superior in every way.

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