A Very Serious Thing

This is the third post in a five-part guest post series.

Sue London is a writer and cartoonist who has spent an insane amount of time in the business world being all businessy. You can find her online at twitter, her personal blog, and her writing blog. She also loves to interview authors on Writing Insight. Romance author Shannon McKenna complimented Sue on her “smooth, polished writing” which she likes because it sounds like a pretty stone you can put in your pocket and carry around for good luck.

“It is a very serious thing to be a funny woman.” –Frances Miriam Berry Whitcher

This year for women’s history month let us, once and for all, put to rest the myth about women not being funny. Most likely some woman spread the rumor as a joke in the 1700s not realizing the general lack of sarcasm that century. From Aphra Behn, the first western woman known to earn her living with her writing in the 1600s, to current comedy queen Tina Fey, women have a long history of clever contributions to our culture. Behn wrote comedic plays to pay off her debts and used the power of satire to highlight women’s rights issues. (She was also a spy for the Crown and wrote erotic fiction so she was ten times cooler than all the rest of us put together.) Virginia Woolfe wrote of her, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Not a bad epitaph for a smart woman with some bills to pay.

If you fast forward to the late 1800s Kate Sanborn had a predictable reaction to reading that humor was “the rarest of qualities of woman.” She promptly published “The Wit of Women,” now in its 4th edition, as a sweeping review of women’s humor over the centuries (so if you want to read quotes and passages from before the 1890s I leave you in Kate’s capable hands). Then in 1893 two outstanding and quite opposite wits were born five days apart: Dorothy Parker, perhaps the most quotable of the Algonquin Roundtable and Mae West, the ultimate blonde siren who also wrote most of her movies. The two of them left an enduring stamp on 20th century American culture.

Parker’s trademark was her droll humor, reflected in both her writing and personal quotes. When asked what the most beautiful words in the English language were she quipped, “The ones I like are ‘check’ and ‘enclosed’.” Back in the 1920s Parker wrote theater reviews for Vanity Fair, but then she did a total Ricky Gervais on a play funded by Some Very Important People and got fired. (Based on this article we have to assume that Vanity Fair is still irritated by any woman thinking they are funny.) Well, Dorothy just traipsed off to be one of the founding “board of editors” for The New Yorker and then moved out to L.A. to write for the movies and get nominated for two Oscars. Her dry, nearly waspish style is echoed in women like Lily Tomlin “I personally think we developed language because of our deep need to complain” and Elayne Boosler “I’m just a person trapped in the body of a woman.”

Mae West, on the other hand, came from the vaudeville tradition and her humor was much more… earthy. Although known as a ‘movie sex symbol’ she didn’t land her first movie contract until she was 38 (if that doesn’t make you feel better about aging I don’t know what will) and prior to that she was a Broadway writer, producer, director, and star who had her show “Sex” shut down by police for “morality issues.” Her style is captured by her infamous line, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” Baby Mae (“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”) definitely put the va-va-voom in women’s modern humor repertoire and her tradition has been carried on by many funny women with coy lines like Bette Midler’s, “I feel like a million tonight – but one at a time.”

Television came along in the early 20th century and women not only participated in key comedic shows but also led them. Lucille Ball’s classic “I Love Lucy” (1951-57) still heads many lists of all-time best comedy shows. TV Guide’s list of the top 50 television shows included the women-led comedies “Bewitched” (1964-72), “The Carol Burnett Show” (1967-78), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77), and “Roseanne” (1988-97). The top 50 most-watched television finales includes the final episodes of “Kate & Allie” (1984-89), “Designing Women” (1986-93), and “Roseanne.” Yes, love her or hate her, Roseanne was on both lists. How can she not be with quips from her stand-up like, “When I have a headache I follow the directions on the aspirin bottle. Take two and keep away from children.”

What about women being funny from behind their pens? Remember Tina Fey from earlier? She was the first female head writer for “Saturday Night Live” and has become the poster girl for all those behind-the-scenes funny writers. Women like Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithburg, the co-creators of “The Daily Show,” or Allison Silverman, head writer and executive producer of “The Colbert Report” and co-author of I Am America (and So Can You!). And who can forget humor powerhouse Nora Ephron, writer and director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

Outside of television and movies, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a hilarious essay or book written by a woman. Humorist Erma Bombeck gave voice to beleaguered mothers everywhere with her columns and essays from the 1960s to 1990s. “Insanity is hereditary,” she wrote. “You can catch it from your kids.” In her essay “Looking Your Best” Amy Ozols contemplates the obesity epidemic, suggesting “avoid what psychologists refer to as ‘emotional eating.’ This is hard, because many people have a tendency to experience emotions. To solve this problem, consume increasing dosages of psychotropic medications until you cease to feel emotions of any kind.”

And I don’t know about you, but I never had to venture outside my own home to learn that women were funny. I’ve often describe my mother as a cross between Dorothy Parker and Audrey Hepburn — all elegance and waspish wit. Meanwhile our Aunt Dot, dad’s older sister, was screamingly hilarious. We looked forward to her visits because she could make you laugh all day long with a bawdy observational humor that was somewhere between Mae West and Steven Wright.

Since I couldn’t even get close to listing all the incredible comediennes, humorists, and writers that have made such a difference to our lives (I know you have a bunch you wish had been mentioned), here are a few lists and articles. Hopefully along with your favorites you can find some new funny women to add to your reading, listening, and watching. In celebration of Women’s History Month share the wit of women every day. Email a quote, post an essay, or lend someone a book. Keep them laughing.

Share your favorite female comedians, humorists, and other funny women in the comments.

“Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest – then we can all die laughing.” ~ Lily Tomlin

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7 thoughts on “A Very Serious Thing

  1. Thanks very much to Sue London, for keeping me from going into Quickmissive withdrawals right here in front of my wife. Wouldn’t that be fun for Mr. Middle Age Man to explain…

    What a delightful and educational post, to which I can only reply – Whoopie Goldberg!(Whom I really think Should be the Next President – Not Kidding)

    Again, Thanks so much for this.

  2. Gawd, I do love a funny woman. Great post!

    I remember watching the Carol Burnett show as a kid and just wanting to BE her. To me, laughter is the most generous, sexiest thing thing there is.

    Thanks for all the great links!

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