UNFUNNY: The Suppression Of Female Voices In Comedy
The results are in… We find women funny.
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.
How has this most unfortunate joke not taken it’s final bow by now? It is 2017. This puts us about 66 years since the premiere of I Love Lucy, 50 years since the premiere of The Carol Burnett Show, 47 years since the premiere of Mary Tyler Moore, and 29 since the premiere of Roseanne. Turn on your TV today you can find Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner’s GIRLS, on its 6th and final season (because they decided it was done), Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, on its 5th season and 2nd network (because people love it too much to let it die), Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer, which will be in its 5th season when it returns (when she’s done writing several movies and a book and touring her ass off), Issa Rae’s Insecure, headed into its 2nd season on HBO (who bought it because they loved her fully self-realized web series), or Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in its 2nd season — it’s funny and a fucking musical (that seems hard).
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
Earlier in the essay, and maybe more offensive than the caveman’s “women make babies” argument, Hitchens explains that men are funny because they must be to appeal to women, and that women aren’t because, well, “They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” Drift caught, sir, and promptly released. This drift brings us to one of the ugliest parts of gender disparity: objectification. Women are not for men. They do not live their lives to be ogled by men, or groped, or catcalled in the street. They are not your objects, your dolls, or your sweeties. The truth is, when a woman is catcalled in the street, were she not fearing for her life and wellbeing, she could cut that man down to half the size with only her words and her wit — and the man would probably be too dumb to realize she did it. Women are independent, they are superior, and, yes, they’re fucking funny.
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
Many moons, and many faces, ago Joan Rivers got her start in the late 1950s, performing in numerous New York City comedy clubs. She rose to prominence through appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and other comedy/variety shows of the time. She had several shows of her own in late night and day time and in her oldest years the E! Network built a whole institution around her. She was an esteemed writer, stand-up comedian and all around brassy broad. Joan Rivers, a funny woman, outlasted all her peers and worked right up until her dying day, at 81 and with 65 years in the business, a household name.
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
The “Chelsea Effect,” as I will now affectionately call it, does not create, it accelerates. The aforementioned Jen Kirkman is a Lately alum who has two books, two Netflix specials and a constant touring schedule. Natasha Leggero, another alum, has her own Comedy Central series Another Period. Sarah Colonna has published two books. Heather McDonald also published two books and is a friend of Kris Jenner. That’s something.
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.