x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The funny thing about female comedy writers

It is an old controversy in Hollywood that female comedians aren't funny. But the real mistake, given how many women are in charge, is to even raise the question

Like an idiot, I'm about to wade into a minor controversy that erupted a month or so ago in Hollywood. It's a foolish thing to do, of course. Whenever there's a public debate that touches on sensitive issues - gender, race, social class, that sort of thing - the wisest course of action is to remain very silent and very still. Almost anything one tries to add to the conversation is bound to irritate and offend someone.

But I've never been one to take the wisest course. I'm usually the guy wading into the shark-infested waters. So, here goes.

Let me just deliver the bare bones background of the controversy:

Someone in the comedy writing field was being interviewed by a national magazine - and right there, you can see the problem. Writers - especially writers in Hollywood - should never be the subject of interviews in magazines. Writers - especially writers in Hollywood - have all sorts of idiotic and crackpot views on things, from politics to world economic affairs, and they're free about sharing these views in interviews, which leads to the general public impression that writers in Hollywood live in, as a friend of mine puts it, "Crazy Town".

Actors are even crazier, of course, but there's zero chance you'll convince an actor not to do an interview. Which doesn't really matter, because with actors the stakes are a good deal lower. Everyone already knows they're crazy. When a movie star interrupts a press event designed to publicise a new movie to extol the virtues of flying electric cars, it wouldn't even make the newspaper the next day.

But the writer was insufficiently prepared, and in a long disquisition on the methods, techniques and politics of comedy writing, he said something that many comedy writers - well, many male comedy writers - have said privately. When asked by the interviewer why there were comparatively fewer female comedy writers, he said it was "because women aren't funny".

Justifiably, that stirred up a fair amount of appropriate pushback from, among others, women who are funny. And men who have worked with funny women. Several male comedy writers took to the barricades to insist that there are many, many funny female comedy writers around, and that any suggestion that there weren't - or that there shouldn't be - was nothing more than cave man-style sexism. One male comedy-writing blogger went so far as to compile a long list of the funniest and most successful female comedy writers around.

So it surprised me when I was talking to a female comedy writer and this came up, and she said: "Well, you know, he's sort of right."

She didn't mean that he was right to say that women aren't funny. She meant that it was harder, for some reason, for female comedy writers to thrive in the male-dominated sports-locker-room atmosphere of a comedy writers' room.

So many of the television comedies - and feature film comedies, too -are written by a group of writers, all sitting around on sofas, pitching jokes into the air. It's a heady and competitive environment, and for a long time it was hard for women to break into the club.

There's something aggressive and a little violent, frankly, about trying to make someone else laugh. You're trying to get them to breathe differently, trying to involuntarily alter the way their body conducts its respiration. That's also the definition of strangling someone, so you can start to see how making someone laugh edges into aggressive and dominating territory.

So maybe, back in the days before feminism and things like that, being funny was seen as unladylike. Too pushy. Too confrontational.

One of the most popular television comedies of the 1950s and early 1960s was The Dick Van Dyke Show, which centred around the home and work life of a young married comedy writer, who was writing for a fictional variety show. His writing staff was three people: the young guy, a classic vaudeville-style older writer, and Sally Rogers, played by the great Rose Marie, who was the lone woman.

Sally was funny, brash, but also lonely and unlucky in love. The price for being a funny woman was, back then, anyway, a life with a lot of cats and no dates.

But these days, there are funny women all over the place. In television, women are writing and creating comedies in equal numbers to men. On the writing staff for the television comedy I'm producing, women make up roughly half of the team, and they're every bit as capable of delivering an aggressive - and hilarious - joke as anyone else.

More importantly, there are plenty of television shows and film projects where women - funny or not - are in charge. There are female comedy producers, female comedy writers, and - this is where the writer giving the interview made his gravest mistake - lots of female executives running the comedy departments at every major network and studio. In other words, when it comes to comedy, in Hollywood, women do most of the hiring. And why would any female comedy executive hire a writer who famously thinks women can't be funny?

Which is the main reason writers should never give interviews: it's not so much that they'll say something crazy, it's that they'll say something expensive.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rbcl