A Tribute to Funny Women

This is a response to a recent guest post on Steed, “Why Aren’t Women Funny?” by Rachel Flehinger. I would like to note at the outset that Alex Steed is one of my favorite BDN bloggers and, while I disagree with many things about the post, I have nothing but respect for Alex and his guest author. It is precisely because I hold Alex in such high esteem that I felt the need to put my concerns on paper. It often feels more productive to bridge a gap with an ally, if only because the shorter distance is more readily traversable.

“Women just aren’t as funny as men.” It’s a statement that I’ve heard over and over throughout the years and have always been baffled by. For one thing, it runs unbelievably contrary to my personal experience. When I think about the funniest people I know and the times I’ve laughed the hardest, a rush of women flood my mind.

I think of my best friend in middle school, Alisia, with whom I exchanged countless jokes every day, and even while I was in the throes of adolescent depression who could always make me laugh until my sides hurt and I was clapping my hands, throwing my head back, wiping tears from my eyes. (A highlight in my memory is the day that we bought a pack of little girls’ barrettes and she calmly, without saying a word, clipped them all over her head like they were hair curlers). I think of one of my favorite comedy writers, Mallory Ortberg, whose pieces such as “Early Pregnancy Symptoms” and “A Day In the Life of an Empowered Female Heroine” are so uproariously funny that I can’t read one out loud without devolving into a fit of giggles that prevents me from continuing to speak. I think of my friend Kate, upon learning about the existence of spaghetti squash, immediately interrupting me to say that she was picturing a hollowed out gourd filled with spaghetti and meatballs and that it sounded delicious. I think of my daughter, who is only three years old, changing the lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Farmer” or insisting on calling me “Grandpa”, deadpanning for as long as she can before bursting into laughter. On the more famous end, I think of how Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Academy Awards and spent her monologue segments vacuuming in the aisles and having pizza delivered.

Here’s the thing: if you asked me to fill an entire post with hundreds (or thousands or maybe millions!) of times that I’ve laughed unreservedly, with my whole body, at the comedy of other women, I could do it. But I don’t want to belabor the point. Flehinger does admit that some (though I’m guessing the implication is not most?) women are funny.

This is where Flehinger and I differ: while I think that the assertion “women are unfunny” is absurd and groundless, she sees an ever-so-small grain of truth in it. She writes:

…Funny isn’t care taking, it isn’t polite, it isn’t tied up in a neat package that makes it easier for you to palate. You know, all those things we women are supposed to do whenever we do anything. Comedy is blunt, it’s bold, and it doesn’t apologize…

Or in other words, the way we are socialized to play nice and be demure and defer to the needs of others interferes with our ability to funny. She sets up something that we know to be true about the socialization of women, then uses it to bolster an untrue – and fairly sexist – generalization. It rests on the premise that one style of comedy is more legitimate than the others and that to be truly funny, you have to be kind of mean (a.k.a. “blunt”) too. You may have noticed that none of the lady-driven comedic moments I cited in the first paragraph were blunt, rude, or careless with the feelings of others.

That’s not to say that none of those funny women have ever said anything that was mean-spirited or received poorly. I’m also not saying that this style of good-natured humor is exclusive to women (obviously, no one was ever hurt by the mostly-male Monty Python gang when they clicked coconut shells together to emulate a horse’s trot in their classic quest for the Holy Grail – a stunt that brought me untold joy when I watched it over and over again as a kid).

What I am saying is that comedy is not an objective pursuit and that burn-humor is just one of the many things that make people laugh. Ellen DeGeneres is just as legitimate of a comedian as someone like, say, Sarah Silverman or Lisa Lampanelli. The latter two have a comedic style that is generally heralded as “masculine” in the mainstream, which both scandalizes those who are concerned with impropriety but also tends to bolster their credibility among some comedy aficionados. DeGeneres, on the other hand, never seems to ignite conversations about whether or not she is “just as funny as a guy” or “funny like a guy”. She makes jokes, some people laugh, some don’t, and that’s okay.

Comedy, like most tastes and preferences, is largely subjective. To that end, I know very few people who are – in a strict and absolute sense – completely unfunny. Almost everyone makes and tells jokes from time to time, even if it is not a professional pursuit. However, even if there are comparable numbers of funny people distributed across all genders, it is an undeniable fact that funny men tend to be more visible and receive more praise for their comedy. Rather than attributing this to an unfortunate reality wherein men just happen to be funnier than everyone else, it is pertinent to examine the role of male privilege in professional and social success.

Men have disproportionate visibility across all media platforms, are less likely to have to choose between parenthood and an on-the-road lifestyle as mutually exclusive options, and are perhaps more likely to use aggressive humor that travels with the grain of oppression rather than against it. You needn’t look far, for example, to find a male comedian who makes jokes at the expense of rape survivors (a category of people who are predominantly women and other gender minorities). Men – especially white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-to-upper class men – are less likely to have personal experience with oppression and therefore less likely to subscribe to the school of thought that great satire should punch up, not down. When the marginalized do wish to punch up, it’s harder to find a platform. This, of course, is endemic of the kyriarchal society we live in.

So, if you find yourself struggling to think of funny women in your life, it may be time to take inventory of your relationships and the media you consume. Women are rarely in the spotlight for their comedic wit, so the best way to gain exposure to funny women is to befriend them. Do the women in your life feel at ease around you? Do you leave air time for them to speak? Do you react defensively if they poke fun at oppressive structures? As far as media is concerned, are you seeking out female comedians and giving them a fair shot? If not, now is a good time to get started. Here are a few more of my favorites if you want a little bit of help:
Kristen Schaal (@kristenschaaled)
Paula Poundstone (@paulapoundstone)
Kristen Wiig
Amy Poehler
Aubrey Plaza (@evilhag)
Tig Notaro
(Who else should be on this list? Let me know your favorites in the comments!)

All of that being said, Flehinger and I definitely have some things in common. I am also a woman charges forward, I make room for my own voice, and I get called a bitch a lot, too. While I love a lot of comedy that is good-natured and clean, I also crack jokes from time to time that critique structures and punch up. I am a mouthy woman, a fact which I never intend to apologize for. I am strongly in favor of women acting from a place of boldness and empowerment. My primary criticism of Flehinger’s piece is that I see endless room for women who are more shy and reserved than I am to be acknowledged for what they are: funny people who crack jokes and bond through shared laughter, even if they don’t have much of an audience. I can’t help but feel that to say otherwise is to remove a little piece of their humanity.

With that in mind, this post is dedicated to funny women everywhere. Even if you’re just sending a silly text to a friend, making a sly aside to a coworker, or exchanging glances-that-say-everything with your sister. Your jokes are awesome and I hope I get to laugh with you someday.

Addendum, 9:12 P.M.: Since this piece originally ran, I was able to have a brief, thoughtful conversation with Rachel Flehinger. She made it clear to me that her assertions were meant to apply primarily to comedic performance (like stand-up and improv), rather than everyday humor. She also is not a proponent of mean comedy, particularly that which comes at the expense of marginalized groups. As an improv teacher, she describes her method as getting her students “out of their comfort zones” and encouraging them to “stop being polite and let it rip!” Her self-described teaching mantra is “fuck it.” While I stand behind my original post, I think that Flehinger has a right to clarify what she feels is in need of clarification. We still have some differences in opinion, but there is no ill will or animosity between us. To hear more on her views on women in comedy, she will be featured on MPBN on April 1st, exact time TBA.

Dani Unterreiner

About Dani Unterreiner

Dani Unterreiner recently graduated with a B.A. in Sociology from University of Southern Maine. She now works in politics and engages in grassroots activism in her spare time. Despite being a mean, scary feminist, she's happily married and the proud mom of a little girl.