Meritocracies are brutal. You should know, since you yourself practiced a kind of meritocracy. As a child, you were bigger than the bug. Splat! Too bad for you, bug. How dare you exist.
In the adult world, however, distinguishing between a true meritocracy and a prejudicial pattern of hiring is not so clear cut. In the last couple of weeks the Internet has been rippling with controversy over “The Daily Show’s” lack of women — “The Daily Show’s Woman Problem,” by Irin Carmon on jezebel.com, “Outrage World: How Feminist Blogs Like Jezebel Gin Up Page Views by Exploiting Women’s Worst Tendencies,” by Emily Gould on slate.com. Also “Hiring Inequality Through The Daily Show” by Amanda Hess on washingtoncitypaper.com, which dissects the so-called “fawning” response from the women who work at “The Daily Show.”
Hess ends her column with a rule of thumb for sniffing out sexism:
“If you haven’t considered the societal forces and ingrained prejudices that may contribute to gender disparities in your hiring practices, your hiring practices are probably sexist. And if you respond to suggestions that your hiring practices may be sexist with a letter signed by all the women on your staff dismissing these claims out of hand, then your hiring practices are almost certainly sexist. That, or men are just better than women.”
Better? No. Funnier? Maybe.
As much as I hate conforming (even to the label of non-conformist) I have to disagree with this Greek chorus. I believe the reason we don’t see more women on “The Daily Show” is because they’re not that funny.
Of course, there are exceptions. Samantha Bee is a treasure, but even she falls flat half the time — as does everyone on “The Daily Show” (except John Oliver). Why aren’t women as funny as men? No one knows. Humor is as fragile and inexplicable as love. It clicks or it doesn’t.
Comedian Rick Reynolds said in his 1993 stand-up show, “Only the Truth Is Funny,” that there are only two types of people in this world, creeps and a*******. You’ll know which you are by your response to a cruel, tasteless joke. Did you groan in discomfort? You’re a creep. Did you laugh? Then you just might be a comedian in waiting.
To be funny, you’ve got to go for the jugular, and the truth ain’t pretty. Chris Rock‘s 1996 breakout show, “Bring the Pain,” (mature readers, watch a clip here) richly deserves every invective you can throw at it . . . except boring or humorless.
The BBC produced just 12 episodes of “Fawlty Towers” in the 1970s, but it looms so large in the field of comedy you’d think there were hundreds. “Fawlty Towers” featured two women (including co-writer Connie Booth), but they were mostly set-ups for the brilliant John Cleese and his pompous, dyspeptic Mr. Fawlty.
Australia’s satiric “The Chaser’s War on Everything” is, if anything, even more male dominated than “The Daily Show.” Hardly a woman to be seen, and I dare you to watch their take on the best-selling phenomenon known as The Secret without laughing.
Beginning to see a pattern?
That’s not to say women are never funny. The legendary Canadian show, SCTV (Second City Television), began broadcasting in 1976, boasting the talents two of the finest comediennes ever born, Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin.
The men — Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy and the late, great John Candy — are today giants of comedy, but in their SCTV era, the women who performed with them were not just eye candy or foils. A true ensemble, the women and men worked together to produce some of the most memorable comedy in history, often by eviscerating American icons. Even now, as both disco and Perry Como are fading in public memory, SCTV’s all-star skit, “Perry Como: Still Alive,” is still a classic.
On SCTV, O’Hara and Martin pulled their weight, and then some. Martin’s signature character, Edith Prickley (watch a clip here), has entered the public lexicon, with 16,700 hits on Google. Tammy Faye, the dethroned queen of 1980s Christian broadcasting, is no longer with us, but she lives on in O’Hara’s ad for industrial-strength mascara.
How I wish I could find a video of Catherine O’Hara as Helen Keller and Andrea Martin as an Anne Sullivan who bears a remarkable resemblance to the wise-cracking, leopard-skin-wearing character Prickley, and teaches O’Hara to look, dress and talk just like her.
In this scene Dunne is crashing the party of estranged husband Cary Grant, pretending to be his sister. Throughout the movie, Dunne was all graciousness and sophistication, but here she’s putting on an act for a bewildered Cary Grant, in hopes of discouraging his new girlfriend. Rumor has it this scene was mostly ad libbed. Cary Grant may have been the big star, but in this movie it’s Irene Dunne pulling the cart.
There are many other examples of screwball comedies in which the women absolutely dominated the men in wit, timing, you name it. Mira Sorvino was little known in 1995, but she won an Academy Award for her performance as a part-time porn star in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite.” Her screen time was short, but she’s about all anyone can remember in that film (watch a few highlights here).
And speaking of Sorvino, who was even funnier in the 1997 chick flick, “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” you can’t talk about women of comedy without bringing up Lisa Kudrow. She’s known for a lot of things, but sadly not for her magnificent 2005 HBO series, “The Comeback.”
The show was created by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King, best known for “Sex and the City” (watch a trailer for “The Comeback” here). “Entertainment Weekly” put it on its end-of-the-decade, “best-of” list, saying, “Starring the superb Lisa Kudrow as a washed-up sitcom actress, this comedy may have lasted only 13 episodes, but it’s the most brilliantly brutal satire of reality TV ever captured on screen.”
Brilliant. Brutal. Many women are brilliant. Brutal, not so much. While it’s true that female comediennes lag behind their male counterparts, I’m chalking that up to their big hearts. I can think of worse traits to have.
As for “The Daily Show” men-versus-women skirmish, perhaps it’s time to move on. Women are still getting sentences of death by stoning in some parts of the world. Check out the Violence Against Women Facts page on Amnesty International. Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” are the least of our problems.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]