No question about it: women are as good at stand-up comedy as men. Which is to say that, with a few glorious exceptions, they stink. For we live in the Golden Age of Bad Comedy, an era when, as someone once observed, there are 10 times as many stand-ups as there used to be, but still only about six who are really funny. Comedy has become as common as tuna salad; it's also just as humdrum and even less likely to be helped by adding small bits of celery. Every Holiday Inn, it seems, has a Laff Loft where one can observe A Guy Who Once Opened for Someone Who Did Letterman saying, "Don't you just hate it when your underwear bunches up?" Female comics started arriving on the scene in significant numbers about eight years ago and, like the pioneer women who crossed the Great Plains, they had no. It was tough out there. How tough? So tough that "Wisecracks," a documentary about women comics that opened in New York last week, seems illuminated less by sparks of wit than by flashes of anger.
The message of this movie--shot over the course of three years in comedy clubs in the United States, Canada and Britain-is that women stand-ups have more to overcome than their male counterparts. "They look at you twice," says comic Carrie Snow. "Once to see your tits, and once to see what you do." Society conditions people to believe that females have no sense of humor, says Kim Wayans. Those complaints sound genuine. But director Gail Singer has found a lot of comics who can do feminism but can't do funny. The two things are not mutually exclusive, but if you haven't heard comic Robin Tyler's earnest theory of humor as presented in "Wisecracks"-- well, you simply don't know what it's like to take a tranquilizer dart in the chest.
What the filmmaker, and some of the female comics, seems to miss is that funniness cures all social ills. The women who've developed good material and know how to deliver it don't seem to have the weight of Western Civilization on their shoulders. "My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60," says Ellen DeGeneres. "She's 97 today-and we don't know where the hell she is." DeGeneres's family ran a petting zoo-"and then a heavy petting zoo for people who really liked the animals just a whole lot." Joy Behar's brassiness works wonders even on throwaway lines ("I'm divorced. Hard to believe, isn't it?"); Phyllis Diller is the consummate pro. And Pam Stone tells about a friend who said she'd been hospitalized for "female problems"-"I was like... What do you mean 'female problems'?... You can't parallel park? You can't get credit?" Perhaps the sharpest comic of all, though, was Elayne Boosler, who declined to be in the film, saying that she didn't believe in labeling someone a "woman comic." She's right. Funny and not funny: in comedy, those are the opposite sexes. LEERHSEN