Maybe the flip side of the maxim that boys don’t cry is that girls don’t tell jokes. Of course, we live in modern times, where men cry and women tell jokes.
Quite a lot of them tell jokes, in fact. While many of us are still mourning that the seventh and final season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, starring the hilarious Amy Poehler, airs this fall, we can also look forward to the launch of Tina Fey’s new sitcom, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The show stars the hilarious and wacky Ellie Kemper from The Office as a recent cult escapee. And let’s not forget Lena Dunham’s awkward, dark humor on HBO’s fourth season of Girls, as well as Mindy Kaling’s quirky, silly comedy on Fox’s The Mindy Project. Up-and-comer Sasheer Zumata made her debut on SNL this year, while Melissa McCarthy and Kirsten Wiig continue to get top billing on major films.
I wish that was an appropriate reaction, but the reality is this is unusual. Our culture has long been uneasy with funny women, the most famous example being the late Christopher Hitchens, who once dedicated 2,700 words—that’s approximately a few decades’ worth of Facebook statuses for your average Jane—to explaining “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Nor is it just grumps trolling for cliques who believe this.
In her comedic memoir, Bossypants, Tina Fey candidly describes a prevailing concern in her early years in comedy that women weren’t the comedic equals of men. “A director of one of the main companies [at Second City],” she writes, “once justified cutting a scene by saying, 'The audience doesn’t want to see a scene between two women.’” While Fey has certainly made it, unease with funny women is not a thing of the past. While the last year has brought a changing of the guard to late-night TV, the next generation of late-night network talk show hosts are still all men. What’s more, most women could probably share some experience of having to explain to a nonplussed male interlocutor; I’m kidding.
Why is that? My first thought was that women must have such a different style of comedy than men that men just don’t get it. We’re more focused on relationships and personal vulnerabilities or some such. But then the facts got in the way. Sure, there’s Mindy Kaling, who chronicled her almost-vintage longings for a happy marriage in her bestseller Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?—even as she disparaged one-night stands: “The idea of going to a stranger’s house at night, or having that stranger over to my house sounds insanely dangerous.” But then there’s also Chelsea Handler, who released a book called My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands.
I was set to declare that women just don’t like what my mom used to call “potty humor.” But then, re-reading Bossypants, I stumbled across this passage: “My dream for the future is that sketch comedy shows become a gender-blind meritocracy of whoever is really the funniest. . . . Once we know we’re really open to all the options, we can proceed with Whatever’s the Funniest . . . which will probably involve farts.”
So maybe women don’t all have the same style of comedy. But surely they are more open to emotional honesty, more willing to delve into personal relationships than male comedians.
Except Jim Gaffigan exists and is male, and writes passages like this:
What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.
So, after many, many hours of diligent “research”—a.k.a. watching lots and lots of television— I don’t see any similarities between all women comedians, except, well, their gender.
But why then has it taken women so long to crack the glass ceiling in comedy? It might be helpful to step back and consider just what makes a joke funny.
If you can tell a joke well, chances are you’re no perpetual Pollyanna—or someone who’s been completely spared sustained sadness. As Jim Norton wrote in a TIME article reacting to the great Robin Williams’ recent suicide, “The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.”
Perhaps our cultural aversion to women cracking jokes stems from the fact that we don’t want to acknowledge that women can also experience this same sense of darkness that often spurs the best jokes and funniest tales. Just think, for example, about how many times have you been told, “It takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown,” or “you lost something . . . Your smile!” Psychologist Marianne LaFrance has found that women on average smile more than men and attributes the difference, at least in part, to the fact that women are socialized to be more expressive of excitement.
This could help explain the early popularity of comedian Lucille Ball. For the most part, Ball’s antics on I Love Lucy are closer in spirit to the rom-com shenanigans—being a klutz while being unconsciously cute—than to the more raw, bitter comedy that dominates today. Lucy Ricardo is no Liz Lemon.
Another reason for the unease with funny women could be the connection between comedy and ugliness. Ugliness is an inescapable element of comedy—things are ridiculous (and hilarious) because of the gulf between our imagination and our calling and the reality of our existence and ourselves. Case in point: The canon of SNL cast member Chris Farley. Women, however, for whom beauty is often held out as a measurement of worth, are not supposed to feel so comfortable with ugliness that they can make light of it for the sake of a laugh.
Read female comedians’ books and it’s clear they’ve struggled with the issue of ugliness (which isn’t to say that they are ugly, only that they have felt that way at some point). Describing her search for a job after college, Fey writes, “Between the [electric blue Hillary Clinton polyester] suit, its booze cloud, and my thick virgin eyebrows, I was deemed unfit to answer the phones in plain view.” Kaling chronicles losing thirty pounds after a male classmate in high school told her, “You would actually be really pretty if you lost weight,” and later, talking about the thirty-five pounds she gained as a freshman in college, she recalls her parents welcoming her back with “mild horror” since she was “a vaguely familiar food monster who had eaten their daughter.” Lena Dunham has been pilloried for showing her non-supermodel body naked on her show.
It’s no stretch to say that these women’s experiences of feeling ugly may have shaped their comedic sense. It also may have contributed in the sense that women who don’t feel attractive often feel compelled to prove their worth in some way. As Amy Poehler’s character on Parks and Recreation says to her attractive friend, “Ann, you’re too beautiful to be funny. It’s not your fault. You’ve never had to compensate for anything.” But it’s also worth noting that male comedians can struggle with the experience of feeling ugly or ridiculous, even while making light of it. Again, consider Chris Farley, who was purportedly obsessed with what people thought of him. His friend and fellow SNL cast member Chris Rock has suggested that Farley’s SNL Chippendale sketch—a bit that turns entirely on Farley’s obesity—contributed to his downward spiral and death.
So what does it tell us that today women and men are tuning in to laugh at Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, Melissa McCarthy and Mindy Kaling? There’s nothing specific that unifies these funny women and there’s nothing that consistently differentiates them from male comics. Female comics have not pioneered some radically new form of comedy. But there is something new in recognizing and appreciating that women can be funny, and thus, by extension, can embody the ridiculous and experience the sense of something lacking that drives comedy.
Sure, it’s just a laughing matter, but it’s one that could also help liberate us to have more authentic relationships with each other, cognizant that, while sexual differences matter, femininity and masculinity have respectively very wide ranges of behavior—and maybe more similarities than our stereotypes of women who laugh and men who make women laugh allow.