There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into a Punchline

How 2017 shined a light on an ugly side of comedy


Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”

At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”

Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.

Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”

The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.

Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.

From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.

Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.

My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.

I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.

Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”

Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.  

“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.

The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.

We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?

I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.

There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.

I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.

In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.

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