Guest post: This is why we keep talking about gender in comedy

By Molly Knefel

Every few months, another article pops up about women in comedy.  Perhaps it is by some dude boldly proclaiming that women aren’t funny, patting himself on the balls in self-congratulations for his bravery.  Or it’s a response to some such article, or a narrative from a female comedian talking about her experience.  These articles happen a lot.  For people who like to read about gender in comedy, it’s exhausting.  I am here to throw another article into the fray.  Here’s why:

Yesterday’s New York Times features a profile of Eddie Brill, the 53-year-old comic who books Letterman.  It positions Brill as an older comic stylistically outside of the younger “alt” generation but  portrays him unquestioningly as an expert in his field.  It describes Brill’s background, his skill in training comics to succeed on television, and his taste.  Brill likes vulnerability in comedy, the piece tells us.  To me, this is a little like saying you like lyrics in music– of course you do.  Most people do.  But not all comics have that persona, so fine, it’s worth noting, and also he likes punchlines (again, not especially surprising) and also he doesn’t think women are funny.

That last one kind of sneaks up on you.  In 2011, the NYT tells us, Brill booked only one woman for the Late Show.  Even if that alone doesn’t stand as sufficient evidence of Brill’s sexism, he also said this:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

The Times, hilariously, quotes comic Jessica Kirson as saying, “What does that mean?” and quickly moves on in the next paragraph to talk more about vulnerability and why it’s so important.

There you have it.  The gatekeeper to one of the most important opportunities a comic can get (the article itself emphasizes this) mentions that he doesn’t think women are “authentic” and that they “act like men,” and a paragraph later, we have moved on.  The piece ends with a declaration by Brill that comedy is universal, a comparison between Mark Twain and Ricky Gervais, and the somewhat stunningly un-self-aware quote, “Comedy has always been the same.”  Privileging the voices of white men?  Indeed, it has always been the same.

My main criticism lies with Brill’s statement about women, of course.  I’m not sure where the “women act like men” belief fits in with the other common explanations of why women aren’t funny, most of which cite an abundance of gynecologist and period jokes.  More importantly, to echo Kirson, what does it mean to act like a man?  Does it mean that they are not acting sexy enough for Brill?  Or not submissive enough?  Does it mean they have gender-neutral material, or that they are too dirty, or not dirty enough?  What is a woman– or, I suppose, what are all women—supposed to act like, for Brill to think they aren’t acting like men?

But I feel like the Times deserves some criticism as well.  Maybe it’s not the the NYT’s job to explore the deeply hurtful, and deeply historical, sexism that Brill casually throws out.  But to devote only two tiny paragraphs to such a blatantly untrue and destructive idea, and to move on like it’s just another fun fact about Eddie, seems irresponsible.

By the end of the piece, we all feel good, because who doesn’t love Mark Twain and Ricky Gervais?  Meanwhile, Eddie Brill and the Times have done their part to add to the ridiculous, tired, and hateful “women aren’t funny” echo chamber.  This is why it’s still important to talk about gender in comedy.  This is why some women keep bringing it up.  Brill can keep women’s voices off Letterman, but women will continue to talk about their experience, no matter how inauthetic and manly they may be.

Molly Knefel is a writer, comedian, and co-host of a thrice-weekly internet radio show called Radio Dispatch.  Read her tweets at @mollyknefel.

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