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WOMEN IN AN EXPANDING COMEDY SCENE
by Raina Lipsitz
From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
COMEDY has become for the millennial generation what rock and roll was for baby boomers — the fantasy career option. Thousands of people pay upwards of $50 a class for improvisational and sketch comedy classes (organizations such as New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade require eight-class courses, meaning each student pays at least $400). Netflix, Amazon, Comedy Central, and other networks have greatly expanded their comedy programming, with shows that have attracted huge followings, and top-rung comedians are paid millions for stand-up specials. Before 2007, only three comedians — Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, and Andrew Dice Clay — had ever sold out Madison Square Garden. Since 2007, the number of comedians on that list has more than doubled to include Chris Rock, Russell Peters, Dane Cook, Kevin Hart, Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, and Amy Schumer, the first woman comic ever to sell out a show at the Garden. In 2017, more female comedians are household names than ever before.
In major cities with large and growing comedy scenes (Boston, D.C., and San Francisco, as well as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles), live comedy is a popular form of recreation for 20- and 30-somethings. I can testify to that: Since moving to New York after college in 2004, I’ve seen the following comedians live: Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock, Hannibal Buress, Mike Birbiglia, Maria Bamford, Michelle Wolf, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman, Sasheer Zamata, Eugene Mirman, Todd Barry, Maeve Higgins, and dozens of performers whose names are less widely known.
It’s telling that only three of the eighteen comedians listed above are non-Jewish white men. Unlike the rock star fantasies of the baby boomers, the aspiration to take to the stand-up mic applies to women as well as men. Many of today’s biggest comedy stars are women — and many of those women are Jewish, non-white, or both, including Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), Julie Klausner (Difficult People), Jenny Slate (Marcel The Shell, Obvious Child), Iliza Schlesinger, Rachel Feinstein, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (Two Dope Queens), and Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live. Lena Dunham, the star and creator of HBO’s comedy-drama Girls, has a Jewish mother and identifies as “very culturally Jewish.” Comedian Maya Rudolph (SNL, Bridesmaids) has a black mother and a Jewish father; Rashida Jones (The Office) has a black father and a Jewish mother; Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has an Italian-American father and a Jewish mother (and is married to Jordan Peele, one of the most successful comedians of their generation).
WHAT ACCOUNTS for this new diversity in comedy? While many comedians still come up through institutions established in the 1970s, like SNL, there are now more platforms than ever (YouTube, podcasts, comedy clubs, web series, etc.) from which to cultivate a following and launch a career, and many comedians are building their own vehicles to success.
Mindy Kaling (whose parents are from India) and Amy Poehler have long encouraged those seeking to enter comedy to write their own material; Kaling herself first gained national attention by writing and starring in a play about Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (she played Affleck). Instead of sweating over sketches that may never make it to air, as comedians on the early seasons of SNL did, or waiting around to be cast in sitcoms, as many comedians of the 1990s did — with the notable exception of Roseanne Barr, who created and starred in Roseanne, one of the most popular American sitcoms ever made — women today are creating original characters and writing, running, and starring in their own sketch shows and web series, some of which, like Glazer’s and Jacobson’s Broad City, have evolved into hit network television shows.
There’s a clear connection between being an outspoken woman and succeeding in comedy. There also seems to be a connection, especially in women, between those traits and being Jewish. When I was 22, my boss, an Arkansas native in her late fifties, asked me why so many feminist organizations are headed by Jewish women: “Are you all just raised to be more assertive?”
I was more amused than offended, and I’ve thought about her question often since. Jewish women outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy have always struck me as less inhibited, socially and sexually, than many non-Jewish women. We tend to ask why, to use our voices, to challenge authority. A 2005 study issued by the American Jewish Committee suggested that American Jews are significantly more likely to emphasize to their children the importance of “thinking for oneself.” Comedy involves just that, questioning aspects of life and human interaction that most of us take for granted, and being funny depends, in part, on having an original perspective.
Since we’re used to thinking of the straight, white, male perspective as universal, outsiders and “minorities” such as women, blacks, gays, and Jews often have unexpected insights and a healthy skepticism toward the status quo. Racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry also teach women, Jews, and other minorities to cultivate humor as both shield and sword; to turn insults into punch lines and shred detractors with wit. As Sarah Silverman’s mother told the New Yorker in 2005, “We were a family that would talk back to the television . . . We would question everything. [Sarah] learned that it was okay to make fun of what seems to be ridiculous.”
IN THE 1990s, TV and movie producers asked comedians Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites) and Margaret Cho (All-American Girl), neither of whom was seriously overweight, to slim down. Garofalo gave an interview to Vulture in 2010 in which she described her ongoing struggle to find work (she was 45 at the time). “You’ve said actresses don’t need to lose weight, but then you lost a ton of weight,” said the interviewer. “I didn’t say actresses don’t need to lose weight,” replied Garofalo. “Obviously, they shouldn’t have to . . . but I sold out . . . I was usually cast as a person . . . so unattractive, that it defines them. And you get sick of it after a while . . . ” When Cho landed a sitcom, she was pressured to lose weight so quickly and unhealthily that she went into renal failure.
Today’s women comedians are still subjected to exacting physical standards and brutal looks- and gender-based harassment, much of it on-line. SNL cast member Leslie Jones was attacked online throughout 2016 by racist, misogynistic hackers and trolls, essentially for being a successful black woman who landed a part in the remake of Ghostbusters. Yet our culture seems to be evolving: Jones also received a massive outpouring of public support, including from figures as influential as Hillary Clinton. In 2017, women comedians are more resistant to misogyny, racism, and body- and slut-shaming than their ’90s counterparts. As Amy Schumer’s character declares in a skit on the second season of Inside Amy Schumer, “This slut is not ashamed.”
Both she and Mindy Kaling acknowledge the grim realities of show business and the pressure they’re under to look a certain way, but neither has gone into renal failure to lose weight. Schumer and Kaling project a difficult-to-shake confidence, and their comfort in their own skin is palpable. Whereas Garofalo was cast as the plain Jane in a string of 1990s romantic comedies, Schumer recently starred as the romantic lead in a movie she wrote (Trainwreck). And whereas Cho was bullied and insulted by the producers of her short-lived sitcom, Kaling is a respected showrunner with a great deal of creative control.
Long trivialized or dismissed as self-indulgent, unfunny, private, and hard to relate to, women’s experiences have proven to be fertile comedic ground. What was once simply humiliating has become, in the right hands, a source of humor and power — including even gender-based violence. Many of Amy Schumer’s funniest and most popular skits lampoon American misogyny. In “Madame President,” she plays the nation’s first woman president, whose first day on the job is derailed by menstruation. “I can’t be the president, cause I got my per-i-od!” she whines.
Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette starred in Schumer’s skit, “Last Fuckable Day,” which mocks Hollywood’s brutal dismissal of actresses over 35. “Football Town Nights,” a parody of the show Friday Night Lights, drew a connection between football and rape culture (“Football isn’t about rape! It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want!”). Inside Amy Schumer has also featured skits about rape in the military and women’s restricted access to health care, including birth control.
Though less overtly political than Schumer’s show, Broad City aired an episode in which Abbi and Ilana meet Hillary Clinton when Ilana volunteers for Clinton’s presidential campaign. In another episode, Ilana and Abbi refer to themselves as “feminist heroes”—a joke in the context of the episode, and a description regularly applied to the two women in real life. A few years ago, I saw them interviewed at a New Yorker event. During the Q&A, young female fans breathlessly prefaced their questions by declaring Glazer and Jacobson “feminist heroes,” “inspirations,” and “geniuses.”
ONE OF the most striking things about these women and their shows is that men love them, too. Inside Amy Schumer attracted a 1:1 male/female ratio throughout its first season. Broad City has been a huge hit with millennials, including the coveted TV demographic of 18- to 34-year-old men. Perhaps men in that age bracket are more progressive about gender in part because they’re being influenced by a new generation of female comedians, many of whom are self-proclaimed feminists, and a new era of explicitly feminist comedy.
Aspects of women’s lives once seen as off-limits are now being openly, and sometimes graphically, addressed. Michaela Coel, a Londoner born to Ghanaian parents, created and stars in Chewing Gum, a weird, brilliant British TV comedy now streaming on Netflix. In one episode, viewers see a close-up of a menstrual bloodstain that Coel’s character, Tracey, has left on her friend’s bedsheet. This isn’t mere gross-out humor, although it’s both funny and gross. It’s a way of normalizing women’s bodies and lives, of bringing their experiences into the mainstream. No less prominent a figure than Chelsea Clinton recently wrote about how the stigmatizing of menstruation and breastfeeding impedes women’s access to education and economic advancement, especially in jails and homeless shelters in the United States, where tampons are unavailable or severely rationed, and in parts of Africa, where girls miss school during their periods due to lack of access to sanitary napkins. Coel’s unabashed portrayal of menstruation as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life, rather than a dirty, shameful secret, helps humanize women.
The same can be said about the sexual frankness of this generation of women comedians. Another up-and-coming comic actress, London-born Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is the star and creator of the British sitcoms Crashing and Fleabag. Her protagonists are casually, explicitly, compulsively, and sometimes exuberantly sexual. So, too, are American comedians like Mo’Nique, who told a long, dirty joke in Queens of Comedy (2001), and Sarah Silverman, who regularly jokes about sex, and Amy Schumer, who frequently jokes about the sexual insecurities and misadventures of straight, single women.
Broad City’s Glazer and Jacobson discuss sex with almost alien candor and freedom. Though Jacobson’s character, Abbi, is more reserved and more easily embarrassed, neither is ashamed of her sexual behavior, no matter how outré it is. Glazer’s character, Ilana, sleeps with men and women; engages in elaborate, masturbatory rituals involving Internet porn and photos of Abbi; declares herself a “Vulvarine” and refuses to label her sexual relationship with a man; encourages her male partner to have sex with other women; suggests that she’d like to have sex with Abbi; and video-chats with Abbi while having sex with her male partner. For her part, Abbi “pegs” (penetrates with a strap-on dildo) a man she is casually dating and pees out a condom in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant. (Okay, so she’s a little ashamed of that last one: “I’m disgusting,” she tells Ilana, who reassures her, loyally if unconvincingly, that “It happens to everybody.”)
That women today are allowed and even encouraged to be fully, messily human in their comedy both reflects and drives our constantly evolving gender politics. Sarah Silverman was an early pioneer of sexual comedy as liberation. Her act has always been a deeply idiosyncratic, stylized form of self-expression, but it’s also been more broadly liberating for women. Comedians like Silverman and younger performers like Glazer and Jacobson have blown open space for women comics to be seen as complex, category-resistant individuals, who can simultaneously be playful, powerful, sharp, raunchy, threatening, charming, sweet, sexy, dirty, and dark.
This complexity is often mistaken for ersatz masculinity. When comedian Mo Rocca interviewed Schumer about Trainwreck, he asked, “Your character is behaving in a way that we expect guys to behave. Is that intentional?” Schumer didn’t miss a beat. “No, that’s never occurred to me,” she said. “It’s not a role reversal in my mind. Girls have this reputation for . . . being crazy [in romantic relationships] . . . And I don’t know any girls like that, actually.” She reiterated this sentiment in a recent HBO special: “I don’t know any girls [who don’t like sex]. Every girl I know likes having sex . . . I love having sex. Not a weird amount — like a normal person. You’re made to feel really weird and disgusting if you’re a girl who likes to have sex.”
Similarly, in a 2015 New York magazine interview, Glazer said she doesn’t see her show’s profanity and nudity as excessive: “A lot of it feels more casual when we’re writing it than people take it as . . . [S]ome of it has to do with being young women and having agency over our behavior and words.” When the interviewer pressed the point, insisting that Broad City characters are “pretty horny,” Glazer replied, “Aren’t all people horny?”
People, yes; women, not so much, at least as commonly understood and depicted in pop culture. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, when women act like women, they are accused of being inferior; when they act like human beings, they are accused of behaving like men. Of 2011’s Bridesmaids, the uproarious female buddy pic starring Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, critic Roger Ebert wrote that it “proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, over-drinking and insecurity.” Unlike a Variety critic who once wrote that Sarah Silverman “limited herself” by being “determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the boys,” Ebert, to his credit, seems to have enjoyed watching funny women embrace their humanity. But earthy women still unsettle people, especially male critics.
TODAY’S FEMALE COMEDIANS aren’t trying to break into the boys’ club, they’re simply representing women in public as we have always been in private. Jewish comedians, similarly, aren’t trying to fit in with the dominant culture so much as embracing the uniqueness of their own.
Broad City is a paean to young womanhood, female friendship, and Jewishness, including Jewish looks: Abbi’s round, oft-complimented ass; Ilana’s untamable hair and prominent nose. (The show even nods at differences among Jews; “She’s a high-class, WASP-y Jew,” Long Island-raised Ilana teases Abbi, mimicking Katharine Hepburn’s mid-Atlantic drawl, “a Philadelphia queen from down the Main Line.”) Abbi and Ilana regularly engage in Jewish rituals (fasting for Yom Kippur, sitting shiva for Ilana’s grandmother, going on Birthright). They adore themselves, and each other, in all their gloriously specific eccentricity — and viewers adore them.
It’s still a welcome shock to see women who love themselves, whether or not they are loved by men or approved of by society. Tina Fey related the following anecdote about Amy Poehler in her 2011 memoir, Bossypants. Poehler, then a new SNL cast member, told a vulgar joke that Jimmy Fallon didn’t like. “‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it,’” said Fallon. Poehler, Fey writes, “went black in the eyes,” wheeled around, and declared, “‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’” Today’s funny women may want you to consume their comedy, but they don’t need your approval. That’s good for comedy, and society.
Raina Lipsitz writes about gender, politics, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic.com, Bustle, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Mic, The Outline, and Salon.