From an early age I was taught to laugh. As a kid, my primary caretaker was an ex-doctor from the former Soviet Union with an ample bosom and several gold teeth that twinkled in the light every time she smiled. Her name was Raya, and she was my favorite person in the entire world. Every year of my life till the age of five was spent with Raya. We would make authentic Russian beet borscht and watch “Anastasia” and laugh. Oh god, we would laugh. Raya was the queen of her own kind of borscht belt comedy. She compared finding love at her age to finding a parking spot, every spot being either taken or handicapped. Her jokes were dirty, and the punchlines were always in Russian. I never understood them, but I understood the hearty belly laugh that followed each kicker. It would start deep, like a sneeze and travel up through her entire body exiting with a bit of spittle and excessive force. Her eyes would close and the cavernous lines like parentheses around her mouth would grow longer to highlight her wide, golden-toothed grin. Two years after her death, I still hear her laugh.
Funny women have always had a presence in my life. Raya taught me to laugh at myself, to laugh in the face of pain, to laugh it all away. She was my adopted grandmother, and she never let me go hungry. Come to think of it, I think my chubby childhood has something to do with Raya’s forceful hand in the kitchen. So, dear reader, when I hear that ridiculous and oft used insult, women aren’t funny, I imagine Raya laughing a laugh so big that those awful men and their micropenises combust from the sheer feminine power.
In 2007, Vanity Fair published an essay by Christopher Hitchens titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Yes, really. In the essay, Hitchens argued for the “superior funniness of men” versus the “inferior funniness of women.” According to Hitchens, women are inherently serious due to their childbearing and childrearing capabilities. He goes on to write, “For some reason women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing, which is why we admire Lucille Ball and Helen Fielding, who do see the funny side of it. But this is so rare as to be like Dr. Johnson’s comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: the surprise is that it is done at all.” So, according to Hitchens, women do not find death as funny as men and they are too serious, therefore they are incapable of being as funny as men or funny at all.
In response to this essay, Vanity Fair published an eloquent rebuttal by Alessandra Stanley titled, “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” Stanley neatly and savagely lines up the ways women have slayed the comedy game for centuries. She even drops a line about our matriarch Sarah cracking a joke way back in Genesis. Yea, we’ve been funny for a while. Stanley also mentions Kate Sanborn, who wrote in her 1885 book “The Wit of Women”: “No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady’s lips.” Not much has changed since 1885; men still hate getting out-witted by funny females. Even the “King of Comedy” A.K.A. Jerry Lewis claimed again and again that women aren’t funny. Jerry Lewis repeatedly said he didn’t feel “comfortable” with women performing comedy and when asked if he had a favorite female comedian he responded that he didn’t have any. When the “King of Comedy” says women aren’t funny, it becomes more clear that maybe the problem isn’t a few sour men but a deep-rooted double-standard riddled with misogyny that has infected the entire comedy industry. In her essay, Stanley writes, “It used to be that women were not funny. Then they couldn’t be funny if they were pretty. Now a female comedian has to be pretty — even sexy — to get a laugh.” It turns out, no matter what, women are criticized for being too much or not enough.
If you ask a female comedian how they feel about men like Hitchens or Lewis or any other white male comedian thinking we aren’t funny we will answer with a resounding, “we don’t f****ing care if you like it” (Tina Fey said that). While we don’t care what old, dead, white men have to say about the inconsistency of having boobs and a sense of humor, it still sucks. It sucks that as women we still have to justify our funniness and that we have to remind the world that women are funny: Remember when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did Weekend Update? “Broad City” is still on, right? What about that time Cardi B co-hosted “The Tonight Show”? That was something. Joan Rivers once said, “Men find funny women threatening. They ask me, ‘Are you going to be funny in bed?’” If funny women are threatening, angry and funny women are a bloody threat. But look how far we’ve come! Women are killing the comedy game, occupying more roles in leadership positions on comedy networks and making space for women in TV, film and the internet for their content. So yeah, it sucks that women have more to prove, but it’s also amazing how much female-driven content is out there today.
Women are funny because funny isn’t gendered. Women are funny because jokes should rely on one’s wit and talent not on what is between one’s legs. And guess what, like most subjective things, taste differs. And like most performers, not everyone excels at their craft. So yes, some women may not be funny, but just as many, probably more, men are failing at funny too. Men claimed women are unfunny because they wanted them in the audiences and their beds rather than on the stage. The argument that women can’t be funny is an antiquated, misogynist claim that has no evidence or proof, and thus I proclaim it dead. Bye forever, good riddance.