Are women funny? Being a woman myself, a resounding "of course" is my response, yet the question has been asked over and over again by, well, mostly men. The ladies of Center City's 1812 Productions' current play give a new voice to this old dispute.
The debate gained momentum in 2007, after Christopher Hitchens' article Why Women Aren't Funny appeared in Vanity Fair. Hitchens played the evolutionary blame-game, explaining that women are not funny, among several other reasons, because they've never had to be. He writes, "Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift."
Perhaps in an attempt to deflect the inevitable scrutiny he received from this article, Hitchens painted a picture of a queen and jester relationship between the sexes. Because being a man is just not enough, men have had to coerce women through laughter into seduction, while women simply have to look pretty to catch a mans eye. Putting aside the fact that this image is both insulting to women and men, Hitchens' case has some considerable holes.
It only takes a quick glimpse at network programing to refute Hitchens' argument. Next time you're flipping through channels, or browsing Hulu, notice the amount of sitcoms starring comedic ladies, and not just "hefty or dykey or Jewish" women, as Hitchens' article suggests are the bulk of female comedians. With Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham as household names, it would appear that the notion that women are incapable of being humorous has nearly dissolved with contemporary female comedians, actresses, and writers. But despite what the television tells us, have women really been accepted as equals on the comedic stage?
"Comedy has been a boys' club for a really long time," says Philly funny woman Jennifer Childs, "we are taking baby steps, but there is still room to grow." Childs has had a long career in comedy as an actress, playwright, director, and cofounder of 1812 Productions, but her current production, It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project, brings to the foreground present-day gender issues.
In act I, actress Susan Riley Stevens desperately attempts to present her doctoral presentation—The Women and Comedy Project, while continuously being interrupted by a chorus of 6 women decked out in short sparkly Betsy Johnson-esque pink dresses. The members of this uncouth troupe both embody and dissect female stereotypes based on appearance and age. At one point, the ensemble members commandeer the stage to teach the audience what exactly qualifies as a funny female character: old, not so funny; old sexual sage—hilarious. Young and pretty, not funny; young, pretty, and dumb—sidesplitting!
This is not to say that stereotypes don't apply to men, but that they are not as pigeonholing as they are for women. "Once a woman is saddled by that stereotype she's going to play that role forever and ever," says Childs, "You look at someone like Marilyn Monroe, who was fantastically funny, because you have to be smart to play that dumb, but she was so beautiful that nobody would have taken her wise-cracking. Just given how you look there is a stereotype put on you and that is simply not the case for men."
The actresses return in act II breaking free of their stereotypical roles, sporting Doc Martins and warrior paint with their pretty pink dresses, and share testimonies of survival, childhood memories of mom, and stories of virginities lost, all of which are incredibly comical.
The second act's most notable stories comes from one of the older cast members, actress Cathy Simpson. She retells a provocative anecdote about the "best sex she's ever had," which happened to take place during a prison event with an inmate. Audiences were far more amused then shocked by the tale, but the crowds' reaction in comparison to other tantalizing dialogue spoken by actresses of a younger age, pointed out another serious flaw in the industry.
As a culture we are conditioned to be accepting of characters like Betty White and Joan Rivers, who have capitalized on the sassy older woman archetype, yet we are less welcoming when a younger woman speaks with comparable crassness.
"There was a big controversy amongst men, who sat in and watched the rehearsals, about Charlotte [a 20-something cast member] saying 'suck my dick,' and they were like, 'ah, I don't know if that's going to go over well. I'll be fine with it, but the ladies in the audience…'" Childs recalls with a laugh, "There is something very interesting about what is accepted from a woman of a certain age and what is accepted [from] a woman who's younger and looks like a sweet young thing verses someone like Cathy who has this air about [herself] of 'I've been around the block and I can handle myself.'"
And of course this is not limited to comedy, women in all forms of entertainment struggle with typecasting. We see it all the time with film actresses. The fatal branding of the bimbo, the dumb blonde, and the girl next store are often career-enders for talented actresses. These stock character titles double as expiration dates, because an actress in her 30s can't fit into the daisy dukes she wore in her early 20s.
Yet let's not derail from the issue at hand. Maybe women have been accepted as equals on the stage, but only if they can commit to the roles we are comfortable giving them, the roles that we have dubbed as socially acceptable. If this is the situation then we are not equal at all. "I think the playing field for women in comedy is still uneven, as it is in many professions, but comedy is an aggressive act and women are not traditionally raised to be aggressive–they're raised to be polite," says Childs.
It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project, closes with what Childs believes to be the most audacious and taboo feature of the production. In a series of raps, each of the seven actresses describes what their ideal party would be like. The raps, though not as comical or entertaining as the rest of the play, are important because they are unapologetic personal affirmations. The women loudly declare what they want and who they are without the restrictions that the stereotypes they played in the opening act limited them to. One actress boldly states, "I will be the beauty whose beast is internal."
The question has evolved: When we ask whether women are funny, we are really asking "What kind of women do we accept as funny?" It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project brings this new question to the surface, in a very comedic way, while hinting at something greater. The ultimate equalizer amongst the sexes is our humanity. Humor is a necessary tool we all use to face every day trials and tribulation.
Despite Hitchens' baseless accusation, he mentions a valid point that I believe Childs herself would agree with. Hitchens writes, "Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle." Humor is both a coping and defense mechanism against the inherent struggles of life that all human beings face, regardless of age, or sex.