Despite the fact that Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Tracey Ullman, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and a boatload of other people with two X chromosomes have been making us laugh for decades, it is still considered valid to argue that women aren’t funny. “Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about,” pondered the late, revered intellectual Christopher Hitchens in revered publication Vanity Fair not so long ago in 2007.
Fittingly, at Caroline’s on Broadway—a legendary New York comedy venue run by Caroline Hirsch—a group of hilarious women gathered Thursday night to prove to people like Hitchens, Patrice O’Neal, Artie Lange and unfortunately many others that having a vagina doesn’t render you humorless. In addition to Carolines on Broadway, the panel was organized by NYWIFT and the New York Comedy Festival. Lea DeLaria (better known as Big Boo to OITNB fans), Louie executive producer Blair Breard, Emmy-award winning Judy Gold, and Chappelle Show veteran comedian Marina Franklin all spoke at “Women Aren’t Funny: Debunking the Myth” in a panel hosted by stand-up comedian Bonnie McFarlane, who recently made a documentary of the same name.
The panel was thoughtful and hilarious, just as one would expect when you bring together smart people who have devoted decades to making us laugh. In a world post-Bridesmaids, OITNB, Girls, and The Mindy Project, the mood was high with lots to celebrate. As an unexpected bonus, Gold flashed the audience and DeLaria, fresh off her viral shoutdown of a homophobic subway preacher, crooned old jazz standards. Hell, DeLaria and Breard even created a new expression, insisting “balls” be replaced by “labia” as a sign of female bravery. Nothing was not fun about this panel.
Still, there was initially something uneasy about the premise of “Women Aren’t Funny.” Sometimes, a belief is so ludicrous that it isn’t worth formally dignifying. But the problem of women comedians not being recognized as just comedians is still pervasive, even in the age of Fey, Poehler, and Mindy Kaling ruling television. “The biggest change will be when we don’t have to have a panel like this,” Gold said early on in the discussion, and it rang uncomfortably true to the audience that was mostly women. Male faces in the audience were few and far between in the packed crowd as far as I could tell, suggesting that there was unfortunately still a need for this panel to exist.
Then again, the absence of men wouldn’t have bothered the panelists. One of the major points was: who cares if men think you’re funny? “We make up over 50 percent of the population. I don’t give a fuck if men think I’m funny. I think I’m funny,” said Breard. “I want content for me. Women think we’re funny. Women control money. Let’s create content for ourselves.”
Not that the panel was one giant bashing of the male-dominated comedy world. All the women universally praised Louie C.K. The “Fat Girls” monologue on the most recent season of Louie is one of the many examples of the incisive, enlightening views on women and gender double standards on display in his work. “He’s a true feminist. He was like that in the clubs,” recalled Gold.
In fact, Breard crediting him with giving her the break the women she worked for never had. “I have had horrible experiences working for other women. It breaks my heart that I had to work producing a male comic’s TV show to get the respect and support I have never gotten from another woman,” she said. “It took a man, sadly, to give me the space and power to do that.”
Breard’s comment led to a longer, and perhaps more painful, dialogue about how women also bear the blame. “I think part of the problem is that women don’t believe in women,” said Franklin, noting that she sees aspiring female comedians at clubs go up to men before they ever talk to the women who take the stage.
Moreover, women themselves are hardly unified on the comedy front (not that they should have to be—no one would expect all men to find all male comedians universally hilarious). DeLaria recalled how she performed at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights shortly after Bill Clinton had signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She made a joke about Hillary Clinton, saying “Finally, we have a First Lady you could fuck,” and was slammed with feminist backlash. “To this day, it follows me. Many feminists tell me it’s sexist,” she said. It doesn’t bother her. “To them, I say ‘You’d look prettier if you wore a little makeup.’”
And while there was tremendous encouragement, there also wasn’t excessive sympathy for up-and-coming female comedians. When a female comedian in the audience asked a question about the panel that seemed to be more phrased as a complaint about how her career was going, there was little coddling. “It’s all about doing the work,” Gold told her. “I don’t say no to much. Just write and stop wallowing. Do the work and stop complaining. I don’t care if you’re performing in the goddamn bathroom.”
However, Gold put the onus on herself and other more established women. “Guys help each other. Ray Romano—his friends have jobs. They’re set for life. We have to help each other and have a sisterhood and not be jealous.”
The willingness to have openly critical, simultaneously harsh and supportive conversations about being a woman in comedy was brave and refreshing. To have this conflicted dialogue about female comedians when people still charge that women are inherently unfunny, you have to have major balls… or, rather, labias.