Feminism / TV

Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Can the Lack of Women in Comedy Be Attributed to Sexism?

Top row (L-R): Ellen DeGeneres, Chelsea Handler, Wanda Sykes, Samantha Bee; Bottom row (L-R): Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho

Why are there fewer women than men in comedy?  Where are all of the female comedians and writers?  Is comedy a sexist industry?  When talking about comedy, comedian Wanda Sykes once said, “…I think it’s harder for women because comedy is so opposite of being ladylike.”  This adage comes to mind when thinking about the latest sexism scandal: The Daily Show vs. Jezebel.  Everyone from The New York Times to Women & Hollywood has weighed in on this controversial debate.

I want to say upfront that I love The Daily ShowJon Stewart is my imaginary husband (him and Anderson Cooper…do I care that one of them is married with 2 kids and the other is gay…nope, that’s why they’re my imaginary hubbies).  In addition to sharing his liberal political views, Stewart can educate and entertain me, all while making me laugh so hard my stomach spasms.  And while we never truly know what celebrities are like in real life (sidebar: Christopher Lloyd whom I met at Barnes & Noble is SO humble and nice!), I’d like to think that he truly is a nice guy.  However, there’s been quite a scandal brewing between The Daily Show and one of my fave femme websites, Jezebel.

Jezebel is known for pushing the envelope, for their humorous and candid opinions on everything from crazy tabloid headlines and the evils of photoshopping models to look thinner to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and analyzing pop cultural phenoms like LOST.  They notoriously point out sexism within the media.  The editors describe themselves:

“Jezebel, at its heart, is the alternative to current cultural offerings – pop or otherwise – and we aim to be intelligent, fun and against the bullshit institutions and norms that in myriad ways keep women “in their place.”  In doing so, we sometimes write about the artifice, manipulation, disorder, and even coercion behind some of the images that are sold to women…”

When Irin Carmon wrote an article a few weeks ago on Jezebel about the lack of women writers and commentators on The Daily Show, calling it “a boy’s club,” a firestorm of controversy erupted.  People wrote in, some applauding her, others bemoaning her stating that Jon Stewart is just such a nice guy, it can’t be true!  Subsequently, Carmon wrote a few additional articles in response to the public, stating that she was a fan of Stewart and the show too but that didn’t dissuade her from her observations of the lack of women on the Comedy Central show.  A tirade poured when Stewart himself made a comment on an episode, saying that “Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist prick!”  But the debate came to a head when the 32 women who work on The Daily show wrote an open letter blasting Jezebel, not addressing any of their concerns and slyly telling them to fuck off.  They write,

“And so, while it may cause a big stir to seize on the bitter rantings of ex-employees and ignore what current staff say about working at The Daily Show, it’s not fair.  It’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to Jon, it’s not fair to our wonderful male colleagues, and it’s especially not fair to the young women who want to have a career in comedy but are scared they may get swallowed up in what people label as a “boy’s club.”  The truth is, when it comes down to it, The Daily Show isn’t a boy’s club or a girl’s club, it’s a family – a highly functioning if sometimes dysfunctional family.  And we’re not thinking about how to maximize our gender roles in the workplace on a daily basis.”

Unfortunately, I think the women of The Daily Show miss the point.  I looked at each of the job titles of the women who signed it.   There were only 3 correspondents and 2 writers (who were added just added last year), which was precisely Jezebel’s point.  They weren’t stating that the Daily Show didn’t employ ANY women.  But rather that they didn’t have an equal balance of women and men as writers and correspondents.  The problem here is that when you look at all of the night-time comedy shows out there, almost none of them have women writers, hosts or correspondents.  Only Chelsea Handler Lately has 5 women writers out of a team of 10 (as of Nov ’09), no surprise as the host happens to be a woman.  But when you look at the list of talk shows, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, etc, the one show that is the bastion of liberalism, of equality, of questioning inane logic, well that title goes to The Daily Show.  And so we as an audience may hold it to a higher standard.

The bigger underlying problem is not just comedy; but rather the notion that those who espouse ideas, influence society’s thoughts and behaviors.  In 2007, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a study in which they surveyed Americans which journalist they admired most.  Jon Stewart came in 4th place, tying with Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.  Jon Stewart…Jon Stewart isn’t even a journalist!  Many people aged 18-34 get their news (not just comedy but news too) from The Daily Show.  And just a couple of weeks ago, Stewart was hailed as the next Walter Cronkite.  Stewart has covered hard news stories such as the BP oil spill, 9/11 and presidential elections in the infamous “Indecision 2000” and “Indecision 2004.”  With such a platform, he has the power to influence an enormous amount of people.  So what he says and does matters.

There is certainly a lack of women (and women of color) in all parts of the entertainment business, such as acting, writing, directing and producing.  Female actors often lament the lack of good roles in Hollywood.  And comedy is no exception.  In fact, it seems even harder for women to break into comedy.

Of course there are women who have struck gold.  Tina Fey is a comic goddess, racking up Emmys for her writing on SNL and her creation 30 RockAmy Poehler who can bring me to me knees with a raise of her eyebrow and her crooked smile kills on Parks and Rec Jane Lynch is raking in the ratings on GleeMo’Nique not only has her own raucous and riotous late-night talk show, but she won a well-deserved Oscar.  And Kristen Wiig just received an Emmy nod for her work on SNLKathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Mindy Kaling and Wanda Sykes are all scathingly hilarious.  And while I don’t find her amusing, I know many people adore Sarah Silverman (hey, at least she’s vegetarian…she gets points in my book for that).  Yet they are merely a handful of women in a sea of men.  For every woman, there are a dozen more men who have parlayed their work into a money-making juggernaut.

This past May, Feministing and Jezebel wrote articles on the “Women and Late Night Television” panel hosted by the Paley Center for Media.  However, the 5 panelists, all of whom were women, didn’t really answer any questions as to why there’s a lack of women hosts and writers in comedy.  They didn’t seem to think that their gender was an obstacle nor that sexism was to blame.  Rather each panelist talked about their own individual journey.

Hattie Haglund was one of the panelists. She is one of the two female Daily Show writers and signed the open letter to Jezebel. Interestingly, she said that she did feel people were being sexist at times, particularly during the 2008 presidential election when people made Hillary jokes “about her being fat or having a chip on her shoulder.”

Chloe at Feministing wrote in her article on the panel,

“It is no coincidence that the discussion of why there are so few women in late night comedy sounded so similar to a discussion of why there are so few women on the trading floor. In both industries, women are perceived to be naturally less gifted, ensuring that only the best women will put themselves forward. And in both industries, being loud and aggressive is a job requirement. Given that women in our society are discouraged from being loud and aggressive, the real failure of the women who can’t hack it in a male-dominated work environment seems to be that they are, well, women.”

Margaret Cho makes a similar and interesting point discussing comedians and sexual identity in an interview with The Frisky.  She asserts that female comedians who are lesbians (such as Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, and Wanda Sykes) are far more successful.  Cho said,

“I think the comedy community is not supportive to women in comedy. It’s just not a supportive environment.  It’s interesting; a lot of women who are successful in comedy are lesbians.  Or they have a fluid kind of gender identity, like I do. I am very fluid in that capacity.  [Cho has had relationships with both men and women.  She is currently married to a man.]  But you can’t really be a successful female comic if you give a s**t what guys think at all.  So a lot of heterosexual women end up dropping out because they just care too much about what guys think.  I think that’s why there’s always lesbians who take over because they don’t care. It’s just an element to their personalities that helps them get by.”

Nobody wants to hear stand-up or a skit that isn’t funny, whether it’s uttered by a man or a woman.  But when people aren’t given a chance based on gender, that’s problematic.  It’s also a serious concern that women’s issues aren’t being discussed, even in the case to poke fun at, as they aren’t seen as humorous.  When we don’t have women writers, correspondents or hosts, women’s ideas and voices are not heard.  Women can be and are just as hilarious, clever and snarky as men.  But we have to change our perceptions.  We need to move beyond gendered stereotypes that imply that women aren’t funny.  We need more women writers and comedians.  And we need to question the institutions that may knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate discrimination.  I’ve said this many times before here, many young women think that feminism’s work is done; that we’ve achieved equality.  But the truth is that we still have so far to go.

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11 thoughts on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Can the Lack of Women in Comedy Be Attributed to Sexism?

  1. Chelsea Handler’s books have been all over the bestseller lists.
    Tina Fey pretty much rules television, whether it be her sitcom or her appearances on SNL.
    Wanda Sykes is sitting pretty on HBO’s, “Curb your enthusiasm.”
    Ellen Degeneres IS daytime talk.
    Sarah Silverman had her own series on Comedy central & continues to be closely monitored by entertainment publications.
    Kathy Griffin is trending all over Yahoo.
    Amy Sedaris is a cult-queen with her classic “Strangers with candy” DVD’s, not to mention a very funny author.
    And the legendary Joan Rivers has a critically acclaimed feature film, documenting her life.

    My impression is that succesful women in comedy, are at an all time high, at present.
    “Jezabel” can stir things up anyway they like, it’s their right, but it’s also their perception.

  2. I’m with Julain. I think there are tons of successful female comedians/writers. More than ever. Eventually, the numbers will balance out…it just takes time.

    I think there are a lot of up and comers in the girls ranks. I’m particularly fond of Anna Farris and Lizzie Caplan (from ‘Party Down’ and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’).

    Just don’t start calling Monty Python a “boy’s club”…or Little Britain, for that matter.

  3. @Brian & Julian, I’m not saying that there aren’t female comedians. Or that there aren’t successful ones like Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler. But when you look at the number of women comedians or comedy writers compared to the number to men, things are not equal.

    Looking at late-night TV, all of the hosts are men, save for Chelsea Handler and Mo’Nique. When it comes to the writing, there are zero women writers on “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Bill Maher” (out of 10); one on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” one on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!;” two on “The Daily Show” (out of 17) and “The Colbert Report” (out of 16); three on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (out of 12). The best are “Chelsea Handler Lately” which has 5 women out of 10 writers and SNL which has 7 women out of 28 writers.

    Yes, you guys are right in that there ARE hilarious women, and lots of them. And yes, there are women who are making mad money being funny. But my point is that we still have far to go in equality.

  4. I think part of the problem is that the majority of the hosts are men and likely feel more comfortable having men write for them. Or maybe it’s harder than we think for a woman to write for a man and vice versa? Now of course you could say “well why are all the hosts men?” and I would say that it seems like once you have one of these jobs you don’t really give them up. Late night hosts seem to stay in there jobs for years (unless you’re Conan). SNL has always been great about having women’s writers but of course that’s an ensemble show and not centered around one person (male or female).

    • Brian, i agree with you about Anna Farris!

      She was so darkly funny in, “Observe & Report,” and she was so “smartly” funny in, “The House Bunny.”
      I also loved her quirky lesbian in, “May.”

      She is so sexy, but also so interesting to watch onscreen, with her approach to all her characters.
      She strikes me as the type of person that would “get” my warped sense of humour.

  5. Julian, I love your sense of humor. What’s your email? Let’s meet up soon!! P.S. it will be a little more less awkward than my first date with Ronnie Barnhardt.

  6. Silly me, I spelled my name wrong. There’s one “r” in Faris. Ditzy ditzy me. Giggle giggle (twirls blonde hair).

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