Comedy is a Woman in Trouble

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur

Jerry Lewis famously stated that comedy is a man in trouble. Any fan of Jerry — not to mention Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, or even Gromit, in “The Wrong Trousers” would be hard-pressed to disagree. Many of the funniest comic performances center around men losing their pants, falling down staircases, and lacking control of their excretory functions. Unfortunately, if that’s what constitutes the best comedy, it doesn’t leave much room for women, who have (with some exceptions) found more success not in physical comedy but in sophisticated screwball comedies or dialogue-driven sit-coms like Roseanne. Roseanne shows us that women can succeed when they use their comedy deliberately to offend, but the general perception remains that clean humor is the most appropriate venue for women.

Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock meant the title of their famous book on female artists, Old Mistresses, to be a saucy retort to traditional art historians’ focus on the “old masters.” The title was meant to disturb and offend by showing how completely women had been marginalized from the history of art: there was no proper language available even to describe them. Comedy is a woman in trouble may likewise sound strange to many. Jerry Lewis himself has stated that women can’t really be funny since they symbolize maternity so centrally: to laugh at a woman would, somehow, be to laugh at motherhood itself. For Lewis, a man in trouble may have slipped on a banana peel, but a woman in trouble is, well, knocked up.

Outside of the domestic sitcom, what role might there be for women in trouble on TV? Would female viewers be drawn to such comedy? And can programmers even conceive of female viewers as having a sense of humor that is not satisfied by reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime? In hopes of scratching at the surface of these big questions, I’d like devote the rest of this column to discussing Comedy Central and the channel’s operating premise that its demographic is male. I’m specifically interested not in what men and women actually find to be funny on TV but in industrial perceptions of what kind of humor is for men and what kind of humor is for women. If Comedy Central is really for men, does that mean that the smart political commentary of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and sometimes South Park) offers nothing to female viewers? And since much Comedy Central humor is of the gross-out variety, is it possible that the channel’s programming is not so much “for men” as it is not for ladies? Women may vary somewhat in their tastes, but ladies are ostensibly immune to the appeal of a good fart joke.

It is common, of course, for TV to acknowledge openly its gendered address. In a Thanksgiving episode of The Gilmore Girls, Sookie allows her husband Jackson to take charge of making the turkey. He procures an enormous deep-fryer, and by the end of the night he and his drunken buddies have fried to a crisp not only a turkey but also everything else they can get their hands on. As the men-folk cheer, and Jackson drops shoes into the cooker, Sookie drowns her sorrows in margaritas, moaning that Jackson is shamelessly catering to his demographic. The Gilmore Girls is relentlessly character-driven and organized around romance and family melodramas. It is itself, in other words, a program that caters shamelessly to its own female demographic. The program is often quite funny, mostly when the caffeinated dialogue spins out of control. (The machine-gun banter often recalls Preston Sturges. Think of Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story chirping, “What’s knittin’, kittens?”) What strikes me in particular about the deep-fryer scene is the open acknowledgment that stupid drunk guys don’t really belong on this show. For that stuff, go to Spike TV or Comedy Central.

There’s no doubt that Spike TV is all-male, all-the-time. Comedy Central’s contention that it serves a male demographic is more problematic, though not wholly untrue. Certainly, Too Late with Adam Carolla is designed exclusively for men-or, to be more accurate, for anyone who hates women. It is also one of the least funny shows ever on television, and it has the ratings to prove it. This hardly means, though, that Comedy Channel viewers don’t like anti-woman humor. Indeed, Carolla only has a career because of the success of The Man Show, which embodied what I like to call the new misogyny: it’s OK to be a misogynist, as long as you are simultaneously ironic, with your sexism always in quotation marks, as if to ask, Aren’t I a terrible jerk? Do you think I really mean it? On his own show, Carolla’s smarminess is unfettered by irony; given his pitiful performance thus far, one can only assume that his cancellation is imminent.

Of course, the hottest show on Comedy Central right now — since Dave Chappelle has left his program floating in limbo — is The Daily Show, which features the smartest political commentary on TV. Nobody socks it to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Pat Robertson, or the war (Mess-o-potamia) like The Daily Show. How disturbing it is, though, to watch Lewis Black mercilessly skewer the Christian Right, and then to cut to a commercial for Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break. It is galling to hear repeatedly that Comedy Central’s primary demographic is young men-and to often see the ads confirm this — when the Channel’s single most popular program largely lacks machismo.

Though The Daily Show avoids the sexism one commonly finds on Comedy Central, all of its writers and producers are male, and its only female correspondent, Samantha Bee, has taken some time to grow into her role. (She may have finally arrived, with her hilarious story on attempts to pass laws against truck drivers tossing bottles full of urine out their windows.) Still, pretty much everyone with power in America is a rich white guy, and these are the corrupt bastards that the show attacks. The Daily Show is eager to lampoon anyone in American politics who is a stupid jerk. Can they help it if three-out-of-four such people happen to be male? Though this hardly makes the show feminist, per se, feminists cannot help but applaud the program’s assault on America’s power elite.

While other shows for men on Comedy Central take sex as their focus, The Daily Show is relatively sex-free. (Notwithstanding the undisputable fact that correspondent Stephen Colbert is hot. Oops, the cat’s out of the bag: I’m a geek.1) Disturbingly, Comedy Central has started to refer to the programming block of The Daily Show and its Colbert Report spin-off as a network within the network.” These shows, which do not quite match the channel’s masculinist profile, are thus marked as different, and perhaps more high-class than the rest of the schedule. To recognize that women enjoy some Comedy Central programming as much as men would imperil the network’s whole identity, thus imperiling its advertising profile. Instead, Comedy Central simply pretends that its highest rated shows somehow stand above the low-brow fray of programs like South Park. That way, they can sell ads for a few high-end products, but still hang on to the Girls Gone Wild account.

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Comedy Central first made its reputation on South Park, and the show does seem to wallow in its own boy humor. The episode in which little Jimmy takes a fat, slobby hooker to a Ho-Tel to fix his persistent boner problem represents the show at its most immature and grotesque extreme. But if South Park is sometimes misogynist, it is more often simply misanthropic. And despite its frequent retreat to stupid and nihilistic cynicism, when the show is smart, it is on a par with The Daily Show, its address not exclusively male. To say that the show’s address is purely masculine is insulting to women, as if they could not appreciate the program’s satirical insights because of a natural aversion to poo jokes. Is there a TV show that did a better job attacking The Passion of the Christ? And what about its send up of Paris Hilton, who comes to South Park to open a new store, Stupid Spoiled Whore, for 8-year-old girls who want to look like tramps? South Park not only attacks the trend of little girls dressing like porn stars but also puts Paris Hilton in her place, because compared to Mr. Slave, she is not really much of a whore at all. There is no reason to believe that only a male audience could properly appreciate this satirical attack on Hilton and the “whorification” of girl culture.

Of course, the very use of the word whore might make the episode seem geared to male viewers. Women are supposed to be offended by dirty words, which is probably why female comedians are less likely to use them. Since comedy is at its best when it challenges cultural taboos, this puts female comedians at a clear disadvantage, though clearly not all are intimidated. In The Aristocrats (Jillette and Provenza, 2005), raunchy stand-up comedian Lisa Lampanelli explains that, if comedy is a guy thing, fine, I’ll strap it on. To be really funny, Lampanelli’s statement would seem to imply, is to be like a man, since women are inherently unfunny. (How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? ONE and that’s not funny!) If Sarah Silverman is any indication, women who work blue are not only as funny as men, they are often funnier. But there is only one Sarah Silverman, and even her presence was not enough to counter-balance the creepy tone of Comedy Central’s Pamela Anderson Roast, one of their highest rated shows ever. Most jokes centered on how huge and stretched out Pam’s vagina was, which was not only dispiriting but also rather dull.

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Oddly enough, hearing Pam Anderson witlessly called a slut over andover and over again, I could not help but recall an episode of the Gilmore Girls in which Lorelei and Rory make fun of Donna Reed for being an impossibly perfect housewife. Rory’s boyfriend Dean, whose mom is a housewife, takes offense at the girls attack on Donna Reed, which prompts Rory (who is much too smart to be in love with this dull boy) to do some research. It turns out that Reed was actually producer of her own show; she was an astute and accomplished businesswoman. For better or for worse, Pam Anderson is the Donna Reed of our time, as much the stereotypical bimbo as Donna was the stereotypical mom. Pam’s great at playing her top-heavy, dumb-blonde role, but she owns and produces her own programs and is the undisputed mistress of syndication. This dumb blonde is no dummy.

The Comedy Central boys had a good time making cheap jokes about Pam’s sex video with Tommy Lee, confirming that, notwithstanding The Daily Show, boy humor is Comedy Central’s home-base. It’s tough for female viewers; even gals who like crude jokes can only take so many feeble attacks on the female anatomy. Thank god the Roast included a break from the testosterone when Bea Arthur gave an interpretive reading of selected passages about anal sex from Pam’s roman a clef. Right on, Maude! In any case, if you’ve seen Pam’s new Fox sitcom, Stacked, you probably agree with me that Pam is not much of a comedienne. But she does know how to cater shamelessly to her demographic, and she’s got the global syndication rights to prove it. This woman in trouble is laughing all the way to the bank.

But as The Man himself notes on the premiere of The Colbert Report, “The geeks will inherit the earth!”

See Also:
Henry Jenkins – “Awkward Conversations about Uncomfortable Laughter”

Image Credits:

1. Bea Arthur

2. Jon Stewart

3. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.


  • Funny Ladies and Expense

    Great to see this article as this is a topic that I wanted to comment on regarding the great Sarah Silverman debate of 2005.

    One of the issues at hand, that is fundamental to understanding modern humor, is the notion of “expense”. Let’s look at a Merriam Webster account. Expense is understood, I think best in the case of humor, as “a loss, detriment, or embarrassment that results from some action or gain.” In this sense, the figure of the clown comes forth as a figure who gives up self-importance to gain something somewhere else. The problem I think we are all asking is “what is gained by this humor,” or, “at whose expense does this come?”

    For me, as a number of commentators point out last issue regarding Jenkins’ article, this is all about contingency. If Silverman wasn’t playing to college-educated, “white”, professional audiences, she most likely doesn’t get away with this. However, as is the case of any performer, particularly women comedians, the experience of being excluded and unable to “break through” is profound. For women, it is whether or not one has to “play like the boys to be with the boys.” Just read through the New Yorker article on Silverman and all you need to know about how disconcerting this is for women comics is by reading Penn Jillette’s comments on Lucille Ball,

    “When you went home alone and did the math he was just kind of right,” Penn Jillette, the magician-comedian, says. “I mean, what passes for funny in women is, like, Lucille Ball, who was never funny.”

    I mean, look, there is part of me that simply wants to point out that not only is Lucille Ball one of the five greatest comic forces of the 20th century, she also has a stamp, something that Jillette will never get. And part of the reason for that is that his work is, at some level, about lies and cruelty. As I watched Penn and Teller’s latest NBC special, it was clear that this was easily one of the best FU’s in American history as the butt of the joke in every case was, quite simply, the audience. The audience was a sucker and the laughter came at their expense.

    Now, I have to admit, I also laughed at the audience. I don’t know if that makes me a bad person, but I do know that, for so many, comedy, especially stand up comedy, seems to come from a place of deep negative critique and is considered one of the last bastions for men to say and do anything they wish, i.e. to be “non PC”. In other words, anything and everything is game, see Andrew Dice Clay or Don Rickles or “white male privilege”.

    Since I am not really interested in establishing this as a kind of “comedic norm”, it should be noted that comedy has multiple forms. For example, women have had, in my mind, a profound amount of success in comedy in recent years but have gotten little attention. For me the clearest places are in recent improvisational forums such as the 1990s Second City mainstage casts that produced performers such as Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch or someone like Amy Poehler, formerly of the Upright Citizens Brigade. That Fey, Poehler and Dratch are three of the funniest people on SNL today is a result of their improvisational training where teamwork and building are rewarded with laughs and pure negation does not wok at all. In the work of improvisational comedy the whole point is to make your partner look better and their are strict taboos on negation. Which isn’t to say that it is a more “feminine form” where women can succeed. Rather, it’s to point out that ensemble work is somehow forgotten at the expense of being a stand-up. Of course I like Heather’s point about the Gimore Girls. I mean, I cannot imagine “Sarah Silverman” of Jesus is Magic having a place on a show such as that. I am certain she could tone down that persona and make fine contributions of chatter and asides alongside Lauren Graham at any time.

    Yet the place where Silverman seems to be having an impact is in stand up, which, every Friday night on Comedy Central somehow defines comedy. If standup equals comedy then, well, the field, indeed, looks weak for women. That said, I think this goes to the question as to why stand up is such a masculine terrain. Is it working alone rather than a team? Is it the acceptance of the need to tear apart something rather than build an imaginary world? I don’t know. Rather I just thought I would throw that out.

  • Wait…

    So lemme get this straight, when a bunch of guys call Paris Hilton a whore, it’s feminism but a bunch of guys call Pam Anderson a whore it’s misogyny?

  • Uhhh…

    No. It’s not quite that simple.

  • Demographics

    I do agree that networks strive for a specific demographic. However, I do not think there is anything wrong with this. Networks are going to try to narrow their shows. I do not think that their intention is to say that the other demographic would not find these comedy shows humorous. Comedy Central’s main audience is male. It would make sense that they showed commercials that were male-oriented. It is smart business. It does not mean that Comedy Central is purposely trying to exclude females. They are just running a successful business. The central question is: is comedy a woman in trouble? No. networks that carry comedy are going to cater to the demographic that views it the most.

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  • I myself am a young man, the demograph that Comedy Central shoots for. I can’t help but agree with this very article that is written. Very well done!

    Speaking from the perspective of one who is more open minded, I find that material on CC is stereotyping not only what it mens entertainment along the same old lines of edgy comedy, car chases, boobs, sex, and the overuse of stereotypes when depicting different groups and CC, at least to me, has a love for cracking hard on nerds and geeks.

    I may watch it on occassion but when it pushes things to flat grossout or low-brow garbage I turn the channel.

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  • Super that you write such things

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