Female comedians make a joke of ‘women aren’t funny’ trope
Editor’s note: This weekly series highlights stories of women mentioned in the media. Find previous installments @ thetartan.org.
There is a long-standing stereotype that declares that women just aren’t as funny as men. This is an idea that dates back centuries — even in 1695, William Congreve, a famous playwright, wrote in a letter “I must confess, I have never made any observation of what I apprehend to be true humor in women ... If ever anything does appear comical or ridiculous in a woman, I think it is little more than an acquired folly or an affectation.” In 2007, a Vanity Fair article by Christopher Hitchens even justified this statement by describing humor as an evolutionary tool, “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women … The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh.”
The comedy world is not kind to women. Female comedians have to deal with the sexism and misogyny that is present across the board, but they have to deal with it largely on their own. Much of the comedy business involves freelancing, working off one’s reputation, and making connections in order to find gigs, meaning that there is very little organized protection for women against sexism in the workplace. Comedy club owners can very easily book shows with no female representation, and there is no HR department to which female comics can report complaints.
That is not to say that there hasn’t been progress. In June, Amy Schumer became the first female comedian to headline at Madison Square Garden. Comedy Central now has a variety of series starring funny women, including “Not Safe with Nikki Glaser” and “Another Period.” The 2011 film Bridesmaids featured a cast dominated by hilarious women, and made over 280 million dollars at the box office.
However, there is still a ways to go. There is not a single woman who has her own late night talk show. In 2015’s season of “The Half Hour” on Comedy Central, there were only three female comics compared to eleven men, and that was the highest ratio of women on the show out of all five seasons. Women are still asked how they respond to the idea that women aren’t funny, as if that idea is something to be considered at all. In the words of Kristin Wiig, “I think the fact that people keep asking it implies that it’s something we need to explain or defend. If [people] would watch movies or look at comedy and see how many talented, funny women are out there and have been since the beginning of time, people would stop asking that.”
Luckily, there are women speaking out and blazing paths in comedy. Amy Poehler is a perfect example. The Parks and Recreation star is constantly speaking out about feminism and about women helping other women, all while staking out her own path in the comedy world. As one of the founding members of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Poehler helped develop what is now one of the biggest improv and sketch theaters in the country. On Saturday Night Live, Poehler became the first woman and third person ever to be promoted from featured player to full cast member during her first season on the show. She starred as Leslie Knope on the beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation, receiving multiple Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe, and has starred in movies such as Sisters, Inside Out, and Blades of Glory.
However, it is not just Poehler’s amazing track record that sets her apart. Poehler is a strong advocate for women’s rights and female empowerment. As a founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls organization, Poehler encourages young women to foster their imagination and intelligence, creating a place where “people can truly be their weird and wonderful selves.” Poehler also often speaks about the importance of women banding together to take a stand, rather than tearing each other down, as she says in her autobiography Yes Please, “That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. ‘Good for her! Not for me.’”
Indeed, women in comedy seem to be taking her advice and following in her footsteps. In cities across the country, private Facebook groups are popping up for female comics, where women can share future projects, promote upcoming shows, give advice on how to manage the comedy scene, and collaborate.
These groups can even be havens for women that have faced harassment or assault by others in the comedy world — in multiple cases, women have been able to warn others about individuals, or get in touch with other survivors in order to bring allegations to light together.
It is this feeling of community and these role models that are changing the comedy world for the better. It’s a long haul, but the disparity grows smaller with each young girl who sees the Poehlers and Schumers of the world on television, with each woman who is supported by a group of like-minded, funny women, with each acknowledgement that though female comedians are more visible nowadays, a serious problem still remains.
For women in comedy, the idea that women are just as funny as men is fact. For the rest of the world, unfortunately, there are still strides to make. But, little by little, women are proving that sexism and misogyny in comedy are anything but funny.