Hysteria Reconsidered: Are Women (Finally) Funny?

October 04, 2011

Multiple Pages
Hysteria Reconsidered: Are Women (Finally) Funny?

My best friend in high school and I communicated almost entirely in catchphrases from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and SCTV. While not a comedy nerd like me—if Mel Brooks was a scheduled guest on Dinah Shore, I feigned illness to stay home from school—my friend was the funniest girl I knew: a flawless mimic with broad frames of reference and exquisite timing.

So when we both moved away to Toronto, I nagged her to study improv at the place that had spawned Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and so many others.

Naturally I was there when her class made their public debut. They accepted the first premise shouted out from the audience, and the guy onstage turned to my friend and made the offer. We all waited.

She choked. She stood there, frozen and blank-faced. I started sweating. Surely she’d recover, I thought. She didn’t. Other cast members came onstage and revived the premise while she faded into the background. I forget what I said to her after the show. Maybe it should have been, “Sorry.” She never went onstage again.

We finally “split up” after 9/11. She turned further leftward and is now a “bedroom community” mom. (On our first and last visit to her new suburban home, my future husband and I found it easily, thanks to her oversize orange New Democratic Party lawn sign.) Meanwhile, I’d retained our youthful bratty libertarianism, now with a heavy dose of “hawk.” And children bore me.

“We’ll be stuck with de facto drag shows, but with women performing as male impersonators, scratching their nonexistent balls while complaining of the munchies.”

Time and distance revealed aspects of her personality I’d tried not to notice, such as her penchant for self-sabotage and how eager she was to be liked. Those were two of many feminine characteristics I never managed to acquire—like a maternal instinct or a pleasing personality developed to help compensate for my physical shortcomings. Though she was balls-out and bawdy among friends à la Rusty Warren, onstage my friend couldn’t “commit”—the improv term for the willingness to do anything, no matter how humiliating, disgusting, offensive, revealing, or absurd.

Due I suppose to their lower IQs and a factory setting of “nice,” hardly any women can.

And that’s why there are fewer female comedians.

As Christopher Hitchens put it in his widely discussed 2007 essay on this topic:

Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough….Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.

Try imagining an all-female Marx Brothers. (OK, “Sisters.”) Can you? Really? Until last year’s shameless gross-out mega-smash Bridesmaids, I couldn’t, although Anna Farris’s cringe-inducing fearlessness in the Scary Movie franchise had already softened my stance. (I watch her with a twinge of guilt—is it possible the part of her brain where shame resides has been damaged?)

Lisa Lampanelli and Sarah Silverman are the only female standups who make me laugh, and for what I’m sure they would consider all the wrong reasons. In contrast to their offstage liberal politics, their professional personae are obnoxiously “politically incorrect.” (Bonus feature: Lampanelli’s predilection for African American men—who presumably appreciated her zaftig figure—inspired one of my favorite jokes, Patton Oswalt’s “Lisa Lampanelli has fucked more black men than the Tuskegee experiments.” Alas, such jokes were forced into retirement after she married an Italian guy, although some would call that a distinction without a difference.)

Garfunkel and Oates”—the lovely and innocent-looking Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci—specialize in clever, catchy, ribald songs. They should really be more famous by now.

And that’s about it, although I sense that the number of women who share their high recklessness threshold is growing. If it might get a laugh, today’s aspiring female comic will probably do it, regardless of who might get hurt.

Joan Rivers was the first comedienne to turn standard-issue self-deprecation into a proto-punk, stare-down dare: “I’m here, I’m ugly, get used to it.” But Rivers was performing way before these women, and their mothers, were born. What forces unleashed and mainstreamed today’s impetuous, un-blushable broads?

Their rise coincides with the Girls Gone Wild gonzo porn of the late 1990s. In private and in public, millions of ordinary women now regularly perform sexual acts that were once confined mostly to prostitutes’ repertoires. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian turned what would have at one time been blackmail fodder into multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Inevitably, this extinction of inhibitions led to raised expectations and jaded palates. Cameron Diaz’s sticky inseminated bangs seem “so ten years ago” now because they are, and then some. And in that film, Diaz (like cinematic comic stalwarts from Carole Lombard to Madeline Kahn) was “object,” not “subject,” à la Lampanelli.

I’m apprehensive about the future of female comedy. Bridesmaids took Judd Apatow’s proven “men are adorable pigs” formula and mixed estrogen with the testosterone. Next up, though, lesser talents will simply squeeze out “girl power” gross-out comedy that forgets the estrogen entirely. We’ll be stuck with de facto drag shows, but with women performing as male impersonators, scratching their nonexistent balls while complaining of the munchies.

No doubt a few women comics will keep joking about their vaginas because they want to and it’s funny, not because doing so has become tediously obligatory, like a first-date blowjob. Maybe sometimes they’ll even hum the theme from SCTV’s spoof of ’70s off-Broadway feminism, I’m Takin’ My Own Head, Screwing it On Right, and No Guy’s Gonna Tell Me That it Ain’t. That’s what we used to do.


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