There are three basic breeds of female stand-ups. First: The women whose routines are benign, inoffensive and gender-neutral (e.g. Ellen DeGeneres, Tig Notaro, Paula Poundstone). Although they’ve all made bold statements at some point – Ellen revealing she’s gay, Paula confessing she’s asexual, Tig going topless on stage – they rarely piss anybody off. Second type: The sexual, bawdy, graphic jokers (e.g. Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin), who definitely ruffle a few feathers but mostly keep the heat on themselves. And lastly: The smart, acerbic and assumedly mean-spirited (e.g. Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers), who lampoon anybody and everybody they can and never apologize. In addition to stand-ups, there are funny actresses who appear on film/TV (the “Broad City” girls, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, the SNL crew) and witty political gals like Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams, formerly of “The Daily Show.” There’s overlap between categories, but that’s generally where comedic styles reside.
Comedy is more dependent on personality than on jokes. Stand-up is basically just good storytelling; there are some quick quips, but mostly punchlines work because of bantery, casual build-up. The success of Louis CK’s yarns owe much to the man himself: We’ve all got something in common with a middle-aged redhead who struggles to eat healthy and please women. Louis speaks about stuff you’re not supposed to talk about, like how shitty and boring raising children can be. Woody Allen’s jokes about Freud, death and Jewishness wouldn’t quite work from the mouth of some non-Jewish, neurotic, bespeckled fellow. Even Jim Gaffigan’s tales of scarfing junk food and hating photos of himself are amusing because of his sheepish delivery.
So success in comedy relies on audiences liking your disposition. Problem is, it’s notably tougher for female comedians to be thought “likable.” Louis CK notes the melancholy of his aging penis or his divorce to riotous applause; but when Amy Schumer describes her sex life, she’s accused of only scaring up laughs by citing her vagina. Chris Rock has a strong personality (acerbic, certainly) but he’s admired for his willingness to diss people across racial and gender boundary lines, while someone like Chelsea Handler does the same thing and gets labeled a bitch. Indeed, strong-minded women are regularly “bitches” – but as mentioned in a Weekend Update SNL sketch starring Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler, “Bitches get stuff done.” Just look at Hillary Clinton. She won’t be winning any charm awards, but she just might win the presidency. Female comedians (and Hillary) can seem intimidating and abrasive. Many have spoken about not wanting kids (Chelsea, Sarah, Ellen) and Americans prefer their women to be nurturers. “When you’re a woman and you’re forthright, people are like, ‘Oh, she’s a bitch,’” Handler said in an interview with the Daily Beast. “Well then, I’m a bitch, you know? But everybody is a bunch of different things. You can be a bitch and be wonderful.”
The way a funny person looks shouldn’t really matter. How many people are both gorgeous AND fiendishly witty? Still, there’s endless discourse about Amy Schumer’s round face, Joan Rivers’ plastic surgery or Sarah Silverman’s relative hotness (“for a comedian”). Mentions of Louis CK’s gut, Mitch Hedberg’s hippie hair or Aziz Ansari’s small head are few and far between. Age is another insult, as women comics over 40 are teased for still kicking, but dudes like George Carlin kept on trucking into their golden years. Joan Rivers was 83 when she died (and still gainfully employed) but half the time she was painted as some sequined, ghoulish harpy by the media. After participating in Comedy Central’s James Franco Roast, Sarah Silverman expressed surprise at how hard her age was hammered home by colleagues. “I wasn’t even the oldest person on the dais!” she laughed in an interview with Bill Maher, ever the good sport.
Comedy necessitates humility, and audiences like entertainers to talk about being wrong, broken or floundering, just as we enjoy hot messes getting drunk and screwing up their lives on reality TV. You might think it takes guts to get on stage, but most comedians wouldn’t describe themselves as confident – humor masks insecurity. Making people laugh is a defense mechanism. It’s surprisingly common for comedians to reveal tendencies toward depression, childhood trauma or desperation for other people’s approval. (People were surprised at how sad Robin Williams turned out to be).
When women are self-deprecating, though, it veers into “pathetic” territory. Remember Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones? She liked to eat ice cream and longed for a boyfriend. But there’s a reason that character didn’t become a sex symbol. No one dresses up as Bridget for Halloween. She was funny and clever but too much of a sad sack. If you’re a guy without his shit together, you’re a work in progress. If you’re a girl in the same boat, you’re cause for concern.