I managed to keep my mouth shut when Lawrence Summers, the soon to be ex-president of Harvard (clock's ticking, I'm sure. Harvard's probably just letting enough time pass so that when they cave in to the pressure to can him and can him it won't look like they're caving), thought it would be a good idea to tell a roomful of women academics, many of them scientists, that gals just can't be scientists, they can't handle the math.
And up till this point I've done a good job of pretending I never heard of this one. In an article in The National Review Online, Warren Bell claimed that women just aren't funny. At least not as funny as men.
The short answer to this is Lily Tomlin.
I ought to leave it at that.
But I can't. I just read Belle Waring's take on the question and I feel a chivalric need to help her out, not that she knows who I am, cares, or needs help from well-meaning strangers. But she goofed in a way I just can't ignore.
To start with, she made the mistake of treating the subject seriously. She compounded the error by using the word sexism. In a discussion of comedy, crying sexism is like standing up on a chair in the middle of a food fight to shout, "Stop it! Don't you know there are children starving in Africa?" True enough, but bringing it up at that moment marks you as a pris and a scold. The effect of her post is to inadverntently help prove what she's trying to disprove by providing herself as an example of at least one chick who has no sense of humor.
I'm not actually saying she has no sense of humor or even that she's not funny. There aren't a lot of laughs to be had at that blog she has with her husband John Holbo, but that's because she and John, whose posts are also usually light on punchlines, aren't interested in being Mr and Mrs Neal Pollack. They've got other fish to fry. But they both come across as very good natured people and for all I know being in the same room with the two of them is like being in the same room with Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell.
I also happen to think Belle is right, that the reason there are fewer professional funnywomen on television is probably sexism. The guys in the original cast of Saturday Night Live were notoriously disrespectful, in fact out and out hostile to the women writers and to Larraine Newman and Jane Curtain. They were nicer to Gilda, but that was Gilda's doing. She was apparently one of those all too rare people who bring out the best in everybody around them and without even trying force others to straighten up and play nice.
SCTV was always way funnier than SNL and one of the many reasons is that they took Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Miller seriously.
Everything I've heard about the amazing collection of brilliant writers who worked for Sid Caesar---including the affectionate portraits in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the movie My Favorite Year---shows it to be a very exclusive boys' club and the few women who worked their way into it had to fight like the dickens to get their jokes listened to.
I'm guessing that things are not much better in the writers' offices for the current configuration of SNL.
Warren Bell (I like this: Warren Bell squaring off against Belle Waring. WB vs. BW. It's the kind of name game Dickens loved to play.) isn't arguing that there are more funny men on TV than there are funny women and that proves men are funnier. He is arguing that there are more funny men because men are funnier. An argument on numbers doesn't attack his main assertion.
So what I'm going to do is try to show that Bell's all wet because he's attributing funniness to people---mostly men---who aren't in fact funny.
He's in no shape to argue men are funnier because he doesn't actually know from funny.
Once upon a time, Rob Long, a writer for Cheers trying to develop his own show, was told by his agent that that the rules had changed since Cheers began and producers were free to cast the likes of George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, and Rhea Pearlman in their shows. Long's agent insisted that the cast for his show had to be full of people who looked good in their underwear. This is a rule that applies almost exclusively to actresses in comedies. Thus the difference between the casts of old shows like Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore, and Bob Newhart, and newer shows like Friends and Scrubs and Coupling. Did you want to see Cliff Clavin in his underwear? Belle Waring assumes a connection between being funny and being funny-looking and she says that the sexists running Hollywood who will not allow any females who aren't babes into the casts of their shows and movies are de facto discriminating against funny women.
It seems plausible that a homely kid would develop a great patter to compensate and earn popularity by being funny, but I don't think that it works that way. To assume that it does is to assume that being funny is either a learned skill or a talent that all of us are born with and that we can hone if we give it the old college try. Warren Bell assumes this too. And so does Matt Yglesias, although he's kidding around a bit. Both men accept that boys tend to be more desperate to learn the skill because they need it to impress girls.
But take a look at any crop of comics. There are some really ugly ones. But there are more who are actually rather good looking. Bill Cosby was handsome enough as a young man to play a dashing secret agent on TV, and he was a former athlete to boot. Jerry Seinfeld, Robert Klein, Dave Letterman, Adam Sandler, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Chris Rock, Eddie Murray, Lily Tomlin---not movie start purty, but all of them not only attractive when they were young, but tall and slender and even sexy.
Some of them might have had nightmares of adolescences, but lots of people do without becoming the least bit funny.
In fact, nightmare adolescences tend to produce very unfunny adults.
Shortness would seem to be a more common, um, handicap that young comics-to-be compensate for by being funny. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Billy Crystal, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Robin Williams (although he may only come across as short). The Marx Brothers, by the way, when they were out of character and when they were young, were all very handsome and women adored them. Well, they adored Chico and Harpo. Groucho was too angry.
But from the biographies of famous comics, it would appear that if learning to be funny is a coping mechanism, what the young comic-in-training was often coping with was sadness. Many of them honed their senses of humor as defenses against the various miseries of their lives---dysfunctional families, deaths and illnesses among those close to them, poverty, their own inner demons. I remember Johnny Carson and Jonathan Winters having a serious discussion about this on The Tonight Show once. They were in complete agreement that comics tended to be the unhappiest people in show biz, and you got to figure they would know.
But again lots of people have miserable childhoods and do not grow up to appear on The Tonight Show.
Short, tall, fat, thin, handsome, beautiful, homely, or ugly as horses, happy, sad, crazy, or well-adjusted, the quality funny people---really funny people, comics, not clowns like Bobcat Goldthwaite or Gallagher---have in common is intelligence.
You have to be very smart to be funny. The ability to compose jokes is like the ability to compose music or write poems or do trigonometry.
From here it would be easy to veer off into the land of sand and thorns where Lawrence Summers lost his way and start making the case that reason there are fewer funny women is the same as the reason there are fewer women composers and mathematicians.
Never gonna happen, my friend.
I value my life.
To help prove her point that the absence of funny women on TV is due to that brand of sexism known as lookism and that if Hollywood allowed more goofy looking women on screen there would be more funny women, Belle points to Michael Richards who played Kramer on Seinfeld. Belle argues that no woman as goofy looking as Richards, and by her corrollary that funny looks result in funniness, no actually funny actress, can get a job on a sitcom.
(She regards Julia Louis Dreyfus's presence on the show as a kind of exception that proves the rule. Louis Dreyfus isn't a true babe, she says, obviously forgetting the episode in which Elaine leaves a dirty message on Jerry's tape recorder and the one in which she walks down the street wearing a wet t-shirt. But Belle implies she was something of a stealth goofball who somehow fooled the cameras into photographing her as pretty.)
But she stumbles here by not giving credit to the magic of acting. Do this experiment. Look at Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in Spider-man. Then go see him in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He might as well be two different people. I think he does something to change the shape of his jaw a bit in The Life Aquatic, but basically the difference between the two characters is not make-up but acting! Michael Richards appeared on an episode of Cheers before he was cast as Kramer, and he played a handsome young smoothie, a guy who competed with Sam for the attention of women.
Kramer's goofiness is a result of Richards' acting. For that matter, Julia Louis-Deyfus's coming across as merely averagely pretty is a result of her acting ability. And it's acting ability that Belle Waring could have used as the (slap)stick to beat down Warren Bell's argument in his National Review piece. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is actually much funnier off camera than Richards, who in real life is as serious and humorless as an undertaker at a wake, but the reason both of them were funny on Seinfeld was Larry David.
David and the other writers on the show gave Richards and Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander great material and they ran with it. All three are great comic actors. The least funny person on the show was the actual comedic talent, Jerry, and it was because he couldn't act.
There is a big difference between acting funny and being funny. And Warren Bell misses it!
Okay, show of hands: How many girls memorized all the dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they were 14? No one? Not a surprise. But I did, and a ton of other guys did, followed by Steve Martin routines, Coneheads sketches, and the big John Belushi "Who's with me?" speech at the end of Animal House. What in the world led us to do that? Why is being funny important to young men? Does the Y chromosome carry something the X doesn't?
Ok, first off, nobody did Coneheads sketches. You just looked for opportunities to say "We come from France" and "Let us consume mass quantities." And second, and more important, if you know what's funny, you don't memorize Belushi's Who's with me speech. You memorize Otter's speech in reply. "Bluto's right. Psychotic, but right."
College guys cracking themselves up doing "We are the knights who say ni!," aren't proving they're funny. They're proving Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Pallin, and Terry Gilliam are funny.
You and your buddy can announce to the cafeteria, "We are two wild and crazy guys," and then jiggle and jive your way over to pick up your trays, but all this shows is that boys are more willing to make fools of themselves in public, not that they're funnier.
Bell, of course, is mixing up acting funny with being funny and he is totally neglecting the role of intelligence in creating humor.
In other words, he thinks that being funny is just a matter of stupidly copying what everybody else thinks is funny and is stupidly copying.
So it should come as no surprise that Bell makes his living...