I’m not about to rail on you like a cartoonishly angry mega-feminist right after she’s burned her bra and refused to shave her armpits or wear makeup. I’m not about to write you a long, whiny complaint about women not getting enough credit in the comedy world, and you know why? Because it’s simply untrue. What is true is that women in comedy are often relegated to a sort of side stage where only women dare to venture and only some women really find the content funny. What is also true is that time is coming to end. There are a few folks whose hilarious work is taking us into an age when the term “female comedian” or “comedienne” doesn’t send the menfolk running for the hills; an age when a romantic comedy can actually be universally funny; an age when women’s comedy doesn’t have to suck.
Take a look at today’s comic landscape: many of the famed female standups, comedy writers and actresses are only famous for girl-friendly comedy. Folks like Chelsea Handler or Whitney Cummings, TV characters like Carrie Bradshaw and every girl in a rom-com in the last 10 years make jokes that only women (and sometimes only bitchy women) would find funny. Don’t get me wrong, we need a little comedy thrown our way too, but we don’t always have to alienate the other sex to do it and luckily, we’ve got a crop of funny ladies who agree and more and more often, they’re getting the chance to prove it.
Granted, most of our favorite, more universal comediennes have all seen plenty of screen time and they’ve tickled men and women alike, but often it’s only been as the secretary or assistant or girlfriend to the front-and-center funnyman – or in some cases funnymen. In fact, I remember seeing Mike Judge’s Extract in the theater with two girlfriends because we were so excited to see one of our favorite funny ladies – Kristen Wiig – in a bigger movie role outside of SNL. I also distinctly remember leaving the theater and shaking my head. She’d been completely wasted; the funniest thing she did was dramatically tie her sweatpants to signal that Jason Bateman wasn’t getting any that night. I couldn’t believe they’d use someone as talented as Wiig for such a basic part. Hadn’t they seen her on SNL or in Knocked Up? Everyone remembers her small role as the judgmental assistant to Katherine Heigl’s boss at E!. She was so obviously talented. It prompted me to wonder, why don’t folks like Wiig get to properly showcase their abilities more often?
Well, this week, I got an answer. Wiig and the film she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, Bridesmaids, brings comedy by women into the Apatowian boys club – an Everest-like set of comedies oft accused of being a wee bit sexist. This lady coup sees Wiig getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight as a flawed, goofy woman who, much like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, allows her normalcy to comfort us and her absurd humor to keep us in stitches. Wiig’s Annie fills the likeable everywoman role, but the film also carries a decent ensemble. We find Rose Byrne as the woman every girl loves to hate; Ellie Kemper takes a break from The Office to show us that she can be funny outside of Dunder Mifflin antics; Wendy McLendon-Covey shows us that her Reno-911 humor translates to the big screen; Melissa McCarthy offers up the unladylike lady; and Maya Rudolph aims to remind us why we loved her so much when she was on SNL.
This universal romantic comedy didn’t just get a chance because Wiig is hilarious, or we would have seen something like it years ago. Bridesmaids can thank one woman in particular for its existence as a blockbuster: Tina Fey. Sure, we knew she had talent when she was head writer for SNL, but I certainly didn’t realize she’d write one of the best teen comedies ever, Mean Girls, and not only make us laugh, but transcend the genre and hit every nail on the head. And of course she went on to create, write and star in one of the best comedies on television, 30 Rock, where Fey’s Liz Lemon makes up for the fact that Carrie Bradshaw’s cosmopolitan style amid lame puns unfortunately stood as the shining beacon of female comedy throughout her reign while people like Fey and Amy Poehler were honing their crafts on the SNL stage and in various improv groups. Be honest, Liz Lemon eating “night cheese” in a Snuggie or throwing back slices of ham in a wedding dress and sneakers is, now and forever, heaps more hilarious than Bradshaw-isms like “When you’re tired you take a napa, you don’t go to Napa.”
Liz Lemon and Poehler’s Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation lead their ensembles with laughs, and while both of those shows rely heavily on the male cast members, they don’t cave to making Leslie or Liz bear only girl humor. They don’t separate jokes into comedy and comedy for women like the genre tends to do. Just look at the aforementioned Handler or Cummings; droves of women love everything they say, but men might tell you differently. Conversely, Fey’s got her past SNL work, 30 Rock, her brand new book, Bossy Pants, and even Mean Girls, and I can’t think of single guy I know who doesn’t appreciate any of that. You’ve also got folks like Mindy Kaling (The Office) who plays heavily on female stereotypes, but in an intelligent way that lets all of us in on the joke. Women like Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy) and Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Concords, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) take advantage of their tiny girl voices to bolster their ridiculously insane yet well-written jokes.
People like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Schaal, Sedaris and Kaling don’t ignore the fact that they’re women, but instead use it to add weight to their comedy without allowing it to dictate it. They separate themselves from characters and comediennes who use stereotypes or man-bashing to get a laugh. I’m looking at you, Lisa Lampanelli and Sarah Silverman; the sex-crazed-love-handled-cougar act and the I’ve-got-pigtails-so-I-can-sing-about-poop act aren’t funny and they only work because of things we’ve decided over time are funny about women instead of working because the jokes are well-written or the women telling them are actually witty, hilarious people.
Of course, I must play devil’s advocate and note that it wasn’t always this way. Yes, some comediennes of the past weren’t always creating content that only women would enjoy. I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show were aimed at both sexes; Cloris Leachman isn’t remembered for making women laugh in films like Young Frankenstein, she’s remembered for making us all laugh; Lily Tomlin and Phyllis Diller are widely regarded as generally hilarious on both sides of the gender barrier. However, for every influential comedienne, there are droves of men who were just as influential, if not more so.
But these things take time. It’s because of all of these women that we can now see a summer blockbuster that focuses on a wedding, a group of bridesmaids and even a little romance that won’t be condemned to the tortuous rom-com doldrums. We have a set of contemporary, intelligent and hilarious women that can lead films that you won’t have to trick your boyfriend into seeing; that don’t make you think you curse too much or that acting goofy or making silly faces makes you look fat; that don’t teach you to wait for your knight in shining armor while your desperate/single/overweight friend makes jokes about eating or not eating or dying for any man who’d have her; and that don’t insult your intelligence.
They lead films that use the feminine perspective to produce universal comedy that is genuinely funny. The result is just another group of people who’ll continue to make funny movies, plain and simple; and that’s one great happily ever after, if you ask me.