Desirability and the female comedian

Looks. They are something that, unless you’re being self-deprecating, you aren’t really supposed to talk about in comedy, lest people think you’re vain. This seems reasonably logical if you consider that vanity is not that distant from taking yourself too seriously, a fatal flaw in any comedian. A Hollywood Reporter Round Table got me thinking about women comedians, how they portray themselves and if there are confines.

Well duh, yes there are confines. There are confines on how the woman on the street is supposed to portray herself, but we know what they are; pretty but not too pretty, slim but not too slim, make up but not too much make up, always smiling. But what are the confines when you’re a woman comedian where one of the stock opening lines involves telling people which famous person you look like? That famous person or character is supposed to be marginally unflattering, like Harry Potter or Dot Cotton, not Gigi Haddid or Naomi Campbell.

We just don’t seem to have quite aligned ourselves with reality, in which you don’t have to have ‘a face for radio’ to get on The News Quiz. But it was a comment made by Maya Rudolph at a women comedian Hollywood Reporter Round Table discussion that really made me think about how women in comedy are allowed to physically portray themselves once they get to a certain level of fame. “I used to be a lot more passive aggressive about saying yes and then being unhappy and doing things that made me feel embarrassed. Even silly things like when you start to make it, especially as a comedy lady, and you get to do a fashion spread and it’s, like, ‘Now we want you to fall out of a dumpster while putting your face in a birthday cake in a beautiful gown.’ And you’re like, okay. So, I started learning to say no.”

The point of a fashion spread is to look good and sell the clothes. You can’t help but wonder if as a ‘comedy lady’ there’s an unspoken notion that you ought to be punished a little for stepping out of your attractive lady confines and being funny. As though it’s a challenge, oh you’re a ‘comedy lady’ alright then you won’t mind posing in a humiliating way because you told us you have a sense of humour.

Of course on the flipside, if a woman comedian looks good in a more conventional fashion spread she risks being accused of letting her comedy fans down, in a way a male comedian would not be for posing on the cover of GQ in a suit. In 2007 when Sarah Silverman posed for Maxim,  climbing out of a gorilla suit in her underwear (which, I think we should note, was a vest and pants) her integrity was questioned on various online feminist forums. Even though she was being lauded as the new Kong of comedy by the magazine and, if anything, the theme of the photo shoot seemed to be a nod to Silverman’s schtick of being equal parts filthy, sexy, shocking and girlish.

In her book Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics Linda Mizejewski notes that on the Maxim cover the discarded gorilla head part of the costume is given a speech bubble delivering the joke “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Gorilla. Gorilla who? Gorilla me a cheese sandwich, babe!”

Is it somehow more plausible that a gorilla head would have more to say than a professional comedian? Mizejewski describes it as “an inane macho joke” and “an attempt to put the little woman in her place…” Mizejewski goes on to discuss more of the photoshoot, in which Silverman poses with/in the gorilla suit wearing a “snarl” that “does not diminish her sexiness; it acknowledges its dangerous edge.”

It is my impression that the patriarchy (oh yeah I am going there) cannot as yet quite conceive of a woman who is both gorgeous and funny. If she is then she has to be tempered in some way to make it less emasculating. This is why seeing glamorous comedians such as Katherine Ryan, London Hughes and Nicole Byers (et al) is so refreshing to me as a member of the audience. Just as it is gratifying to see a woman on stage in jeans and no make up is. The more women there are in comedy, the harder it is to control them and make them look how you think they should. Like Maya Rudolph, women are starting to say no.