Laugh Riot

The problem isn't female comedians. It's how we sort comedy.

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Want to see a corpse dance? Just ask someone to write an article about the state of women in comedy. Before you know it, the author will have slid his hand into that sack of bones known as the Christopher Hitchens “Why Women Aren’t Funny” article and have it shimmying around like Kermit the Frog on stage at the El Sleezo Cafe in The Muppet Movie, his skinny little legs obviously not strong enough to support his body. At over three years old, and argued against countless times already, the Hitchens article is still trotted out as A Thing to Mention.

I know this because someone suggested last week that I write about it. The e-mail I received can be paraphrased as: “There are a lot of prominent female comedians right now. Maybe you can give some thoughts on women in comedy? Oh, BTW, remember that Christopher Hitchens article?”

Look at that cadaver move!

So Tiny Fey is receiving the Mark Twain Award, Joan Rivers is the subject of a new documentary, Chelsea Handler has a successful new book and is a successful late-night host in a market dominated by men, and  Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live because of public popularity alone. All these women are talented, hilarious, and hard-working, and they deserve their success. Seriously. Just look at this clip from Joan’s documentary. I love Joan for several reasons, but even if you don’t like her style of comedy, you can’t deny that woman is dedicated and prolific:

So more female comedians are getting top slots in the comedy world, and that is wonderful. The simple argument to make with this information would be that right now, some of the most prominent comedians in America are women, it’s about time, and take that Mr. Hitchens.

But the simple argument is simplistic. Trying to make an argument about the state of women in comedy — whether it’s tackling if women are funny, trying to figure out why there aren’t more female comedians, whatever — is like starting a book in the middle: Things might make sense, but you’re missing the larger context.

And that larger context isn’t just about women, and how they’re perceived and treated — it’s also about how comedy is seen as a medium. Think of comedy like music for a moment. If you heard three country bands and a Metallica song, you wouldn’t say “I don’t like music,” you’d say “I don’t think I like country or metal.” But people who see three hack comics at their local Yuk-Yuk club are often all too ready to leave the experience saying “I don’t like stand up comedy.”

Part of the problem is that comedians are not categorized as music is; instead of having words like “jazz” and “pop” to help guide us, we’re left to sort through the pit of joke-makers until we find one who makes us giggle. Actually, Maria Bamford has a great joke about the lack of description in marketing comedy acts in the first half of this video (and she pokes fun at the stereotype of female comics in the second half):

Yes, people find it difficult to sort comedy into genres, but gender is always an easy way to categorize things. Thus a lazy man can state that women comics either all talk about periods or are “dykey” (Hitchens’ word) and say he doesn’t find them funny. It feels so utterly inane and obvious to state it, but it deserves to be said again anyway: most female comedians aren’t “female comedians” — they’re just comedians. Just as male comedians don’t all talk about guy stuff, not all female comedians talk about lady stuff. Take, as just one small example out of so many, one of SNL‘s best sketches, written by Tina Fey:

Women in comedy is a huge topic, and despite the current success of high-profile female comics, there are still plenty of important issues to explore and dissect: how female comics are treated differently than men are, whether they have to look attractive (or completely unattractive) for people to find them funny, why there aren’t more women in comedy…the list goes on and on. But these issues, the ones that really deserve to be discussed, are not about whether or not women are, at a basic level, funny. If we keep having arguments on that level, we’ll never get to the heart — or solutions — of the real problems.

Now can we leave that corpse in the ground? • 4 June 2010

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, Table Matters, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She’s currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.

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