Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens published an article in Vanity Fair entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. Backed by scientific studies from Stanford University of Medicine, Hitchens reinforced the stereotype that women aren’t as funny as men, his main argument being that, “women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.”
The idea that women can’t be funny has persisted throughout history, going back to Medieval times when a woman’s laughter was regarded as a sign of immorality. It extended into the 18th and 19th centuries, when comedy in the works of female novelists was trivialised for only referring to domestic life. In 1970, the English author Reginald Blythe said, “Women not only have no humour in themselves, but are the cause of its extinction in others.”
Recent trends in critically-acclaimed television and cinema suggest otherwise. From the charismatic Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, a period comedy set in 1950s New York, to Maxine Peake in the independent UK production Funny Cow, refreshingly sharp-witted female protagonists are defying Hitchens’ unabashed misogyny. The recent focus on the female stand up comedian – an unprecedented lead role for women – reflects and celebrates the increasing presence of women in comedy today.
Sherman-Palladino’s marvel begins with Miriam “Midge” Maisel speaking on her wedding day to a crowd of conservative Jewish Upper West Siders: “who gives a toast at her own wedding?” Midge unapologetically breaks tradition. Her speech foreshadows her future career as a stand-up comic, as well as her divorce a few years later (both being entirely unacceptable for women in the 1950s). Unaware of troubled times ahead, Midge charms the crowd by reminiscing about the first encounter with her husband Joel, until deviously mentioning that the egg roll appetisers weren’t Kosher.
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is loosely inspired by the life of American-Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, known for her outrageous and unfiltered stand-up. Just like Midge, who is left in an unfortunate situation when Joel leaves her and the two kids for his secretary ‘Penny Pan’, Rivers was married, divorced, and unemployed in her late 20s before launching her career as a stand-up comic. After ditching the role of housewife, she appeared in off-Broadway plays with, among others, Barbara Streisand in the late 1950s. The comic and satirist Lenny Bruce, a huge inspiration to Rivers, features as himself in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, (Luke Kirkby). Bruce appears as a regular at the underground Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, where Midge makes her debut on the comedy stage.
The cinematography of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel harks back to the golden age of cinema, hinting at a nostalgia for a seemingly whimsical postwar New York. It is a rose-tinted view of history, acting as a veil that thinly masks the harsh patriarchy that impacts Midge’s family, marriage and professional life. Despite the traditionalism of her family and in-laws, we can’t help but adore the Maisel family for their hilarious idiosyncrasies, including attempts to win over the neighbourhood Rabbi in time for Yom Kippur, to visiting the local fortune-teller, who becomes the go-to family therapist.
In a similar vein to Sherman-Palladino’s marvel, Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow, also presents the hypothetical experience of a woman finding success as a stand-up comedian in world full of prejudice and male dominance. The lead character is based on the Sheffield-born female comedian Marti Caine, who worked on the Yorkshire club circuit as a stand-up and cabaret dancer in the 1970s.
Unlike The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which shows us the colourful, ritzy interior world of a high-class New York family, Funny Cow presents a disadvantaged young woman in a poverty-stricken, environment in Northern England during years of austerity under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. The protagonist, whose real name we never learn, thrives despite an abusive childhood and marriage.
Both her father (Stephen Graham) and husband (played by writer Tony Pitts) routinely beat her in irrational fits of paranoia and anger, usually when she refuses to obey orders, or undermines their sense of male supremacy in the domestic sphere. As the derogatory title suggests, she will only ever be known as ‘that funny cow’; the name reflects the inevitable limitations of her success; as a female stand-up living in a man’s world.
Throughout the film we witness flashbacks to a pre-adolescent Funny Calf in the bleak, industrial cityscape of Rotherham. These shots are reminiscent of the photojournalist Raymond Depardon’s photographs of children playing in Glasgow during 1980s. Hopeful flashes of colour are set against a bleak industrial backdrop. The film ingeniously brings together art house cinematography with the vulgarity of Saturday night pub gags. Funny Cow represents the British underclass; surviving through the daily grind, grit and grime of poverty. Such life conditions prove to break down families through the form of misery and alcoholism, showing how toxic male aggression is a consequence of such hardship.
Midge Maisel and Funny Cow are women from two very different worlds. While Midge is privileged, wealthy, educated and a mother of two; Funny Cow is impoverished, under-educated and abused. She refuses to have children with her second love interest Angus (Paddy Considine). In both cases we take immense pleasure at watching them hurl back abuse at their reproachful male audiences. “Women aren’t funny!” Shouts a male from the audience in a downtown New York comedy bar, interrupting Midge’s act. She responds: “Your wife must have a sense of humour, she’s seen you naked. What can I say, all the good men are taken ladies…”
What is refreshing about the characters of both Midge and Funny Cow is their limited patience towards their male counterparts. They are defiant and don’t strive to stroke male egos. If they do on occasion, it is only as strategic survival mechanism, which is later used to their advantage. The humiliation of arrogant men, adulterous husbands and the subversion of overtly patriarchal communities becomes the prerogative of both Midge and Funny Cow, since it is their profession. Such behaviour by these quasi-fictional comic heroines quashes Hitchens’ assertions that men only want women as an audience, not as rivals.
Underlying Hitchens’ essay is an unease, an anxiety on behalf of all funny men, who know that humour is a weapon, and is more powerful than denunciation. To celebrate funny women is to also accept that women have a degree of influence and control over men that isn’t purely sexual. So long as a woman’s power is only rendered through physical attraction, the mere utterance that a “woman isn’t pretty” immediately strips away her agency. As the feminist Philosopher Frances Gray once said: “Laughter, like nuclear energy, has no opinions, positive or negative, about the status quo. What it does have, like nuclear energy, is power, to which we can relate in a number of ways.” Equally, the celebrated author Margaret Atwood once said “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Atwood’s statement that hints at the lethal conflation between gender, humour and power is apparent in Funny Cow. Her charm, spirit and ability to make others laugh threatens her husband. “You’ll never beat me”, are his words after she threatens to leave the house, to audition as a stand-up comedian at a local talent show. She bombs the audition, and runs home crying in shame, only to be confronted by her abusive partner, who, in a predetermined revenge plan, breaks her nose flat. Yet by the end of Funny Cow, the closest thing that she has to a mentor, (and also a rival), the male comic Lenny (Alun Armstrong), takes his own life, when realising that Funny Cow, a woman, is far more talented than he will ever be.
So yes, we now have more fictional female comedians appearing in mainstream culture. But what’ss the catch? While the title of Funny Cow suggests that the film will have you bent over in stitches, the audience is rarely brought to laughter. We watch an unfolding tragedy, with no relief of a happy ending, no delayed punchline. The overarching message is that success comes at a price, especially if you are female.
The irony should be pointed out, that whereas Funny Cow was written and directed by two men, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel was written and directed by one woman, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the writer and creator of Gilmore Girls. The comedy in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is genuinely hysterical, original and uniquely female. Unfortunately Peake’s character in Funny Cow resorts to making racist and misogynistic gags at the all-men’s working club to make a name for herself. This is perhaps a reminder of how much humour has evolved since the 1970s, or an indicator that male screenwriters should let women write their own comedy. On the other hand, Funny Cow primarily acts as a powerful commentary about the British club circuit in the 1970s, rather than aiming to make you laugh or lift your spirit.
While cinema and television are increasingly diversifying and promoting lead female roles, the industry still accommodates for male writers and directors to narrate the lives of talented and noteworthy women. In 2017, it was estimated that only 24 per cent of the protagonists in all newly-released films were female, and that women directors, writers, producers and editors comprised of only 18 per cent of the top-grossing films. The same survey showed that in television, women accounted for only 28 per cent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, as well as editors and directors of photography. There is nothing funny about the fact we are still far from real equality.
Published 18 May 2018
A tribute to some of the most memorable comic turns from women actors, featuring an immortal Meryl Streep.
Start getting excited for new works from Amma Asante, Marielle Heller and Mia Hansen-Løve.
More and more movies are featuring female characters with strength, agency and a drive to take action. What took them so damn long?