In Defense of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Other Women Who Make Us Laugh
The recent surge in popularity of women as comedy contenders doesn't just highlight the fact that girls are typically funnier than boys.
It's October now, and for American television viewers, that means a brand new slate of TV shows to digest. By now, all the season/series premieres have, for the most part, debuted and the countdown now begins to see which hopeful new program will be the first to get the ax, which hopeful new program becomes the sleeper hit of the 2012-13 season, and which new program we'll actually still be talking about in five years.
A television show of which no one will see new episodes is the now-defunct CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, a half-hour comedy that used to star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorced mother of one who clumsily navigates her way through the perils of getting her son into a private school, trying to find the right guy to date, owning and running a gym and of course, maintaining a friendship with her ex-husband, Richard (the fabulous Clark Gregg). At best, the show was a predictably funny 20-plus minutes of mindless entertainment that stayed true to the traditional sitcom formula, of which nothing is particularly realistic, and every obvious scenario plays itself out in the most foreseeable of ways. At worst, the show was … well … a predictably funny 20-plus minutes of mindless entertainment that stayed true to the traditional sitcom formula, of which nothing is particularly realistic, and every obvious scenario plays itself out in the most foreseeable of ways.
But that's OK. You see, it's rare these days to find a simple comedy in the vein of common television. Anymore, viewers want "meaningful" stories, or "dark" characters. There isn't much room left for the outrageous antics of someone like a Christine Campbell in today's cynical television universe, which is probably why The New Adventures of Old Christine isn't one of the billions of shows coming back to the airwaves this autumn, nor was it last year, when the series spent its first September on the sidelines in about five years. It's a shame, too, because, while admittedly a bit outlandish, it was a breath of fresh, whimsical air. Yeah, it never had the intellect of an Arrested Development or a 30 Rock, but it sure knew how to turn drinking wine into a consistently funny punchline.
Actually, the real greatness of The New Adventures of Old Christine was found in how accessible it made the scenario of a middle-aged, once-divorced woman with a child strong-arming her way through the rest of life with a fairly good grasp on the difference between what she once was and what she is today. It poked fun at a generation in which such a possibility has now become a commonality, but it did so while profiling the perspective of the everyday woman -- not the everyday man. More importantly, it did this while also trying to be funny (which it was) and poignant (which it sometimes could be). The show was conceived by a woman, written by a woman, and it starred a woman, yet it was also a product that could, for the most part, also be enjoyed by a man. And that's a fine line to walk, let alone succeed at, but it managed to pull it off for five pretty good seasons.
Such womanly sitcom success is indicative of precisely how prominent females are in today's world of comedy. While The New Adventures of Old Christine may be long gone, Louis-Dreyfus landed on her feet with HBO's Veep, a move that recently landed her another Emmy. Last year around this time, Girls, the much-ballyhooed Lena Dunham pet project, was easily the buzziest new show of the season, and surprisingly enough, it lived up to the hype that most TV connoisseurs had built before it even hit the airwaves.
30 Rock is going to say goodbye after this season, but you can't swing a cat without hitting someone who finds Tina Fey one of the brilliant comedic minds of a generation, and to think this show will ultimately be her swan song is kind of like thinking Last Man Standing was going to magically make Tim Allen funny. Parks and Recreation, the Amy Poehler-led NBC mockumentary about small town government, is one of the most beloved television series one could come by, these days. Whitney Cummings had about 4,291 shows get green-lit last season and is now plotting a comeback of sorts. Former The Office writer/cast member Mindy Kaling now stars in one of the most revered new shows of the season, The Mindy Project. Chelsea Handler still matters.
Anyway, as you can see, the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. What does it mean? Well, if nothing else, it highlights how far the perception of women as comedy contenders has come since the days when Lucille Ball was relegated to stuffing her mouth with chocolate candy. And as Sandy Cohen of The Associated Press pointed out last Tuesday, the acclaim extends even further than the small screen.
"Diablo Cody opened doors and eyes with 2007's Juno, which introduced a female protagonist who was sharp, endearing and facing real-life circumstances," Cohen wrote. "The appeal was in her intelligence, not her sexuality, and moviegoers could relate. The film earned Cody an Academy Award for best screenplay and was also nominated for best picture, best director (Jason Reitman) and best actress (Ellen Page), plus took in more than $140 million at the box office. Since then, women have been finding a voice in comedy more than ever before." ("Funny Women Flourish With Recent Comedies", The Ledger, 2 October 2012)
Indeed, the opportunities for women to showcase their funny bones have increased exponentially in the last decade or so. The result has finally provided us with a much-needed boost of comedic estrogen that was criminally overlooked before. It seems that at most every turn, we find another intelligent and humorous female ready to provide a treasure chest of comedy. Until relatively recently, the populous has been forced to digest television shows centered around guys drinking at bars, or powerful men struggling with how to obtain more power, or chasing bad guys, or being bad guys. Now, we see more and more lead roles being acted by females, but also (and maybe more importantly) being written by females, as well.
This benefits the everyday TV-watcher for two reasons: 1) It makes the television experience more well-rounded than it was when the airwaves were inundated with, say, nothing but Matthew Perry projects, and 2) Because of how long women have been forced to stay quiet both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, this mini revolution in comedy has all but proven something scholars, critics, tastemakers, and anyone of that ilk have already known for years: women are just as funny, if not funnier, than men.
Coupled with the notion that females are typically the intellectually superior species anyway, the argument that girls have a better grasp than boys do on how to make people laugh is one that isn't just imperative to consider, but it's also something that becomes more and more apparent with each Bridesmaids knock-off or Nurse Jackie episode. It's also an argument that has been the subject of a lot of discussion in recent weeks, now that the new television season has kicked off.
The Chicago Sun-Times' Jenny Hagel took a recent study to task when it somewhat idiotically concluded that women are less funny than men simply based on gender. How was this concluded? Dr. Judith Baxter of England's Aston University found that 90 percent of jokes made by male bosses in a common workplace received a slew of bombastic laughs, while 80 percent of jokes made by women leaders in conference rooms received nearly no response. This, as Hagel explains, isn't just an inaccurately portrayed study of the difference between the funniness of males and females, but it's also patently ludicrous.
"The worst part of Dr. Baxter’s study isn’t its conclusion -- it’s that it has everyone asking the wrong question," Hagel wrote. "The question 'Are women less funny than men?' is old and tired and irrelevant and sexist. It’s like when people used to wonder if a woman could be president, because what if she became irrational during her time of the month? That is how outdated the women-and-funniness question is. So let’s stop asking it. When it comes to gender and humor, instead, let’s start asking the right questions. Questions like: How can we stop sending girls and women the message that they should stifle their sense of humor? How can we dispel the myth that women aren’t funny and encourage women to use the sense of humor they were born with? And how can we close the status gap between men and women, which is the larger problem at the root of all this?" ("Are women funny? That's the wrong question", 19 June 2012)
The discussion of women being funnier than men, while provocative, is rooted in opinions and perspectives that shouldn't even be considered, especially if equality is the more pressing issue at hand (which, by the way, it is). At the end of the day, it all comes down to one's personal preference, regardless if the person telling the joke is a mother of three, or a deadbeat dad who likes to try and make light of being a bad parent. And while this recent wave of female funniness in the mainstream is a great thing to see, it's still embarrassingly long overdue. What, were we supposed to think that Lucille Ball didn't have the brains to write something as smart and hilarious as Tina Fey's Bossypants?
It goes without saying that we still need to take a few more steps forward in the evolution of comedic equality if we want everybody to work on a completely fair playing ground. And sure, we as a human race might still be a long way from where we need to be when it comes to not seeing gender, color or race as an issue on any level in any aspect of life.
But damnit if it didn't feel good to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus back on television, reminding us all of how important she is to the evolution of womens' roles in comedy on TV. From Elaine Benes, to Christine Campbell, and now Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus' tangible wit and unabashed willingness to jump from physical comedy to intellectual humor on a dime is a gift that transcends gender.
Now, if only we could get more people to start accepting the idea of a woman as the President of the United States as much as we have the idea of a woman as a great comedy writer. Maybe then, we'd really be on to something.