Carol Lombard. Katharine Hepburn. Phyllis Diller. Tina Fey. Lucille Ball. Carol Burnett. Bernadette Peters. Madeleine Kahn. Gilda Radner. Diane Keaton. Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Mabel Normand. Rita Rudner. Thelma Todd. Meg Ryan. Louise Lasser. Katharine O’Hara. Kathy Jones. Mary Walsh. Samantha Bee. Kristen Schaal. Mindy Kaling. Dawn French. Jennifer Saunders. Joanna Lumley. Sarah Silverman. Catherine Tate. Loni Anderson. Bea Arthur. Teri Garr. Gracie Allen. Andrea Martin. Lily Tomlin. Anne Meara. Elaine May. Martha Rae. Betty White.
Leslie Jones. Kristen Wiig. Melissa McCarthy. Kate McKinnon.
And these are just off the top of my head.
Can anybody doubt that female performers can be funny?
Well, yes, apparently, some people (and, by some people, I mean almost entirely men) can. Whether it’s Hollywood executives who resist casting women as the leads in comedy films, Internet trolls who attack female actors just for daring to star in the remake of a film that they vaguely remember enjoying when they were young or Christopher Hitchens, there is a segment of the population that argues, against all the evidence, that women cannot be funny.
Hmm. I wonder why that is…
Actually, I can think of some reasons. For one thing, humour is transgressive. When somebody says something inappropriate, or acts in ways that are not socially acceptable, we often find that funny. (At least in our entertainment; in real life, we would often find it offensive or just plain weird. This is an important distinction: if extreme behaviours in art were acceptable in real life, by definition they would stop being extreme, transgressive and, ultimately, funny.) While it is seen as acceptable for men to rebel against social norms, woman have not usually been given this privilege.
For another thing, humour is often aggressive. (Many comedians and humour writers grew up in dysfunctional families, and developed their humour as a way of surviving in what they perceived to be a hostile environment.) Most jokes have targets. Sometimes jokes are so deftly written that the aggression isn’t evident; sometimes, the aggression is naked.
Well. We live in a society that has trouble acknowledging women’s anger, a society that discourages women’s use of aggressive forms of speech. The problem is that some men are afraid that if women wielded humour effectively, the joke would be on them. Consider Phyllis Diller’s jokes about her husband Fang, for example; they make a lot of men cringe. And yet, men who don’t like her often enjoy Don Rickles: the issue is not that they don’t like attack humour per se, it’s that they don’t like who is using it.
Dishing it out is good; taking it, not so much. A whole book could be written on what this says about the fragility of the modern construct of masculinity, but it probably has, so I won’t try to cram it into this single article.
I will, instead, say that the fear that humour will be turned on men is not always wrong. Chris Hemsworth’s secretary in the unfairly maligned Ghostbusters,* for example, turns the usually female blond bimbo stereotype around. I do not see this as an inherently bad thing, however. To the extent that humour can make us laugh at our own shortcomings, and remind us that nobody is perfect, it can be a good thing. I’ve never met a man who could do that enough (although some have come close).
Finally, there is a lot of truth to the idea that to create and appreciate humour, one has to be intelligent. (As Horace Walpole is usually credited with saying, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”) Many insecure men are afraid of smart women because they worry that their intelligence will come into question (whether the women intend to do it or not). In this specific case, many men are afraid of funny women because they worry that they won’t get the jokes those women tell, which will make them look dumb.
Who knew that men could be so fragile? (Other, I suppose, than women who were paying attention to such things.)
A lot of female comedians use self-deprecating humour (as do a lot of members of racial and sexual minorities) as a means of disarming an audience. “Look at me,” they seem to be saying, “I’m not turning my comedy weapon on you, so it’s safe to laugh at me.” In and of itself, it can be a very funny approach, but if it is used defensively, it can be self-defeating: some men will not find women funny no matter what tactics female comedians use to win them over.
A conversation on the resistance to funny women is long overdue. I hope it will be over quickly and the Neanderthals will sneak back to their mancaves, never to be heard from again. I look forward to a time when comedians are judged solely on the basis of their material and performances and not on the content of their chromosomes.
* My take on Ghostbusters is that the film was only intermittently funny – although when it was, it was laugh out loud hilarious. That was not the fault of the four female leads, though, all of whom are highly gifted comedians. I blame a script that should have been sharper.)