Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


| summer 2004

Women’s Humor IS Different…
We’re smart, wicked, brave and not afraid to be bitchy

Tina Fey, SNL writer and "Weekend Update"
co-anchor with Jimmy Fallon / NBC photo by Mary Ellen Matthews

When I was a teenager, tooling the cul de sacs of suburban Chicago smoking pot in a parental Buick, I had a girlfriend who would literally wet her pants, she laughed so hard. The fact that she wet her pants was so gross it made us laugh even harder.

That brand of lost-control laughter is pretty hard to come by these days.

It remains the standard.

The funniest women I know now are wicked funny. I don’t even want to know what they say about me from within the discreet confines of the giggling circles when I’m not around, because we have not yet spared anyone we know. One of the finest compliments I ever received was from a man who, hearing us in action, called us “the blister sisters.”

The other night we were together — three women at a dinner party, off in a corner, wiping away tears of hilarity. My friend had just gotten engaged and simultaneously been informed by her doctor that she had a mysterious lump in her abdomen that needed a CT scan pronto.

You just found love and you’re dying! How very Brontë, we screamed. With the fiancé a distant shade across the table from us, the possibly doomed heroine whispered to an unmarried friend that she would be happy to bequeath her a readymade fiancé if the tumor turned out be malignant, in a will that included all relevant operating instructions.

Later, her fiancé asked her what she’d been “cackling about.”

I’ve had my best grown-up laughs with women who don’t get up on stage and tell one-liners. A sample from the annals of our amusement: A few years ago, we were at a fancy VIP Washington dinner. Cameras were trained on the red carpet and we had to pass through metal detectors to get inside. Federal officials — so world-famous that goatherds in Zambia would have recognized them — swanned around in full mufti, trailing security guards with ear-wires.

I had filled my beaded purse with a half-dozen tiny, plastic water-spitting frogs, table favors to keep the rubberchicken speech tedium at bay.

We soon found that with no practice at all, the frogs could squirt water with great accuracy up to 10 feet, held discreetly inside a palm. After a few glasses of wine, one of us proposed a fine game. Squirt a fellow nobody and get one point. Squirt a talking head like George Stephanopoulos or Bob Novak and get two points. Hit a national official with armed security detail and get five points.

Someone took aim and actually hit Janet Reno with a stream of water. The attorney general of the United States wiped her brow, perhaps blaming the paparazzi’s flashbulbs. Another splatted a direct hit onto Donald Trump’s head. The tycoon actually looked around and muttered, “I expect to get spit on in New York , but not here!”

Is this the way other professional adult females get their ha-has? I don’t know. For us, risky laughter is the best kind. I wish I could say I’ve had lots of laughs like these in my life. When I’m on my deathbed, I know I’ll wish I’d had more.

Janeane Garofalo sees no difference between male and female humor. “Funny transcends gender,” she says. “The best comics regardless of gender are more detail oriented, good social critics and can laugh at themselves. And hacks are unfunny in the same way.”

Comedian Kate Clinton sees a definite difference. “I am an essentialist. Male humor is very set-up, release. Setup, release. Women’s humor is more circular, narrative, not the punch line, more kind of interestingly connecting the dots.”

Male humor, on the other hand, seems routinely more offensive than women’s, says comedian Kathy Najimy: “The thing about comedy clubs is that’s easy comedy. What’s difficult is being funny without being politically incorrect, to make me laugh NOT at the expense of someone else. I’m not saying I never did that, but we make a point not to make fun of a particular person. ‘Look at that gay guy, he’s so gay.’ It’s of no quality, and it’s easy.”

Sandra Bernhard is not interested in doing humor based on self-deprecation, which she feels is the common currency for many women in comedy. As long as they put themselves down, they don’t make others too uncomfortable. “I wanted to go deeper than that,” she says.

As far as her feeling constrained in comedy by being a female, she says, “Of course any of us in the ‘minority’ groups — when you’re not a white male — will feel constrained in this business.”

Growing up, Bernhard admired the work of Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler. The changes she’s seen in the years she’s been working? “There are more women comedy writers. More women have control over their own work, at least content-wise.”

But why are so few women allowed positions to do humorous social commentary, such as Jon Stewart or Bill Maher or Dennis Miller? “I think it’s the last gasp of the white male, the patriarchy that excludes us. They are digging their heels in harder than ever.”

Comedian Carol Leif says that comedy clubs too are more traditional in terms of gender roles. Leif also says that the audience members are more blatantly sexist. She frequently hears audience members say, “Hey, I normally don’t think women are funny, but you really are.”

“It seems that comedy is one of the last places where it’s OK to say things like that,” Leif says.

In TV sketch comedy, women “were almost accused of having a victim ‘agenda’ if they brought out scenes that addressed sexism,” says Julia Sweeney, who is most recognizable for her “Pat” character on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Lorne [Michaels] and the writers were sensitive about not being perceived to be sending any ‘messages,’ and that sensitivity also applied to race. Of course, if men, the white men, had a point to make, of course, it was ignored that they might have an agenda, or a message, too.”

It is probably no accident that the most successful female writer on “Saturday Night Live” today, Tina Fey, is a self-described “Mean Girl” (the name of her movie too) who found her talent as a teenager spewing ridicule at people she deemed to be losers in her high school.

Fey, the first woman to hold the title of head writer at “SNL,” also is one of the rare women succeeding in professional comedy today. Fey isn’t afraid to go to town on subjects traditionally not female-funny, including the holy subject of motherhood and the unholy subject of rape.

“My mom had me when she was 40,” Fey said once on “Weekend Update.” “This was back in the ’70s, when the only ‘fertility aid’ was Harveys Bristol Cream. So waiting is just a risk that I’m gonna have to take. And I don’t think I could do fertility drugs, because, to me, six half-pound translucent babies is not a miracle — it’s gross.”

The best women comics often have that kind of bitchy edge. Joan Rivers, 71, is enjoying a career renaissance playing to a young generation weekly in New York . Roseanne Barr was bitchy, gross and successful on the air from 1988 through 1997, and Marcy Carsey, one of the creators of “Roseanne,” knew just how to get the show on the air after the honchos at Capital Cities balked.

“We totally understood their qualms, because at the time nobody much knew who Roseanne was, and the type of humor she brought to the pilot was very different from the usual allowable attitudes of mothers on sitcoms. We thought that was what would make the show a hit. So we suggested they take the pilot home to show their wives, not because a woman’s sense of humor is so different, but because her life experiences often are.

"Roseanne expressed the frustrations, exasperations and total impossibility of how women were — and still are — living their lives today. I wouldn’t say women have a very different sense of humor, but I would say their experiences, their ideas of what’s most important in life [character, relationships, family, balance, etc.] color what they’re attracted to in comedy.”

Other women have succeeded on television with milder forms of comedy. Mean is not a prerequisite. Brett Butler, Cybill Shepherd, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball and Ellen DeGeneres had a different way of amusing us.

Humor can rescue and agitate. I never was the class clown, much as I like to make my friends laugh, but I did once manage to deliver a well-phrased zinger that got my name into a Jay Leno routine, and also the joke history books. I was, during some of the Clinton years, the White House correspondent for Time magazine.

In fun, I said the following sentence to Howard Kurtz, one of The Washington Post’s stuffiest shirts: “I’d be happy to give the president a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.”

It was even more fun to hear the blister sisters’ gasping laughter on the phone the morning they read that quote in the newspaper. It wasn’t until later — after a significant number of my more career-minded peers expressed their horror, and after my name and the word “blow job” were forever intertwined on Google — that I realized what a taboo I’d violated. Men take blow jobs a lot more seriously than women.

The phrase sounds funny and brings to mind images that are highly amusing. Men realize their penises are ridiculous too, but while they joke about them, they take them very seriously indeed. Men laugh harder at masturbation jokes than we do, but notice their unease if a woman tells a small-penis joke. In this man’s world, at least half the population won’t find anything funny in such an offer made in jest.

Which brings me to the true core of female humor, perfectly expressed by Lucille Ball, a gorgeous gal who wasn’t afraid to look silly. Near the end of her life, she told an audience at the Kennedy Center : “I’m not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The situations were funny. But I am not funny. What I am is brave.”

Nina Burleigh’s most recent book is The Stranger and The Statesman (William Morrow, 2003).

Also from the Summer 2004 issue, "What's So Funny" by Gina Barreca on women's use of humor, and an interview with Wanda Sykes.