Tina Fey is everywhere these days: writing and starring in television's best comedy, almost singlehandedly taking down Palin last fall (and momentarily reviving SNL). She even starred in one of those classy American Express commercials. With good reason, she's being heralded as the Elijah of women in comedy--the first to fulfill the promise of generations of comediennes who never got to make it on their own terms. But is one female comedic superstar really as far as we should have come by now in our supposedly post-feminist society? The most successful film comedies are still about men, feature men and are made by men. Improv, sketch comedy and stand-up have similar demographics. Are women limited in comedy because they're not funny? Or are they not as funny because they're limited by our sociocultural norms?
But what is funny, exactly? It's kind of like trying to find a standard definition for 'happy' or 'sad.' The most common theory in cognitive science is that humor relies on resolving incongruity. First a certain cognitive dissonance is identified--a guy walks into a bar and falls down dead. Walking into a pub is not at first cognitively identified as an activity that is likely to lead to premature death, and for a moment the cognitive process spins into overdrive trying to identify the problem. Then the incongruity is resolved when the statement is reevaluated in the context of death--suddenly the play on words of is identified, and the relief that accompanies the resolution of this cognitive dissonance is released through laughter.
This helps explain why a joke is never as funny the second time you hear it--you are sure it will resolve. This same theory of dissonance explains why most great comedy, across time and cultures, is rooted in breaking boundaries--social or cultural. That's why swearing is so often a crutch in stand-up comedy--the linguistic transgression, the shock value, translates into easy laughs. Slapstick humor, like the classic banana-peel pratfall, also relies upon the incongruity between what the clown knows and what the audience knows, and is resolved when the clown's face hits the floor. But why would this be less funny if the clown had two X chromosomes?
In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, "Why Women Aren't Funny," Christopher Hitchens argued that it all comes down to sex: men need to impress women, while women "have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift." According to him, the only reason anyone tells jokes is to get laid. Humor makes a woman let her guard down around a man. He even goes so far as to compare a woman's laughter to the female orgasm, a quote we will spare you here. He claims that funny women threaten men because men, insecure creatures that they are, want an audience, not rivals for attention.
Just a few weeks ago, a study presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Brighton, England claimed that women like funny men. The research team had a group of women aged 18-35 rate ten fictional men on qualities like intelligence and honesty after reading several anecdotes by them. The men with the most amusing stories were rated as more intelligent and honest, as well as better candidates for long-term relationships. Evolutionary psychology studies indicate that women prefer men who are capable of providing resources--in today's world, making a large paycheck--and intelligence is key to that. Viewed in this light, humor is simply an indicator of a man's ability to support the procreation process. Sexy, huh?
So the question that naturally follows is, do men also believe funny women are more intelligent and honest, and better candidates for churning out babies? The researchers from this study think not. "A man wants a woman who laughs at his jokes and is not too bothered if his girl isn't funny at all," one researcher said. An evolutionary biology study published in 2007 offers an explanation for this disconnect. "Evolutionary psychologists have proposed that men should seek young, fertile, faithful women, and women should seek high-status, resourceful, committed men." The difference between these two sets of traits is that women can signal their sexual suitability mostly physically, while men must find other ways to signal qualities like resourcefulness and potential for high status. And thus the imperative to be funny was born.
If science suggests that this is how men and women think and feel about comedy, it is not a surprise that this is reflected in American pop culture. It's common knowledge in the film industry that ticket sales are usually driven by young men, ages 18-24, and the simple fact is that the industry is convinced that men just aren't that into seeing female-driven comedies, but women will see comedies starring men. To sum up, the mainstream comedy business' logic is: male-centric comedy = male + female audiences. Female-driven comedy = female audiences. Guess which makes more money?
This means that the women's parts are carefully crafted to appeal to the testosterone set. Sex sells, particularly to those teenage boys who buy a lot of movie tickets. The movies produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Freaks and Geeks, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, etc.) epitomize this. There are generally two kinds of women in these movies--the blonde love interest and the crazy brunette. Leslie Mann--a recurring figure in the Apatow canon--is blond, gorgeous and married to Judd Apatow. Carla Gallo (brunette) proved her comedic merits as one of the college freshmen in Apatow's second television series, the cancelled-after-one-season Undeclared. She played the lead's love interest, but her own subplots about difficult roommates and obsessive ex-boyfriends showcased her good-girl-gone-wacky comedy. Once the show was cancelled, she joined the unofficial team of recurring players who are featured in most Apatow productions and her subsequent credits are listed as 'Gag-Me Girl,' 'Period Blood Girl' and 'Toe-Sucking Girl' on IMDB.
Appearance is a double-edged sword for women in the comedy business. In mass entertainment, women (and men) are required to look at least physically acceptable. In comedy, though, it's what's inside that counts. You need brains, a good sense of timing, some physical technique. But how many overweight, poorly groomed women make it on SNL? Buses in New York are plastered with giant pictures of Kathy Griffin naked, entwined in bedsheets with an awards statue. Jay Leno stays fully clothed in all his advertisements (thank God). Tina Fey was the head writer on SNL when Lorne Michaels pulled her out of the writing room--Fey got new glasses and a haircut, and joined Weight Watchers. Now she's on the cover of Vanity Fair. Despite this, funny women still have to walk a fine line between attractive and sexy. Susie Essman, a stand-up comedian, (and more famously, Jeff Greene's harpy of a wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm), summed up this paradox: "I've had to give some young female comics advice about what they're wearing. Like, you can't wear something too provocative--it's too confusing to the men in the audience. They don't know if they wanna fuck you or laugh at you." Sarah Silverman's whole shtick is saying filthy things while widening her big brown eyes. There's a reason this very attractive woman wears boys' t-shirts and baggy pants. If she talked about her cunt while wearing a miniskirt, she would be slutty, not funny.
It all comes back to sex. Our cultural values about sex and the roles men and women play in that relationship inform our worldview, and thus implicitly define what we think is funny. Comedy navigates these social boundaries to create the dissonance that makes us giggle. That's why homoerotic buddy comedies will continue to be staples of the comic world. Men kissing men is still a taboo in American culture, and thus funny. Women kissing women has been sexualized, and so it's just hot. That's why men in drag are funny, while women in drag are butch or gay. Men breaching their social boundaries makes for great comedy. Women breaching their social boundaries makes the audience uncomfortable.
Comedy has been defined, by the men who create, fund and market American pop culture, to include sex, swearing, aggression, criticism and fart jokes--all discursive traditions that have been identified as masculine in American culture until very recently. Since men have defined the boundaries of the popular culture discourse, their worldview of sexual norms and roles has been inescapably ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
The women who entered the entertainment business were forced to downplay their female sexuality as much as possible. Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller were two of the first women to do mainstream stand-up comedy on talk shows. They embraced the grotesque--Fields was extremely overweight, and Diller wore bizarre clothing and makeup. Joan Rivers was the first woman to make the same circuits on the Johnny Carson show and headline her own tours as an attractive, feminine woman. But what does it say that she is now best known for her plastic surgery and red carpet Who are you wearing spiel?
So yes, there are a lot of things that make it difficult to be a woman but have men really cornered the market on being funny? Something seems to be different in the pop cultural comedy air these days, and Tina Fey seems to be the "We Can Do It" poster girl for change in the comedy business. Fey, Amy Poehler, Diablo Cody, Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Kristen Schaal and many other women have contributed to a whole new zeitgeist.
The entertainment industry, responding to consumer demand, has begun to support products that appeal to women--giving women a platform as writers and performers in comedy, and then rewarding them for their successes, as with Diablo Cody's Oscar and Tina Fey's Emmy. This comedy, whether in The Sarah Silverman Program, 30 Rock or Juno, then stretches the sociocultural boundaries that make up the landscape of popular culture, which in turn allows more women to play a role in the creation and dissemination of comedy. Female can be funny. And funny can be sexy. Screw biology.
BETH BERGER B'10 thinks you're funny. Funny-looking.