I fell in love comedy long before I understood the concept of comedy. As a kid, the funny parts of life were the only ones that mattered to me. Nothing was too big to bear as long as I could still find something to laugh about. Laughter is a great equalizer; it brings people together, it fights loneliness, it defuses tension. I had yet to learn that the pursuit of laughter was an order called comedy, and some people even got to do it for a living. Once I learned this, whole new worlds opened for me, and I wanted to learn everything I could about this genre. Though I have found many male comedy geniuses (geniusii?) that I love, I continue to be drawn to bold, unapologetic female comedians.
The myth that women can’t be funny is FALSE. Maybe movies with women as leads, ie. don’t fit neatly into the category of sassy friend, nagging wife, or submissive love interest, don’t sell as many tickets as the boys’ movies do. Somehow, though, hundreds of mediocre (at best) male-lead comedies continue to make millions (GROWN UPS, PAUL BLART, Medea anything, etc.), so maybe ticket sales and general public opinion are not the best gauges of how funny women can be. Women of comedy (and in everything else) have to fight hard to be heard, and sadly, even harder to be taken seriously. It could have something to do with the statistically and traditionally male dominated comedian pool, but comedy is comedy. Some people are funny, some people are not, but it also takes a willing audience for comedy to work.
In high school I was accepted into a theater magnet program, which is similar having a major in high school. We studied all aspects of theater for many hours a day and fit in the rest of the classes when we could. I was a shy, fearful kid, so my choice to join theater surprised everyone. I started performing in plays and getting cast as comic relief characters, or leads in comedy plays. Being the perpetual self-saboteur, I thought I was failing because we were doing mostly dramas, which were difficult for me, and comedy was so easy. My theater teacher laughed and told me that comedy is way more difficult to get right than drama. He said, “You are one of the few who get it.” He was a man of few words, and those words meant the world to me.
At the beginning of high school I started watching Saturday Night Live religiously, and I am still a devoted fan. It was my gateway drug into the professional world of comedy. Actually, my gateway drug was Waiting for Guffman, which I fell in love with before I accepted SNL into my heart as my personal savior. After watching Guffman and learning every piece of trivia I could find about it (and every line of the movie) (It’s a Zen thing, like “how many babies fit in a tire,” you know, the old joke), I watched everything that Parker Posey had ever been in. I pursued Saturday Night Live with the same fervor.
Upon jumping into SNL about 18 years late, I was immediately awe struck by the talent of the cast, especially Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer and Cheri O’Teri. I couldn’t get enough of this show. These women were fearless and funny, and I admired the hell out of them (and wanted their jobs). My admiration grew through the years as more hilarious women joined the cast. I know that a lot of people have stories about how Saturday Night Live changed their lives, on both sides of the screen, so I’ll just say this: SNL was my first tangible proof that women can do comedy well, and that comedy is powerful.
I just finished reading Amy Poehler’s book Yes, Please. I’ve been reading several memoirs by professional female comedians lately (Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Judy Greer, others), and they are great, but pretty formulaic. Embarrassing childhood stories, jobs before they were famous, the things that led to their current successes, advice to readers who want to follow in their footsteps. It seems publishing companies and PR firms hand them this formula and ask them to fill in the blanks. While I always enjoy reading the stories they volunteer, it always feels a little bit obligatory. Like if they weren’t given the formula demand they would not choose to share anything about their childhood with the faceless masses. And I’m not just saying this because Amy Poehler mentions no less than 8 times in her book how much she hated writing it. She was probably given this formula at the start, but somewhere along the line she said screw it just started adding pictures of herself as an elderly Jazzercise instructors, bragging about her children, and getting friends to write chapters so she could have a break from all the book writing. I loved all of it.
I will never have a fraction of Amy Poehler’s talent or drive, but I deeply respect what it takes to do comedy well. I loved reading this book, and I love Amy Poehler more after reading it. She says things that are true, even if she occasionally says them in a drug induced haze. She has always been one of my favorites on SNL, and I enjoyed getting to read about her experiences there. She shared some behind the scenes stories about skits that I remember (read: have memorized), and it provided some thrilling, and sometimes painful context to things I thought I knew intimately. I read about the decade she spent being broke but working at what she loved all day and all night. Comedy is a grueling business no matter how you look at it, and she makes it look easy.
I also experienced a feeling of glee after reading about the fun she orchestrated with award shows. She once got all of the other nominees in her category to wear strange things in strange poses for the camera when their names were called before announcing the winner. Another time she and the other nominees each ran up on stage as if they had won while they were just announcing the names. One year she sat on George Clooney’s lap for the camera without asking. She can do that. She’s Amy Fuckin’ Poehler. She did something different every year she was nominated, and the fun of those moments was contagious.
I haven’t seen any of the award shows that she was talking about when they aired. I am interested in the winners, but not the ceremony. Sometimes the celebration of celebrities goes a little overboard for my taste. I am all for recognizing and celebrating talent, don’t get me wrong. I just can’t make myself give a shit about the mob scene of the red carpet, or the media asking prying personal questions in interviews, or celebrity scandals taking the place of actual news on news shows. We glorify celebrities at the same time we tear them apart and consume them. We feel like we deserve access to their lives, and we don’t! I admire Amy Poehler, along with many other celebrity comedians, for putting up boundaries. Yes, I wish they were my friends, and that we could go to a bar together, and they could buy me drinks. But I am a stranger, and they are strangers to me. Besides, why do we have time and energy to become so obsessed with the lives of people we don’t even know? We live in a world where women are not allowed to age or appear to have eaten in the last decade while men get old and fat and celebrated even more. These priorities perpetuate the bizarre and fucked up message that women can’t be real, or funny, or taken seriously. Maybe we should work on that a little instead of obsessing over the minutia of strangers.
Somehow, someday, I would like to tell the strong women of comedy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Maya Rudolph, the Broad City girls, Kristen Schall, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Nicole Paone, Molly Shannon, Lizzie Caplan, Megan Mullaly, Erin Foley, Sarah Silverman, the list goes on, that they have inspired me with their obvious affront to that “women are less than” message. They are comedians who are good at what they do, and they’ve made me laugh in some of my darkest times. They’ve shown me that smart, strong women have a powerful voice in the world, and that gives me immeasurable hope.
I love comedy. It is a skill that requires practice and enduring more failure than success before you get it right. It takes trust and commitment to get back up after every failure. Watching comedy is easy. Making it is anything but. I have not performed anything since I was in high school (a long time ago), but having someone I respect tell me back then that I was “one of the few who gets it” opened my eyes to comedy in a brand new way. I learned that comedy has the power to fight darkness, the power to level a playing field, and the power to make me wet myself. Life needs comedy in it or it just falls flat. I am grateful that there are people who get up in front of audiences to share truth and make us laugh. I’m off now to catch some reruns of SNL…