Confessions of a Former Comedy Chauvinist
Although it’s not something of which I’m proud, I can finally admit it: At one time, not so long ago, I was a comedy chauvinist.
Remember that guy you knew in college who summarily dismissed the comedic talents of an entire gender, proudly (and stupidly) proclaiming, “Women aren’t funny?” That was me. I wasn’t militant about the subject, and I didn’t spend hours trying to convince others that men were genetically predisposed to be funnier than the fairer sex. I simply did not, would not, could not acknowledge the possibility that women were just as talented as men when it came to making people laugh.
Oddly enough, my narrow-mindedness toward women didn’t extend beyond comedy. In every other respect, I was and am a proud supporter of equality. The Nineteenth Amendment? It’s one of my favorite amendments! Glass ceilings? Let’s smash ‘em! Allowing a woman to occasionally open the door for me? OK! But, give a funny lady a fair chance to entertain me without first making uninformed judgments about her ability to make me laugh? Nothing doing.
Although it sounds like an excuse, I believe you have to look at my earliest exposure to comedy and how that shaped my perceptions in order to get to the root of my prejudice. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, when the comedic landscape was filled with the musk of bad boy stand-up comics, smarmy leading men who introduced a generation to the slyest shit-eating grins in movie history, and the early incarnations of the lovable loser man-child who refuses to grow up. For most of my formative years, comedy was a raucous boy’s club dominated by loud, doughy, raunchy guys whose best punchlines often referenced the fact that they were just dudes being dudes. That’s probably not all that different from the experiences of most guys my age, but somewhere along the way, I developed a diminished appetite for giving women a chance to prove my “women aren’t funny” assumptions wrong.
Of course there were some female comics who coaxed a laugh out of me every now and again (Roseanne Barr comes to mind; her seminal eponymously named show was one of the few sitcoms I enjoyed as a kid), but I had such a chip on my shoulder when it came to the idea of women being funny that comediennes and actresses had to really surprise me to earn my respect. Without knowing it, I had become the equivalent of the stereotypical cigar-chewing, scotch-swilling, head jerk in charge of the no-girls-allowed, he-man woman-haters club. I was content to spend the rest of my life changing the channel, avoiding the local cineplex or driving past comedy clubs just so I could avoid lady-comedy and keep my head safely buried in the sand with all my stupid, beloved comedy man-crushes.
Fortunately for me and everyone who put up with me during my “insufferable asshole” phase, my opinions on women in comedy have changed dramatically over the last several years. There are multiple reasons for that evolution. Perhaps it’s because I am little older and slightly less blinded by the pure testosterone that clouds the judgment of so many well-intentioned young men. Or maybe it’s the fact that, after meeting the woman who is now my wife, I quickly realized that if there’s a woman who can make me laugh this easily for free, then certainly there must be women getting paid to make people laugh who could do the same thing if I just stopped being such a self-righteous dick about things. But most importantly, the rise of some amazingly talented women over the last decade has shown there isn’t a discipline, genre or role in the comedy world in which women can’t excel just as much as their male counterparts.
Much has been written about the ascent of several female Saturday Night Live cast members from the last decade, including Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. Among comedy fans, Fey managed to surpass even the highly coveted “critical darling” status and rightly assumed her throne in the pantheon of laughter as one of the most influential voices in mainstream comedy. And Wiig remains the strongest and most buzzed-about performer of the current crop of SNL cast members. But, for me, Amy Poehler was the true standout among this Murder’s Row of funny women.
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a comedy fan who isn’t aware of Poehler’s brilliance. But before she hit the big time on SNL, she was making a name for herself as one of the stars of Comedy Central’s short-lived and highly underrated sketch comedy show, Upright Citizens Brigade. Even though I had grown accustomed to seeing women take prominent roles in the sketch comedy arena during the female-dominated SNL years of the late 1990s when Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri ruled the roost, I was still naïve enough to view these talented women as supporting players who mostly just stood next to Will Ferrell to accentuate the fact that he was some sort of hairy, awkward giant. But Poehler’s work on UCB had a subtle goofiness and subversive edge that I had never seen before from a sketch comedy actor, male or female. In many of the show’s most memorable sketches, Poehler not only stole the scenes from her male counterparts, she oozed charisma and displayed that intangible “it” factor that made you want to watch and re-watch every background facial expression and throwaway line. Even in the company of the great Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, Poehler represented the secret ingredient that elevated the proceedings from “just another sketch comedy TV show” into the realm of comedy-nerd classic. (Sadly, most of the clips online from the original UCB series look like they were recorded on an old VHS camera by someone holding the master tapes hostage in a basement, so excuse the quality of the clip below).
For as long as I can remember, my biggest beef was with female stand-up comics. No matter how talented the performer, if I saw a woman’s face on a poster for an upcoming stand-up show, I immediately made other plans so I wouldn’t have to sit through another “women want romance, guys want sex” routine that I foolishly assumed was part of every comediennes’ act. That all changed when I was finally exposed to comics such as Lisa Lampanelli, Sarah Silverman and Wanda Sykes, who have shown that women can be just as original, controversial, foul-mouthed and hilarious as any man on the stand-up circuit.
(That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of hack comediennes out there. There are. But I now realize the ratio of hacks to great comics is pretty much the same across gender lines.)
Even now in the era of only-famous-on-the-internet stars, women are creating some of the most consistently funny work on the web. Unique voices like Elaine Carroll (creator and star of the almost unbearably perfect web series, Very Mary-Kate) and Sarah Haskins (host of Current TV’s razor-sharp “Target Women” segments) helped me realize there’s a lot more to online humor than image-macro memes and FAIL videos.
It took me longer than most men to come to the realization, but I can finally admit that funny is funny, regardless of gender. Whereas the comedic landscape of my childhood was ruled by the skirt-chasing, pratfalling kings of comedy, we’re now living in a world that is just as full of quick-witted, joke-slinging queens. (Although you might not know it if you perused GQ’s August Comedy Issue; other than a couple of nods to Joan Rivers, a photo spread with rising star Emma Stone, and a list of “the hottest ladies of comedy” that included Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara, The Office’s Ellie Kemper and Olivia Munn, the entire issue was a breathless letter to comedy wang. It sounds like me from 10 years ago would have been a perfect fit for GQ’s staff of comedy scouts.)
So while I still gravitate to lumpy louts, caustic jerks and clueless know-it-alls for a lot of my comedy needs, there are no longer gender requirements for who can fill those roles. For every Zach Galifianakis in my life, there’s a Maria Bamford, and for every Danny McBride there’s a Susie Essman or Kristen Schaal. The world of comedy is a much richer place now that I’ve stopped ignoring half of the population. Take it from this former comedy chauvinist: Comedy is a lot more fun once you quit depriving yourself of laughs based solely on the topography of the performer’s genitalia.