Are women less capable of humour than men? The answer is not a simple one. The comparative lack of women in comedic traditions in theatre, stand-up, film and television suggests that comedy may be one of those domains in which women still fail to multiply and prosper, like engineering, finance, governance or cooking for money. We could entertain notions that women are less funny because they are likelier to suffer the hardships of the world and therefore end up with a more earnest mindset, or that they lack – and should not endeavour to acquire -- aggression, abrasiveness and hustling required in stand up. [i] Maybe women’s sensibility is inherently conservative, or conciliatory and collaborative, rather than eager to escalate the difference between oneself and the others, in this case the audience and one’s peers. Since women tend to be risk-averse in driving and cycling, maybe they’re also risk-averse as thinkers.
We will laugh this narrative off but we also must realize why it’s believable. A woman who establishes herself in comedy does not escape gendering either. At the centre of women’s stand-up will be self-deprecation and her material will be “my boyfriend, my weight, my body, my life stuff.” [ii] Women who do stand up learn how to steer clear from the conservative laughter and avoid legitimizing the view that women are silly creatures anyway (silly, but not funny). Then there are comedians like Phyllis Diller and the early Roseanne who adopt the roles patriarchy hands them – housewife, mother – and denaturalize them, explode their confines by laughter.
Comedy as a genre has great potential for women, weather they’re characters in a comedy or its authors. As Susan Carlson shows in her study of the British theatre, there are always patriarchal pitfalls and the comedic ending where the reversal and transgressions are all tidied up and normalized as the heroine finally gets married. On the whole, however, comedy has been more amenable to the idea of women. In opera too: baroque opera, opera buffa, opéra comique and operetta allow a great degree of female agency and more diverse characterization than opera seria, which demands female suffering and death. Add a dash of freedom to woman’s life, and hilarity ensues.
In Hollywood, screwball talkies are probably the last time women had a plethora of intelligent roles in studio films. Comedies by Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks all have plausible female characters. Mae West, who wrote her own films – a feat still rare in Hollywood -- should not be forgotten. Among our contemporaries, Christopher Guest comes to mind as an auteur whose ensemble comedies allow plenty of room for female comedic talent.
Television has a somewhat better record. We are now finally able to see comedy shows with women as executive producers and principal writers (Tine Fey, Amy Poehler). Bea Arthur, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and in Britain Beryl Reid, Joyce Grenfell, Connie Booth, Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales, Penelope Keith and Alison Steadman have built a remarkable tradition of women in comedy. [iii]
“I don’t exactly get hired because the viewers will want to sleep with me”, says Jane Lynch in Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema. To be funny often means consciously deciding to decline to inhabit fantasies of the most powerful audience – the straight male viewer. Being funny is a repudiation of the traditional feminine. We have yet to have fun.
[i] Johnny Carson in 1979: “A woman is feminine, a woman is not abrasive, a woman is not a hustler… And the ones that try sometimes are a little aggressive for my taste. I’ll take it from a guy, but from women, sometimes it just doesn’t fit too well.” (Quoted in Berger, Phil: The Last Laugh: The World of the Stand-Up Comics, Limelight Editions, 1985).
[ii] Jenny Éclair: “…Men tend to be much more surreal or physical, and not so personal. It will be very interesting to see if there will be a new wave of female comics this year doing the Lee Evans, Harry Hill or Jack Dee kind of slightly impersonal, maybe deadpan style. Hattie Hayridge does deadpan, but leaving out the “my boyfriend, my weight, my body, my life” stuff, it’s very interesting.” Quoted in Performing Women: Stand-Ups, Strumpets and Itinerants (Second Edition), ed. Alison Oddey. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p 44. Jo Brand, another comedian profiled in the book, is adamant that we will never see a more impersonal and surreal comedic style in women: “I can’t imagine that ever happening until women truly have equality with men, that’s not going to happen in the next hundred of years. I don’t think it will ever happen.”
[iii] For a good overview of what happened before the 1990s, see Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave: Women in Comedy: Funny Ladies from the Turn of the Century to the Present, Citadel Press, 1987 (American) and Morweena Banks and Amanda Swift: The Jokes on Us: Women in Comedy from Music Hall to the Present, Pandora Press, 1987 (British).