When I first encountered Christopher Hitchen’s essay, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” I was more surprised than irritated.
In a lifetime of hearing sexist assumptions about women (that they can’t drive, they can’t control their emotions and they get these funny ideas about, say, pay equality), this one had seemed too ridiculous for anyone to take seriously.
I grew up watching three of the funniest women in TV history, and there are way more funny women out there today. I thank God for all of them. Don’t get me wrong, male comics are fine, bless their little hearts. Hey, I love Andy Samberg! But the gap between the real lives women live and the ideals of womanliness that are thrust upon them by the media and society is absurd.
Who better to explore this absurdity gap than the women who live it? On Saturday nights when I was a small nerd, I’d begin with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and go to sleep after “The Carol Burnett Show.” Later, I stayed up and watched “Saturday Night Live.”
I am old enough to remember Gilda Radner in the original cast. You had three different ladies with three different styles, all of whom were fabulous. Mary was the competent and feisty woman around whom all madness revolved. She was grudgingly respected by her co-workers at the news station, even when she was overcome by giggles while covering a clown’s funeral.
Mary got angry and weepy and stood her ground with her gruff boss, Mr. Grant, played by Ed Asner. She had a cool apartment and went out on dates. She threw her hat in the air and it stayed there! “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was so wonderful that Tina Fey modeled her own excellent workplace comedy, 30 Rock, after it.
Carol Burnett was the most ridiculous woman I’d ever seen, with her parodies of old movies and her silly dance numbers with chorus boys struggling to carry her around, and her ridiculous curtain-rod dress that she wore parodying Scarlett O’Hara.
The cast of the “Carol Burnett Show” were always cracking each other up, laughing in the middle of skits. It was pure anarchy up there. The late, great Gilda Radner playing six-year-old Judy Miller still makes me laugh out loud on YouTube.
Judy, a hyperactive Brownie Girl Scout, is stuck up in her room, told to stay there by her unseen and probably exhausted mom. Judy bounds around her little frilly room like soda exploding from a shaken can. She interviews all her stuffed animals and dolls, and manically gives both the questions and the answers. Radner is totally physically committed.
There is glory in her craziness.
These were the maternal ancestors of Leslie Knope hobbling across an icy hockey rink to the stage to kick off her City Council campaign, Tina Fey, adorned as a Princess Leia to get out of jury duty (“I don’t think it’s fair for me to be on a jury because I’m a hologram?”), Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer chasing a thief to his affluent mom’s townhouse dinner party.
All these joyful moments of anarchy make me so happy. A woman’s life is often ridiculous. We need our female comics to make that clear. Sorry, Ghost of Christopher Hitchens, I guess you just didn’t get the joke.