Stop Asking if Women Are Funny

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:24 PM

Stop Asking if Women Are Funny

A new book traces the history of women in comedy but almost gets derailed by that stupid question.

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What the extensive interviews in We Killed make clear is the fact that I am able to be part of the comedy community thanks to the brave comediennes who came before. Joan Rivers, Elayne Boosler, and the late, great Phyllis Diller are given their due. But I was glad to see the book fittingly end on Parks and Recreation writer and Twitter maven Chelsea Peretti, emblematic of a new generation of comedians, talking about how she doesn’t feel there’s anything to gain from alienating herself from the comedy scene based on gender, and how lineups now are more diverse than ever.

Author Yael Kohen.
Author Yael Kohen.

Photo by Meredith Zinner.

Indeed, many of the women in Kohen’s book resist the very idea of being discussed as “female comedians.” As Elayne Boosler says, when asked if she wants to be an inspiration to female comics, “Well, I hope I’m just an inspiration to all comics.” Part of comedians’ resistance to serving as role models for their gender comes, it seems, from years of tokenism and lowered expectations on the comedy scene. Club owner Budd Friedman tells Kohen, “In comedy university, you never put two women on after each other.” Later in the book, we meet a young Janeane Garofalo leading the charge against that idea, leaving old-school comedy clubs behind to play alternative venues like bars and bookstores. “Well, we just had a female comic last weekend headlining and she bombed, so we’re not going to have any more women,” she says she was often told. She responded: Do you also say, “Sorry we had a white man here?”

A divide does still exist. For instance, a disturbing recurring theme of the book’s interviews is the emphasis (by both male and female interviewees) on female comedians’ looks. It’s seen as a wild accomplishment for female comedians to be both sexy and hilarious. The criminally underused Rachel Dratch worries that playing unattractive characters on Saturday Night Live killed her career. Actress and Woody Allen muse Louise Lasser bristles at the suggestion that she do comedy because she sees it as an unfeminine, disgusting artform. Producer Barry Katz implies that Sarah Silverman got more stage time, and bettered her craft quicker, because everyone wanted to bang her. While Katz may be telling a sad truth, was it one that needed telling? Silverman is funny. Comedians are put on stage for all sorts of different reasons—as favors, because they’re pretty, because they run another popular show. It’s their ability to deliver when they get there that counts.

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One SNL writer laments that men shoot down sketches about nursing or menstruation, stereotyping that it’s all women think is funny. Joy Behar counters: “You could say that men only want to talk about masturbating because I saw several men talking about that.” Speaking about her experiences on SNL in We Killed, Garofalo says that people wrongfully painted her displeasure as resulting from a “boys club” at the show. Misogyny was the least of her problems, she says, “... It was not even gender-related. It just wasn’t funny that year.” In one baffling interview segment, stand-up instructor Lisa Sundstedt recounts telling a budding female comic not to joke about ejaculate. “What do you want to be your legacy?” she asks. (And here I thought the goal of comedy was just to get laughs.)

I was most intrigued, though, by an interview with Upright Citizens Brigade founder Matt Besser, who speaks admiringly of his co-founder Amy Poehler. While she’s eager to encourage other women in comedy in an act of loyal sisterhood, he says, ultimately she just “[does] her best and [doesn’t] give a shit.”

It might sound odd to say that the book inspired me not to give a shit. But that’s high praise. It’s what I wish I had done when my heckler sat in that front row. It’s because of the amazing women who came before me that I have the privilege to do so. I hope everyone, male or female, who wants to grab a mike, pen a sketch, or get on stage reads it, so they can be inspired not to give a shit, too.

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We Killed: The Rise of Women in America Comedy by Yael Kohen. Sarah Crichton Books.

Gaby Dunn is a writer, journalist, and comedian in New York City. She regularly contributes to the New York Times Magazine and performs every Wednesday at the People's Improv Theater.