Chicks Aren't Funny II: The Ladycomic Backlash

Posted at 5:05 PM Apr 12, 2010

By Andrea Grimes

Welcome to Chicks Aren't Funny II: What's Up With That? Boogaloo, wherein instead of posturing about my own work with female comics (and work being a female comic), I talk about how other people talk about female comics. Because in the past week or so, the internet seems to have blown up with people talking about funny girls. (And by "blown up," I mean there are like three articles about funny women, which is basically a milliongazillion in the vastly under-covered world of comedy, and lady comedy specifically.) But these people, they're not always saying very nice things about the lady comics. Is there something wrong with that?

This Feministe writer is not at all pleased with Fey's return to SNL last Saturday, arguing that her sketches (Brownie Husband, and a slut-shaming rather than husband-blaming Women's News segment) were not super lady-friendly, at least, not lady-friendly to the single ladies much of Fey's work portrays:

It seems kind of weird, actually, that someone with so many thoughts on All the Single Ladies ("If you were likable, he would have put a ring on it" -- Tina Fey's Feminism) hasn't apparently been single since the Clinton administration. But, then again, it's really not. The women Tina Fey defends tend to have something in common with her. The women she makes fun of tend to have obvious differences. Which is the whole point: Feminism is for women, but Tina Fey's Feminism seems like it's for... Tina Fey.

And while this profile of Chelsea Handler in the New York Times stops just short of physically reaching out from the page and kissing her ass with paper-lips, while this profile of Sarah Silverman in New York is not what you would call particularly challenging to a very challenging comic, Anna at Jezebel is deeply skeptical of both women's abilities:

In fact, what Handler and Silverman reveal is that while being conventionally attractive and telling racist jokes has become an accepted niche for the female comic, it's not a terribly versatile one. It requires relative youth, for instance -- Barnes devotes some upsetting ink to the fact that some of Handler's fans apparently think she looks older than 35, and that she needs better lighting in her TV studio. And it relies on humor that shows its age far more than either Handler or Silverman do. Silverman tells Leitch that she's developing new material, and she comes off as smart and thoughtful enough that she might be able to break out of the cute-girl-with-a-dirty-mouth box. Let's hope she does, because I'm sick of jokes like Silverman's "I don't care if you think I'm a racist. I just want you to think I'm thin." I just want to think she's funny.
Here's the problem: is it better to deeply criticize the few female comics who have made it to the top in hopes of grooming a more original, feminist generation of comics, or is it better to just be glad they're there, so that girls will see them as role models and change the business on their own?

I wonder if part of the problem comes from our sample. Handler and Silverman are extremely schticky comedians who have carefully cultivated particular characters who are deeply bitchy and unlikeable. Fey, for her part, is a sketch comic, writer and actress who portrays other people, both real and imagined. It's interesting that they happen to be probably the most famous female comics working right now. (Ellen Degeneres and Wanda Sykes being two others that come to mind--interestingly, they garner less buzz and are both lesbians. Though Ellen's always been a very clean comic, and Sykes seems to be doing something more along the lines of "keeping it real" and being bitchy than being a bitchy caricature of a woman.)

I will be the first to admit that I don't find Silverman and Handler very funny, mainly because I don't connect with them on a personal level and generally prefer honest, individual-driven comedy about real life experiences, rather than awkward-for-the-sake-of-awkward or edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy comedy. I think Silverman and Handler are pretty bad examples generally for female comedians in terms of material, though certainly their professional prowess is something to look up to. Fey, I don't know, and I guess I don't really care. She doesn't write herself, she writes other people, and I kind of can't be bothered to wonder about her. Women in sketch and improv tend to have an easier time of it than stand-ups, and there are a whole lot more of them in those scenes, so I expect we'll be seeing some good alterna-Feys coming up shortly. (Amy Poehler, in my opinion, is a more thoughtful writer.)

There's room for criticism of the kind of work Silverman and Handler do, particularly because many, many female comics, especially brand new ones, emulate their styles. Check out any well-populated open mike, and you'll see many, many different varations on the Adorable Racist trope. That's unfortunate. However, I think the Adorable Racist thing is getting old (rather, has been getting old for a long time) and will probably go out of style just like Seinfeld-esque observational humor did. I hope it will, anyway, because it's boring. The best way to succeed in comedy is to be original (see Bamford, Maria) and I'm pretty sure Adorable Racism is the opposite of original, and most consumers of comedy recognize that.

To that end, I'm more interested in profiling and promoting good, original female comedians than talking endlessly about Fey, Silverman and Handler and what is wrong with what they're doing. I don't want to argue for some kind of "good news only" female comic coverage, but it simply seems more productive if what we want to do is increase the popularity and population of good female comics. As it is now, women wanting to get into comedy may be daunted by the hyper-criticism of female comics--and that's just what it is. Female comics' appearance, material and sexuality are open to far more scrutiny than that of male comics. This is pretty common, actually, in many fields where women are the "other"--corporate women, lawyer women, etc.--and are constantly being analyzed and scrutinized by the media and their peers about what they should be doing. (Moreover, even women who aren't the "other" are subject to serious criticism--there's plenty of vitriol aimed at bad mothers, while fatherhood generally is celebrated when it is unusually good, rather than denigrated when it is unusually bad, because dudes hate kids, amiright?)

So, I'm saying: let's start talking about some badass female and feminist comics we love, because I'm tired of talking about Sarah Silverman.


Paul said:

You could talk about Lisa Lamponelli. But it's the same bit as Sarah Silverman. just less funny.

Ralphie said:

um, Maria Bamford. totally clean and so funny it hurts.

look, i did it!

sally said:

Funny is a matter of what does it for you. I personally retch at the "mommy and wife" comics. Or comics that just talk about how fat they are and never date. You know, one of them put out an album called "Purse-sonality." A friend of mine who knows I love comics sent it to me as a present and I have to be polite about it. And I think you could find anyone who is better and sharper than dane cook.

I find it offensive when it seems like the feminist sites that pitch their story hinting "they are too old" when these women aren't even forty. I'd have to ask them, is it particularly necessary to women in their twenties to have comics that look like them or their idealized selves? So please, when you talk about comics, don't frame it like they do that the women over 35 have failed feminism or failed so that the young turks should be groomed to take over. It's kind of self-serving. It seems like the lesbian sites are oddly more tolerant of women comics over 35 and get their different styles, while a lot of more hetero sites are trying to define "the one" truly good type but they are uncomfortable with unattractive comics or comics who don't stay with the hipster crowds. I wonder how long it will take them to take a stick to Cho or Garofolo.

And by the way, Lisa and Sarah are quite different. Lisa is in that insult comic style that Rickles was king of, but she says some things that are so outrageous that it takes your breath away on how she has some courage about it. Sarah is the quirky observer type that reflects back the social messages she's seeing. Both talk about and say things people aren't supposed to directly say but it is ridiculous when it comes out. It's a style, but they are unique and both have paid a lot of dues. It's remarkable that either one of them get any time on comedy central or HBO because there is still that "one woman's slot" bias too often on comic roundups. Who's "the one" well, no one is the "one." There are many.

In fact, go to YouTube and search on lesbian comics and you'll see a lot of original ones who never get on TV.

Ethan Moore said:

I liked Handler's Comedy Central Presents episode, but I've never watched her talk show. And I've never been able to stand Silverman at all.

Maria Bamford is great; I'm glad I caught her at Cap City recently. So who are the other good, current female comedians? I googled "current female comedians", and the second result had a list that included "Phyllis Diller" -- a fantastic, ground-breaking comedian, but not exactly current....

I never see Kathleen Madigan, Wendy Liebman, Maryellen Hooper, or Margaret Smith anymore. I guess I need to watch my backlogged Tivo'd Comedy Central Presents episodes to see who is up and coming. (I do see new Kathy Griffin shows occasionally, but I can't get into that since her act is so celebrity driven and I don't follow them.)

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