In an infamous 2007 Vanity Fair column, Christopher Hitchens asked his readers why women aren't funny. "Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about," he chided. Comedian Tina Fey doesn't have to pretend. In the four years since Hitchens accused the fairer sex of also being the unfunny sex, Fey has won six Emmy awards (she has seven total), two Golden Globes, and four Writers Guild of America awards. Her success is proof positive, for anyone who needed it, that women can be as funny, or funnier, than their male counterparts.
"It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good," argues Fey, responding to Hitchens' essay in her best-selling memoir Bossypants. "I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."
With every acerbic episode of 30 Rock, every impromptu one-liner, and every self-deprecating remark, Fey is reshaping the way both genders see female comedians. "There was this myth going around for a while that women couldn't be smart and funny, and she has completely exploded that myth," says Time magazine editor-at-large Belinda Luscombe, explaining how Tina landed a spot in the magazine's 100 most influential people list. Tina has "opened the door for dozens and dozens of other funny women to step forward."
Fey became the third woman to receive the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2010 (the prize has existed for 12 years), and was the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live.
That job wasn't so impressive, Fey insisted at an April Bossypants signing in Washington, D.C. "Before me, there were only three [other] head writers," she explained. "It's not like being the first woman president."
But that's precisely the attitude that has propelled Fey into the spotlight. In a world where feminists are often caricatured as strident fanatics, she's refreshingly flippant. She transcends the politics of gender in comedy by ridiculing them: What's the difference between female and male comedy writers? "The men urinate in cups. And sometimes jars," she writes in Bossypants.
She impugns the male tendency to pigeonhole female performers, again with comedy. This time, it's a story about Amy Poehler's early days at Saturday Night Live. Poehler did something lewd at a meeting, which prompted Jimmy Fallon to exclaim: "Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it."
As Fey tells it, Poehler then spun around, vehemently responding: "I don't fucking care if you like it."
From this exchange, Fey draws a salient lesson for all women: "Do your thing and don't care if they like it." Don't dwell on the dogma of nonbelievers like Hitchens, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. Work so hard that even Oprah questions your schedule.
Fey's success has paved the way for fellow funny women to become comedic juggernauts: In 2009, Amy Poehler followed Fey's 30 Rock lead by both starring in and producing her own NBC sitcom, Parks and Recreation. And Kristin Wiig pulled a Tina in May, writing and starring in the megahit Bridesmaids like Fey did with Mean Girls in 2004.
Tina Fey solved the women in comedy problem by doing her thing better than anyone else—and her contributions are hardly limited to opening doors for ladies. She didn't win the Mark Twain Prize for being a woman, after all. "What Tina has done has come to define humor in our culture today," explained Peter Kaminsky, a producer of the Twain Prize television program, in the Washington Post. "It's for a person whose body of work is defining of our time." Luckily, Fey's "body of work" is still growing; she'll inevitably continue to define and elevate the modern humor industry. That's good news for anyone—man or woman—who likes to laugh.