When Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” premieres on TBS Monday night, late-night television will no longer be exclusively hosted by men. But lest ye be tempted to ask Bee or any other woman whether they are as funny as men — or feel like arguing that funny women like Bee prove the “unfunny women” notion wrong — you’re sort of late to the party.
The “debate” has its modern origins in a 2007 Vanity Fair piece entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” by Christopher Hitchens. (He had a follow-up a year later with “Why Women Still Don’t Get It.”) Since then, women in comedy repeatedly get asked a variation of this tired question, which we’d like to rewrite thusly: “Are humans beings — creatures equipped with an intellect and the ability to communicate via verbal and non-verbal cues — capable of constructing humorous concepts and conveying them to other humans in order to elicit laughter?” (Also, cats can be funny! Not sure if that’s a lady cat, though.)
So, just in case you get the chance to ask a comedian whether she can be as funny as a man, here are a bunch of answers:
Stephen Colbert, 2016: “You are going to be the only woman hosting a late-night show when you go on air, but listen, do you ever get tired of that question, why I do have to bear the weight of being a woman –”
Samantha Bee: “Quite honestly, before I started this process, I didn’t know women could talk. Turns out, they can.”
The Hollywood Reporter, 2014: “Why do you think there seems to be such a temptation to draw a gender line with comedy? I assume you want to be known as a comedian period, not a female comedian?”
Tina Fey: “I just want to be able to work with my friends. And the people who are funny when you’re in the trenches, those are the people you want around you — Amy Poehler, Tracey Wigfield, Robert Carlock. And the only disadvantage women have is have to keep f——- answering the question of, ‘Is it hard and are women funny?’ The men don’t have to answer that question. That’s the only impairment.”
The Los Angeles Times, 2015: “Ever since the success of ‘Bridesmaids’ there’s been a conversation happening, and it came back this summer with both ‘Spy’ and ‘Trainwreck’ …”
Kristen Wiig: “You’re not going to ask me the ‘women in comedy’ question, are you?”
LA Times: “In a roundabout way. Why do you think the question keeps getting asked? What about it hasn’t been answered?”
Wiig: “I think the fact that people keep asking it implies that it’s something we need to explain or defend. If [people] would watch movies or look at comedy and see how many talented, funny women are out there and have been since the beginning of time, people would stop asking that. The other side of it is we’re still not there as far as opportunities. But people are doing the work.”
Cosmopolitan, 2014: “Do you feel a responsibility to raise the bar for women in comedy?”
Nasim Pedrad: “I’d like to think that we are past the point of debate over how funny women can be…”
Television Critics Association summer press tour, 2012: Mindy Kaling “was asked about a comment by Adam Carolla that female writers are ‘always the least funny on the writing staff,'” the Wrap reported.
Mindy Kaling: “Anything about putting into question whether women are funny or funny writers, I can’t comment on because it’s just so ridiculous. It kind of keeps the argument alive. I said in my book, it’s like a nonsensical argument that we choose to keep alive by commenting on. It’s just beneath everyone by having it be a debate.”
Montreal Gazette, 2015: “What irks Sykes more is the too-often-repeated mantra, generally perpetuated by the male-comic species, that women can’t be funny — or at least that they can’t be nearly as funny as the boys.”
Wanda Sykes: “I don’t even know how that started. When you look back, there have always been really funny women standups throughout history. Look at the ratio of guys in the business who aren’t funny compared to women who aren’t funny. I’d say there are more unfunny guys working.”
Bitch Magazine, 2013: “Do you remember the first time you were told that women weren’t funny?”
Bonnie McFarlane: “I don’t know. I remember getting ‘you’re not funny’ a lot. Mostly from my parents. From audience members I’ve gotten, ‘Normally I don’t like female comics, but you’re funny.’ And then I found out that every single female comic gets that every third show.”
New Zealand comedian Michèle A’Court writing in the Guardian in 2014:
I’m regularly interviewed for print, radio and television and asked whether I think women are funny. Or whether they’re as funny as men. Or whether it is harder to do comedy if you’re a woman. Or why there are fewer women than men in the industry. Or some other gender-angled query about the work I do. I’ve been giving pretty much the same answer every time. Clearly, it hasn’t been a good answer because I keep being asked the same question – three times already this year (it is March) and as recently as yesterday.
I don’t ever want to answer this question again. It makes me tired. It forces me to think of myself as “a woman who does comedy” rather than as “a comedian” which is how I actually think of myself.
Richard Wilkins on the “Today” show in Australia, April 2015: He asks Rose Byrne whether “Bridesmaids” boosted her career and notes “everyone was going, ‘Oh my God, Rose Byrne, she’s so funny.’ You obviously have been funny for a long time before that.'”
Rose Byrne: “… It’ll be exciting when people aren’t asking why women are funny. Know what I mean? I still get that question. I’m like really?”
Wilkins: “Is it harder for women to be funny, is that what you’re saying?”
Byrne: “I think the perception is that it is harder for women to be funny. I know you’re not saying that, but yeah, often people are surprised, like ‘Wow, isn’t that amazing! Women can be funny and successful.’ It’s just still somehow a subject of conversation, which I find baffling. They certainly didn’t ask the guys of ‘The Hangover,’ ‘Wow, this is amazing: five guys can be funny.’ It’s such a double-standard.”
And perhaps the winning exchange goes to Lizzy Caplan, Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts during a 2014 episode of IFC’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
Caplan: “Boys can be funny.”
Aukerman: “I dont know. I’ve never found a boy funny.”
Caplan: “Well, I think boys can be funny, okay? I just think maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to be funny for as long as girls have.”
Aukerman: “They were always raised to be, ‘Oh you look so handsome!’ It’s like they never need to be funny.”
Reggie Watts: “I just think it’s biological. Guys are not funny — it’s just because they’re not.”