The Surprising Persistence of ‘Women Aren’t Funny’

One of my favorite interactions I’ve ever had as a comic happened when I asked a friend of mine if I could perform at a show he runs. I wrote him, “Hey man, if you’re ever looking for funny ladies, I’d love a spot.” He wrote back, “We never are, but how about next week?” I’m a girl, and I’m a comic, and I believe in things (specifically in gender equality), so it’s pretty easy to give me shit. It’s usually hilarious. But I just read S.E. Shepherd’s essay, “Confessions of a Former Comedy Chauvinist,” and it reminded me how important it is to remember the extremely powerful roots of gender inequality in comedy.

In his piece, Shepherd admits to us that he used to be that jackass who always insisted that women aren’t funny. I know that type of jackass well. I think most of us do. It’s always good to know that there’s one less of them in the world, and I think it’s awesome of Shepherd to come clean, fully honest and repentant about his long-held bias. He explains that he grew up in the era of “bad boy stand-up comics” and the beginnings of the “lovable loser man-child,” a landscape “dominated by loud, doughy, raunchy guys,” and that that explains the formation of his early prejudices. He mourns his previous ignorance, and spends much of the article citing contemporary funny women and insisting how wrong he was to have been so close-minded.

I’ll bet a staggering amount of us have grown out of the exact same mindset as Shepherd. When you think about it, it’s really pretty nuts that the “women aren’t funny” mindset is so powerful that a post like this is even still relevant I applaud Shepherd for admitting how wrong he was and for openly discussing his previously prejudicial mindset. But that idea – that making such a blanket statement about women is just as wrong as making a prejudiced statement about any other group of people – still seems like a novel idea in our culture. I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing Shepherd himself, but rather calling attention to the power of this hateful stereotype. There have, quite literally, always been funny women.

And yet, a man can admit, in 2010, that he used to think that women weren’t funny, and now he realized they are, and it’s something we’re all relieved and happy about. There are few groups of people it’s still okay to make unapologetic, sweeping statements about (Muslims are terrorists), and it seems that women in comedy is one of them. If someone wrote an article today that said, “I used to think that all black people were uneducated, and now I see the error of my ways,” or “It turns out not all gay people love fashion,” people would be like: “No shit. You want a medal?” But to realize, as it turns out, “funny is funny regardless of gender,” it still seems like a bold, powerful, significant statement. And that speaks to the profound strength of that ignorant belief.

The last ten years or so have brought about some very positive changes in the narrative of women in comedy. The Vanity Fair article about Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Sarah Silverman was all about how women are finally getting the recognition they deserve. But it’s important to clarify that the funny women were always there – we were just much less willing to see them. Comedy has always been a man’s (boy’s?) world, but there were some bad-ass, ballsy (for lack of a better term) ladies who clawed their way in, who refused to believe the popular assumption that dismissed an entire gender as incapable of making people laugh. Mae West’s first movie was in 1932 – and before that, she went to goddamn prison on morals charges for writing, directing, and starring in a play called “Sex.” You want a bad boy, that’s a bad boy. Lucille Ball also started working in the 1930s. If you like lovable losers, watch this scene where Lucy tries to fix a shower and nearly drowns herself:

Something I hear a lot as a female comic, and something that Shepherd mentioned too, is disdain for the “women want relationships, men want sex” routine that shitty women comics fall into. I hear you. That stuff is nonsense. But women who tell tired jokes are just bad comics. I’m a feminist and I’m all about sisterhood, but unoriginal female comics aren’t representative of the entire gender any more than the litany of shitty male comics are representative of men. Let’s say, for example, you don’t like Carrot Top. People would think you were out of your mind if you saw him perform and concluded, “Man, I guess men just aren’t funny!” Unless you’re like 95 years old, if you watched comedy growing up there were always smart, raunchy, risk-taking women performing alongside the bad boys. Saturday Night Live is a perfect example– the women of SNL right now are incredible, but so was Gilda Radner. But you may not have known to give women a chance, because “women aren’t funny” has been explicitly and implicitly repeated in the comedy world, over and over, for years and years.

What’s also sad is that boys aren’t the only ones who grew up thinking women could never be as funny as men – girls grew up thinking it too. When I was 14, I auditioned for the high school improv group, and all the older kids told me, “Good luck, but you know about the GCI rule, right?” GCI: Girls Can’t Improv. I got in, and then I got into my college group, and ten years of improv later, I’m currently in an all-female Off-Broadway show that runs weekly that is entirely improvised. For the record, it does quite well for itself, and it’s pretty hilarious. Many of the best improvisers and stand-up comics I know are women.

And that’s the thing – they’ve always been there. And the great part is, once we realize that we must open our minds, there are twice as many people to laugh at. Shepherd learned that we still need to be pushed to question the things we grew up believing. When we step back, we see them for their ignorance or their fear or their hate, plain as day, even when we are not ignorant or fearful or hateful people. To be aware of the stereotypes that, over time, have become obviously awful and wrong to us is so important, but sometimes it’s the ones that aren’t so obvious (Muslims are terrorists, women aren’t funny) that we need to watch out for.

Molly Knefel is a stand-up comic and writer living in Brooklyn. She runs a monthly show called John and Molly Get Along at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village, and writes and stars in a web series of the same name. Her writing, which has been featured on Jezebel, can be found here.

The Surprising Persistence of ‘Women Aren’t Funny’