Thought Catalog

On Women In Comedy

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There has been a long-standing assertion in society that women just aren’t that funny. For years, people have been making the claim, both in seriousness and in jest, that women do not have the “humor gene”–and, evolutionarily speaking, haven’t really needed to. We’ve been able to reproduce and survive based on our looks, not on our wits or charms. And though there are striking exceptions sprinkled throughout the media and in our own social groups, if we were all honest with ourselves, most would say that, speaking in generalities, women are not as funny as men are.

But as a woman, and especially as a writer who often attempts humor (though are we ever really sure how funny we come across over the internet?), I cannot say that the idea doesn’t depress me. It doesn’t offend me–no, I can be a realist and acknowledge that when naming humorists whose work I truly love, the list leans far more to the male than the female column–but it does disappoint. I appreciate the idea that there are many people who will like my style of humor, just as much as I know that there are many people who won’t. That simply comes with the territory of humor itself–it’s as subjective as anything can be. But what digs at me is the idea that there will be many people who dismiss and dislike my writing simply because it comes from a woman. The concept they have about women in comedy so strongly influences their sense of humor that they often won’t read a work if they see a vaguely feminine name on the byline.

And yet, I cannot blame them. There are publications whose articles I love, yet there are choice female writers within them whose names I will avoid because their work has such an overwhelmingly “You-Go-Girlfriend” tone to it. There is an alternating need in their writing to both assert their gender equality and to clasp their hands in solid sisterhood with every other female on the planet–a tight-knit circle of ovaries that goes around and around, reaffirming its own awesomeness. And yet, I feel the exact same exasperation with male writing that goes so over-the-top in its need for masculinity and bravado that it becomes a caricature of itself. There are men’s magazines that I often feel must be satire, as no reputable publication could honestly be so absurd in its desire to assert a gender identity. We get it, you like scotch and breasts and movies where things explode.

But the difference between the two is that, with men’s humor, there is enough out there that ignores gender altogether that one has the choice. If you want to feel the solidarity of pulsing, sizzling testosterone–you know where to find it. If you want subtle political satire or dry observational humor–it’s at your disposal as well. And while there are women comics who embody this gender-neutral humor as well, they are fewer and farther between.

No, often “funny women” fall into one of two categories:

  1. The “Sarah Silverman” Type- This type of humor revolves around the idea that she is doing things that women are “not supposed” to do. She farts, burps, says offensive, racist things, and makes herself look like a perpetual fool. The little girl persona she often takes on while executing her lowest-common-denominator acts are used to heighten the “shock” felt by the viewer at seeing a woman cross these invisible gender barriers and walk, unaccompanied, into Man Country.
  2. The “Chelsea Handler” Type- This type of humor exists as a “taking back” of a woman’s identity–the idea that a woman can be sexual, liberated, indifferent, and consequence-free. The constant, overbearing divulging of extremely personal, often sexual encounters and the idolization of binge drinking, one-night-stands, emotional unavailability, and male objectification are supposed to elicit a universal cry of “Wooooh!” from the hordes of women who feel objectified and repressed and just long to, as the saying goes, “party and bullshit.”

Personally, I find both of these styles of humor to be as tired as they are pandering and unfunny. Hearing gory details of emotionless sexual encounters rehashed for their shock and schadenfreude factor, or watching someone burp the alphabet to get a covered-mouth giggle from the conservative crowd do not interest me. But then, they don’t interest me when men do them either. I don’t think bathroom humor is any more funny when done by a man–the toilet scene in Dumb and Dumber does not shock me, it only profoundly bores me, and reading Tucker Max humiliate his vapid conquests for the amusement of like-minded frat boy neanderthals is neither funny nor particularly entertaining.

But when women do these things, as a woman, I am expected to stand behind them and, to some degree, support them. Sure, they should have every opportunity in the world to try their hand at lowbrow humor, but that doesn’t mean that it’s funny. It doesn’t mean that, just because it’s a blonde woman and not a popped-collar-sporting man talking about the petri dish of a human they brought home last night and had sloppy sex with on an unfamiliar kitchen floor, it is somehow new or fascinating. It’s the same kind of schlock–banal stories of vapid encounters trying to profit off of a “shock value” that doesn’t really exist. No one is offended by your sky-high sexual partner count, they just don’t care. And as a woman, when reading about how these women are two of the biggest, most representative names in an already small field of women humorists, I cannot help but cringe in embarrassment.

It is not that I don’t think women should fart or sleep around or do whatever else they see fit to do, and if there is a personal story every once in a while that truly has some original humor value to it–by all means, share away! It is that to base your whole comedy identity on such a trite and tired concept, especially when the media is all too eager to paint a huge portion of female comedy with that brush, is the lazy way out. We are capable of being so funny as women, with unique and interesting perspectives on so many things that can be very much worth hearing, why paint ourselves into the most unfunny corner possible?

We are not men, and never will be–it’s time to stop emulating the worst aspects of “their” humor and forge, as some women have already done, our own path in comedy that stands on its merits and not on the novelty of our gender. TC mark

image – WW2011
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More From Thought Catalog

  • http://www.onemoresalute.com One More Salute to Vanity

    As a woman, I wish this had been funnier. No, just kidding. I think you’ve touched on something really key: that not only are women assumed to be unfunny, but that pro-female comedy is typically forced into two categories. We get to be sluts or pretend to be boys. In reality, the idea that women are not funny does not take into account that women are fully-realized humans. Humans are (sometimes) hilarious.

    • http://twitter.com/KelleyHoffman kelley hoffman

      Really wish Drew could have a TC advice column called “Dear Girl Who Gets It.”

  • Guest

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention Tina Fey. She represents all things good about women in comedy.

    • Random

      I mean she’s good, but all things good about women in comedy? What would be all the good things besides that they’re funny?

      • Andrea

        She’s intelligent, well-read, aware of current events, has the ability to laugh at herself and at others.  I’m biased because I think 30 Rock is a fantastic show.

      • guest

        And she’s a great fucking writer.

  • Katgeorge

    I really liked this Chelsea! x

    • Anonymous

      Of course you did. 

      (Kat George and Chelsea Fagan are TC’s most notorious misogynists. Funny, seeing that they’re both women.)

  • Anon

    “It’s the same kind of schlock–banal stories of vapid encounters trying
    to profit off of a “shock value” that doesn’t really exist. No one is
    offended by your sky-high sexual partner count, they just don’t care”

    This.

  • mia

    “if we were all honest with ourselves, most would say that, speaking in generalities, women are not as funny as men are”

    this makes me sad; you’re obviously hanging around with the wrong women – which explains why you feel like there’s only two types of funny for girls. I’d say for every “funny guy” I know, I know a girl who is twice as hilarious, and it feels great. wanna hang out?  

    • Chick

      Did Chelsea ever consider that MAYBE this generality comes from the fact that it’s easier for men to get stand-up/whatever gigs than it is for women to get them? That might explain her being able to think of more male comedians that she likes than female comedians that she likes. Come on.

      Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using “shock value” material if it means getting one step closer to normalizing things like female sexuality and female bodily functions (didn’t you or Kat George write something about those?) And it can be done well.

  • http://profiles.google.com/muffins.go.rawr Gina Wei

    This article reminds me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend. He was recalling some of what he deems my “funniest moments,” and there was was an all too obvious trend in his list of my behaviors. Apparently, I’m only funny when I trip over curbs or mix up words or say something stupid. I’m only funny when I’m being a ditz — “accidentally” funny. And that kind of pissed me off. I asked another guy friend whether he thinks it’s funnier when a girl has a bimbo moment or says something witty. He, too, values “accidental humor” over humor with intellectual value. He said it wasn’t a gender thing, though, because he thinks the same applies to guys as well. So essentially, we as people are funniest in our mistakes, in our slip ups from our intentions and inherent selves. So we ourselves are not funny. We can only be “accidentally” funny. Sad.

  • http://twitter.com/cjhallman Carly J Hallman

    Yes.

  • http://twitter.com/cjhallman Carly J Hallman

    Yes.

  • liza treyger

    Long time reader first time commenter. woo so excited! 

    I’m a stand up comedian in Chicago and a woman and I’m super funny and so are many of my female friends who do comedy. I get booked all over the city and in other states and I kill. I and my fellow comics kill by being ourselves. Comedy is truth and audiences relate to truth no matter what sex the comic. When i get on stage I know people want to hate me or think I’m not funny but I’m not there for them I’m actually quite selfish and just love it. It is unfortunate when women are not being themselves on stage but putting on a character of what they think people want BUT GUESS WHAT….
     There are a lot of unfunny men. Thousands of them all over the country. I see hundreds of men that are terrible at telling jokes and are so boring I can’t understand why they are sucking the energy out of everyone. There are just fewer women so when a woman doesn’t do well on stage with the added stereotypes it stings more. But funny is funny and its frustrating when women who aren’t funny but are fulfilling other requirements to become successful are the representatives for women in comedy but that says more about what society is looking for not at what talent is out there. It’s like saying there aren’t any talented musicians if you’re only basing it on Top 40 radio stations and what’s on tv. Being famous doesn’t mean being funny and hopefully one day myself and other females that I work with like Megan Gailey, in Chicago (shout out) will join the ranks of well respected and amazing stand ups like Maria Bamford, Tig Nataro, Joan Rivers, Ellen Degeneres, and more. But that’s all in time and instead of worrying about anything else I worry about tellin jokes and livin the dream. Fame isn’t the priority but being the funniest person I can be is the goal and working hard is all we know here in Chicago. 

    http://rooftopcomedy.com/comics/LizaTreyger

  • Laurel

    Where do female comedians like Ellen Degeneres and Kristen Wiig fit into this, they definitely don’t fall under those two categories.

    • guest

      Maria Bamforddddddd

    • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

      sorry you said kristen wiig, brb to this thread, time to go dream of the day k.w and i can be best friends.

      oh, who am i kidding. that would not be a symbiotic relationship at all. i would just stare, gape-mouthed, and laugh at everything she did or said.

  • guest

    I’m hilarious.  

  • guest

    I’m hilarious.  

  • guest

    Very truthful article. It’s frustrating to not be taken seriously as a funny woman. Finding your identity and voice as a funny woman is also frustrating.

  • guest

    Very truthful article. It’s frustrating to not be taken seriously as a funny woman. Finding your identity and voice as a funny woman is also frustrating.

  • did

    once again, an article by chelsea fagan that lives up to the name of the website. other TC writers, take notes!

    • guesst

      shut up chelsea

  • Anonymous

    Well, this article wasn’t very funny.

  • lindsay

    Dude. We get it. You hate women. Why do you write here? 

    • Anonymous

      I so very much hate feeding the trolls, but I feel I must respond to this.

      On the one hand, having women flippantly tell me (though always anonymously and on some internet forum) that I hate women only proves my points about the black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us mentality that a lot of women have.

      On the other, god, does it get irritating.

      I do not hate women. I love women, but not any more than I love men or hermaphrodites or people who have no sexual organs or whatever. They are just people. If they’re cool, they’re cool. If they’re mean, they’re mean. If they’re dull, they’re dull–and so forth. I’m not going to automatically like or approve of what they do because they have a vagina, just as I won’t dislike or resent things men do because of their penises.

      Yet the second I criticize something even remotely having to do with women, it is inevitable that someone will accuse me of being a woman-hater. Yet my posts that are critical or mocking of men don’t elicit cries of “You man-hater, you!” Fascinating.

      I understand that claiming I hate women must be the easy way to deal with any criticism I have towards a group that comprises 51 percent of our global population, but it certainly doesn’t get the actual discussion going anywhere.

      In short, grow up.

      • no bai

        “Yet my posts that are critical or mocking of men don’t elicit cries of “You man-hater, you!” Fascinating.”

        Really? This is the tired “THERE’S NO NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF WHITE PEOPLE!” argument. I thought we outgrew that about 20 years ago. Apparently not everybody got the message.

      • lindsay

        I don’t think anyone expects you to like or dislike anyone based solely on their gender. That being said, your articles have consistently put other women down in a way that makes it difficult to read your pieces with an entirely unbiased approach. I’m talking the “The Funny Thing About the Slutwalk” in particular.

        Frankly, I can’t stand Chelsae Handler or Sarah Silverman either. But I’m also not willing to undermine an entire gender’s contributions to comedy by insisting most can be classified into two unflattering stereotypes of “funny” women.

      • Nuhuh

        Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me slutwalk + everything else + this, you have issues with ladies.

        In short, you sound like Phyllis Schlafly.

      • rose

        Hey Chelsea I enjoyed your Slutwalk piece and this one as well. And I’m female. Keep up the good work xoxo

      • rose

        Hey Chelsea I enjoyed your Slutwalk piece and this one as well. And I’m female. Keep up the good work xoxo

      • Treb
      • guesst

        Nobody’s trolling, people legitimately don’t like you.

    • http://twitter.com/jkymarsh J. Ky Marsh

      If you feel that Chelsea “hates women,” you’ve made it quite clear that you skim her articles without bothering to spare even one moment to mull over them and give them the thought, criticism, and contemplation they deserve.

      She doesn’t “hate women.” She simply sets higher standards for herself than pandering to the lowest common denominator of “WOMEN MUST BIND TOGETHER AND RECLAIM THEIR GENDER.”

      She writes from a critical viewpoint, both towards men and women.

      If you want to read more pro-woman, anti-man propaganda, there are plenty of feminism blogs out there for you. If you want writing that places everyone on equal ground and strikes straight to the heart of the matter, by all means, continue reading Chelsea’s work.

      • guesst

        no dude, all of chelsea’s articles are centered around putting other women down for whatever reasons, and trying to make herself look as good as possible.

      • guesst

        no dude, all of chelsea’s articles are centered around putting other women down for whatever reasons, and trying to make herself look as good as possible.

      • Asdf

        no u.

  • http://fartsinlove.tumblr.com Ernest Fartingway

    I’m sorry, but farts are always funny coming from man or woman.

    • guesst

      love the name

  • MARGARETCHOFAN

    I LOVE MARGARET CHO!!!!!

  • coffeeandinternets

    “The concept they have about women in comedy so strongly influences
    their sense of humor that they often won’t read a work if they see a
    vaguely feminine name on the byline.”

    “There are publications whose articles I
    love, yet there are choice female writers within them whose names I
    will avoid because their work has such an overwhelmingly
    “You-Go-Girlfriend” tone to it.”

    I think there is a difference between ignoring someone’s work on the basis of their gender and avoiding it because you are familiar with the tone of their writing. 

    Other than that, I disagree with the idea that women comedians who are gender neutral are few and far between — comedy and stand up seems to be on the rise, and I’m lucky enough to live in New York and see cheap/free shows regularly that feature women being funny and discussing everything the gender-neutral male comedian would cover, like Kristen Schaal for instance.  As other commenters have noted, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two more comedians who rise to the distinction of being Fucking Hilarious “despite” the fact that they are vaginally endowed, and it would be incorrect to classify either of these women in the categories you posit.

  • Rachel Zehava

    “The concept they have about women in comedy so strongly influences their sense of humor that they often won’t read a work if they see a vaguely feminine name on the byline.”

    Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the issue isn’t that women aren’t funny, but that sexism still exists and is going strong? 

    In case anyone has forgotten, Chelsea Fagan is the writer of “The Funny Thing About the Slutwalk,” an article so repulsively misogynistic that Ryan O’Connell actually had to APOLOGIZE for its publication. The fact that Thought Catalog still allows Chelsea Fagan to “contribute” her repulsive sexist writing is disgusting. Shame on you, Thought Catalog. 

    • guest

      STOP BEING A VICTIM!  YOU WOMEN ARE ALL SO WHINY.

      -A Better Woman Than You

      • guesst

        Um, it’s sort of hard not to be a victim when people are verbally attacking you, just because you’re a woman.  So shut the fuck up.

    • Oliver Miller

      Rachel, we need to have a talk.

    • maddy menham

      im so sick of male only round ups of top comedy shows… time out recently did this article which a well known female comedian on twitter highlighted that its a male only list. http://www.timeout.com/london/feature/1604/top-10-comedy-shows-this-autumn

  • Joe

    I’m very curious: where do you think Tina Fey or Kristen Wiig fall in this spectrum of funny female comics? Anyone who doubts that women can be funny is neglecting the fact that women like those two are some of the most widely recognized and popular comics/sketch artists (in the US) today.

  • Just bad

    This is both offensive and dumb. You leave out a TON of prominent funnywomen who don’t fit neatly into one of your two reductionist categories–Margaret Cho and Tina Fey, as others have mentioned, come to mind immediately. Cintra Wilson isn’t as prominent but is probably my favorite author. In fact, I’d venture that most funny chicks out there today don’t fit into one of those two categories; it really feels like you just chose them for convenience and to make a point.

  • http://twitter.com/D__Oliver Danielle Oliver

    Maria Bamford.  Jessica Kirson.  Michelle Buteau.  I’m a huge stand-up fan, and what I’ve noticed is there might be a lot of not-so-funny women, but there are even more unfunny men.  There are just more male stand up comedians.  The real issue here is why it’s a lot easier for us to deal with an unfunny man onstage.  For some reason, it’s a lot harder and obnoxious for us to watch a woman bomb.  Our conclusions are, “Crap, women aren’t funny,” vs. “Crap, this guy is bombing.”  If you’re letting Sarah Silverman represent women, you might as well let Drew Carey represent men.  They both blow.  I’ll take Maria Bamford live or a Marc Maron podcast any day.

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    While I don’t share your outlook and I absolutely hated the piece you wrote about Slutwalk, I can respect that you’re able to present your point of view in a way that I can read and appreciate.

    Like that Hall quote about Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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