A couple of weeks ago, the South by Southwest Festival got into hot water for booking only one female comic out of 31 performers. This from an organization that prides itself on diversity. Organizers quickly apologized, pointing out that not many female comedians had submitted, and they tacked a few more gals onto the bill. Problem solved, right?
Not really. Once, when Conan O’Brien was asked why late night writing staffs were so male-dominated, he said 95% of their submissions came from men. He couldn’t exactly go out on the street and beg more women to submit. Kinda the same argument SXSW used. But what he said next really stuck: he said that when he was growing up, his parents laughed at his jokes, but when his sister did the same thing at the dinner table, she was discouraged. It just wasn’t what girls did.
Conan has a great point. The problem isn’t simply a matter of equality in hiring and booking. It’s the fact that we ourselves aren’t so sure being funny is an asset, and our parents and teachers certainly didn’t encourage it. The determent started when we were little girls: It hurts people’s feelings! It turns men off! It’s intimidating! You’ll be called a bitch! So we dialed it back and got on another path. The brilliantly hilarious women who continued and sought careers in comedy found success, arguably, by incorporating a modicum of “guy” humor into their acts.
One of the few women ever to write for Late Night with David Letterman, Nell Scovell, wrote this in an article for Vanity Fair in October, 2009, after Letterman’s extra-marital affair was revealed:
An executive producer with an all-male writing staff once inadvertently revealed his deep, dark fear. While discussing a full-time position for me, he mused out loud, “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change everything.” Of course, what he really meant was: “I wonder if having a woman in the room will change me.” Male writers don’t want to be judged in the room. They want to be able to scarf an entire bag of potato chips while cracking fart jokes and making lewd comments without fear of feminine disapproval…it’s been my experience that a room with a fairer sampling of humanity will always produce funnier material.
Well now we have Twitter. Now we can be funny and deactivate that “don’t say it” switch that we’ve integrated into so many areas of our lives. Because we’re only quietly typing it into our computers (not saying it face-to-face) we’re disinclined to soften the message through tone of voice or a flip of the hair. We don’t have to see the looks on people’s faces as they try to figure out why we’re so desperate as to try and be funny (“She must be lonely and bitter”). We’re free.
Likewise, the people hearing it can get used to this new dimension of womanhood without having to quash their immediate, and potentially negative, reactions. They don’t have to engage their “I’m cool with that” mechanism, when deep down they’re scandalized. They’ll laugh, they just need a moment. And in time, we’ll chip away at the old perceptions. As this stream of real women’s voices becomes the norm, more people will be comfortable laughing, and raising their daughters to unleash their quick wits on the world.
Because yeah: we do have a unique perspective and a different voice. We bleed once a month and we think it’s gross too. We’re much meaner than you are, but we’re smarter about concealing it. Most of us don’t consider “shopaholic” to be a personality, nor do our life goals include becoming a Real Housewife. We fart and we masturbate. We love our kids more than anything we’ve ever loved before (including you) but we also have to fight the urge to strangle them on a regular basis. We love to work but we’re terrified of having to be financially responsible for ourselves (even when we make more money than you). Admitting, deconstructing, and laughing about those conflicting emotions is what keeps us sane and happy.
So you see? Women’s humor isn’t just “my thighs are fat and I can’t get a date.” That’s the safe stuff that both men and women have gotten all too accustomed to. But it ain’t particularly clever or insightful. It’s not that we’ll be content to stay behind our computer screens forever; it serves as the midway point on the road to an infusion of fresh material for all comedians and writers.
We’re putting our real voices on Twitter, so have a look and be prepared. Men: take your time getting used to it. Women: give it a try. Women’s Lib is just 140 characters away.