I LOVE comedy. I love all things funny. When I was young I used to practice jokes on the stage in my father’s comedy club in the middle of the day, when nobody was there. I remember writing my own joke that had something to do with Olivia Newton-John having to wear giant earrings to keep her from floating off the ground (it was a horrible joke). At the time, “Let’s Get Physical” was in heavy rotation on the radio, and I was infatuated with Olivia’s satiny leggings and braided headband. I have always found humor in the silly, the absurd, and the disgusting. This is a good thing, as I live with my two young sons, and there is never a shortage of bodily functions or jokes about such functions going around my house. But it has always felt a bit uncomfortable to me to let loose and laugh at things that are usually thought of as immature or gross. I distinctly remember in high school having a friend who was extremely outgoing and unafraid to pass gas in front of her friends, male or female. I couldn’t understand this. The idea of passing gas in front of a guy was terrifying to me, as if a girl was not supposed to do such a thing. In contrast, my male friends had no such qualms about allowing their bodily functions free reign. This disequilibrium, along with a few things that have crossed my path via social media in the past week, got me thinking about the role of women in comedy, and the differences in perception of what is funny depending on who, male or female, delivers the punch line or performs the act.
Let’s take the late, great Joan Rivers as an example. Her passing last Thursday prompted me to do a little research about her history as an entertainer and what I found was astonishing. Most people of my generation think of plastic surgery, her raspy voice, and rude comments about people’s fashion choices when they hear her name. But Joan was so much more than that. She started her entertainment career at a time when women were largely thought of as homemakers. Quiet, obedient, and well dressed were characteristics that dominated the accepted view of women in the late 1950s. But Joan, as gorgeous as she was, broke beyond that mold, and was completely unafraid to say what she meant, uncensored and no holds barred. She was one of the first women to push comedy in that way. She was the only woman who could steal thunder from a cigarette smoking Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. No matter your feelings about her put-downs, her plastic surgery, and her loud voice, she was a pioneer in building a new vision of what women could be.
Now, can we talk about Mindy Kaling for a minute? Here is a woman who was awkward and boyish as a child, does not fit the image of the typical American TV star, and yet, is the star of the only sitcom on TV right now worth watching in my opinion. The entire cast is stellar, including the men (who knew Chris Messina was so damn funny?), but Mindy is an absolute gem. She puts herself out there and is completely honest about who she is. Her bright clothes, her love of romantic comedies, her curves, her hatred of exercise and love of pancakes…even though this describes her character on the show, if you have read her book you know that a lot of what we see each week is reflective of her own insecurities. The image she has built of a smart as hell woman who is a successful doctor AND chooses to wear heels, girly dresses, and make up is one we need more of in entertainment. Her ability to be unapologetically pathetic is genius! She makes it seem a little bit more ok to stumble through life with our personal insecurities on full display, rather than tucked away at the bottom of our drawer full of sensible underwear. “Get out your sexy, red reading glasses,” urges the post from The Mindy Project’s Facebook page. Wear your insecurities like a neon sign. We all have them. We are all human. Sometimes we want to jam pancakes down our gullets instead of running 5 miles. And the best part is, the cranky but well-respected male doctor on the show, who seems to detest all of the things Mindy loves, falls for this less than perfect woman and can’t shake free of her spell. Hmmmmm. Why might that be? Because funny is fierce! Honest is fierce.
And finally, Ms. Chelsea Handler, goddess of late night and deliverer of uncensored truths we all want to say but are afraid to. If ever a woman epitomized the opposite of what is considered traditional lady-like behavior, she takes the cake. She shares pictures of herself in the great outdoors doing her business (a woman after my own heart)! She pushes the boundaries of comedy, truth, and what most people would define as a reasonable comfort zone. She encourages people, especially women, to get out there and live life beyond the boring and normal (an idea I completely agree with). I believe she does what she does not simply to shock or appall people, but because she believes in what she says and doesn’t give a shit if you, or me, or anyone else likes it, agrees with it, or thinks it is out of control! It seems like often, when she speaks, she is simply reacting to something in a deeply honest way. It is so funny because you can bet most of us watching were thinking the exact same thing, but when we said it in our heads it sounded really bitchy. And why are women in particular so afraid of being brutally honest, being funny, and maybe even a bit bitchy? As if being labeled “bitchy” is the worst thing in the world. When a male comic makes fun of someone it is observant and witty, but when a female comic takes a stab at someone she might be labeled bitchy or insecure. The same thing happens in education. When a male professor is strict, he is thought of as serious and professional. But when a female professor is strict she is labeled a bitch. I have experienced this first hand. Screw that. Chelsea breaks through the bull and gets to the point, and I, for one, think it is perfection.
These three women, in my view, are women who epitomize the idea of pushing beyond what was once considered acceptable, proper female behavior and rocking their true selves. And they are all funny as hell, a distinction that has not always been viewed as very ladylike in the past. For some reason, women being funny is not always associated with women being womanly or sexy, but funny men are perceived as full of sex appeal. Ask a woman what turns her on and she will often say a sense of humor. Someone that can make her laugh. Ask a guy what revs his engine and you are more likely to hear something related to physical attributes, or the desire to have a woman who will watch sports with him. Seriously? What about a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, and might just say something hilarious in the process? I heard a man recently describe watching Sarah Silverman on an episode of Masters of Sex and having a hard time thinking of her as sexy because she is so funny. Are you kidding? That is exactly what makes her so sexy!
Thanks to women like Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and many others, today women are a force to be reckoned with in the comedy arena. Just look at the likes of Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Debra Messing, Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and countless others. These women are smart, strong, beautiful, and funny as hell. I would argue that these women are much better role models for our daughters than Disney princesses or super models or pop music stars (no offense to super models or pop stars, many of whom are amazing women themselves). But I would much rather encourage young women to be opinionated, honest, and unafraid to show their flaws. The ladies of comedy lay it down, without hesitation, and put their insecurities on display for the rest of us to appreciate and relate to. I am thankful that I live in a time when women being funny has become an accepted and exalted part of the world we live in. Rock on with your bad selves, funny ladies! Keep pushing the limits. There are women out here who thank you for your contributions, including making it ok for girls to curse, fart, and fall flat on our faces.