Normalizing Subversion: The Comedy Approach of ‘Take My Wife’
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin

Roseanne

Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989

In 1989, despite network pushback, executive producer and comedian Roseanne Barr’s self-titled comedy sitcom, Roseanne (1988–1997), aired an episode in which her character’s 11-year-old daughter experiences her first period. This was the first time a network television show addressed the topic of menstruation, and the series included several punchlines about Darlene’s period that make the physicality of the “cramps” and “blood stains” that accompany menstruation tangible. Along with her excessive speech, laughter and liminal status, this is an example of how Barr’s comedy style in the ABC sitcom unsettled social norms in the ’90s; now widely acknowledged to be racist, Barr was considered one of the titular unruly women of her generation of comedy voices. [ (( Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 50-91. ))]

Unruly

Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively

As stand-up comics have transitioned from stage to television over the past few years, a range of comedic styles has unfolded. Many women on television today are boldly challenging social and gender boundaries through comedy. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Samantha Bee, for example, carry Barr’s unruly comedy torch as much as any of their contemporaries. These comics are providing deeper and more complex representations of women on television; however, not all comedians are bringing their brash stand-up humor from the stage to television. Compare Barr’s insistent inclusion of jokes about menstruation on her sitcom with the contemporary television series, Take My Wife (2016–), which was distributed nearly three decades later on the subscription streaming service, Seeso. In this sitcom, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher eschew graphic descriptions of their bodies in order to focus attention on their conventional domestic and professional lives together. Instead of landing punchlines about menstruation, they are simply two comedians who happen to menstruate. Esposito certainly does not hesitate to use her period as comedy fodder in her stand-up, illustrated in a video of a live performance in 2015 that she shared on YouTube, “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” The stars of Take My Wife simply repackage their unruliness—in the case of Esposito and Butcher, their queerness—into a less attention-grabbing representation on their television series.

Cameron Esposito performing stand-up live, published on YouTube, 2015

Couched within the formulaic narratives of the sitcom genre, the comedians situate their characters precariously within modern neoliberal multiculturalism. Their messages can be interpreted as subversive to societal norms, particularly by audiences—women and queer—that identify with the characters. For them, these stories and representations may prompt reflections on societal misogyny and bigotry, albeit without resolution. Rather than challenging social norms from the margins, these comedians stealthily center themselves on screen and in doing so, reposition their LGBTQ+ identities as conventional, further normalizing their subversiveness. This strategy is distinct from assimilationist storytelling, which tends to erase non-normative identities, and conventional post-feminist storytelling, which as Angela McRobbie describes, operates on the assumption that equality between the genders has been achieved. [ (( McRobbie, Angela. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.” Interrogating Post-Feminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 27-39. ))] The strategy described here does not make this assumption, nor does it portray women or gender non-conforming persons in opposition to cis maleness, which de-centers their intersectional identities. Instead, it centers their existence, relationships, and experiences within the text, framing them as “the norm” in order to then introduce new and original content related to their queer identities.

Take My Wife

The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke”

The portrayal of Cameron and Rhea in Take My Wife is reminiscent of the charming awkwardness of another comedy predecessor, Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’ comedy differs from that of her bawdy and bitchy peers of the ’90s; her inoffensive and “feel good persona” [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014, p. 94. ))] helped make her character on Ellen (1994-1998) relatable and beloved by hetero- and homosexual audiences alike. There are many similarities between Esposito and Butcher’s performances and that of DeGeneres: both tell their stories using the traditional sitcom format, perform endearing portrayals of their on-screen characters, and attempt to frame their queerness as conventional. The television medium has changed since Barr’s and DeGeneres’ iconic series; it is no longer the monolithic network medium of thirty years ago. In this era of post-network niche audience targeting, why would the show’s creators be concerned with broadening the appeal of the characters in the series?

Ellen

The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life

Esposito and Butcher’s queer identities—both comedians identify as lesbians and Butcher as genderqueer—complicate the portrayal of their characters on television in a time in which half of the country elected a Vice President with a record of opposition to gay rights. It is not surprising that the LGBTQ+ creators and stars would explore more modest representations of their identities on a television sitcom as DeGeneres did twenty years earlier. For Esposito, framing her identity and critique of mainstream culture as lighthearted joking has been a necessary strategy from early in her career. She explains, “I’m tiny and smiley. I think a lot of it comes from creating safety for myself because as a queer person, I was just very unsafe. Then as a survivor, I feel really unsafe all the time. I think something that I did without knowing it was about introducing myself to people, to be like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’” [ (( Robinson, Joanna. “The #MeToo Movement has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.” Vanity Fair. 23 May 2018. ))] Esposito has intuitively attempted to make herself palatable to heterosexual audiences and recognizes how others like DeGeneres paved the way for her with a similar approach, “Ellen has to exist in people’s house during the daytime so that people aren’t so scared, and then I can get married. That has to happen.” [ (( Kravitz, Melissa. “How Cameron Esposito Plans to Revolutionize Comedy in 2018.” Broadly. 22 December 2017. ))]

Thus, in spite of the often subversive nature of their stand-up performances, Esposito and Butcher chose the traditional sitcom format to convey their stories on the television series. The two queer characters, Cameron and Rhea, are portrayed as conventional specifically through conformity with familiar aspects of the sitcom narrative, an emphasis on the couple’s domesticity, and the downplaying of their gender and sexual identities, a contrast with the more candid approach of their other media projects. This strategy positions the comedians as the non-normative leads of the television series, which allows the writers to introduce discourse from the point of view of its queer characters. The comedians then subtly address the struggles of gender non-conforming persons in our gender binary culture, assault and rape culture, as well as present novel, intimate, and authentic storylines for the show’s queer characters. In the second episode of the first season, for example, the comedians address the topic of sexual assault. The topic of rape is first raised indirectly as the comedians take to the stage to interrogate whether rape jokes are funny given the likelihood of sexual assault victims present in the audience. The following sequence in which individual characters in the show say “me too” to the camera is powerful, though, it should be noted a great deal more nuanced than Esposito’s recent #MeToo stand-up set in Rape Jokes (2018), “a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it” in which the comedian explicitly shares her personal story on stage. [ (( Fox, Jesse D. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture. 28 May 2018. ))]

Rape jokes

Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016

Take My Wife should be celebrated for its authentic portrayals and for taking on the everyday aspects of lesbian existence after coming out, while acknowledging that it is also consistent with the marketing plans of a growing number of over-the-top platforms creating niche content that is geared toward distinct subsets of viewers. In this series, the show’s creators offer novel representations of real and intimate queer characters on screen to LGBTQ+ viewers, and more broadly, two inconspicuous lesbian characters, unthreatening to the heteronormative status quo. Gilbert has noted that female comics’ use of self-deprecatory humor can be interpreted as either subverting the status quo or affirming oppressive gender norms; likewise, in the case of Take My Wife, “it is up to the audience to interpret any form of cultural representation.” [ (( Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 139. ))] This palatability of the series’ humor is not without potential drawbacks where the queer community is concerned; the tokenism of DeGeneres [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” Critical Studies in Media Communications 18.2 (2001): 123-140. ))] and homo-normativity in many popular contemporary series with queer characters [ (( Doty, Alexander. “Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism.” Flow Journal, 12.9 (2010). ))] are cautionary tales of the appeal of similar comedic approaches of series on broadcast networks. It is too early to know if the normalizing strategies described here will contribute to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and progressivism, either on- or off-screen, in the current post-network context.

Image Credits:

1. Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989.
2. Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)
3. The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke.”
4. The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life.
5. Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016. (author’s screen grab)

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Fire in Her Belly: Gendered Standards of Comedic Discourse
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / The University of Texas at Austin

On May 30, 2017, the celebrity news website TMZ published a photograph of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a mask of President Donald Trump covered in fake blood. The title reads, “Kathy Griffin Beheads President Trump,” followed by the tongue-in-cheek, ”I Support Gore.” TMZ asked the question, does this photo incite violence?

Griffin Shields

Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.

Griffin has her roots in stand-up comedy, which she began performing in the 1990s. She has made a number of guest appearances on television shows, including on Seinfeld and The X-Files. Griffin also starred in NBC’s Suddenly Susan (1996-2000) and her Bravo reality television show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List (2005-2010), but she has never given up live stand-up and has recorded a number of comedy specials. In addition to laughs, stand-up comedy delivers cultural critiques like other forms of experimental theater and performance art. As early antecedents to the stand-up comic, vaudeville performers were recognized as having “a fire in their belly which makes you sit up and listen whether you want to or not.” [ (( Lytel, Robert. “Vaudeville Old and Young.” New Republic July 1, 1925, p. 156. in Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 37. ))] Many early sound films, with their fast-paced strings of gags and physical humor, showcased the vaudeville actor’s “performance virtuosity”; for example, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. [ (( Jenkins, p. 63-72. ))] These anarchistic comedies are described by Henry Jenkins (1992) as Hollywood’s attempt to assimilate the vaudeville aesthetic into the film practices of the 1930s, and they tended to emphasize the creativity of their comic stars in lieu of the dominant narrative structures of cinema at the time. Eventually, this style of film comedy was abandoned for the more subdued style and orderly format of the Hollywood romantic comedy, but vaudeville and anarchistic comedy played a valuable role for audiences, much like stand-up does today. By transcending the everyday experience with absurdity, these forms of popular entertainment both amuse and provide audiences with a “vicarious escape from emotional restraint,” creating space to question the status quo and expand social discourse [ (( Ibid., p. 217. ))] .

Conceptualizing stand-up as a descendant of anarchistic comedy is useful in understanding the photo created by Griffin and photographer Tyler Shields. There are many similarities between the two types of comedy. In anarchistic comedy, the clown is a social misfit with a marginalized identity, sometimes an immigrant or member of an ethnic minority. [ (( Ibid., 224. ))] Stand-up comics are predominantly heterosexual, white males, but within the Hollywood social stratum, most are D-list celebrities on the fringe of fame. This is particularly true of Griffin, who strongly identifies with her D-list status and uses her position as an outsider to joke about Hollywood A-listers. [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2014, pp. 38-40. ))] Anarchistic comedians are excessive, demonstrating “gross and unquenchable appetites”; for example, in Groucho Marx and Winnie Lightner’s gold diggers or Buster Keaton’s drunk in What! No Beer? (1933). [ (( Ibid., p. 226-227. ))] Stand-up comics are also excessive in presentation, in their unorthodox language (Richard Pryor) or appearance (Phyllis Diller used her over-the-top style as a punchline as well as to call attention to societal standards of beauty [ (( Gilbert, Joanne. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. pp. 117-136. ))]). Finally, both early sound and stand-up comedy contain anarchistic cultural commentaries. Anarchistic comedies are transgressive, offensive even, particularly in their portrayal of class, race, and gender stereotypes. This type of comedy was most successful at critiquing the status quo when the clown was of a marginalized identity rather than vice versa, as in Lupe Vélez playing the stereotype of a Mexican spitfire to expose the biases of a racist white patriarchy.

Lupe Velez

Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929.

Griffin posted a video of the photo shoot with the Trump mask to her Twitter feed, which sparked swift condemnation from conservatives and liberals alike. Griffin’s friend and CNN New Year’s Eve Live co-host, Anderson Cooper, tweeted that her participation in the photo shoot was “disgusting and completely inappropriate.” After initially standing by Griffin, Senator and fellow comedian Al Franken caved under pressure from his constituents and disinvited Griffin from a promotional event for his recent book, asserting that her behavior had “crossed the line.”

The photo served as a catalyst for an increasingly familiar phenomenon in the media—the celebrity apology. [ (( Cerulo, Karen A. and Janet M. Ruane. “Apologies of the Rich and Famous.” Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol 77, Issue 2, May 2014, pp. 123-149. ))] The mediated script starts with a public gaffe, followed by the media reaction—outrage and criticism—and ends with the celebrity’s apology. After assessing the public’s reaction to the photo, Griffin posted this apology to her Twitter feed: “I sincerely apologize. I’m a comic, I cross the line. I move the line, then I cross it. I went way too far… And I beg for your forgiveness.” She denied any intent to incite violence and explained how the absurdist image was meant as a reference to Trump’s comments about journalist Megyn Kelly during the campaign season, when he stated, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever.” The photo is essentially an extension of her stand-up comedy and a critique, not an endorsement, of violence.

President Trump comments on journalist
Megan Kelly’s questions during the GOP presidential debate.

This time the apology was not enough. The morning after Griffin’s apology, the president tweeted that Griffin “should be ashamed of herself,” referring to the photo as “Sick!” The First Lady disparaged Griffin’s character, and his family repeatedly called for Griffin’s termination by CNN. As a result of this and the extended backlash, Griffin lost her nearly decade-long job as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. The Secret Service tweeted that they were investigating the image after it went viral, prompting discussion on news websites about whether Griffin had broken the law (she had not). The comedian continues to receive death threats from the public for her involvement in the photo shoot.

In contrast, comedian George Lopez received a relatively tame reaction during the campaign last year when he tweeted a drawing of a decapitated Trump head held by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Musicians Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg have released music videos over the last year in which the singers, respectively, behead a bloody Trump figure and shoot a gun at the president’s head. More recently, A-list actor Johnny Depp joked about assassinating the president. The backlash to Depp’s comment has been largely partisan; and while the White House Press Secretary admonished his rhetoric, the scolding was directed more toward the media in general than to Depp personally. Back in 2012, shock jock Ted Nugent’s more violent jokes about killing then President Obama launched a Secret Service investigation. None of these male celebrities have been vilified in the media to the same extent as Griffin, nor have they suffered professional consequences for their performances and jokes. Nugent was recently Trump’s guest at the White House.

Lopez Trump Head

George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Why didn’t the cloak of comedy protect Griffin from the magnitude of this recent media backlash? Stand-up is a genre in which female voices—from Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr, and more recently Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes—have addressed society’s patriarchal relations of power; [ (( Ibid. 7. ))] [ ((Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995. ))] [ (( Mizejewski. ))] however, as with any profession “there is still a firm line of acceptable female behavior” which if crossed is “tantamount to career suicide.” [ (( Peterson, Anne Helen. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. New York: Plume, 2017, Intro. ))] Female clowns have long faced greater restrictions than their male counterparts in what is considered to be acceptable clowning. In early sound films, male actors played a variety of roles, whereas women were only able to escape traditional domestic roles by playing one of a few types such as matrons, wise-cracking sidekicks, or “sexually omnipotent sirens.” [ (( Ibid. 2, 276. ))] If Griffin were a man, or a glamorous siren, would the public’s reaction to the photo shoot have been equally harsh?

Griffin has removed her apology from Twitter and is pledging to continue to mock the president even “more now.” Interestingly, the male photographer and Griffin’s collaborator, Tyler Shields, never apologized and instead defended his freedom of speech in making art. Shields has faced comparatively little public reprisal and, to date, has lost no jobs as a consequence of taking the photo.

Image Credits:

1. Tyler Shields’ photograph of Kathy Griffin holding a Trump mask covered in fake blood, TMZ, May 2017.
2. Mexican actor Lupe Vélez on the cover of Film Fun magazine, July 1929. (author’s screen grab)
3. George Lopez tweeted this drawing of a severed Trump head, February 2016.

Please feel free to comment.