On Trying To Be A Funny Woman

Note: I wrote this about 3 years ago when I was halfway through my time at the Second City training center in Chicago. My feelings have grown a bit more complex on the matter, but I like having this as a reminder of how I felt when I first started trying to be funny for realsies.

It was very tough, the first year at least, because they were fighting – particularly the woman writers for their material to get in, which only applied to women’s issues.

– Chevy Chase

I’d like to say that this sort of statement feels antiquated and like my experience thus far in Chicago has taught me that comedy has come a long way in regards to women.

And, in a sense, it has. Tina Fey has blazed a trail in recent years, as have people like Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig.

They’re hilarious. They’re women. Their uteruses don’t impede their ability to be funny and, sometimes, it even helps drive their point of view and makes them more hilarious.

My relationship with gender and comedy is a frustrating one. I’m a feminist, this is true, but I have never been a “man-hater”. I know that having a sense of humor and being a feminist seems to be incongruous to a lot of people, but bear with me. I have problems with societal patriarchy, not with dudes in general. Some of the best people I know are dudes, seeing as half of my friends are male and I don’t tend to associate with irredeemable jerkwads. Anyway, continuing on…

I don’t really consider myself that different from men, as far as sensibilities go. My sense of humor can often be sicker than any of my male counterparts’ and, yeah, I gush about baby animals but I’ve also seen Shaun of the Dead over 25 times. I’m not super girly, but I am female in a way that, in spite of some efforts when I was younger, I cannot seem to shake. But that has very rarely been something that shapes my sense of humor – a sense of humor that has been influenced by both my mother and my father, my sister, my friends both male and female (and everything in between), the comedy I ingest (mostly male because that’s how this world works but with some solid ladies sprinkled throughout), and my own life experiences. Gender has had relatively little to do with it.

But then little things bother me – the guys in my class are great, but they are still overwhelmingly… well… male. They’ve got the male perspective that doesn’t get challenged all that much. While I’ve always had to learn how to identify with characters who don’t share my background (how many female nerd heroes were on the scene until Tina Fey? Before her, the closest thing I had was Daria), many of these guys haven’t. They’ve always had fictional dudes with dude problems living a dude life with whom they could identify. Which is when we encounter The Problems.

Problem #1 has been that the women they write are invariably “token” characters*.

Okay… lady people, since roughly the 60’s, have been trying to drive home the idea that in spite of the obvious drawbacks of having ovaries and silly hormones and sillier feelings, we are still people. We are not lady pilots. We are pilots. We are not lady doctors. We are doctors. We are not lady firemen. We are firefighters.

Unfortunately, the trope usually dictates that, as lady people, we fall into certain roles in order to justify our existence in fiction. Therefore we function as people who have jobs that usually belong to ladies (ie waitress, stewardess, nurse) or as the foil aka, as I like to put it, the “spoilsport**” to the male characters (ie the nagging wife, girlfriend, mistress, chick in class who takes gender roles and patriarchal constructs too seriously).

Now, this is a problem and it is one that pervades our culture to a crazy degree. See, last I checked, us lady people not only make up half the population here on Earth, we actually make up MORE than half the population. Also, we’re not lady people. We’re person people. See, people have this pesky habit of being multidimensional and of having their own motivations, rather than just acting out roles or being the foil.

I wouldn’t care so much except for how much I do and for how often I get asked by my male counterparts, “Krista, how do I write women?”

I originally shot back a very acerbic and not nearly kind enough response of, “Well, ____, just take a human, strip them of their personality, make them a prop, and add a vagina.”

Again, not kind and not patient since it’s always been asked in earnest curiosity. Because I guess I’ve mistakenly lead my friends to think that I’d be an expert on such things.

But now I’ve started to respond with, “Write a person. We’re actually persons, you know, instead of being like this weird elusive woman version of a person you guys seem to think we are. We have jobs beyond waitressing and usually can engage in normal conversations, much like I am with you now. If you have written an entire cast that’s all dudes, try changing not only one but TWO of them to ladies. Unless they’re at a strip club but even then, you know, use your imagination.”

So it seems easy when I break it down like that. Because it really should be. But, alas, it isn’t.

Because I still hear stuff about “female comedy” and they’re not referring to comedy that purely has to do with bodily functions concerning menstrual cycles. If it was, I would agree that that sort of comedy is lame. I mean, “haha, my uterus sheds a layer once a month that leaves me in horrible pain and renders me almost useless from both a social and physical standpoint for days on end!”

For the most part, that isn’t funny. It sucks and is gross (of course, I say this as a person who finds most bodily functions horrifying and would be glad to spend the rest of my days in a much less messy robot body).

Also, it is a tired old joke. “Oh, my hormones make me irrational! Blargh, I am a she-beast ruled by primal biological imperatives! I must feed on the carcases of chocolate rabbits in order to appease my isochronal demons that demand a sacrifice! Men just don’t understand! I wish John Hamm could ride in on a horse made of bacon to whisk me away from my lazy husband/boyfriend who doesn’t understand my needs because I’m a woman and I crave attention and money and only love cuddling and complaining! Waaah!”

But no, “female comedy” seems to be “normal comedy” but through this sort of female lens. If a dude talks about hilarious relationship stuff, he’s just doing stand-up. If a woman does it, she’s telling woman jokes. Dude talks about his kids, it’s an anecdote. Lady talks about her kids, then she’s harping on about “motherhood” or something equally boring and womanly.

And so it goes.

This extends to writing too – if there was a way for me to write under some androgynous pen name in order to avoid anyone viewing my writing as being too much about “women’s issues”, I would. Honestly. Because otherwise you find that you’re either censoring yourself too much or embracing the fury and blasting your lady-rage in everyone’s faces. I guess I’d always choose the latter over the former but, then again, I am a jerk at heart.

So yeah. I get frustrated. Sometimes I get annoyed when I feel like I have to have a forceful personality to get along in a room full of dudes while also trying to be funny without being mean and being known as the life-ruining B-word. And then I have to be patient. Because a lot of times, these comedian bros of mine are honestly interested in embracing the female point of view and in accepting me as a peer. They just don’t really get how either is supposed to work and now they’re looking to me at times to help them figure such things out.

And I’m happy to, really. It just would be much, MUCH easier if I felt like I was this shining pinacle of sparkling wit and hilarity and a perfect feminist, but I’m not. I’m someone who is prone to anger and deflects more often than she embraces, which is probably why comedy seems to be a fit for me. I get annoyed when I think someone is missing the obvious which is silly, because nothing is obvious to everyone all the time.

So maybe my experiences are an isolated incident, but I don’t think they are. I think women are still struggling to stop being seen as lady people instead of just regular folk, no matter the vocation. And yeah, sometimes I’m going to get irritated by it and sometimes I’m going to be disappointed by it and sometimes I’m going to be justifiably indignant with rage about it, but I’ve pretty much accepted that reality.

I can’t change it with my sheer force of will or by pretending it’s not there. I’m a trying to be a lady comedic writer, so I guess I’m just gonna have to do my best with what I’m given, fight when I can, and feast on chocolate carcases when I can’t.

*I’d just like to say, for clarity’s sake, that this is not a problem that plagues all the guys in my class or even all male writers in general. I’m just saying that it is a problem that I have witnessed far too often for it to be a totally coincidental, so much so that I have seen it multiple times in a fairly small class. And on TV. Constantly. Like almost every TV show. Barf.

**If I see another CBS comedy where the lumpy leading man’s hot wife is some harpy shrew whose only interaction with other women is to complain about their equally lumpy husbands (probably of a slightly different but equally homogenized racial background), I am going to set my TV on fire.And I don’t even own a TV.

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