The triumph of the female comedian has been swift and emphatic. As recently as 2008, it was possible for the late essayist Christopher Hitchens to argue a funny woman was the show-business equivalent of a unicorn — we might very much like for such a thing to exist that but that didn’t make it any more plausible.
The situation is today changed utterly — at the top table, at least, comedy is a woman’s world.
The scale of the turn-about is breathtaking. Opening in Ireland next month, Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck is on course to be 2015’s outstanding comedy blockbuster (Schumer authored the script and collaborated with director Judd Apatow). Co Meath-raised Sharon Horgan is writing and producing a new sitcom for Sarah Jessica Parker and HBO, thus confirming her status as the most influential Irish funny person on the planet. The Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle Veep appears a shoo-in for best comedy Emmy. We haven’t even had to mention Tina Fey, the traditional recourse for anyone seeking to point out the obvious fact that, yes, women can tell jokes and cause strangers to laugh.
In contrast, male comedians are not exactly sweeping all before them. Adam Sandler, until recently America’s favourite big-screen jester, lurches from bomb to bomb — his new movie Pixels may be his worst reviewed yet (this is quite a boast, as anyone familiar with his cinematography will attest). The “golden generation” of Irish male stand-ups hurtles towards middle age, with few newcomers challenging the preeminence of these often grumpy veterans.
Internationally, the male funnyman of the hour is arguably Mark Maron, a self-loathing podcaster who records his shows in his garage in his dressing grown. There are no bragging rights here.
So, with Schumer en route to Dublin for the August 14 Irish premiere of Trainwreck, should we congratulate ourselves and conclude that , after years of bone-headed prejudice, we have reached a place in the culture in which female comedians are regarded simply as “comedians”, just as men are? Though the temptation is to answer in the affirmative, the truth is more complex — as becomes clear if you listen to what the women leading this revolution have to say about gender and comedy.
“I’ve opened for male comics for years and see the difference in the treatment. It’s the expectation of how a woman is going to be, or should be: Be sweet and likable and apologise for stealing oxygen from the world,” Schumer tells this month’s GQ magazine. “All I’ve ever wanted is to be treated like a comedian who’s performing at your venue, who sold it out.”
She also addressed the unpalatable truth that females who happen to be comedians are judged on their appearance to a degree men who happen to be comedians never are.
“[Being a female comic is] exhausting. I’m very annoyed by all the physical stuff — the heels, the makeup, outfits, versus my male counterparts who are rolling out of bed.”
The depressing extent to which comedy remains a hostile world for women was underlined by a recent interview in which former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner expressed the view that a funny woman with movie star looks was a contradiction in terms. No, he wasn’t joking.
“In the history of the motion picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women — a Lucille Ball — that are funny, is impossible to find,” he said. “The hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far.”
One problem with this debate is that many female comedians are reluctant to become involved, perhaps feeling it undermines their ability to be funny. The London-based Irish stand-up Aisling Bea, for instance, point black refused to get into the issue when I spoke to her several years ago. Comedian and writer Tara Flynn similarly declines to wade into questions of gender and comedy — for the very good reason that nobody would pose a similar question to a man.
Still, not talking about it doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, notwithstanding the influence wielded by Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler etc. “The fact is that comedy is like life and sexism is rife,” comedian Ava Vidal wrote in The Guardian last year. “It is to be found at every level in this industry. I was invited on to a very high profile comedy show a couple of years ago. I was excited about it and it would have done my career a lot of good. Sadly, I received an email from the booker telling me that they had to replace me with a male panelist as they had had too many women on the series. People seem to fear too many women will spoil a comedy night and yet have no fear that too many men will do the same thing.”
Perhaps the most insightful comment on the rise of women in comedy was offered by the late Nora Ephron, director of When Harry Met Sally. Observing the growing dominance of Fey, Poehler and others she observed that the industry was embracing females only because it had run out of funny men. “There is no question that there are a million more funny women than there used to be. But everything has more women. There are more women in a whole bunch of places, and this is one of them. Here’s the answer to [the] question: cable. There are so many hours to fill, and they ran out of men, so then there were women.”