The Laugh Ceiling: A New Book on Women Comics Misses the Show

Hysterical! builds a big tent for women in American comedy, but stops short of looking forward at some of the most innovative work.

Lena Dunham, Lucille Ball, Tina Fey
Lena Dunham, Lucille Ball, Tina Fey Wikimedia

Hysterical! builds a big tent for women in American comedy, but stops short of looking forward at some of the most innovative work.

Lena Dunham, Lucille Ball, Tina Fey
Lena Dunham, Lucille Ball, Tina Fey Wikimedia

My reward, earlier this year, for convincing myself it would be worthwhile to find some stage time at a stand-up comedy open mic in San Francisco, was a beer that came courtesy of a sympathetic bartender. Or maybe it was more akin to an apology — the bartender’s way of making my proximity to a schwasted local bro who’d spent the night heckling performers and harassing me more tolerable. This kind of dive bar show, replicated in countless dingy watering holes in countless cities on any given weeknight, may have been the first time I’d been onstage in seven years, but it felt like nary a long, boozy night had passed. Here I was, back on a barstool, scribbling my sad, bad jokes into a notebook, praying someone would still be around to hear my set after enduring a litany of racist and misogynist yammering from guys who’ve had too much encouragement at the water cooler.

The experience was as familiar as it was frustrating. But some things had changed, at least. Run by a woman comic, the show privileged stage time for other women comics, a not-uncommon practice in this lefty-liberal arts scene, as part of an effort to reach some semblance of gender parity in an industry that continues to be dominated by men. Of course, some women do make it further than I did, and a new academic essay collection, Hysterical! Women in American Comedy, looks at 15 talented comedians, comic actors and comedy writers, plus Lena Dunham.

Those of us who work and play at the intersection of laughter and gender (I wrote my master’s thesis on women stand-ups) will recognize the editors, Linda Mizejewski and Victoria Sturtevant, as well as big-get foreword writer Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, from their influential bodies of work for intellectual and pop theorists of comedy. Whether you’re deeply familiar with the subject or someone who’s going to have to Google “Bakhtin and the carnivalesque,” readers will appreciate the introduction’s spirited but concise refresher course in the basics of gender and performance theory before hustling on to the heart of the book.

Hysterical! Women
in American Comedy
Edited by Linda
Mizejewski and Victoria Sturtevant  University of Texas Press 484 pages; $34.95

As the title promises, Hysterical! tracks 100 years of women in American comedy, from the silent film actresses who cracked up the working classes in the early 20th century to the stagecraft of Moms Mabley and Wanda Sykes to the variety show antics of Carol Burnett to the prestige TV-showrunning of the aforementioned Dunham. The essayists blessedly refrain from asking that most tiresome of questions — Is it feminist? — and instead enthusiastically take their subjects on their own terms. Why did early film actress Fanny Brice decide to get a nose job, knowing it would affect her career as a clowning Jewish stereotype? How did Lily Tomlin leverage comic queerness as an indictment of institutional power, and how does Ellen DeGeneres eschew that queerness in an effort to ingratiate herself into the showbiz mainstream?

But readers looking for a refreshing dive into new women-in-comedy waters won’t find much here. I was more than a little deflated by the book’s overabundance of predictable picks: Tina Fey. Sarah Silverman. Lucille Ball. Mae West. There is, of course, a lot to say about these women, but a hell of a lot of it has been said already. Steps that could have been taken to put a new spin on their work — say, putting these big-name performers in conversation with lesser-known artists — simply weren’t.

Indeed, the book’s faithful adherence to form — a carefully curated collection of inoffensive takes on a mostly unsurprising but at least demographically diverse group of artists — signals just how badly the world of comedy criticism, and in particular criticism of comedy produced by women, needs a new approach. It’s not that Hysterical! doesn’t work. Most of the essays offer substantive insights into the work of a few famous women comedians over the last century, offering gender- and frequently race-critical analyses that many comedy fans will find enhances their own consumption of the genre.

But Hysterical! treats its subjects — women comics — like men, demanding that they achieve a certain career status, or produce a sizeable enough body of work, in order to be worthy of investigation. That’s not inherently bad, but it is kind of boring, and serves to reinforce the fact (demonstrated within the book itself!) that women have to work harder, longer and better than their male counterparts to achieve star status. For a book that tilts toward insightful analyses based in critical queer and race theory, its essayists mostly end up talking about the same juxtapositions scholars have been investigating for decades: the tension between pretty and funny, the frequent use of the cisgender female body as a site of grotesquery, the comic contrast of sexuality and respectability.

The book is organized chronologically, and its first two-thirds trace the theme of shifting trends in consumption, production and distribution of women-led comedy — from silent films to 1950s sitcoms to variety shows, Saturday Night Live and prestige TV. But in the latter third, on today’s young comics, Hysterical! loses the thread. The final chapter, Maria Sulimma’s examination of the cringey body-focused comedy of Girls showrunner Lena Dunham, really fizzles. If Dunham is the best that our leading academics can offer as a harbinger of what is to come in the world of women-driven comedy, we are in a bleak state, indeed. Yes, Dunham’s casual nudity is noteworthy and, for some bodies, subversive. Yes, her depiction of women’s friendships is genuinely remarkable. But the limited scope of her oeuvre thus far comes nowhere close to making her the voice of a new generation, however slyly she jokes about being, or not being, said voice. Dunham writes palliative jokes for a certain kind of affluent, neurotic, straight, cisgender white girl. You certainly don’t have to be affluent, neurotic, straight, cisgender, white or a girl to like her work, but comedy for and by affluent, neurotic, straight, cisgender white girls is losing prominence as audiences no longer need HBO to tell them what to watch, and are increasingly empowered to demand work that represents America’s growing diversity.

There is some discussion of new media’s influences on the production and reception of women-produced comedy in Anthony P. McIntyre’s essay on Sarah Silverman’s grotesque cuteness, with McIntyre connecting the trend of sharing online animal videos as an alleviator of modern anxiety to Silverman’s adorably foul persona, and Sulimma hints at Dunham’s use of podcasts and newsletters. But instead of continuing to trace the theme of shifting trends in consumption, production and distribution of women-led comedy begun in the first chapter, the book flatlines in the latter third, losing credibility. Any enthusiastic consumer of comedy these days knows that Dunham is not the future of the genre.

As a result, Hysterical! misses what is most exciting, and most relevant, about comedy today: its sharpness and its diversity. Why end on Dunham, who isn’t really a comedian, who produces a television program on a cable network, which at this point is practically old-fashioned? Hysterical! builds a big tent for “women in American comedy,” but stops short of looking forward at some of the most innovative (often internet-borne) work. From headliner comic turned SNL cast member Leslie Jones to actress, podcaster and Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams to sitcommer and stand-up Cristela Alonzo to YouTube to Twitter — where women of color, especially black women, excel at jokes of all kinds — the future of women in American comedy is bigger and brighter than the latter chapters of Hysterical! let on. If we keep waiting for everyone to be Lucille Ball, Mae West or Tina Fey before we situate their work as part of the historical expansion of funny public women, we’ll miss the show.

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Andrea Grimes is a writer and feminist activist living in Austin.

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