Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The Groundbreaking Women of Sketch Comedy

Television sketch comedy has long been a male-dominated field. Although women have gained a lot of ground over the last few decades, many of the leading sketch shows have featured casts that were either mostly or entirely male. Monty Python, The Kids in the Hall, Chappelle’s Show, and Human Giant didn’t have any women on board, while The State, The Ben Stiller Show, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Mr. Show each had one female member each in their central casts.

When I think of the current incarnation of Saturday Night Live, it feels like both genders play an equal part; however, glancing at a list of cast members to write this piece revealed that men still dominate that show as well… at least in terms of quantity. Kristen Wiig has been the show’s most recent breakout star, usually receiving more screentime than the rest of the cast each week, but she’s one of only four actresses in a cast of thirteen players. That’s barely over 40%. Strange considering the show has let three capable female cast members go in the last two years: Casey Wilson, Michaela Watkins, and Jenny Slate.

Despite being underrepresented, female performers have played a vital and important part in the history of sketch comedy over the past several decades. Here are some of the comic actresses who made their marks on the genre:

Carol Burnett — The Carol Burnett Show
The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS in 1968, but the network didn’t initially want to give Carol Burnett a variety show, trying to talk her into starring on a sitcom instead since all other variety shows at the time were hosted by men. But due to a loophole in Carol Burnett’s contract, CBS had no choice but to allow her to produce whatever kind of show she wanted. The resulting series, a mix of sketches and songs featuring big name guest stars, became one of television’s highest rated programs, winning 25 Emmys over the span of its 11-year run; but the show’s most important contribution to comedy was turning Carol Burnett into a star. Burnett became the first breakout female sketch player in TV history and paved the way for women in sketch comedy. No female performer has attained her same level of success with the genre since.

The show may be just as well known for its comedy as it is for the cast frequently breaking into uncontrollable fits of laughter. In this clip, watch as Carol Burnett pulls a Jimmy Fallon decades before it was cool. The Carol Burnett Show was way ahead of its time in more ways than one:

Carol Burnett was a major influence on subsequent generations of female comedians. She recently played Jane Lynch’s mother in an episode of Glee, and Lynch had this to say: "She's probably my first influence… I watched her show every Saturday night as a kid. My brother and I would act out some of the scenes. This is before VCRs, that's how old I am, We would actually tape record on an old tape recorder so we would listen to the skits. We just loved the show."

Gilda Radner — Saturday Night Live
The early days of Saturday Night Live featured what is widely considered to be the best cast in the show’s history. Every week, viewers had the chance to watch the stars who would conquer Hollywood over the next decade hone their craft. Unfortunately, a series of mediocre post-SNL movies and a cancer diagnosis prevented Gilda Radner from rising to the level of fame of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and frequent host Steve Martin; but on the show itself, Radner was just as powerful a comedic presence as her more-successful male costars. While Jane Curtin was relegated to straight man roles and Laraine Newman was pushed into the background, Gilda Radner was a powerhouse, able to give over-the-top performances that were every bit as funny as the work of Belushi, Murray, and company.

Radner’s strength was her diversity, able to play characters ranging from the meek, apologetic Emily Litella to the crass, obnoxious Roseanne Roseannadanna. Here she is as Emily Litella, giving commentary on Weekend Update:

Jane Curtin — Saturday Night Live
Jane Curtin’s strengths on SNL were on the opposite side of the spectrum from Gilda Radner’s. The original cast featured so many strong, outrageous personalities that they needed a cast member who could ground the sketches in reality. Jane Curtin was often given the thankless task of keeping a straight face and reacting honestly to the crazy characters that surrounded her, and she does so with aplomb. Those involved in the 80s/90s era of the show frequently cite Phil Hartman, another great straight man, as “the glue” that held the cast together, but nobody ever gives Jane Curtin credit for being “the glue” holding the original group together. It was always fascinating to watch Curtin keep even the most absurd sketches believable.

A favorite of mine is a Halloween sketch called “Consumer Probe,” in which Curtin plays an interviewer talking to Dan Aykroyd’s sleazy toy company president Irwin Mainway. Aykroyd demonstrates a series of controversial Halloween costumes his company is producing: “Johnny Space Commander,” an astronaut costume that is just a plastic bag to put over one’s head and “Invisible Pedestrian,” an all-black suit, gloves, and a mask. As Aykroyd’s costumes grow crazier and crazier, Curtin ups the ante on her outrage, reacting to him as if she were an actual offended journalist. She commits to the part 100% and it makes Aykroyd’s ramblings seem realistic and as his performance becomes more outlandish.

Although Curtin was best and most frequently used in straight roles, she could play bizarre character parts too. As Connie Conehead, matriarch of the Conehead family, she is able to let loose, playing the type of character the rest of the cast was more frequently given.

Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara — SCTV
SCTV is one of the few sketch shows I’ve seen where there isn’t a single weak link in the cast; and Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara are no exception. As SCTV’s main two female cast members, they tackled a wide range of roles. They’re both extremely versatile performers with too many great characters and impressions to name. As writers and performers on the show, they helped to create one of the great gems of sketch comedy, a show that influenced The Ben Stiller Show and Mr. Show to be daring and original.

I recall an anecdote about the show that Andrea Martin used to tell in interviews, and I’m paraphrasing here: Back when the show was on the air, a friend of Martin’s complimented her, telling her how much she loved Martin's performance and the performances of “the other two women on the show.” O’Hara is so strong an actress that Martin’s friend thought two different people were playing her roles. Martin and O’Hara are so amazing on this show that I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere out there, there was a viewer who thought SCTV had five or six female cast members

Jan Hooks — Saturday Night Live
Paired frequently with close friend and comedy legend Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks joined Saturday Night Live at the start of another strong period in the show’s history. In the five seasons she spent in the cast, Hooks demonstrated herself to be a committed character actress and a gifted impressionist, playing everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Hillary Clinton. Hooks’s departure from the show in 1991 is one of the many reasons SNL lost its momentum in the early 90s. Her post-SNL career hasn’t been too shabby, with Hooks playing recurring roles as French Stewart’s love interest on 3rd Rock from the Sun, Apu’s wife Manjula on The Simpsons, and most recently, Jenna Maroney’s mother on 30 Rock.

Kerri Kenney-Silver — The State
The State's cast featured eleven performers: ten men and one woman, and it really speaks to Kerri Kenney-Silver’s abilities and energy that she was able to hide this fact so well. Best known for her role as Wiegel on Reno 911!, Kerri Kenney demonstrated a knack for nailing all sorts of different characters. The other cast members referred to her as “the only girl that we need,” and they’re kind of right. Thanks to Kenney’s bravado, the show doesn’t feel like it lacks a female presence at all.

Take a look at Kenney in action in The State’s astute commentary on the monotony of TV advertising:

Molly Shannon — Saturday Night Live
The early ‘90s were a male-heavy era in SNL’s history, during which the likes of Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman grew frustrated, unable to feel at home with the show’s frat boy vibe. After Lorne Michaels cleaned house in 1995, SNL began to rely on women again. Along with fellow castmates Ana Gasteyer and Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon brought a much-needed female presence back to the show. Shannon specialized in exaggerated characters from all walks of life. A neurotic lonely Catholic schoolgirl was her most famous role, but she could also play a subdued NPR host, a butch comedian, a depressed Gothic teenage talk show host, and an overly-proud 50 year old woman.

Tina Fey — Saturday Night Live
Tina Fey joined SNL’s writing staff in 1997 and took over head writing duties from Adam McKay in 1999. The following year, Lorne Michaels drafted Fey to co-anchor the long-running Weekend Update segment with Jimmy Fallon, effectively incorporating her into the repertory cast. Right from the get-go, Fey had an ease on camera and a strong chemistry with Fallon. It’s a mystery why they didn’t start using her onscreen much sooner.

Fey’s head writer duties precluded her from appearing on the show too many times a night. Most nights, her only major sketch was Weekend Update, but she would occasionally play small parts in one or two other pieces. Her only recurring characters were both nameless: “Space Lesbian” in “Gays in Space” and “Cocktail Waitress” in the Chris Kattan/Fred Armisen sketch “Rialto Grande.” The only impression she ever performed more than once, although wildly popular and an astute demonstration of her sketch comedy chops, didn’t come about until after she had already left the show.

When John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, commentators were quick to note the candidate’s resemblance to Tina Fey. Although Fey was already busy writing, producing, and acting on her own show, having someone else play Palin would have been absurd. Fey not only looked the part; she also had Sarah Palin’s mannerisms and voice down pat, a surprising revelation considering she was never known for her impressions. The result was the sharpest political comedy the show had seen since the 2000 presidential election, and Fey’s Palin impression became one of the biggest marks she left on Saturday Night Live.

Amy Poehler — Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live
Most-celebrated for her stint on SNL, it’s important not to neglect Amy Poehler’s work on Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens Brigade, where she first demonstrated her proficiency with TV sketch comedy. It’s an excellent show, with its own twisted, unique comedic voice. Poehler’s contributions to live sketch comedy are also worth noting. She’s a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which has grown into a leading purveyor of comedy.

Upright Citizens Brigade
Bug Juice
Funny Jokes It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Ugly Americans

When she joined the cast of SNL in 2001, Amy Poehler already had years of sketch experience under her belt, so it was no surprise she adapted so well to the new job. By midseason she was promoted from featured player to part of the repertory cast, only the second time in the show’s history this had happened. The other person to make this transition so rapidly was Eddie Murphy, and we must remember he was actually funny back then.

Poehler debuted a vast repertoire of characters and impressions on the show and eventually settled into the Weekend Update chair. She was a natural replacement for Jimmy Fallon, her rapport with co-anchor Tina Fey apparent from the very beginning. The two actresses presided over a great era in female sketch comedy for the show, with a cast that also included Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig. I’ll leave you with a clip of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — two of the most accomplished and respected women of modern comedy — together on Weekend Update:

Bradford Evans is a writer living on the edge.

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  • Kim L

    There are sketch comedies featuring women to draw from other than SNL. Sorry, but Molly Shannon does not belong on any list featuring Gilda and Catherine O'Hara. She had a few moments, but…seriously. Not on the same level.

  • Kim L

    Stupid timer wouldn't let me edit to fully express my rage… How about French & Saunders? Tracy Ullman? For chrissakes, even some of the women on MadTV. Diversify! I mean… Molly Shannon?! I just can't with this.

  • Bradford Evans

    Sorry to hear you didn't like the list, Kim. I wasn't equating Shannon with Gilda and Catherine O'Hara, but I think she did have a larger impact on the genre than most of her contemporaries. Whether you like her work or not, she was the biggest actress during what was the most female-driven era in that show's history up to that point. She was a major force in taking the show in a different direction after the Farley-Sandler boys club.

    I realize the list is pretty SNL heavy, but that's because that show has simply been on 10 times as long as every other sketch show. Consequently, SNL has introduced more female comic actors in 40 years than most shows have been able to in their much shorter runs.

  • millicent

    Seconding the call for French & Saunders! Not only were they amazingly influential (with one of the biggest BBC budgets EVER), they were also innovative and–I'd argue–subtly different from what came before. Their reenactment/deconstruction of the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opening act is a hybrid thing, a spoof-homage. Saunders as Marilyn does something magic: she manages to both *BE* Lorelei (a glam performance of breath and sequins, the artifice of which is exactly the point of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) while simultaneously spoofing Marilyn. That's a fine balancing act, and something we don't *quite* have the language for yet, in comedy-speak. Smarter than slapstick or satire. Plus, the extent to which they comment on the absence of women in comedy within their own comedy is totally unprecedented–just look at the "You're a woman, Harry," moment in their Harry Potter spoof.

  • Comedy Fan

    I agree with Kim L. Molly Shannon's acting was clumsy. She overacted her characters which were based on lame, obvious jokes. She lost her concentration and broke more often than Jimmy Fallon. And most simply, Molly Shannon just plain wasn't funny. Her post SNL career has been as unimpressive as her performing on SNL had been. Many talented women (including Nora Dunn, Mary Gross, Janeane Garafalo, Maya Rudolph) have been on SNL. Molly Shannon is simply not one of them.

    • Megh Wright

      @Comedy Fan I know this is way after the fact and probably nobody will see this comment, but I can't stand to see this thread end with such awfully negative opinions about Molly Shannon. Breaking more often than Jimmy Fallon? Overacting? Clumsy? Any "women in comedy" list is going to inevitably overlook a lot of great performers, but that doesn't mean someone else deserves a seat more than Shannon. She absolutely dominated a corner in time in the show and was just something different for SNL women — you see it as "clumsy," but I see it as the first woman who had the balls to get laughs by falling into piles of chairs as much as Farley did. I'm sure there were gals before her who were similar, but she really took that to a new level. When she was on SNL I was an insecure, slightly awkward Catholic school girl so yes, I'm probably a little biased, but I really related to her, and so did many others! Quiet contributions have just as much value as loud, mainstream ones so long as they're done well, and I think Molly's the perfect example of that.