Posted tagged ‘Amy Sedaris’

The Great Lady Comic Debate of ’07/’08

March 27, 2008

An awfully uncompelling debate reached its second round recently, long delayed despite its enviable collision of sex, beauty, humor and politics. Unfortunately, Vanity Fair‘s he said/she said go-round on whether women are funny is remarkably unfunny, despite the participants’ efforts, which unerringly leads the reader to assume that pundits are the least funny people on Earth, regardless of the packaging of their nobbly bits.

The Vanity Fair issue on the newsstands today features a cover story that purports to retort to a transparent provocation from January of last year. (It also features a cover photo of SNL‘s Amy Poehler copping a feel on 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey.)

That’s when noted curmudgeon and frequent inebriate Christopher Hitchens picked a fight, writing about why he believes women aren’t funny. His arguments are broad, his caricatures broader. In response this month, a broad gets argumentative about being caricatured. (Zing!)

Hitchens’s opening salvo from 01/07 is primarily that women don’t have to entertain men to be attractive, whereas a non-athletic, less-than-handsome, non-rich guy needs something to get him over the hump (as it were) with the ladies.

He references a 2005 Stanford University study, which found that women process humor differently from men. They do so, researchers say, because women approach comedy with a more skeptical eye than men (likely finely honed by years of listening to jackasses buffet them with “clever” pick-up lines and such), and accordingly are more pleased when they reach a good punchline, and sooner to conclude that a joke isn’t funny.

Sounds to me like women are more discerning comedy consumers.

Hitchens’s conclusion?

“Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?”

He does throw a few bones to female wits: Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres, Dorothy Parker among them. But no praise comes from Hitchens without punishment, as the rest of the female comedy world is dismissed as “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combination of the three.” When Roseanne plays the “tough broad” angle, Hitchens implies, she is merely acting like a man. When lesbian comics make the ladies laugh, it’s for the same sexual gratification that male comics seek. And Jews? Well, angst and self-deprecation are male traits.

Furthermore, Hitchens argues, men make jokes when bad things happen. Women, he says, want things to be nice and sweet all the time. Men joke about losing their hair, prostates and erections; women are less apt to laugh at their own structural collapse. It’s true that some of the highest reaches of comedy come from processing tragedy, but you don’t have to be Betty Friedan to understand that aging exacts a higher social toll from the fairer sex.

But Hitchens’s last point is the “best”: motherhood is not funny.

Well, hell, lighten up, Oedipus. My mom doesn’t giggle all that much when she talks about her episiotomy, but I’ve gotten a few laughs out of her.

This month, Alessandra Stanley responds to Hitchens, arguing that what sets today’s women comics and comedic actresses apart is that many of them provide their own material. In defending these female talents, Stanley inartfully drops in a few groaners that could not do more to distract from an actual refutation of Hitchens’s highly refutable claims.

After dwelling too long on the history of marginalized funny women, Stanley makes a salient point, quoting 1885 educator Kate Sanborn, who “pointed out that women have good reason to keep their one-liners to themselves. ‘No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady’s lips,’ she wrote. ‘What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.'”

That’s an excellent point, but one that’s woefully under-emphasized. Few women (or men, for that matter) are itching to make a funny that might cost them a crack in the mouth. Or worse.

Stanley then goes on to talk about how pretty the women comics of today are. Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler, the cover girls, are appropriately noted for their looks. And props are given out to Amy Sedaris for her willingness to make herself look horrible for the sake of character. “Even Lisa Lampanelli, a husky comedy-club veteran whose Donna Rickles act is an all-offenses-made smutfest, crammed with jokes about gays, blacks, and ‘fisting,’ does stand-up on Comedy Central in a low-cut, blue satin cocktail dress, with Jimmy Choo shoes and her hair long, honey blond, and tousled,” Stanley writes. She seems to argue that pretty girls are getting all the breaks in comedy. Unlike the rest of the world, where they’re always on the short end…..

(Inexplicably, Stanley compares Paula Poundstone to Lampanelli, saying they both have a “head-on … aggressive style.” Huh? Could Poundstone be any less aggressive on stage?)

Stanley speaks to the era of SNL with Tina Fey as head writer and a cast that included Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and, today, Kristen Wiig, and calls it a watershed moment in the previously male-dominated writers room. Which is true, as the current consensus is that Fey’s tenure gave women on the cast juicier roles, and gave fewer “Animal House,” ham-fisted, fratboy kneeslappers air time, in favor of humor with a feminine edge. And it was damn funny.

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Naturally, Hitchens cannot allow Stanley to have the final word, and offers a rebuttal (available also on video). His ultimate point: “She said what I said.” In that, he’s right. Stanley repeats much of Hitchens’s claims, but appears to try to excuse rather than refute them.

Hitchens says there are more bad female comics than bad male comics, suggesting that even though there are some funny women, they are the outliers on the survey. I say that’s nonsense. Writers and comics like Fey, Sedaris, Poehler, Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Tina Dupuy, Samantha Bee, Lizz Winstead, Alex Borstein, Sue Murphy, comedic actresses like Jane Lynch, Jenna Fischer, Lauren Graham…. and a raft of others. That is a group of very funny women. There are many more like them.

Come up with a list like that for male performers… It won’t be too hard. But think about the ones you’d have to leave off. There’s no shortage of bad, hacky guys wasting stage time that good comics could be using, or getting roles that actors with real talent should be getting.

The nature of the female comic is no different from that of the male. To be funny, they must appeal to the audience’s ability to identify with the absurdity in their lives, to find irony and whimsy. There is no physiological reason why a woman can’t be as funny as a man. There is no heavy lifting required.

Funny requires smart, astute, creative observations. Neither sex has cornered that market.

And as the Hitchens/Stanley argument demonstrates, it’s hardly a fight worth having.

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VF.com has interviews with some of the best women comics. Interesting reads.

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An Evening with Amy Sedaris, and the Vulgar Innocent

March 14, 2008

Amy Sedaris came to Iowa State Wednesday night, speaking to a full hall at the Memorial Union in the heart of campus. I’m told that the folks who scheduled the event and the students whose vote was required to fund it weren’t so sure she would be a good draw. They were wrong.

I’m talking about a packed room. Like spilling-into-the-corridor packed. They brought in extra chairs and people still stood in the aisles.

It was an interesting chat. She was there to tout her 2006 book, I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence. (It’s true– Iowa is a little bit behind the times.)

The talk, hosted by the local paper’s movie critic, addressed Sedaris’s film roles, her guest-starring turns on TV shows as diverse as My Name is Earl and Sesame Street, and, of course, her totemic role as Jerri Blank on Strangers with Candy.

(Interesting story about Jerri: Sedaris said she wanted the character to have a male name, but she and her co-writers, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, couldn’t come up with a last name. So she said, “Just leave it blank for now…” and it fit perfectly.)

She made a pantyhose “eye burrito” (instructions on p. 267) and did a little Q&A with the audience that included a 3-second burst of unfettered filth from her profane and promiscuous Southern character “Piglet.”

The line for autographs lasted an hour. She signed pretty much everything put in front of her, including a newborn infant (on the hoodie sweater, not the fontanelle). Many photographs were taken. Some college students from Kansas City (a 3.5-hour drive from Ames) were impossibly giddy about meeting her, or maybe just punchy from the road and amped up on Red Bull. A couple of local high school students bitched about their home ec teacher, who apparently thought it was funny that a student set herself on fire while cooking in class (for the record, so did Sedaris).

Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to talk to her much, but we did chat briefly about my theory on characters like Jerri.

I told Sedaris that I appreciate not only her making Jerri (and herself) so very unattractive, but also her willingness to make Jerri always the worst person in the room. Jerri is offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, and to put it bluntly, foul. She is a hateful person, but you don’t hate her.

Sedaris said exactly what I thought she would: “She doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. She just doesn’t realize there’s anything wrong with what she says. And she really likes herself.”

It fit precisely with a theory I’ve been developing about the function and purpose of “offensive” humor. A character like Jerri, or Borat, or The Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin can say and do fundamentally objectionable things that would drive a prog/lefty like me completely rat-cage crazy if a real person said it in front of me. So why do these characters get a pass?

I’ve been pondering that question for several months now. I delivered a paper at the Modern Language Association/American Humor Studies Association conference in Chicago last December, talking about the political substance beneath the offensive veneer of Borat. During the Q&A session, a woman (African-American, in case that’s relevant, but I’m not sure it is) in the audience said that she laughed herself silly at Borat, but that the offensiveness of what made her laugh also made her question why she was laughing.  Where does one draw the line between offensive and funny?

I responded that “offensive” is in the eye of the beholder, that its context matters, and it can also be a tool to get people thinking. When the ultimate result of the offensive act is that the audience confronts the objectionable “ism” and ponders whether and to what extent it exists in them, as I argue happens with Borat, then is “offensive” humor necessarily “bad?”

I would argue that the operative issue is the character’s intent. That is, is the character malevolent? Does he or she intend to do damage?

I call characters like Jerri and Borat “Vulgar Innocents.” They don’t mean to hurt anyone. Their conduct is devoid of ill will; it is indifferent to those affected by it.

A prime example of this is Sarah Silverman’s character in her eponymous Comedy Central show. She doesn’t intend to offend with her black-face protest. She’s just completely oblivious to the possibility that anyone might be offended.

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A contrary example can be found in Andrew “Dice” Clay’s stage persona and material, laden with racism and sexism and wildly successful in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When the backlash inevitably came, Clay tried to distance himself from the controversy, deflecting the worst charges by saying, “It’s not me, it’s the character.” But in considering the social impact of the humor, whether Clay is racist or sexist is entirely beside the point; “The Dice Man” is. The character is malign, and intends to insult, belittle and hurt, and the audience identifies with him. There is no socially beneficial result, and there is reason to argue that there can be none.

Which doesn’t mean that a malevolent character cannot have a positive impact. Consider South Park‘s Eric Cartman. When the offensive behavior comes from a foul-mouthed ignoramus (albeit an 8-year old one) who believes the word “Jew” is an insult per se and that “there are a lot of Black people in China,” we can laugh at the obvious ignorance of his bigotry, and by extension, all bigotry.

The archetype of this is Archie Bunker, whose prejudice helped transform the sitcom into a vehicle of social commentary.

Not to belabor an obvious point, but whether we laugh at the character or with the character is an important distinction. Whether the target of the jokes is deserving or helpless is also significant. Ultimately, if there’s a higher purpose to the offensive, something beyond mere shock and a few titters from arrested-adolescent meatheads, it can be both effective and worthwhile.

It also helps if it’s funny.