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In the 40 years since Saturday Night Live (SNL) premiered on October 11, 1975 it has produced many outstanding female comedians.
ResearchGate: From the great Gilda Radner in season 1 of SNL to Tina Fey, can you speak on SNL’s diverse showcase of female comedians?
Mary Crawford: Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa… Gilda Radner’s characters from SNL’s early days live on in gentle kookiness. Maya Rudolph’s singing impressions are another bright spot. After her Star-Spangled Banner, no need to ever listen to the start of another major league game. Jane Curtin took on the straight woman role on Weekend Update opposite the likes of John Belushi, the perfect foil every time. Although SNL’s brand of humor is mostly over-the-top and identified with its male stars, it has consistently featured unique female comedians and brought their comedy to the largest audiences ever.
SNL launched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into huge careers in TV and film. But for me it’s their political satire that is most memorable. Tina and Amy as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton stand as classics of political comedy, and probably influenced a national election. Maybe one of the best reasons for feminists to campaign for more women in political office is that it would require more female comedians on SNL to satirize them. Carly Fiorina, anyone?
RG: America’s most renowned prize for humor writing, the Thurber Prize was awarded to Julie Schumacher, the author of “Dear Committee Members”, this year. She’s the first women to win it, why do you think it took so long?
Crawford: For many years, women’s humor writing was routinely omitted from anthologies and critical studies, overlooked as part of the same perspective that had many of us believing there were no women composers, artists, or scientists. Nancy Walker in her history of American women’s humor writing, (A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture) documents a hundred years of male writers lamenting that women were incapable of writing humor, while female writers were producing wildly popular works.
RG: The three finalist are all over 50, is there any significance to that?
Crawford: How old have the male finalists been in past years? I’m guessing that most Thurber prize winners are mature writers, at the top of their game. But maybe there is something freeing about being over 50 for women. The writer Carolyn Heilbrun said that she was glad when she reached 50 because she could stop wearing drag. Still, I suspect that none of this year’s Thurber finalists were particularly inhibited before they were 50, either.
RG: Christopher Hitchens famously wrote an article for Vanity Fair called “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. He wrote that while women don’t need to be funny to attract men, the reverse certainly isn’t true for a lot of men. What is your opinion on that argument?
Crawford: Oh my goodness, I could write a book about that. Actually, I did. (Talking difference: On Gender and Language).
Imagine that you and I are having a conversation. For you to be able to tell a joke or make a witty remark, I have to give you the floor and signal that I’m willing to let you be funny. Then I have to pay attention to your witticism, and let you know I ‘got it,’ and I know you meant it as a joke, and I think it’s funny. This signaling is usually done in subtle, nonverbal ways — eye contact, a little laugh before the joke, a shift in posture, and so on. It’s a collaborative process, like a dance, and if one partner tries to bring humor into a conversation and the other resists or refuses to cooperate, the humor falls flat. So, for starters, I think it’s wrongheaded to conceptualize humor as something that people have (a static trait). Instead, it’s something that people do with others (a mode of discourse, a kind of social interaction).
There is considerable research on conversational dominance that shows men sometimes taking more than their fair share of conversational space, by interrupting, and controlling the topic, and so on. If women sometimes aren’t so funny in mixed-sex groups, is it because they’re not getting good dancing partners? Women in all-women groups — now that’s another story. There is a kind of collaborative storytelling that emerges, with the kernel of the story told first, and everyone then adding embellishments, so that a shared reality is constructed.
Second, humor can be — and is — used for myriad social purposes, not just sexual attraction (and, by the way, not all sexual attraction is hetero). When we asked a diverse sample of over 200 people to write about the humor of someone they knew and admired, they wrote about creativity, caring, and humor grounded in everyday life. The caring dimension was particularly interesting because it had not been captured in previous humor research. Our participants valued humor that was deployed to ease social tension, reduce a friend’s stress or anxiety, or cheer another person. Interestingly, this is a kind of humor that often emerges in all-women groups.
RG: Is it more difficult to be a female comedian?
Crawford: More difficult than being a female presidential candidate? Maybe not. More difficult than being a male comedian? Probably. There’s something a little scary about women’s humor. Cartoonist Nicole Hollander put it well: “Men are frightened by women’s humor because they think that when women are alone they’re making fun of men. This is perfectly true, but they think we’re making fun of their equipment when in fact there are so many more interesting things to make fun of – such as their value systems.”
RG: There are a number of very successful female comedians of late like Tina Fey, Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler, are perceptions of female comedians changing?
Crawford: There have long been very successful female comedians. Jackie “Moms”’ Mabley did standup from the 1920s to the 1970s, recorded some 20 albums, came out as one of the first openly gay comedians, and influenced Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sarah Silverman, among others. Lucille Ball and Carole Burnett, top stars of their eras, were superb physical comics and actors. Writer Erma Bombeck achieved sustained fame from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, publishing 15 bestsellers and a syndicated column in 900 newspapers, all of which chronicled the life of a suburban homemaker.
Tina’s, and both Amy’s humor could not have happened without the feminist humor of the sexual revolution. Gender is an obvious target in it, no need for the role playing of a Lucy. But we can look back all the way to Moms Mabley and find some outrageous routines – Mabley, who was black, courageously took on racism as well as sexism in her comedy.