Snow White and women’s humor : 20 years later
What’s changed in terms of the creation and reception of women’s comedy since the publication of my break out book on women’s humor They Used To Call Me Snow White… But I Drifted hit the shelves in 1991? That year, Thelma and Louise hit the big screen and Anita Hill hit the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings. In ‘91 Comedy Central began broadcasting in its current format and the Soviet Union stopped existing in what was its current format. In 1991, the cold war ended and the Gulf War began. Designing Women, Roseanne, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Married with Children were television hits, while books by Erma Bombeck were on the bestseller list.
For the record, Clarence Thomas made it to the Supreme Court. But so have Sonia Sotomeyer, who seems never to appear in a photograph without her signature smiling face, and Elena Kagan.
In 2010, Kagan proved what I’d been arguing in Snow White in 1991: give women an education and a chance at the microphone, and we’ll prove we are funnier than most men.
During the hearings that confirmed her appointment to the Supreme Court, Kagan got the last laugh at the expense of South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsay Graham during a moment that can serve as a template for women’s smart answers. When Graham, rather lackadaisically, intoned, “Christmas Day. Where were you on Christmas Day?” I’ll admit that I held my breath. Kagan began what sounded like an elaborate, roundabout and detailed response concerning the finer points of law in conjunction to a question about the 2009 Christmas Day (a.k.a. “underwear”) Bomber.
Kagan, remember, was being examined precisely on those finer points of law, but Graham interrupted Kagan and drawled, “I just asked where you were on Christmas.” That’s when the world heard Kagan's laugh—it was a real laugh, not some tinkling-bell girly self-deprecating simulation of laugh. It was a serious Bea-Arthur-ish “You got me” guffaw.
And then the soon-to-be member fourth female member of the Supreme Court did something remarkable: She refused to let this gentleman’s funny remark stand at her expense. She was going to win because she would get the last laugh. And win she did. Kagan shifted the ground. She answered, matter-of-factly,“Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."
It’s great when somebody can answer a question while addressing the invidious issues beneath it: Why is the Senator from South Carolina asking where she was on a Christian holiday, anyway? Some of us thought Kagan should have asked Graham where he was on Purim.
Other changes in 20 years -- Chelsea Handler picked up where Cynthia Heimel left off; Designing Women gave way to Sex and the City, which has now turned into Girls; Golden Girls morphed into Hot in Cleveland; Married with Children became Modern Family. Nora Ephron hated her neck but everybody loved her; Joan Rivers still hates everybody, and some return the favor; Wendy Wasserstein’s legacy still searches for the next great American woman comic playwright; and Phyllis Diller kept her edge until her 90s, as Betty White continues to do, thereby proving that life only gets funnier with age. A combination of Imogene Coca, Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin have come together, like wickedly clever improv fairy godmothers, and fashioned a world where Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig flourish. Susie Essman, Joy Behar, and Lizz Winstead have grown from the fledging stand-up comics I could interview personally in small, smoky venues to hosts, stars, and producers with layers of assistants, like bubble-wrap, protecting them from too much knocking on the dressing-room door from pesky, if admiring, academics. Rita Ruder now has the longest-running, most-successful one-person comedy show in the history of Las Vegas. Bette Midler continues to star in films, shows, and win awards for her performances, having left her own long-running show at Caesar’s Palace to return to New York and L.A. Carol Leifer, Elayne Boosler, and Margaret Cho have attained international fame and have influenced a new generation of performers, male and female, who grew up enthralled by their work.
Roseanne and Fran gave way to the sexualized and moneyed urban glitter of HBO’s “Sex and the City”; actually, “Murphy Brown,” “The Nanny” and “Sex and the City” occupied one year (’98). Styles of women’s humor were changing as swiftly as their hair and their shoes. By the second season of its six-year run, one of the characters in “Sex and the City” could blurt, “All we talk about anymore is Big, or balls, or small d$#**}. How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It's like seventh grade with bank accounts!” While criticisms of Sex and the City—too glib, too glitzy, too shallow—abound, it has to be noted that Candace Bushnell’s column’s for The New York Observer, on which the show and movies were based, was witty and sharp—as well as being less circumscribed by traditional marriage plots or, at the very least, less bound by their inevitable conclusions than the television or film adaptations. In Bushnell’s book, the heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, does not marry “Big” but rather, according to Bushnell, lives her life “happily single.” It’s interesting to note that, however shocking the characters on television seemed to be, their textual versions were even more decidedly and deliberately iconoclastic. Bridget Jones is, of course, Carrie Bradshaw’s equally famous British counterpart.
Maybe the biggest difference in the twenty years since Snow White was published is that a male comic feels a need to apologize whereas a female comic feels she doesn’t. Tina Fay explains: “Amy Poehler was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers' room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start…and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can't remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike.’ Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said: ‘Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it.’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don't care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn't there to be cute. She wasn't there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys' scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it …” A woman making humor and creating comedy is a woman who is not going to apologize for wanting to be in control.
Fey continues “I think of this whenever someone says to me, ‘Jerry Lewis says women aren't funny,’ or ‘Christopher Hitchens says women aren't funny,’ or ‘Rick Fenderman says women aren't funny’. … ‘Do you have anything to say to that?’" Because of Poehler, Fey has an answer. “Yes. We don't f%*id="mce_marker"! care if you like it.”
I see women’s humor as having made great inroads into new territory but I nevertheless have some worries. I worry about young women believing that they have to imitate men in order to be considered funny. YouTube hasn’t made this any easier either, since the whole YouTube phenomena has made the internet into venue where humor is being treated as if it’s been vetted when all it’s been is downloaded. The result is that if some guy decides to fill his mouth with ginger ale, baking soda and kitty litter “just to see what happens” and places it on YouTube, he might well be considered a new comedy star. He could get his own series. He could become famous as “The Exploding Kitty Litter Guy.” And they’re will be some girl who will think she’ll be the female equivalent to the kitty litter guy. It won’t be pretty. I worry that women’s humor will continue to lean in towards the imitative and that it will be something like the way men now wear hair product and get their eyebrows waxed. Twenty years ago the idea of women pointing out that men didn’t spend excessive time their hair or going through the ridiculous process of getting hot wax poured on various parts of their bodies and then hair ripped out by the roots, was supposed to stop women form doing it, not to encourage men to do it.
Excessive, playful, blasphemous, indulgent, insurgent, and fiercely courageous, great women humorists have one crucial thing in common: they know humor is the shortest and most electric line between two--or more--points. They set about connecting the wires so the rest of us could hear the noise inside their heads. To them, nothing is sacred. Nothing scares them. The only thing they have to fear is the grim, tight-lipped, faux-funny earnestness of antifeminism itself. By questioning, mocking and demystifying the world, they illustrate in every line that humor is our culture’s third rail: electrified, powerful, and dangerous.
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*Based on the new introduction from THEY USED TO CALL ME SNOW WHITE…BUT I DRIFTED by Gina Barreca. Reprinted with permission from The University Press of New England.
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