TV Critics and Taste Culture, or Why Everyone Ignored Oxygen’s Funny Girls
Stephanie Brown / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
As Pierre Bourdieu famously stated, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” [ (( Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 6. ))] While Bourdieu likely would have placed stand-up comedy low on the hierarchy of artistic creation, humor scholars like Giselinde Kuipers have used Bourdieu’s framework to understand how sense of humor classifies along not only class, but also gender lines. [ (( Giselinde Kuipers, Good humor, Bad taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2015). ))] While Kuipers has largely studied individual senses of humor through ethnographic interviews, I’m also interested in the ways in which an analysis of taste and reception can augment the study of gendered representation and industry hiring practices. Indeed, while the recent success of women-helmed comedy series like Insecure, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City in the form of accolades, positive reviews and growing buzz seems to signal a shift in the historically male-dominated arena of comedy, television critics tend to take seriously women-centric comedic programming only when they abide by masculine standards of good taste.
Funny Girls and ‘Authentic’ Comedy
Television critics tasked with “officially” classifying pop culture often reify gendered hierarchies of genre. One show that was largely ignored by TV critics and comedy fans alike for falling outside of the acceptable limits of this masculine good taste is Oxygen’s 2015 docu-drama Funny Girls, which chronicles five women navigating the notoriously difficult stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles.
Aside from a smattering of middling reviews about the pilot, critics wrote fairly little about the series after its first episode. These reviews largely dismissed the series as another reality show focused too much on so-called “drama” rather than the artistry of being a comic. Flavorwire’s review couldn’t even be bothered to get the title of the show right in the headline. [ (( Pilot Viruet, “Oxygen’s ‘Funny Women’ Relies Too Much on Reality Show Tropes,” Flavorwire (April 7, 2015). ))]
Reviews for new shows tend to rely on associations with genre formats, comedic voices, or television networks in order to quickly convey information and to make value judgments. Funny Girls had two negative associations working against it: The Oxygen Network and reality television, both cultural products that are often denigrated (with a haughty eye roll) as melodramatic and feminine, and therefore bad. And, in fact, the review starts with such dismissal: “On the whole, Oxygen’s Funny Girls is easy (and understandable) to dismiss […]Funny Girls barely even registers (and not many people pay attention to Oxygen to begin with.” Other reviews echoed this complaint.
A.V.Club’s review cites the reality-show connection as well, arguing that stand-up is a “singular art form where it’s all about the creator,” while reality TV is about corporate string-pulling and manufactured “drama.” [ (( Molly Eichel, “Funny Girls Forces stand-ups into a reality show mold” A.V. Club (April 7, 2015). ))] When stand-up comics are forced into “the confines of this fake reality…their material feels labored as well.” The review then cites Marc Maron’s WTF podcast as a show that actually “lifts the veil via a conversation with two insiders,” rather than forcing stand-up into the “fake reality” of a docu-drama. Most other reviews echoed these complaints. Variety commented that the show was at its best when the comics “stop working at being funny” [ (( Brian Lowry, “TV Review: Oxygen’s ‘Funny Girls’” Variety (April 6, 2015). ))] and Entertainment Weekly suggested the show “focus less on drama and more on the craft.” [ (( C. Molly Smith, “Funny Girls Review” Entertainment Weekly (April 7, 2015). ))]
Authenticity, a type of performance in itself, is one such subjective standard against which comedy is frequently judged. As Judith Yaross Lee, has argued, modern comedy venues, outlets, and performances create the illusion of authenticity by professionalizing intimate one on one conversations. [ (( Judith Yaross Lee, Twain’s brand: Humor in contemporary American culture (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). ))] “Authenticity” also means different things to different people, and is often used as an arbitrary marker of quality and legitimacy by those with the capital to set artistic standards. [ (( For a useful discussion of how authenticity is used to explain affective responses to music and other forms of media, see Lawrence Grossberg’s “Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience edited by Lisa A. Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 50-68. ))] Indeed, a lack of so-called “authenticity” due to its perceived status as a reality TV show was cited in nearly every review of Funny Girls as the reason it wasn’t a comedic series worth watching.
Of course, these complaints that docu-dramas are inherently inauthentic forms of comedy ignore the fact that all media is constructed or scripted. The critically acclaimed FX series Louie is, of course, not “real” either, and according to A.V.Club’s review of the pilot, can actually unpleasant and alienating. [ (( Nathan Rabin, “Louie: ‘Pilot’” A.V. Club (June 29, 2010). ))] However, because Louie is generally associated with independent cinema, a format that is understood as difficult and artistic, it is often read as more authentic than other television shows. The gendered subtext is that representations of comedy tied to masculine formats like stream-of-consciousness, discussion of craft, or narrative arduousness are authentic, while representations of comedy tied to feminine formats like reality docu-dramas are not.
In addition to being a reality show, reviewers complained the comics of Funny Girls are defined too much by their love lives and that the women have fake fights with each other. A.V.Club’s review comments that:
“These women’s desire for men is probably a gambit to make them relatable and likable to the audience, but instead feels like every female stereotype lobbed at female comedians.”
While FlavorWire’s main complaint is that:
“by far the worst part of ‘Funny Girls’ is the manufactured drama between the women….it takes away from the characters’ real compelling narratives: their struggles in the comedy world.”
While these are valid concerns, I would argue that complaints that women are too often defined by their love lives is an underrepresentation problem more so than a stereotyping problem. Funny Girls, like other shows about female comics, carries the weight of representation because they are so few and far between. Funny Girls not only has to be entertaining in its own right, it has to make a progressive statement about women in comedy. These complaints also forget the fact many acclaimed comedy shows starring both male and female comics often focus heavily on the love lives of the main characters (see Maron, Louie, Broad City, Insecure, Seinfeld, etc), and that spats between comics are common, whether or not these fights are scripted or not. Both the real and fictionalized versions of Louis CK and Marc Maron are notoriously unpleasant (to say the least), but when they have fights (or drama) with fellow comics on their TV shows or podcasts (sometimes with each other!) these are seen as markers of authenticity. Reviewers’ complaints that Funny Girls should ignore tension between comics and focus on their craft reinforces the false notion that comedy is a “singular art form,” free from the personal grudges, complicated romantic relationships, and infighting that characterize the Los Angeles comedy scene.
Again – the actual issue critics have with Funny Girls isn’t that female stand-up comics don’t really worry about their love lives or fight with each other, it’s that comedy critics don’t think reality shows are a legitimate format for representing stand-up comics.
Notably, the mentions of Funny Girls on women-oriented sites like VH1 [ (( Alexa Tietjen, “Oxygen’s Funny Girls is the Most Hilarious Show You’re Not Watching,” VH1 Celebrity (May 5, 2015). ))] and Glamour [ (( Megan Angelo, “Obsessed TV Report Card: Funny Girls,” Glamour (April 8, 2015). ))] were much more positive.
Glamour’s review is particularly relevant in that Megan Angelo takes the opposite stance on authenticity than did the reviews on entertainment-centric outlets. While sites like A.V.Club argued that reality show conventions painted the comics as inauthentic, Angelo notes that what sets these comics apart from the typical reality show character is that they’re more naturally funny and more authentic than the bachelorettes or housewives. While this comparison reaffirms similar taste distinctions between comedy and reality TV, it epitomizes the ways in which both authenticity and comedy are not only subjective, but tied to the gendered genre conventions often reinforced by TV critics.
The critics cited above obviously want to celebrate women comics, but only within certain boundaries of accepted taste. By celebrating women comics only when they work within accepted masculine styles, critics reinforce gendered taste hierarchies that construct genres like soap operas, reality shows, or melodramas as fake or silly, or at best, as “guilty pleasures.” Because reception and ideologies of taste are integral to shows’ economic and popular success, reviews are a useful lens through which to interrogate the ways gender, race, and class intersect with television representation and production practices. More specifically, now that feminist media scholars have (hopefully!) moved beyond the need to defend female comics, we can now focus our efforts on dismantling the television taste patriarchy and expanding what it means to be a ‘real’ comic.
1. The women of Oxygen’s Funny Girls (2015).
2. Flavorwire review of Funny Girls, though the headline editor didn’t get the memo.
3. A.V. Club review of Funny Girls, props for getting the title correct.
4. Headline from VH1’s (positive!) review of Funny Girls.
5. Headline from Glamour’s (also positive!) review of Funny Girls.
Please feel free to comment.