A lot has been written about how women are perceived to be either “not funny” or “not as funny as men.” Now that there are a number of respected women comics, that paradigm has changed somewhat in that women can be funny as long as their humor is not aggressive. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, is generally considered funny by anyone who is not a hopeless homophobe, partly because her humor is not at all aggressive (this is not a criticism, by the way–I think DeGeneres is hilarious). Margaret Cho is another story: She says bad words, and she talks about sex in great (and hysterically funny) detail. She not only makes people uncomfortable–she is a woman, she is Asian-American, and she is a member of the LGBT community, to boot.
Perhaps no one, though, has fueled the “women are funny as long as they are ‘feminine'” fire as much as Sarah Silverman, whose television series debuted last Thursday night. Both men and women have walked out of her shows, and I have heard many supposedly liberal people call her humor “tasteless” and “disgusting.” But the fact of the matter is that Silverman, and other female comics like her, do not push the envelope any farther than a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle, whom these same critics admire.
Silverman’s humor is not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure. I am not making a case for whether she is a good comic; I am just pointing out that the “shocking” things that come out of her mouth would be considered “badass” if they came out of the mouth of a male comic. Drew Carey says it well: “Comedy is about aggression and confrontation and power. As a culture we just don’t allow women to do all that stuff.”
Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair, recently acknowledged that there are some funny women comics around, but “Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” One might just as well say that most of the really funny male comics are black or Jewish (forgive me, those who think Robin Williams is still funny).
Hitchens, to his credit, also says:
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit.