‘You’re a funny girl.’ Has that phrase ever been uttered (by a man) without subtext or semi-colon? “And I hate funny girls” or “And you look it too.” Perhaps there are times it is delivered as a compliment, but rarely is it heard as one. It’s probable that Nicky Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif) said it with love and adoration, but it’s an odds on favorite that Fanny (Barbra Streisand) heard it as; “not pretty.” It is not entirely Fanny/Barbra’s insecurities that lead to this interpretation. Women have been derided and ridiculed for being funny since the dawn of time. There’s a chance that Eve ran from the Garden of Eden in shame after Adam ridiculed her for her “one bad apple” joke.
Humor or (gasp) joke telling is masculine. No really, ask any comic trying to get top billing. At the core of being funny is the ability to make people laugh (stay with me on this, it gets less ‘duh’) and ‘making’ people do anything is a measure of powerfulness. Well women aren’t supposed to have power. In fact what women were told for decades (if not centuries) was to look good and listen. If they were to speak at all it was in niceties and affirmations. Early comediennes understood this land mine and went to lengths to mitigate their ‘offensiveness.’ They down played their physicality to create a gender neutral or cartoonish woman. This worked as an immediate physical cue to the audience; “It’s okay, we can pretend I’m not a woman.” Fanny Brice and Phyllis Diller made themselves into physical characters (as did many others.) Ms. Brice had a lovely moving singing voice but is best remembered for playing Baby Snooks. What could be less threatening than a baby? Phyllis Diller was a slim, sleek stylish woman who festooned herself in clown-like garb and used self-deprecating humor.
Things began to change in the late 1960s. Joan Rivers engaged in similar self-deprecating humor, but did so in a little black dress and pearls. There were no fright wigs or juvenile characters, just a fearless gal from Larchmont with a wickedly quick wit. Carol Burnett came along shortly thereafter and blew the roof off. Her show (1967-1978) opened the doors and national minds to the fact that a woman can be outrageously funny, smart and striking. Yes, she played cartoonishly grotesque looking characters, but she also played bombshells. Every show started with Ms. Burnett standing center stage in a striking (Bob Mackie) gown. When she sang (and she did/does so beautifully) it was often in character but not a caricature. Several came after her, these funny women who didn’t apologize for being women. Tracey Ullman embraced a similar format of characters as Ms. Burnett as well as singing and having a striking physical presence.
These examples of progress are not to suggest that we’ve come a long way baby. Comic actresses (versus comediennes) still manipulate her physical image to placate the audience. Think of the ‘funny’ gal on any sitcom and you will find that her look or shtick about her look is at the business of her character. Most often it takes the form of an eating disorder. Binge eating, eating off-brand Mexican snack chips, clearing a buffet; all while staying a size four can be seen on any channel near you. The scripts poke fun at bosom size (’cause that’s funny) or weight struggles or tragic fashion sense. Granted there are male comedians and comic actors whose bread & butter is their sad sack image. But there’s a sense that it’s done with a wink especially when their characters seem to engage with lovely looking women.
There is an ancient and depressing mathematical formula (that surely can be found on a cave wall somewhere): attractive=dumb=desirable and funny=smart=intimidating. Anyone on this earth for any length of time past the parallel-play period can attest to the unmitigated fallacy of this formula. We’ve all met plain dumb women, attractive smart women, we’ve met women who were funny and not so clever (which can be really funny!) and chances are we’ve never been intimidated by humor. But it doesn’t change the fact that rarely does a woman hear “you’re a funny girl” and automatically get a spring in her step. We are simply not conditioned to hear it as a compliment. There are no magazine articles promising us 10 simple ways to crack your guy up. There is no potion, pill or powder being pitched to power our punch lines. It’s okay to be smart (and that’s serious progress) but funny, able to evoke stomach cramps and copious tears, while looking like oneself? We’ve got a ways to go. They are out there, these outrageously funny comediennes embracing their femaleness, don’t get me wrong. But they are in no way celebrated by the masses (and by masses I mean heterosexual men) the way male comedians are. There is still, after all these years, something intimidating about a woman who is not a cartoon, and who can make you wet your pants a little.
I’m so glad we had this time together.