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gender studies

Nussbaum: 30 Rock Takes On the ‘Women in Comedy’ Issue

If you, like me, have been following the ongoing debates about women in comedy, last night’s 30 Rock felt like some kind of exploding Rosetta Stone. In the episode, titled “TGS Hates Women,” a feminist website criticizes Liz Lemon for her show’s “woman problem.” The website is plugging a hot young comedian named Abby Flynn (you can read the full text of the "post" on Flynn here), so Liz hires her as a writer — only to discover that Abby is a “sexy baby-hooker,” babbling about lesbian orgies. Liz and Abby argue in front of a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt. But when Liz exposes Abby’s brunette, husky-voiced history as a stand-up comic, Abby gets furious: She’s disguised herself to escape an abusive boyfriend. “You must reallyhate women!” she shouts as she runs out the door.

Like this whole season of 30 Rock, it was a nifty juggling act, keeping contradictory ideas in the air for nearly the whole half-hour, even if the finale felt a little neat. As Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle pointed out, it made direct reference to several real-life online debates. The website Joan of Snark (“Perhaps Correct, Definitely Exhausting”) was a spot-on parody of Jezebel.com, “this really cool feminist website where women talk about how far we've come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies — Ruth Bader Ginsburg!” Joan's post about The Girlie Show mimicked Irin Carmon’s critiques of The Daily Show, which looked skeptically at Jon Stewart's lack of female writers and his decision to hire Olivia Munn. And the episode also seemed to respond to Sady Doyle’s essay about “Liz Lemonism”; to touch on ongoing arguments about Chelsea Handler, Jenny McCarthy and Sarah Silverman; to tip its hat to Fey's recent piece in The New Yorker; and even to psychically predict the recent kerfuffle about female comedians at SXSW. It didn't have anything to do directly with this Molly Lambert piece, but it might as well have linked to it across time and space. The only thing missing was a Christopher Hitchens cameo.

Abby herself resembled Olivia Munn, the sexy co-host of Attack of the Show! hired by The Daily Show last year. In style and looks, she resembled Sarah Silverman, with her ponytails and baby talk and crop tops. But her blond hair and name — Abby Flynn — rang a bell. It sounded much more to me like a reference to a recent hire on Saturday Night Live: Abby Elliott, Chris Elliott’s daughter, who was taken on board shortly after several female cast members were fired (and then landed a second season after another female cast member was fired). I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live recently, so someone else will have to tell me if this was a shot at her, but it sure felt like one. (Here’s Elliott appearing on Letterman.)

But hey, I’m old as the hills, so what came to mind wasn’t actually Munn or Silverman or Elliott — it was Victoria Jackson, the baby-voiced comedienne who appeared during one of the most controversial periods of Saturday Night Live, just after the entire earlier cast got fired in season ten. Jackson has since become a tea party nutjob, but in her early days, she was fascinating. And if I recall correctly from that Saturday Night Live oral history, the other women on the show haaated her. Her act on SNL was filled with contradictions: She mocked her own dumb-blondeness and played it up. She played the ukelele; she did gymnastics; she showed her panties. At the time, she made me incredibly uncomfortable and I didn’t know what the heck to think of her. Sometimes I found her funny. Sometimes she pissed me off.

But watching “TGS Hates Women” sent me down a YouTube hole, where I found these amazing early Jackson clips. Here's her sketch "Victoria's Secrets," which isn't embeddable, and two others. Check 'em out, and then debate, discuss.


Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC