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Women in Comedy

Published: 12-16-2015

By Collin Shotts, M.A.

Over the past decade many have noticed a change in the landscape of comedy. Female comedians have been on the rise, not simply in quantity, but also in the types of roles they’ve taken on. Recent shows such as 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have utilized female talents as lead characters in a way that has been refreshing to some viewers. In the movies, we’ve noticed more and more women serve as the central figure of comedic entertainment in films such as Bridesmaids, Trainwreck or in the recently announced Ghostbusters sequel starring an all female cast that comes out in 2016. This shift towards a more gender equal comedic landscape has caught the attention of many.

I noticed this change firsthand when earlier this summer my wife and I went to the Trainwreck Comedy Tour, a stand-up performance tour to promote the film Trainwreck. I saw several familiar faces such as Dave Attell and Colin Quinn perform their usual routines throughout the evening. What separated this event from many of the other stand-up performances was that these men were all warming the audience up for the booming headliner, Amy Schumer. In this particular case, a female comedian was who everyone came to see, including my wife and I. And yes, she tore the house down. At one point my wife leaned over and mentioned how awesome it was to see a woman as the leader of a pack. This comment brought the changing dynamic to my attention and I must admit, it was different and it was interesting. But I started wondering why has this taken so long to manifest, and why now? Yes, there are several great female comedians in our history such as Gilda Ratner, Lilly Tomlin, and Joan Rivers. But when comparing the quantity of such entertainers to the number of famous male comedians, it is overwhelmingly lopsided, especially in lead roles or as headliners. There are several theories that attempt to explain why comedic careers have historically come easier for male performers than their female counterparts. Some suggest that the issue is evolutionary, that men use comedy to attract women and are therefor more advanced in the art form. Other theorists have suggested that men are simply funnier than women due to brain chemistry and biological differences.

I, however, believe that the issue is more sociological than biological. When I looked into the science of comedy and how humor is created, one interesting correlation that continued to come up was intelligence. Comedy is intelligent because it exposes our own thoughts, characteristics, and/or shortcomings in a playful light. Certain comics are masters of this. My favorite comic of all time has always been Jerry Seinfeld because of how well he could do this. I’ll never forget the one time I saw him live. He mocked the audience for a good ten minutes over how ridiculous it was that we had all paid money and gone to his show just so we could tell others that we had done something interesting with our evening. It exposed my own insecurities, criticized the society I attribute to, and belittled my decision to spend money on entertainment. Yet, I laughed so hard it hurt. To find a comedian funny can be a vulnerable yet genuine process. By laughing out loud I am making the statement that I relate, I identify, or that I’ve felt the same way. It is also admitting that the comedian entertaining me has figured something out about me that I never thought of or realized. It’s admitting that the comedian is a little more clever than I am about my own experiences, whether trivial in detail or not. Why I think it has been historically difficult for women to create the same reaction from mass audiences is because of the fact that to receive humor, there must first be respect for a woman’s relatable and intellectual ability. Historically speaking, our media outlets have heavily portrayed the idea that a woman’s predominant entertainment value is found in sexuality. However, the recent rise in comedic roles, success stories, and accomplishments may reflect that such ideas are finally fading away, at least in terms of the masses. So, maybe the idea that women aren’t as funny as men is a little outdated as well. It might just be that audiences were the problem all along. There’s a possibility that giving a female comedian the lead role on a tour or in a film shouldn’t be groundbreaking. Regardless, it seems to be happening now, and for all the right reasons, its hilarious.

Editor: Kevin Sprenkle

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