Mind the Gap: A Series on Awkward Women in Comedy

We want to talk about life before Bridesmaids. You might be fatigued from all the talk about women in comedy, from sentences like “women aren’t funny” and “WOMEN AREN’T FUNNY?” or even “this movie won’t make you grow breasts,” (the strangest commendation for an Apatow film yet). We get that, and so we want to take off your glasses, rub your temples, and escort you to other moments in comedy that expose the famous dearth of 3-dimensional ladies, and what happens when they show up anyway (usually in Britain). We’ve been tracking the fucked-up funny women who have managed to flex their dimensions and do what everybody is all excited about Bridesmaids for doing: letting women be as killer, unattractive and interesting as the broad range of men that exist in our media. To start things off, please meet Pulling. It ran on the BBC from 2006 to 2008, and pretty much devastates any standards set by Sex in the City, and certainly makes Bridesmaids look late to the party.

The show centers on Donna, who pulls out of her wedding and moves in with her two best friends. They are all mid-thirties, and have crap adult jobs (PA, teacher, waitress). In the shadow of bachelorette joy and stalled realities, the women are each revealed to be normal (losers), capable of all kinds of self-destruction and angst. And drinking, and navigating the wilds of a mediocre life. One episode opens with Karen (she who brushes her teeth with Heineken) in bed, ashen-faced, drunk enough that she looks dead. Her eyes fly open as she starts gulping air. There’s a dead mouse on her pillow, her face inches away from its head.  In a lost voice, she says “hello?” Then she notices a cat, sitting across the room, purring—a stray that turns out to have a problem with rectal bleeding. And then they kill that cat with a brick.

In short, you need to watch Pulling. It’s on Netflix Instant, it got canceled on the BBC, but dear god, it’s a delight.

Let’s talk it out.

Lili Loofbourow: Hi! PULLING! Such a weird zirconium of a TV show. What is it? How does it work? What do we do with super-bleak humor that features ladies?

Danielle Roderick: We love them! We love them because they expose a grand secret: women actually exist.  They demand that nobody, whatever their gender, get flattened for the sake of plot or prop. In the very first episode here, there is a pregnant woman at a night-club freaking and eventually making out with some random dude. It’s a minor moment, but I take it as a thesis of the show: a demand that women not be flattened to any one function. And now I also know that zirconium is more than an element on the HSN. Thanks.

LL: Oh right! Zirconium is the element. Do I mean zirconia? All I know is, an aunt once complimented my mom on her “lovely zirconia.” Translation: “please confirm that you are too poor to have a diamond that size or I will off myself.” My mom just smiled mysteriously.

DR: See, women are hilarious!

LL: Some theory to mull over: Joel Warner wrote an article for Wired on how scholars are studying comedy and trying to figure out the Funny Formula. The working hypothesis is that humor stems from a “benign violation.” That seems like a decent starting point, but thornier in application.  For instance, when watching Pulling with a guy friend, I turned to him, laughing. He was curled up in a fetal ball on the couch, moaning in discomfort. He lasted exactly one episode, at the end of which he made me promise to never make him watch it again.

DR: The menfolk I watched the show with didn’t react as strongly, but there were lots of moments where I was dying of laughter and they were, well, interested. I know more dudes than not-dudes who hated Hanna, and I wonder if it is for the same reason (though Hanna is in no way a comedy): that it had the feel of a dude movie, but didn’t deliver dude goods. Like, they know they like ice cream, and this looks like ice cream, but it’s fucking strawberry.

LL: See, my initial thought was that it had to do with something slightly different — namely, that we’re used to seeing dudes in abject frat-house hellholes where everybody farts and barfs and gets pink-eye. We’ve learned to understand that as funny, even fun. It isn’t tragic — we might judge them a little, but we don’t want them to get punished or redeemed.

Thanks to a lifetime of Lifetime, though, it’s hard, when we see Karen peeing in a phone booth while she reaches for and starts eating out of a random fast-food container on the floor, not to instantly activate the TRAGIC-WOMAN-ABOUT-TO-HIT-BOTTOM-AND-START-THE-ROAD-TO-RECOVERY narrative.

DR: This makes sense. Like they are seeing warning signs triggering stressy responsibility instead of the luxuries of the deep dark void of black humor (which, by orifices alone, women should be really good at)?


DR: Another reason a guy might have gone fetal with Pulling is because it exposes a scary thing. Some gents might be lovely chaps, pained to see women struggle, but I think Pulling also portrays a reality that a lot of men would rather not think about (especially male comedy writers): again, that women are just as ambivalent about their lives as men are. Every common trope of feminine identity (crazy single girl, heartbroken waif, mother, wife, secretary, manic pixie, stalker) appears in these episodes, and is inverted by the muck of real life.

LL: Oh, this is interesting. Tell me more.

DR: We are so used to the facade of women that is usually written, that to see a real woman (one who brushes her teeth while her boyfriend scrubs his balls, who gives sad morning handjobs, who can barely utter that she does not love her dude but does indeed get it uttered), well, I think it might be terrifying.

Like, remember when the Hairpin posted that picnic of dudes playing music and shooting guns? I thought that was kind of terrifying. Like I was seeing a glimpse into something I never had to see before. Maybe this is like that. And I think it gets scarier when you see, that in those spaces, they are saying things about you that are scary (like, I don’t love you, or, big cocks do matter). The whole “women aren’t funny thing” that always comes up is really about not seeing women as complete individuals. The argument tends to be, “look, I know it’s sexist, but women just aren’t funny, unless they are dude funny.” Which really boils down to “I have no interest in their experience, unless they are talking in the language of my experience.”

LL: Exactly. My beef with the Universal Funny Formula is that humor is never victimless, and what might be a “benign violation” to one person isn’t to another. It sidesteps the question of perspective, which is what we’re trying to recover with this here little series.

DR: Perspective! Yes.

LL: Time for an example from Pulling? I think so!

In Series 2, Donna runs into an old acquaintance who used to be incredibly fashion-forward.

She invites Catherine over for a fancy dinner. Her mission: “I want her to go off thinking ‘Yeah, Donna’s brilliant. More brilliant than me.’” Catherine turns out to be hard-up, depressed, and totally unaware of Donna’s longtime psychic investment. Her life sucks — horrible marriage, energy-sapping kids — and she thinks Donna’s life (or the version of it she sees) is an anything-goes artistic bohemia of sex and meaning. She tries to kiss Donna, desperate to access some of her sparkle.

This should be a revenge-fantasy come true. The awesome girl everyone wanted to be tries to kiss you — that’s how much you’ve WON the Contest of Life. But of course it isn’t. Now, a Saved By the Bell episode would guilt-trip you for feeling good about someone else’s pain. What happens instead is neither guilt-trip nor resolution — it’s the moment in adulthood when revisiting the shiny objects of your over-invested youth and find in them none of the aspiration or reward they once inspired.

Donna, horrified but triumphant, tries to explain how she felt about Catherine’s visit: “It was like her personality had died. She was wearing the exact same thing she was wearing twelve years ago.”

It’s not the clothes. They’re a symbol. It’s about how someone can just switch off to life. The clothes are a metaphor. It’s not about the clothes. Well, she was wearing shit clothes, but what I’m saying is her soul was wearing shit clothes. Her soul was stuck in the 90s. And these days, with H & M, there’s no need for it.

She goes on:

Donna is wrestling here with a metaphor that keeps slipping into the literal, which is what clothes do. Catherine was only ever a reference point, a living magazine ad, a Thing To Want To Be. Not a person. Clothes are an amazing vehicle for this — see Milton or Carlyle or even Wodehouse.

Here’s what catapults this show from good to great: when Donna’s sad game of dress-up convinces Catherine that Donna is interesting (she’s not), Donna is crushed that her deception worked. The Best Possible Female has been taken in. Omniscience compromised. This little post-mortem speech of Donna’s simultaneously encapsulates the vapid, the petty, and the true.

get this set of codes. I understand the violations, I can see how they manage to be both vicious and benign. (I’m not sure this comes across in the clip, but let me emphasize that Donna is a bitch exactly as much as Seth Rogen is an asshole in Knocked Up — that is to say, sort of, but that’s not what’s interesting or funny about either one.) There are guy codes too — many of which I understand in theory but don’t feel in my gut — maybe how the guys you describe look interested while you were laughing. This might explain why I don’t find Apatow funny when he’s at his dudeliest, and why you left The Other Guys totally disgusted. (Whereas Flight of the Conchords is uniformly hilarious and Peep Show is an equal-opportunity benign violator.)

DR: Pulling has tons of benign violations, and I agree that the effect of each one is privilege/identity specific. Everybody can laugh when the cat has anal bleeding, but I know I laughed harder than the fellas in the room when Karen takes a pregnancy test and manages to make that beaten-to-death scene funny in a brand new way.

I wonder if men are less enchanted with the humor in Pulling that does invert gender stuff: where the women treat sex as the least precious/meaningful thing in their lives, where they do complain about dick sizes, and where they constantly slump over when men have feelings or any kind of demand?

DR: And since so much of comedy is about poking about the filthy bits of mediocrity, we also have to add intense failure. Real shit (as a sidenote, is poop the great uniter? A body fluid for all comedy seasons?) I am also thinking of the anonymous “successful female screenwriter” quoted in Tad Friend’s piece on Anna Faris (and really the whole quagmire of gender and Hollywood) who said that to make a lady likeable, you have to defeat her in the first 15 minutes of a script, that vulnerability is a direct feed to relatability.

LL: I guess that means Fey’s Liz Lemon is a step in the right direction — at least she isn’t sensible, and she’s allowed to be odd without being Strangers With Candy-repulsive. (I love Sedaris, but that’s not quite what we’re talking about here.) But let’s face it: the British are just 100% better at this kind of humor than we are. The question they seem to ask is this: what happens when women are out of control and self-destructive and don’t get punished for it?

DR: I think I would rather things keep learning towards the repulsive — it seems so loud. The Brits are amazing at this! I have a half-baked theory that this is because of class struggle. I was listening to Marketplace sometime last fall, and there was a piece about how British people don’t expect to become millionaires the same way Americans do. Like it could happen, but not really. Brits lean toward expecting they will die in the same class strata that they were born (I have no idea if this is true, but I heard it on the radio). This makes me think there is more comfort there with exposing the shittiness of existence, with less emphasis on truly hiding the ugly bits like Americans do in our attempts to be BETTER. And this extends to the ladies, so Brit comedy makes equal-opportunity fun of all the losers. I love them so much for it. I watch the ladies on Brit TV and I sigh. I sigh like somebody else just admitted that they can’t buy white shirts because they sweat through them, too. I sigh like, thank you Jesus. We’re out there.


Danielle Roderick would like to start a band called The Posture Girls, Lili Loofbourow plans to write Excremental Virtue: The Book. They both write over at Millicent and Carla Fran.

Mind the Gap: A Series on Awkward Women in Comedy