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More Than Just Funny: How Women Took Comedy by the Balls

More Than Just Funny: How Women Took Comedy by the Balls

On a weekend in which the multiplex was mainly a man’s world, Matt Brennan’s “Now and Then” column this week focuses on news from the small screen. With Bridesmaids now available on DVD and a flurry of funny women hitting network TV, he got to wondering: are we in a golden age of women in comedy? Trailers below:

I know. You already have seven problems with this column and all you’ve read is the teaser. So let’s slow down and lay out some of the assumptions I’m working with here: first, that women are funny, and not only to other women, despite what Christopher Hitchens might have to say on the subject; and second, that I recognize there are problems with using the term “golden age,” and will get to these near the end.

Given all that, though, let’s call it. The comediennes formerly relegated to the role of “girl Friday” are now kicking some serious ass.

Hitchens, in the 2007 Vanity Fair piece alluded to above, admits that he’s not trying to argue “that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians.” But, like the kindergartener who pulls a girl’s hair to show he’s developing a crush, he goes on to describe these “great wits” as generally “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” (This shouldn’t matter, though unfortunately it does. No one I know of has suggested that the men of Judd Apatow’s crew are mere niche comedians because they’re a little schlubby; in fact, their schlubbiness is part of their everyman appeal.) Anyway, Hitchens’ remark isn’t true anymore, if it ever were. It just so happens that the foremost balls-to-the-wall zinger of recent years to permeate the culture at large (nearly 12 million hits on YouTube to date, and that’s just one of many postings) was uttered by an attractive, whip-smart Hollywood powerhouse named Tina Fey.

And so I give you: “And I can see Russia from my house!”

Sure, Fey’s impression takes advantage of certain facts not of her doing — her resemblance to Sarah Palin, the fact that the candidate was already prominent in the zeitgeist. The reason why it works not only as adept mimicry but also as political satire, however, speaks to the ways in which women are mining a new vein of humor that appeals to anyone, male or female, burnt out on bland romantic comedies and wayward slackers. Fey, unafraid of cutting to the quick, displays a glimmer of empathy, too; there’s a subtle-yet-raw vulnerability to her Palin impersonation that takes it beyond the realm of caricature.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking here about “women are weak” vulnerability, which is a sham idea anyway. I mean that this is full-blooded comedy, reliant not only on audacity but also on the recognition that part of what’s funny about people is their propensity to fail miserably and find a way to get up smiling. For instance, one of the best docs to come down the pipeline last year was Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a riotous and unexpectedly moving depiction of the misery of comedy, and the comedy of misery. And like many critics, I was enamored of Bridesmaids’s frank pairing of bawdy humor with an authentic view of the vagaries of friendship — competition via a violent doubles rally, for example, or Kristen Wiig’s knockout performance as a woman so desperate to hold on to her closest friend that she nearly ruins everything in the process.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, among other sharp comedies of the last decade, did the same thing for those of us stuck between comfortable stoner-dom and the “real” world, but the premise is no longer current, the subgenre nowhere near fresh (witness the full-frontal dreadfulness of The Hangover: Part II). But the vein of vulnerability I’m talking about isn’t a woman thing, though they’re the performers who’ve capitalized on it most. It has broader appeal: it’s a human thing, a darkly funny reminder that we’ve created this monster of a troubled world.

So be it that my “golden age” thesis is hurt by the fact that 2 Broke Girls and Whitney are dowdily written, as much to do with network television’s almost rote lack of daring as with the women at their respective helms. Worse, Hollywood has yet to give a woman of color the same breakout chance to make a nervy comedy for either television or film. But the delicate balance of pathos and penis humor in New Girl, easily the best in this new crop, suggests how America’s funniest women are facing vulnerability with a candor that puts most of the guys to shame.

Actually, I think the gents are coming around to what the women have already discovered. Last I heard, the best-reviewed comedy of the season was a little picture spawned from the Apatow stable–but independent of him–called 50/50. A cancer comedy, huh. Isn’t Laura Linney already making one of those?

2 Broke Girls airs Mondays at 9:30 on CBS; New Girl airs Tuesdays at 9 on Fox; Whitney airs Thursdays at 9:30 on NBC; and 50/50 hits theaters Friday.

[Bridesmaids trailer and photo courtesy Universal Pictures; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work trailer courtesy IFC Films; 50/50 trailer courtesy Summit Entertainment; New Girl photo courtesy Fox]

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