Women in Comedy: Haters Gonna Hate

In the past twenty years, Comedy Central and humorous websites like FunnyorDie have steadily climbed in popularity and name recognition, giving new credence to the ambitious goals of men and women who faithfully pay their dues at comedy clubs. Unlike comedians of yesteryear, who generally started out in television or film, several stand-up comedians, Louis C. K. and Seth Rogen among them, have successfully parlayed their stage acts into wider careers.

Women have played a significant part in comedy’s rising influence, particularly in the last five years. Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock are two of the most popular and critically-acclaimed sitcoms on network TV, and Fey has won Emmy Awards for both writing and acting on 30 Rock. Kristen Wiig has taken the reins from Poehler and Fey on SNL, and is one of the show’s most consistently featured actors. Chelsea Handler is the second woman (Joan Rivers being the short-lived first) to host a late-night television show, Sarah Silverman’s now-cancelled show on Comedy Central hauled in great ratings and made her a household name, and Betty White has booked an impressive number of recent gigs for an octogenarian.

Why is it, then, that there still persists a “women aren’t funny” mentality? Christopher Hitchens wrote an entire article for Vanity Fair about the subject, stodgily titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” He postulates that women don’t develop senses of humor because, unlike men, they don’t need them to attract the opposite sex (Note: following this line of reasoning, gay men should be entirely humorless and all lesbians should be hilarious). Hitchens also surmises that “women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is,” and this explains why women won’t make crude jokes at the expense of others. Perhaps he should watch Mean Girls and rethink his position.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, S. E. Shepherd wrote “Confessions of a Former Comedy Chauvinist” for Splitsider.com in an attempt to get to the bottom of why, for many years, he stubbornly avoided any stand-up show starring a female. This is his theory:

“Although it sounds like an excuse, I believe you have to look at my earliest exposure to comedy”¦in order to get to the root of my prejudice. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, when the comedic landscape was filled with the musk of bad boy stand-up comics, smarmy leading men who introduced a generation to the slyest shit-eating grins in movie history, and the early incarnations of the lovable loser man-child who refuses to grow up. For most of my formative  years, comedy was a raucous boy’s club dominated by loud, doughy, raunchy guys whose best punchlines often referenced the fact that they were just dudes being dudes.”

Shepherd hits the nail on the head. While there have always been female comics, men have dominated the scene from its inception. When they aren’t acting as the stars, they stand in as co-stars or significant foils for female performers. For every Lucy there’s traditionally been a Desi, for every Alice a Ralph, for every Elaine a Kramer. It’s not difficult to imagine that the skewed ratio of male to female comedians represented in popular television and film contributes significantly to the gee-whiz pronouncement that men are funnier than women.

Hopefully, the significant strides women in comedy have made will ultimately quash the ridiculous “women aren’t funny” meme. In honor of those strides, here is a list of four female comedians I grew up watching and laughing at:

1. Doris Day ““ my mother has an abiding love for Doris that rivals her love for my father, seriously. Movies like Pillow Talk are light-years ahead of some of the dreck that passes for romantic comedy today.

2. Roseanne Barr ““ I was famously “barred” (couldn’t resist) from watching this show after I told my aunt how funny I thought it was. I was 7 and she flipped out. Still, I sneaked down to the basement and watched it in secret to get my fill of cranky Darlene.

3. Margaret Cho ““ Like Roseanne, I am mystified that I was allowed to watch Cho’s short-lived sitcom, All American Girl. I vividly remember the episode when she poses for a nude sculpture and is horrified when her family sees it at an exhibit. The closing shot for that episode was a dog peeing on the statue, which had been installed in front of a library. At 6, I thought that was the height of comedy (and I wasn’t far off).

4. Julie Andrews ““ My favorite movie growing up was Mary Poppins. Andrews is certainly not the most cut-and-dried definition of a comedian, but I challenge anyone to watch the “I Love to Laugh” scene and not crack up at her dead-pan irritation.

Which female comedians did you love to watch growing up (and today)?

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