Funny Women

By

I have been thinking a lot about funny women.

I’m going to tell you what’s good before I tell you what’s very, very bad.

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For some, Shouts & Murmurs, the humor section of the New Yorker, is the pre-game to reading the magazine (I’m plagiarizing myself here), and for others it’s the best part of the magazine (second to the cartoons). It’s high-register satire and societal parody. It’s also sexist.

While I compiled what I considered to be the best of the Shouts & Murmurs from the past year, I regretted and lamented and mawkishly fulminated that I included no women. It’s not that women aren’t funny. It’s just that they’re not there. The New Yorker online archives go back one year, and in that span, I found only 7–a number under 10 and only slightly upwards from 0–pieces written by women. They are below (with my favorite lines called out):

Book Club by Ann Hodgman
“Book-club members who have actually read this book have called its plot ‘depressing,’ ‘disgusting,’ and ‘too much about poor people.’ Does this suggest that you, as a reader, have a moral obligation to say that you liked the book?

Making Friends by Amy Ozols
[While making friends with a six-year-old child on an airplane, the narrator makes some observations.] “There are lots of differences between you and me, but that’s one of the big ones: the quality and the seriousness of what happens when we touch other people’s pants.”

Looking Your Best by Amy Ozols
[One of nine easy steps to evade the obesity epidemic in America is to] “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.”

Memo from the C.E.O. by Patricia Marx
[This is a comprehensive account of cost-cutting measures to remain competitive in this economy.] “Stairs will go up, but not down”; [also] “note: Anyone who received a signing bonus will be required to return it, posthaste, with interest. In fairness, senior V.P.s were asked to give back the income from last year’s exercised options, but they concluded that the calculation would be difficult and onerous.”

Lost by Kim Gamble
[154 passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 survive a crash 7 minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport; they settle on the surface of the Hudson River.] “Just as despair seems inevitable, and human contact outside our group eternally elusive, we celebrate what we initially perceive as progress: 32F Julie approaches one of The Others, a young singer-songwriter named Ted, and successfully engages him in a lengthy philosophical conversation about free will. She also returns with one of Ted’s flyers—go figure—describing his vibe as a mix of early Jeff Buckley and something called Animal Collective, and assures us she is certain he will call her.”

I Have to Go Now by Jenny Allen
[A houseguest looks for a coffee maker and anxiously apostrophizes to her sleeping hosts.] “And you think I am your friend! I’m so worried—terrified, really—that you two might come downstairs and think I’m looking for something secret, trying to find something here in the kitchen that you stashed away because you’re ashamed of it. I can’t even imagine what that would be (a cigarette from 1983? An old bong?), but that’s how I feel.”

A Mass E-mail by Amy Ozols
[A woman loses her phone and thus, all her contact information.] “Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for sending a mass e-mail.”


–Other funny women of the New Yorker online include Lynda Barry, who dispels “the false notion that a person should only make art if he or she can make a living from it”; Patricia Marx, speaking with New Yorker staff writer Nancy Franklin about her writing habits, working at Saturday Night Live, the Harvard Lampoon, and her new novel, Him Her Him Again the End of Him; and cartoonist Roz Chast says this of being funny: “I putter. I nurse old grudges. I fold origami while nursing old grudges. I think about the past. I wonder if there’s any grudges I should start.”

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Some (Larry Summers) also say women aren’t good at math, but I’ll try my best now. Out of the 43 Shouts & Murmurs pieces in the past year, 7 were written by women, so 7/43 = .16 (x 100) = 16% (ish…there were some other decimal points I didn’t bother to deal with). To be clear, that’s less than half of half, which is less than equal, which is bullshit. Amy Ozoles wrote 3/7 of the pieces (this means about 43% of funny women’s writing is Ozoles-type humor only), so really, only 5/43 = 12% (rounding up) women contributed to Shouts & Murmurs in the past year.

But we could consider how many humor pieces are about women/making fun of women. It’s true that some women are a joke, like Sarah Palin: read My Gal by George Saunders, which begins: “Explaining how she felt when John McCain offered her the Vice-Presidential spot, my Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, said something very profound: ‘I answered him ‘Yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.’ Isn’t that so true? I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.” There are also funny pieces about female icons: read Britney’s Conversion Diary by Andy Borowitz.

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Recently Allison Silverman, an executive producer of The Colbert Report, talked to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air about being funny professionally. Silverman is a head writer for The Colbert Report and has been with the show since its debut in 2005. She previously wrote for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. She has even won Emmys for her funny writing.

While much of Gross’s and Silverman’s discussion involves The Colbert Report‘s recent broadcasts from the combat zone in Iraq, Terry Gross broached the sexism-in-comedy subject. Here is a brief transcription (that I edited/altered for clarity):

Terry Gross: Some people think it’s rare to have women writers in comedy. Was that ever an obstacle for you? Obviously you’ve done great, and I think certainly the people you’ve written for are people who do not strike me as sexist. If anyone is going to have an open and enlightened writers’ room, you’d think it would be them. Was it ever an obstacle [being hilarious while simultaneously possessing a vagina]?

Allison Silverman: I have not found it to be an obstacle. Now that I’m in a position where I look at submissions, I would definitely say there are very few women who submit to these shows. They have as good a percentage of [being selected as] our male submissions. I would really like more women to apply for them, and I think perhaps part of that lack of submissions is due to this general feel that writers’ rooms are very sexist: that you’re going to be harassed; that it’s an old boys’ network of its own sort, and that generally you’re going to be treated hostilely. I always want to get it out there that I haven’t had that experience at all, and maybe . . . that’s the way to solve whatever problem there is here. Just get women to write. I haven’t found anyone in my comedy travels who honestly thinks that women aren’t as capable of this as men are. I really don’t think I have.”

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After I published “The Women of McSweeneys.net,” Christopher Monks, the editor of McSweeneys.net, told me he hoped that Rumpus piece would inspire more women to submit. While compiling the post (which became one of The Rumpus’s most popular . . . and I mention this not to brag about how hot I am, but to emphasize that people are interested in women being hilarious), I scoured the McSweeneys.net archives for pieces written by ladies. I was distraught when this took relatively no time at all. Monks confirmed: “Our inbox is pretty male-heavy. . . . For the website it’s like 3 or 4 to 1, men to women, in terms of submissions. It’s also way too white, but that’s another article for another day.” Another day indeed.

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I want to encourage more women to submit. Submit to humor websites, magazines, quarterlies, The Colbert Report, etc. We need more women writers. Tracy Clark-Flory wonders where all the women writers are. In Salon, she writes: “The ratio of male to female writers in major ‘thought leader’ magazines is 3:1. Unimpressed? Consider that, of the 1,893 pieces surveyed, a measly 447 articles were written by women.” This was in 2006. In 2009, my research/laborious calculations/verbal frustration (based 1/10 in scientific fact and 9/10 in depressed, crazy, angry, and impotent feelings) shows a decline. “Possibly more interesting than the frequency with which women writers are published is the subject matter women are called on to write about. In an e-mail to Davis Konigsberg, a former editor at the New Yorker noted a curious trend at the Atlantic, where women ‘write about marriage, motherhood and nannies, obsessively so.'”

Women: you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. Let’s write some original humor pieces on The Rumpus. If you are a woman (you know who you are), submit your funny writing to The Rumpus. Email me at [email protected], and I’ll pick my favorites and publish them. The compensation is extravagant: pride in knowing you contributed to the diverse canon of women’s writing + changing the world’s mind about who’s funny. Your heart will swell with accomplishment and your breasts will become larger. This, I promise.

More information can be found here: Funny Women Submission Guidelines.

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Please read Mary Birdsong’s (of Reno 911) open letter to Christopher Hitchens: “In Defense of the Funny Man Who Wrote the Big Article.” It’s super cute.

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Original art by Ilyse Magy


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →