The question of whether or not women are funny has plagued the comedy community for as long as there have been female comedians. In recent years Jerry Lewis, Adam Carolla, and David Letterman’s stand up comedian booker, Eddie Brill, have all commented that women aren’t funny. The most recent spokesman for comedic sexism came from Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson who implied it is difficult to find a funny Black woman. As a female comedian these arguments naturally feel invalidating to the difficult chore of comedy. I have often wondered what is behind such comments. Just blaming it on good old fashion misogyny or men who have mommy issues isn’t satisfactory. There must be a deeper meaning to why it is perceived that women aren’t funny and why some men feel that it is ok to express this perspective.
I propose that the comment “women aren’t funny” is really a euphemism for “women aren’t smart.” There are few contexts in today’s world where it is acceptable for anyone to make the over generalization that a particular group is not smart, but criticisms of a group’s sense of humor seems to be more acceptable. What is the basic, core element to being funny—intelligence. If women, on the whole, are not funny then it must reflect that we don’t have the core characteristic to make us funny.
All comedians must possess some level of intelligence in order to convey the irony and absurdity of the situations from which humor stems or to make digestible the discrimination one feels (a la Wanda Sykes). Even female comedians whose shtick is one of being less intelligent or incompetent like Gracie Allen or Lucille Ball, show a cloak of intelligence is needed to pull off her comedic perspective. Perhaps our society is better able to digest comedy from a woman if she is “raunchy,” “dumb,” or “childlike.” Even going back to the Vaudeville days, Fannie Brice played Baby Snooks, an infantilized adult child. Marilyn Monroe who was considered intelligent in her personal life played the “dumb blonde” in her comedic portrayals. It is acceptable to say that women aren’t funny instead of women are not smart enough to contribute to the social fabric of American entertainment as comedians.
There seems to be a lack of female comedians who are political. It seems as if this is a frontier that many women have not flourished in. Sure, we have Whoopi Goldberg, Janeane Garofalo and Wanda Sykes but few have been marketed as “political comedians” in the same way Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert have (where are their solo-led news shows?). I was talking to a friend about the lack of female political comedians. He reflected back, “women just got the ability to vote and now you think they will be allowed into the comedic political realm?” He’s right! The job of politicians is to maintain the socio-political status quo while making incremental changes, which is why political change seems to happen at such a snail’s pace. The job of a good comedian as I see it, is to challenge the status quo and hold a mirror up for society. It is difficult for women, as well as other disempowered groups, to enter the realm of a political comedian because these positions of calling out the status quo are not traditionally etched out for us.
In our politically correct world we are often restricted from saying what we want to say in a direct way. Perhaps for a mysoginistic culture, we know that saying “women aren’t smart and should remain in a powerless role” is unacceptable, but to say that they are “not funny” is allowed. I don’t think that people who say this necessarily hate women but instead have been socialized to perceive women as less intelligent and/or are intimidated by women who are funny, smart, powerful, etc.. It is the same place I have been socialized so I know it well. It is the same message that middle school girls get when they go from straight As to Bs and Cs because it is not considered cool or attractive to be smart. Women and girls are funny, thus, women and girls are smart, and sometimes even create societal change from their art form.
About the author: Nina G is America’s only female stuttering stand up comedian (or at least until she finds another). She is also a disability activist, storyteller, children’s book author and educator. Her book, Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities, helps children to better understand their disability and how to advocate for access. She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability and equity.
Picture of Janeane Garofalo, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.