Over the Fourth of July weekend, former Disney honcho Michael Eisner caused a bit of a stir when he suggested that it was extremely rare to find extremely beautiful women who were also deeply funny. “From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” he told the beautiful, funny Goldie Hawn during a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “By far. They usually — boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online — but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you being an exception, are not funny.”
He doubled down moments later, suggesting that women who are truly gorgeous — choosing, for some reason, a generic Miss Arkansas as his example — are not required to develop a sense of humor since they are already objections of attraction. It’s a rather blunt evopsych reading of human behavior, one that I don’t think is wrong, exactly. There’s a reason few stand-up comedians, male or female, could double as runway models or glamorous movie stars. It’s as though comedians, in order to view the world slightly off-kilter, need that frisson created by feeling awkward or gawky in a world that demands conformity. Indeed, Hawn herself tried to save Eisner’s bacon by crediting her comedic skills to having felt like an “ugly duckling” growing up.
Eisner isn’t alone in his opinion that such actresses are rare to come across. In the course of discussing Eisner’s comments with a friend, she passed along the following interview with “Gilmore Girls” show runner Amy Sherman-Palladino. Sherman-Palladino described finding Lauren Graham as “the biggest coup in the world.” Why? “Because Lorelai’s a hard f—ing part,” she said. “You’ve got to be funny, you’ve got to talk really f—ing fast, you’ve got to be able to act, you’ve got to be sexy, but not scary sexy.” Eisner may be an old school troglodytic misogynist, as his detractors have gleefully proclaimed, but I can’t imagine they’d say the same about Sherman-Palladino.
How widespread is this prejudice against the pretty? Do executives harbor a bias, perhaps unconscious, against attractive women trying out for comedy roles, wondering whether or not their looks are inducing laughs? Most importantly: Does this finally explain why Rose Byrne is not yet the brightest comedic light in Hollywood?
I bring up Byrne specifically because I’ve wondered for some time now why she isn’t headlining two or three comedy flicks a year. That question became all the more urgent after a weekend viewing of “Spy.” Her haughty Hungarian villain steals the show, providing a perfect foil for Melissa McCarthy’s newly minted CIA agent. Byrne was similarly riotous in last year’s “Neighbors,” playing a sassy straight woman to Seth Rogen’s dumpy hubby.
The post-“Bridesmaids” career paths of Byrne and McCarthy most clearly demonstrates what Hollywood thinks of attractive funny people as opposed to their Plain Jane kin. Despite inspiring just as many laughs as McCarthy as one of the eponymous wedding party members — and, arguably, having to do it in a more difficult manner, one that didn’t rely on bodily humor to get the giggles rolling — Byrne has spent the last few years locked into supporting roles.
McCarthy, meanwhile, has (deservedly, judging by box office receipts) blossomed into an in-demand leading lady. Hollywood executives clearly view McCarthy’s vaguely masculine mannerisms and her unconventional-for-Hollywood body type as suitable material for big budget comedies. The stunningly attractive, equally funny Byrne has not been afforded the same opportunities — in part, I think it’s fair to say, because of her appearance.
Byrne is not the only one who is taken less seriously for certain parts because of her looks. Over at Deadspin, Tim Grierson notes the number of conversations he’s had that end with someone rather sheepishly suggesting “I actually think Channing Tatum’s … a really good actor.” It has taken people a long time to come around to Tatum as a solid comedic actor because he got his start as eye candy, as a dancing fool in the Step Up flicks. The same goes for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “I’m supposed to take this ripped, eyebrow-arching demigod/professional wrestler seriously as a funny man?”
As Catherine Rampell noted earlier this week at The Post, our comic actors, like our comic actresses, tend to be a bit on the plainer side: “Note that many of the biggest, most bankable male comedy stars — Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Andy Samberg, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson — trade on being, if not all exactly uggos, at least average Joes.” American comedy has long relied on the slobs vs. snobs dynamic embodied by Judd Apatow’s man-children and National Lampoon’s frat boys and vacationers. It’s a bumbling, stumbling sort of comedy, one fit for wiseacres with sharp tongues who aren’t intimidatingly attractive. It’s not surprising that executives feel more comfortable with a Belushi or a McCarthy than a Byrne: that’s what’s worked for decades now. If there’s anything Hollywood execs know, it’s how to play it safe.
And that’s a shame. It’s time to put away our predisposition that people who conform to society’s standards of attractiveness can’t be funny. Pretty people can make us laugh too, you know. Now’s Rose Byrne’s time to shine!