Women in comedy: What's so funny?

Comedy: Are female comedians that different from their male counterparts? It depends whom you ask.

March 08, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Four men in a night doing standup comedy, that's a show. Four women, that's - what? A statement?

Perhaps.

It's definitely the 2001 Women in Comedy Festival, a fourth-annual event benefiting My Sister's Place, a Washington shelter for battered women, that gives the evening a certain thematic charge.

"Battered women have absolutely no voice whatsoever," says comedian Judy Gold, who will serve as master of ceremonies, doing her own set and introducing Paula Poundstone, Rene Hicks and Joy Behar. "Female standup comics probably have the most obnoxious voices. Well, not all."

Gold, who plays Leslie the waitress on ABC's "The Drew Carey Show," started performing comedy in the mid-1980s, when women on the standup circuit were still a novelty. Now, women standup comedians are all over the place, and although they're still outnumbered, it's really nothing much to talk about anymore. Or is it?

"You've got to think about it," Gold says. "I'm a brash woman, to a certain extent. I don't hold anything back. To a lot of people that's really unattractive in a woman. If I was a guy, a lot of times I really feel like things would have gone in a different direction: `He's so edgy, he's such a leader.' "

As it is, "I could be construed as obnoxious because I'm stating my opinion. That kind of thing I don't think has gone away."

Just the other day, comedian Billy Crystal picked up an award at the Aspen Comedy Festival and the first thing he said was, "I would just like to say that women are funny."

The crack referred to remarks made at Aspen a year before by Jerry "Several Million Frenchmen Could Be Wrong" Lewis. The 74-year-old actor/comedian/tele- thon master said in a public forum at the 2000 Aspen Comedy Festival that a woman doing standup comedy is somehow just not right: "I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world."

Well, now.

Lewis later sort of apologized with a statement about God's miracles and babies and the off-putting experience of hearing women talk dirty, which either made things better or worse. Even if you don't think Lewis speaks for the masses, the remark has to make you wonder if in the year 2001, with women on the U.S. Supreme Court, in Congress and the Cabinet, standup comedy is still heard differently coming from a woman.

"I think cultural attitudes about women are very slow to change," says June Sochen, professor of history and women's studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. "There's this long history of women not baring their souls in public, being demure."

Standup, as opposed to performing a comic role in a play or situation comedy, "is very personal," says Sochen, who edited "Women's Comic Visions," a 1991 anthology of academic articles on women and humor. "It's directly relating to an audience - a one-on-one, a more unmasking situation." Even at this late date, that may be seen by some people as inappropriate.

"I don't think the issue has been settled," Sochen says.

Naturally, some folks would disagree, or at least would prefer to go on as if the matter were closed. Paula Poundstone is so weary of the subject she'd rather not be asked about it. And who could really blame her?

She started doing open-mic nights in Massachusetts in 1979, when you might be able to name four women standup comedians: Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley. Now Poundstone is one of the best-known comedians around, male or female, and her agent says she'd rather be thought of as a comedian first and a woman second or, better yet, perhaps not at all. She doesn't do so-called "gender-based" humor - that would include jokes about guys, shopping, PMS - and she would like to not be packaged as a "woman comedian" - whatever that means.

It doesn't mean she doesn't do jokes about women. At a performance at Harvard a few years ago, she vented her frustration:

"In 1992 we get a couple of women in the Senate and they're all yipping around at their acceptance speeches, saying, `The Year of the Woman, The Year of the Woman.' What fat white guy came up with that phrase? The Year of the Woman. You realize it's over with now. We gals had our year, we're so exhausted, we're giving it back to you fellas. Sure was a fun year, though, wasn't it? We got six women in the Senate, and that was considered The Year of the Woman? Six women in the Senate? We're 52 percent of the population. Apparently women do [stink] at math."

Notwithstanding her feelings about gender and comedy, Pound- stone has performed at the Women in Comedy Festival every year since it started in 1998. These things do get complicated.

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