Comedy is an artistic medium. Mostly, it is neither rare nor well done.
Least of all, I have been reminded, by women.
The notion that women are not funny is as new as it is respectful. It is an archaic stereotype – one that, despite centuries of evident sociological progress, endures. It is something that has always bothered me, this generalist and hyperbolic claim. Not necessarily because it is wrong. But because we seem so intent on proving it to be right.
I find it difficult to admit that overwhelmingly, I do not find women who are trying to be funny very funny at all. Consistently, I enjoy their work less. I struggle to engage with anecdotes about children and marriage. I dislike the ‘wine o’clock’ trope we persist with. Dating and relationships, despite being life experiences ripe with comedic potential, often form the entire basis of a performance, to the detriment of wit or eloquence. The very generalisations which have kindled my frustration pervade the opinion I form during my own viewing experience. And that upsets me. My unenthused response to female comedians feels treasonous. A reluctant Judas, I feel as though this instinctive opinion provides further obstacles to members of my own sex. If you don’t even have the support of your own team members, how can you ever expect to win?
That is not to say that there is an absence of female talent. It exists. I am certain – or at the very least, hopeful – of it. Yet, without substantial change in the way in which we view our comedic potential, I don’t believe that my opinion will be likely to change. Instead of pursuing female centric humour, limited to the shared experiences of women, we need to grapple with more human experiences if we seek to satisfy a wider audience. Diversity in comedy, as in all areas, is beneficial. Limiting ourselves to predictable tropes instead of engaging with the zeitgeist will ensure, to our detriment, that we do not earn the reputation that we deserve.
Ultimately, in fear of contrition, female comedians are withdrawing from the medium so eager to foster their potential. Take for example, the television show GIRLS (2012-2017) created by and starring the forthcoming Lena Dunham. Irrespective of the vague descriptors attached to the series, it begins unapologetically with humour. Gentle, tentative humour, but humour all the same. It does not seek shelter under outlandish anticlimactic character arcs or the pseudo-intellectual gravity of profound monologues. It is, initially at least, funny, reflective and irrepressibly endearing. In its opening scene, Dunham reminds her parents that they should be relieved that she doesn’t have a drug habit. To expect more of her, in the form of a paying job or secure relationship, she says is unreasonable. All in an effort to remain a financial dependent, Dunham diligently mocks the archetypal millennial voice of a woman disastrously unprepared for the independence she craves.
I mentioned earlier vague descriptors. That is because over the course of its six–season run GIRLS attracted the unjustifiably bland label of ‘comedy-drama’. Or, as it might just as readily be interpreted, ‘not funny enough to be comedy alone’. As the eponymous heroines enter their fourth, fifth and sixth seasons, their lives become decidedly less humorous; the severity with which their characters pursue self-elevating objectives renders the viewing unpleasant. And though it may be considered a comment on the dissatisfying inevitability of adulthood, or an attempt at mimesis on the part of Dunham, ultimately, GIRLS adopted this label because it had to. Because female centric comedies feel forced to grapple with more – to incorporate and discuss more politically relevant, more socially contentious, and more radically confronting themes.
They have more to prove. And in attempting to prove it, they are martyrs burning at a stake they themselves have lit. Their departure from the authenticity that initially defines them sees them sacrifice that which is valuable about their artistic expression. Even more dangerously, it perpetuates the stereotype that female humour does not have the self-generating stamina to survive on its own. By hopelessly expanding into new domains, such as drama, confidence in the initial comedic value of the show is lost.
The same could perhaps be said of Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’, which earned the stand-up comedian praise for its forthright, earnestly expressive nature. The show addresses broader themes of sexual assault and homophobia; what begins as a standard performance migrates, after a moment of tension, towards a commentary on the systematically humiliating nature of stand-up itself. For this, Gadsby deserves her praise, and the fame and international repute that consequently accompanies it. But it is not comedy. In fact, it is decidedly ‘anti-comedy’, a meticulous subversion of a genre Gadsby proposes denies marginalised individuals the ability to maintain their dignity. Artistic review of ‘Nanette’, in publications as erudite as The New Yorker assert that subverting comedic form identifies Gadsby as the unassuming icon of a ‘Me Too’ era; one that speaks candidly about the pain that suffuses everyday experience. Perhaps, given the current zeitgeist of confession, expression and freedom from cultural imprisonment, ‘Nanette’ is exactly the cathartic relief that we desire. But there is trouble in the example such a performance sets. This trouble comes as more artists undergo their own attempts at genre subversion. There exists a point at which subversion simply becomes abandonment of the genre itself. As the number of artistic departures increases, this point becomes less and less defined.
Though this trend may not seem as apocalyptic as I suggest, the consequences of such conduct is that women eventually stop attempting to compete in the recognisable – and profitable – form that incubates male talent. We do not offer ourselves the same opportunity. We withdraw from this medium; a medium into which – we have conclusively decided – we do not fit. In an already crowded market place, artists cannot afford to limit their opportunities in this manner. Narrowing the lens of our scope will allow only the slightest glimpse of light to travel through. Once this too is extinguished, we will be left in the dark.
We are presented, therefore, with a problem. One far from unique to comedy. That is, whether women can ever truly match the quality of their male counterparts, or whether, in order to prosper, they need to fabricate an entirely new medium, better suited to their performance. Whether comedy needs to be remoulded for women to have the success they are often deprived of. Though there is much to be said of the feminine voice, and the insight that it may provide, solely relying upon this seems tinged with the sentiment of oppression we are attempting to evade: separate but equal. There is no equality unless we can integrate our independent perspective with that of a more diverse audience. The best writing teams are those that consist of a group of people from different backgrounds, able to make contributions on varying topics, just as the best comedians are those which can incite joy in a wide demographic of people.
To be successful, we shouldn’t retreat to a place of security. There is no reward in such a sheltered realm. Moulding comedy to suit us is a submission to the very stereotype we seek to disprove; that we can make only women laugh, or that the only comedy we can execute is anti-comedy.
This is untrue.
All that is left to convince others of this reality is to be sure of it ourselves.