18 January 2012

Funny Women

Sean O’Neal got butthurt over Eddie Brill’s assertion that women aren’t very funny.  Vox agrees with Brill, and Steve Sailer takes O’Neal to task for hypocrisy.  Funnily enough, Christopher Hitchens was about five years ahead of the curve on this.  But there are some who still think women are funny, and so I thought that I would weigh in:

Look – in the era of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Schaal, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Lisa Lampanelli, Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Whitney Cummings, Melissa McCarthy, Anna Faris, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler – are we really still having this stupid discussion? As this list shows – and this is, of course, just a random and minor sampling – not only are there lots of funny women around, but they’re being funny in many different ways. There are funny, traditional stand-ups that some might think hacky; funny out-there comics, no doubt referred to in some circles as “alternative,” whom others find just weird; funny actresses, improv performers and showrunners; funny-smart and funny-too-reliant-on-stereotypes; funny clean and funny filthy. Pick a genre, and you’re sure to find funny women there. Treat yourself to a show at any number of venues from coast to coast such as UCB, Largo, The Pit, etc., and you’re sure to see funny women you’re never heard of before, possibly being funny in ways you’re never seen before.

The problem with Getlen’s argument is that his evidence doesn’t match his assertions.  Saying that Tina Fey is an inherently funny person is not the same as saying she performs well on a sitcom.  Saying that Kirsten Wiig is an inherently funny woman is not the same as saying she’s good at improv.  And saying that Whitney Cummings is inherently funny is not the same as saying she is currently starring in a sitcom and producing another.

The best test of one’s inherent comedic abilities is standup.  You don’t have writers, second takes, or a supporting cast to cover your failures and weakness.  Standup, then, is perfect for seeing which people can be funny by themselves.  By this metric, none of these women are funny.  In fact, Lisa Lampanelli, Sarah Silverman, and Whitney Cummings are dreadfully unfunny.

That’s not to say that none of these women contribute to the greater world of comedy.  For example, Tina Fey is a generally humorous writer (Bossypants had its humorous points), and she had her moments on SNL.  But, her role as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is a traditional straight man character.  She is not funny in this role, but again, that’s the point (and, for what it’s worth, Judah Friedlander, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan are all pretty hilarious).

In contrast, Jane Krakowski (who plays Jenna on 30 Rock) is pretty funny.  She absolutely nails the character of an astonishingly narcissistic C-List celeb who completely lack self-awareness.  Of course, it’s hard to tell how much of her character’s comedy is due to her ability as an actress and comedienne, and how much is due to writing.

Amy Poehler is similar to Tina Fey.  She isn’t particularly funny, but can act well enough to embody a generally funny character.  Her role as Leslie Knope (on Parks and Recreation) is pretty funny, but it’s obvious from watching season 1 that writing plays a larger role in Poehler’s funniness than her inherent comedic chops.

Maya Rudolph tends to overact, much like David Cross and Bob Odenkirk in the first two seasons of Mr. Show.  This isn’t generally problematic in sketch comedy and improve, but it is distracting on a proper sitcom (Up All Night, e.g.) or a movie (Idiocracy e.g.).  A good portion of her comedic abilities comes from her writers, not herself.

As for the rest of the women on the list, I can’t say that I find any of them funny in way.  Silverman is shtickish, and relies too much on shock and not enough on actual wit; also, she can’t act.  Lisa Lampanelli, Kathy Griffin, and Chelsea Handler are all basically the same to me:  they try to pass shock off as wit; I’ve never seen them in anything funny.  I’ve never seen Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, or Anna Faris, so I can’t speak to their comedic abilities.  As for Samantha Bee, I’ve only ever seen her on The Daily Show, and it’s obvious that the show’s writing props her up.  She is radically inferior to Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, and John Oliver.

Of course, it is necessary to point out that comedy and humor are subjectively valued.  But even with that, it seems apparent that most women just aren’t considered funny, especially when judged on the funniness of their standup.  And most of these women’s current success is built upon the comedic abilities of others.

[Disclaimer: my comedic tastes tend toward absurdism, satire, wordplay, and meta-humor.  My favorite standup comics are Zach Galifinakis, Patton Oswalt, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Jim Gaffigan, and David Cross.  My favorite sitcoms are Parks and Recreation, Community, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Maragaret, and the early years of The Office.  My favorite non-sitcom comedies are The Daily Show, Portlandia, and Mr. Show with Bob and David.  I also find Dave Barry to be pretty funny.]


  1. Women comedians are generally found to be funny by other women. I agree that often it's the writing that makes some women funny and not really their sense of comic timing. And there is something off-putting about a woman who tries to pass off shock as wit. I can imagine the words of George Carlin as funny coming from him or possibly from another man, but they would be unseemly and uncouth coming from the mouth of a woman, and possibly not even funny, and I regard it as heresy to say Carlin could ever be rendered unfunny. Yet from the mouth of a woman, we get not hilarity but vulgarity from the same words.

    I think many of the women who find some of the comediennes you mentioned "hilarious" are also apt to find Louis CK, Patrice O'Neal, Oswalt, Carlin, and others offensive and caustic. It's a question of the level of thought and the direction of a person's intelligence that defines their sense of humor.

  2. @Cranberry- gender roles probably play a part of why women aren't considered as funny: the expectations don't match the results.

    Also, I think female comedians' appeal is less universal than male comedians'. I also think that female comedians have less nuance and worse timing than male comedians. Female comedians' delivery feels more forced and less organic, in that they understand and can mimic the form of comedic delivery but do not actually have a feel for it.