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.

Join the Conversation

  • Katharine

    I just registered for Feministing just so I can tell Molly how much I love this article. Great job.

  • LinLexica

    Molly, I hope you read this comment, because I had to tell you how much I enjoyed this article. I was really excited to see your name, too, because I’m a Keith and the Girl fan and love hearing you as a guest. Glad to see your awesomeness is spreading!

  • pam

    Brill’s bias is as obvious and tired as all bias against women. I am often told “You should do stand-up.” I don’t wish to do stand-up but I love to see my friends laugh and have a more situational/spontaneous sense of comedy. Women tend not to be as mean spirited as male comics and thus, less interesting to late night audiences. Those who make it, eg Chelsea Handler, are hilariously funny, edgy in content but softened in delivery. AND, importantly, laugh along with the audience.
    The heart in the humor of women is, indeed, different than the hurt in the humor of men. Though always totally in awe of her brilliance and power, I find Gloria Steinem to be very authentic, certainly not mimicking male characteristics and funny as hell!

    • will weldon

      I think it’s odd you’ve chosen to endow all female comics with a kind of den mother good-heartedness, when that’s just as regressive as Eddie Brill’s (bizarrely vague) comment that they tend to be less authentic. It’s also untrue, which anyone who spends a lot of time at comedy shows can attest to. The reality is that women run the exact same range as men in terms of their comedic voices, there are just a lot fewer of them, particularly in stand-up. Janine Garofalo and Margaret Cho are two incredibly successful comedians, and I’ve also seen them be as aggressive and confrontational with an audience as I’ve seen any male comics be.

  • James

    They’re citing the guy who decides what’s funny for Letterman as an expert in his field? I find that funny. The long lasting institutional sexism isn’t funny at all, but I wouldn’t be that insulted to find that someone with those qualifications didn’t get my humor. It’s not as hurtful as it would be coming from someone like Stephen Colbert or April Winchell.
    I wonder a little bit whether his taste is blocking women from the venue or whether his taste accurately reflects Letterman’s older and less open-minded audience.
    I would think that it would be harder to be a female comedian and be vulnerable. I feel like women being funny get policed more for offensiveness than guys do so they’ve got to be tougher.

  • Jo

    I don’t watch Letterman, Leno or any of the other dried up old farts on late night television anymore, and haven’t for years. The reason? Tired, lame, unfunny jokes. Nobody I know who is still alive watches these shows anymore, or if they do, they never mention it. But I’ve seen absolutely laser-funny women perform out there – are ratings so high for these shows that they can afford to pass these women up, or are they afraid of looking weak in comparison?

  • Ethan Stanislawski

    I’ll say that this specific issue is worth pointing out, namely because the sexism at play here has direct, practical applications for female comedians (namely, why fewer women get booked on Letterman than is just). It wasn’t the job of the NYTimes piece to tackle the “women aren’t funny” issue (full disclosure: I’m a friends/vaguely-defined colleague of Jason Zinoman), but between that article’s publication and this response, there may be actual changes afoot, which would validate the role of covering comedy in journalistic capacities.

  • Larry

    I like your take on the topic – especially the “it’s exhausting” part. I posted another take on it today –

  • pam

    “What makes human beings the species that has survived all this time is our adaptability. Society can certainly intervene at a cultural level to change that behavior.” This is an answer given to differences in neuro-structure of women and men. My opinion, if regressive, does not “endow” but simply notes a tendency that I perceive in the female comedic persona. And it represents my preference in that which I find humorous. It was never meant to proscribe any other preference.

  • Emily Egan

    I had a lame boyfriend in college that used to say that women weren’t funny. It always occurred to me that the reason people thought this is because while everyone can relate to a man (white, heterosexual, in particular), audiences as a whole can’t relate to women. When they see a female comic, they can’t get past her “female-ness” such that the jokes are relatable. Protagonists are almost always straight, white guys. Until that changes, everyone else will bet the “other”. And even then, the women will still have to ridiculously attractive.

  • Gyno-Star Rebecca

    Thank you for holding the Times accountable on this. If a similar comment were made about a group other than women — say, black people or gay people, for example — I don’t believe it would have been glossed over as blithely.

    But I think the real take-away is that this Eddie Brill is a relic of a bygone era, and when it comes to comedy experience is only one component of real expertise.

  • Nella Lou

    Thanks for writing about this.

    I guess Lucille Ball, Mae West, Phyllis Diller, Betty White, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey and Ellen Degeneres and a bunch of others didn’t get the memo.

    The entire trope of “manish” women comedians is really tired. It seems every time a woman steps out and opens her mouth she’s accused of “acting like a man” or “wanting to be a man”.

    It’s a real Catch-22 in that when women speak of their own experience it allegedly “doesn’t appeal to a broad demographic” and when they speak of basic human experience they “want to be a man”.

  • Sofia Turkan

    I disagree. Compared to their male counterparts, female comics are simply not as good. Chelsea Handler, for instance, is an embarrassment.

    In the golden age of comedy, there were far more capable female actors and comedians. It’s not entirely a gender issue, but a generational one.

  • Lisa Kennedy

    It’s odd really, but the female comedians I’ve seen have reminded me an awful lot of many black comedians, in that they seem to focus an awful lot on the fact that they’re female or black. Which in most cases I don’t find funny at all. But then, I haven’t seen that many female comedians, since most of them aren’t big enough to get their stand ups on the box.

  • Dom

    The reason these guys think women aren’t funny is because they usually don’t like what we’re saying about them… (though of course we’re supposed to laugh at ourselves, otherwise we have no sense of humour…)

  • Dom
  • Jan Tilley

    I have TWO WORDS for these sexist morons who think women aren’t funny:

    Madeline Kahn.