Film & Television

Funny Girls: Stand-Up Comedy
with a Focus on the Female

Seventeen years before he died, the late comedian Jerry Lewis made an unfortunate comment about his female peers. “A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”

Yikes.

First of all, this was the year 2000. (Not 1955, 2000!) Second, he had been asked specifically about Lucille Ball. Apparently, Lewis had missed I Love Lucy’s chocolate wrapping sequence, her attempts at wine-making, and her impromptu duet with Harpo Marx. It should also be noted that Ball, who by many counts is still recognized as the funniest person in television history, made us laugh and brought two babies into the world.

In 2007, writer Christopher Hitchens published an essay in Vanity Fair entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” His thesis, which I am greatly simplifying here, is that women are attracted to men who are funny. Therefore, men are rewarded for being funny. Men, however, are not attracted to (and may even be intimidated by) women who are funny. Therefore, women lack the incentive.

Happily, there are dozens of talented comediennes who didn’t get the memo. And six of them have one-hour stand-up specials on Netflix right now. They range from friendly to angry to bemused to downright crude. Let’s start with the kinder, gentler variety: Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable.

The premise is funny in itself. DeGeneres, after a 15-year break from stand-up, wants to go back to it (despite wife Portia de Rossi’s concern that Ellen has too much on her plate already). But a friend is concerned that she, as a superstar daytime host and world-recognized brand, is no longer “relatable.” Ellen spends the first ten minute or so of her set trying to dispel this perception. She thinks about it as her butler serves her breakfast and draws her a bath; as her gardener prunes rare flowers for her; as she comes down the escalator to find her hopelessly lost friend. (“How many times have I shown you the front door? It’s down the hall, past the Medal of Freedom, past the Emmys, past the People’s Choice Awards, past the Kids’ Choice Awards, past the Teens’ Choice Awards, the Mark Twain Prize, the Peabody, take a left at the gift shop and that is the front door.”) Her stories quickly become more relatable as she finds humor in the everyday (driving, dancing, podiatry) and the extraordinary (a three-hour hike, knee-deep in mud, up a mountain in Rwanda to reach the gorilla preserve de Rossi gave her for her birthday). She talks about coming out on her sitcom Ellen (1994-1998) and the public’s reaction to it (friend/audience member Laura Dern didn’t get work for two years after playing Ellen’s love interest). But, despite challenges, DeGeneres ends her show with a message that we are more alike than different and that we need to be kind to each other.

Australian comedienne Hannah Gadsby, in her Netfilx special Nanette, also talks about coming out. She faced different challenges growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was against the law until 1997. As a young adult, she had to move to mainland Australia if she wanted to pursue life as a lesbian. She felt out of place there too. “Where are the quiet lesbians?” she wondered, admitting that her favorite sound was “a teacup finding its place on a saucer,” and that she didn’t identify so much as a “gender” as she did as “tired.” She relays humorous anecdotes and a few jabs at the status quo: “I wouldn’t be a straight white man if you paid me — although the pay would be substantially better.” But, about two-thirds of the way through her set, Gadsby gets serious, explaining that it’s “dangerous to be different.” She admits, emotionally but with strength and resolution, that she was molested as a child, raped as an adult, and severely beaten at a bus stop while no one intervened or called for help. Expecting an hour of comedy, I was a bit surprised when the show turned into a TED Talk. But her compelling history and impassioned delivery stay with you as she warns that “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has put herself back together.”

The brilliant Wanda Sykes also talks about life as a lesbian in her special Not Normal. But Sykes focuses on her home life — raising two children with her French wife — and the cultural differences between a black woman raised in the U.S. and a white woman raised in France. However, before we’re invited into tales of Vicks VapoRub and menopause (she’s nicknamed her newfound muffin top “Esther”), Sykes digs into all the ways that the current political situation is “not normal.” A brilliant writer, she also brings a sharply accurate physicality to her set, whether she’s demonstrating how President Trump doesn’t know what to do with his hands when he’s on camera or pretending to be the mall cop on a Segway that should replace the Secret Service detail assigned to Tiffany Trump. (“Who cares about Tiffany Trump?” she challenges. “Trump doesn’t even care about Tiffany Trump.”) She has plenty to say about reality TV as well. “I respect strippers more than the women on The Bachelor,” she announces before launching into a hysterical reenactment of an aspiring bachelorette at the rose ceremony.

In Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust, the comedienne also has quite a lot to say about feminism, reproductive rights, and how little girls are raised. “We give little girls Barbie dolls so they can aspire to something unattainable and then want to kill themselves.” Older now, and having survived a health scare (which she relays in hilarious detail), Silverman is less edgy than she once was, but just as smart. She talks about her upbringing, which included years of summer camp (an exercise in humiliation for someone who was a perpetual bed-wetter into her teens), daycare with nuns (who lived to hit you for virtually any and all offenses), and lots of “latent realizations.” She demonstrates the absurdities of show business and includes her audience in casual questions and answers, as well as one particularly raunchy stunt that left her poor volunteer (a man who had raised his hand when she asked who believed in God) a bit rattled. The wonder of it all is that even as she punctuates the routine with dirtier bits, she is always charming.

The last two comediennes are less concerned about charm and place far more emphasis on the raunch and the dirty. Both Amy Schumer Growing and Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife disprove Lewis’s point that women can’t be funny because they’re supposed to be producing babies. Both women are very pregnant and happy to point out the discomforts and absurdities that come with that condition. Schumer, who, when not in the family way, is larger than most women in Hollywood (which, of course, means that she is an average-sized, normal, healthy woman), jokes about needing to eat all the time. When she went to Washington to protest Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation (or as she puts it, “to get arrested”), she was so terrified that there would be no food in prison that she frantically binged on junk food during the protest. Pregnancy’s not all bad though, she assures us, because you get a break from your period. What follows is a very funny and very feminist take on menstruation. For a girl, she points out, nothing is quite as mortifying. “‘You’re a woman now,’ your mother tells you. Then hisses, ‘It’s disgusting; don’t ever let anyone know about it.'”

Wong is expecting her second child, so a good part of her set involves all of the surprises she faced with the arrival of her first. She wanted to be a “stay at home mom,” but quickly realized that she really wanted only the “stay at home part.” She’s pissed that no one told her what it would really be like (and, be warned, she stays pissed — funny, but pissed — for the entire hour). Her challenges with breastfeeding are graphically described (with some images you may find hard to forget). She advocates for three years of maternity leave, not to give mothers time to bond with their babies, but “because they need to hide and heal their demolished bodies!” 

Perhaps her most telling remark? “‘How do you balance family and career?’ Men never get asked that question. You know why? Because they don’t!”

 

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