A New Angle on an Exhausted Debate in ‘Women Aren’t Funny’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

In some circles, the idea persists that women are inherently less funny than men. It’s the sort of infuriating but engrossing discussion that comedy fans can argue for hours, debating whether women aren’t conditioned to be funny at a young age, men are threatened by funny ladies, or a woman’s ability to give birth stops her from finding humor in the world (if anyone can explain that last one to me, I’d love to hear it).

But for all the theoretical debates, this stubbornly outmoded issue continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of female comedians. Club owners are reluctant to book headlining women for fear they won’t draw the crowds of a male comic. It’s from this perspective that comic Bonnie McFarlane approaches the issue in Women Aren’t Funny.

“Full disclosure: I’m an extremely well credited opener,” McFarlane voiceovers at the beginning, “…for my husband.” Directed by McFarlane and executive produced (and, as he was eager to point out at a recent screening, financed) by her husband Rich Vos, the film is a discussion with comics and club owners about the ladies in comedy.

The film addresses many of the same issues as Yael Kohen’s book We Killed, but with a satirical edge. For instance, it addresses one popular theory to explain the lingering bias against women — that with fewer women doing comedy, its common for a show with many comics to only feature one lady. If that one woman isn’t funny, the entire gender is written off, regardless of how many men on the show weren’t funny.

McFarlane’s solution is to form a coalition of “Better Lady Comics,” and takes to calling comedian friends of hers to ask them to quit comedy, in order boost the quality of the female comedy community overall. It’s a unique and playful approach that assures the film never is asking for pity.

And McFarlane isn’t afraid to use her position in the comedy community to confront those who aren’t helping. Though she doesn’t get to interview Christopher Hitchens (who sneakily died before having to appear in the film), she did question Adam Carolla about his more recent comments on the subject. “I’ve been talking my whole life and no one ever listened,” Carolla explains. “Good point. Let’s go back to that,” McFarlane reasonably replies.

Although technically about McFarlane’s “quest to find out if women are really funny or not,” the film is as much about the relationship between McFarlane and Vos, with frequent appearances by their distractingly adorable daughter. As the film progresses, it begins to seem a more personal journey for McFarlane, as she attempts stand-up in the disguise of a man, hoping to prove her point by automatically destroying. When she doesn’t, she’s crushed, weeping as Vos sweetly assures her that she is, in fact, hilarious. “Perhaps it shouldn’t called Women Aren’t Funny, but Bonnie Aren’t Funny,” she quips later.

As is so often the case with this debate, it’s unlikely that the film will persuade anyone who doesn’t think women are funny, if they haven’t been persuaded by the hundreds of incredibly funny women who are making comedy all the time. But for the rest of us, this fun and genuinely funny look at women in modern comedy is well worth the watch.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes. The women in comedy discussion lingers, but McFarlane’s unique perspective on the situation gives it a different edge.

What does it have to say about comedy? For me, Colin Quinn addresses the most overlooked point in the women-in-comedy debate. “I think a lot of guys aren’t that funny,” he shrugs.

Is it funny? Yes! Thanks to the several comedians credited as writers on the film, the voiceovers, editing, and running jokes make the film as funny as any scripted comedy, an impressive feat for any documentary.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No. It was screened as part of the New York Comedy Festival, and is awaiting distribution.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s happy to state, once and for all, that some women are very funny.

A New Angle on an Exhausted Debate in ‘Women Aren’t […]