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Comic Appeal, Sex Appeal, and Power
The black and white television screen leaves the Jack-o-lantern orange hair to our imagination. But the pinned-up curls, saucer-sized eyes, silly putty mouth, and quavering "Ricky-y-y!" leave no doubt about who this is...and where we have tuned our television dial. Forty-plus years later, we still love Lucy.
Blue-gray smoke wafts past the two-drink-minimum cocktail glasses toward a wooden cigarette held by a skinny woman in a satin evening suit and frightwig. Her own explosive "Ah Ha-Ha-Ha!" jump-starts an echo of raucous laughter in the enormous nightclub. "Go Phyllis!" cheers a man in the audience--and Phyllis Diller punches home her next joke.
A Roman empress becomes a coughing co-ed, who turns into a Texas housewife, who metamorphoses into a wistful charlady, who sweeps up a fading spotlight as the final credits roll on the television screen. The hour-long variety show is over. The dozens of sketch characters have vanished--or been reborn in comic bits and pathetic shadings that color the full length roles created by...Carol Burnett.
"Can we talk!?" caws the thin, birdlike woman in the designer gown as her eagle eyes calibrate the carats on the engagement rings in the front row. Laughing hoarsely, Joan Rivers confides the latest dish--celebrity scandals, her most recent plastic surgery, or the secret of her success--real jewelry, fake orgasms.
Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, and Joan Rivers are Queens of Comedy. Each created a career that lasted over a quarter of a century. Each put her own twist on traditional female comic types and broke new ground for younger, more radical comediennes. And each is a very funny lady. For more than twenty-five years, these Queens of Comedy have been getting big laughs and big hands--winning hands, because they are in fact, top cards.
The Queen of Hearts is, of course, Lucille Ball. Her funniness and lovability charmed I Love Lucy fans in the 1950's and still appeals in today's syndicated re-runs. The situation comedy mixed broad farce with domestic sentimentality and fine, ensemble, comic acting. The emotional heart of the program was the love between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (played by Desi Arnaz, Ball's husband, who produced the show). Like Ricky/Desi, millions of viewers said, "I love Lucy"--and crowned her the Queen of Hearts.
The Queen of Clubs is Phyllis Diller, who began performing in major comedy clubs and nightclubs at a time when stand-up comedy was 99% male. Diller broke down barriers against women in comedy through the sheer force of her talent and determination. At thirty-seven years old, Diller was a housewife with five children, an unemployed husband, and a gift for making women laugh at the laundromat. She embarked on a risky show business career where all the role models were male and seemingly inaccessible. She honed her talent until she developed herself into a grandmaster of comedy, writing much of her own material, playing clubs which seat thousands of people, and delivering twelve laughs per minute.
The Queen of Spades is Carol Burnett, who dug deeply into her own childhood pain (both parents were alcoholic and sporadically abusive) to create comedy that was darker and more violent than that of Lucille Ball. She broke new ground with her willingness to jump, trip, take pratfalls, mug, or do a Tarzan yell that challenged notions of ladylike behavior. Burnett has said:
If you're a woman, it's difficult to break through the barrier of having others accept you as funny. There's all that training you've had since you were three. Be a lady! Don't yell or try to be funny. Just be a nice little girl. Sit quietly with your knees close together, and speak only when you're spoken to. Women are afraid to make themselves unattractive. I'm not afraid of that, goodness knows! But all but one in a million women are afraid to mess up their hair, not wear lipstick, slouch, look flat-chested....Most women are obsessed with an outmoded sense of modesty. They labor under the necessity of being ladylike. They are afraid that being funny is unfeminine.
Burnett's willingness to challenge that feminine role-stereotyping resulted in a style of comedy that mixed broad slapstick with vulnerability and pathos. Her talent and personal likability were at the core of The Carol Burnett Show, one of the few prime time television variety show to be hosted by a comedienne and the most successful.
Joan Rivers is the Queen of Diamonds. Her sparkling wit and hard-edged comedy cuts through pretense with the precision of an industrial strength diamond drill. Her love of jewelry is evident in her accessories: the necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and earrings that festoon her fashionable ensembles. Jewelry is also a favorite motif in her act, for show, for fun, and as a female success symbol, especially when set into engagement rings. For years, Rivers herself was a "diamond in the rough," polishing her act in low-pay, no pay showcase clubs. She broke taboos with her comedy act, basing it on her own life and daring treatment of intimate, female-oriented subject matter. She finally broke through on The Tonight Show, became Johnny Carson's first permanent guest host, and went on to host her own Emmy-winning talk show.
Each of these women had to struggle against some form of prejudice. Sometimes it was simple racism (Ball's sponsors resisted casting Desi Arnaz as her television husband because they did not think audiences would accept the idea of an American woman married to a Cuban). Sometimes it was internalized sexism--a fear of appearing unladylike or "not nice." For the first seven years of The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett was so concerned about being perceived as overly assertive and unfeminine, that she avoided attending production meetings where the show was planned and written.
Mostly it was unsubtle reminders that women, especially female performers, were meant to be pretty--that their success depended on their looks. Burnett and Rivers were discouraged from pursuing careers as actresses because they weren't "pretty" enough. Comedy provided an alternative to the "pretty" identity. Diller made her "ugliness" the cornerstone of her comedy act, and all three made fun of their appearance and lack of sex appeal.
As female stand-up comics, Diller and Rivers met with tremendous resistance. Stand-up comedy was--and to an extent, still is--a male profession. Many male comics got their start doing comedy in strip joints--and audiences were used to equating men with humor and women with stripping. As a beginning stand up comic, Rivers was booked into a strip joint and billed as "Pepper January--Comedy with Spice." When she kept her clothes on and tried to be funny, the frustrated audience booed her off the stage, yelling "Bring on the girls!"
Audiences at strip clubs have clear--if crude--expectations from female performers. They are different from general audiences in the graphic nature of their entertainment preferences. But are they different in kind? While there are male performers who are sex symbols, there is nowhere near the emphasis on attractiveness for male actors or even tv anchormen as there is for their female counterparts. Why are there so many more female strippers than male? Why are there so few women comics? Why is it that the only branch of show business where men significantly outnumber the women is stand-up comedy? And, conversely, why are today's female comics, while still few compared with the males, an exploding minority? (According to Budd Friedman, owner of the famous Improvisation Comedy Club in Los Angeles, about 15% of his comics are now women and their numbers are snowballing.)
Maybe it has something to do with how men look at women--and how women see themselves. For a long time, women were just not supposed to be funny. A 1909 newspaper editorialized:
Measured by ordinary standards of humor, she is about as comical as a crutch....A woman was made to be loved and fondled. She was certainly not made to be laughed at.
This prevailing opinion led to the absurd situation of female humorists, who as Nancy Walker in her seminal book A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture, notes,"were writing humor in the face of the prevailing opinion that they were not capable of what they were at that moment, doing." Deanne Stillman, coeditor of Titters, a 1976 collection of women's humor, wanted to be a humorist since she was a teenager, but believing that "writing funny was something girls didn't do" signed the parodies she submitted to Mad Magazine as "Dean." In 1988, the owner of a well-known New York comedy club opined: "Stand-up comedy is aggressive. It takes balls. Sure some women do it, but you kind of wonder about them."
In 1996, Cary Hoffman, owner of Stand-Up New York comedy club, who admits he does not hire women as often as men, said, "Stand-up comedy has a lot to do with control and power. And most men seem to exercise it more easily than women."
Even some brilliantly successful female comics are infected with a vertigo that comes from trying to strike a balance between traditional sex roles and personal inclination. Joan Rivers has said, "I don't like funny women. I don't think I'm funny. I think I'm witty." Other female comics have simply faced the fact that they made a painful, but personally inevitable choice.
Gilda Radner said, "I know I've scared many men off because of humor. I'll be funny instead of feminine. You're not likely to see me sitting at the back of a party being pretty."
Karen Babbitt, a rising stand-up comic with big blue eyes and a mane of taffy-colored hair, comments:
It's still not considered feminine to be really funny. To be successful you have to sacrifice feminine approval for comedic approval. You have to come to a point where you don't care about getting feminine approval. My whole life I was miserable. I was always getting kicked out of class. I was not asked to the prom. I was not popular. I was infamous. It was extremely painful that I could not keep my mouth shut. Finally, when I became a comedienne, my life made sense. People say to me, "This must be the hardest thing in the world." For me, it's not. And it's not something I chose to do either. It's something that very specifically and methodically chose me.
Some comediennes have resolved the supposed conflict between funniness and femininity. Carol Burnett, stigmatized for years as a gawky "mugger," advised an audience at the Museum of Broadcasting that: "The idea that it's not feminine to clown around is old hat. Just be you." On a recent HBO special, stand-up comic Elaine Boosler dismissed the conflict with a breezy "being a lady has never been one of my goals."
What is the connection between comic appeal, sex appeal, and our notions of what is feminine? Why have so few women made it in stand-up comedy? And will this change as more "chick" comics rise up the pecking order of this cock-of-the walk profession?
It all does seem to have something to do with power--the power of comic appeal and sex appeal. The "life of the party" is usually the center of attention; and everybody laughs longest and loudest at the boss's jokes. The ability to be a good sport and laugh at a joke, especially when it's on you, is the mark of a good subordinate. Except in formally sanctioned "roasts" (which are often censored), no one expects the boss to have to "take it."
When you make someone laugh, you get him to accept the premise of your joke, which is often the stupidity of some officially sanctioned idea, behavior, or authority. Nancy Walker, author of A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture, comments:
For women to adopt this role means that they must break out of the passive, subordinate position mandated for them by centuries of patriarchal tradition and take on the power accruing to those who reveal the shams, hypocrisies, and incongruities of the dominant culture. To be a woman and a humorist is to confront and to subvert the very power that keeps women powerless, and at the same time to risk alienating those upon whom women are dependent for economic survival.
As for the motives of the jokester, at least some of them include a strong power drive. Professor Paul McGee, author of Humor: Its Origin and Development, asserts:
It seems clear that the need to dominate is one of the basic precursors for heightened humor development. The person in a small group or at a party who is the initiator of humor is really in control of the social situation; he gives people things that they respond to, so he's pulling the strings.
Psychologist Waleed Samaled adds:
The female stand-up comics have the same personality profile, aspirations, self-image, creative outlook, and ability as the men.
How do we feel about women pulling the strings--especially when they're attached to people's funny bones? The traditional matador/doormat format dictates that just as men are supposed to be taller, richer, smarter, and more aggressive, they are supposed to be the joke tellers, while the women laugh at their jokes. Ann Beatts, comedy writer, remembers what it was like to be an adolescent in the 1950's.
Real girls weren't funny. Real girls were pretty and fluffy and could do the splits in cheerleader tryouts. Real girls didn't crack jokes. Did you ever hear Sandra Dee crack a joke? Annette Funicello didn't even laugh; she just put her hands on her hips and got mad at Ricky or Tommy or Eddie or whoever was carrying her surfboard, so that they could tell her how cute she was when she was mad.
Unlike the male comic, whose talent and drive are supported by his sex role, the female comic often finds her inner nature at war with what's expected from "a real girl" or "a real woman." When Julia Klein interviewed several female comics for a 1984 Ms. article, she discovered:
The women agree that stand-up comedy is, in itself, an aggressive act; making someone laugh means exerting control, even power. But a woman cannot come off as overaggressive or she will lose the audience.
Comic Carol Siskind adds:
In a way, we have to be more careful. Men can be gross and get away with it. We have to be very careful not to step on the male ego. There are things you learn early on to phrase very carefully.
Things happen so fast in the comedy world, however, that Siskind's remark, made in the 1980's when she was was emcee at the defunct Improv on 44th Street, seems antiquated. Like feminism in general, women's comedy keeps pushing the envelope past old restrictions. Today's up-and-coming comics often do material that was once only heard on "party records" or "blue nightclubs." Even though Roseanne has softened her shtick for television audiences, her comedy has a coarse, caustically feminist edge that would have been unpalatable to audiences even a short time ago. Her nightclub act includes lines like:
I don't see why everybody says lesbians hate men. Why should lesbians hate men? They don't have to fuck 'em!
Even her scrubbed up television show features her chomping on a doughnut as she remarks:
A guy is a lump, like this doughnut. First you gotta get rid of all the stuff his mom did to him. (She whisks the nuts off the doughnut.) Then there's the macho crap they get from the beer commercials. And then, there's my personal favorite--the male ego. (She bites into the doughnut with savage joy.)
Unlike the slim, stylishly dressed, upwardly mobile, adorably madcap homemakers of 1950's sitcoms, Roseanne's TV alter-ego--a fat, disheveled, angry, blue-collar, working wife and mother demands that we pay attention to her unglamorized reality--and her opinions!
Nancy Walker says: "a common theme of women's humor is the desire to claim autonomy and power." In his article "Humor, Sex, and Power in American Society," Dr. Samuel Janus states:
Humor, effectively used, is a most potent source of power; it is especially needed and adopted by those who have no other recognizable form of power. Minority groups have long seized upon comedy as the expression of their will and power. The ability to make a person laugh with them, not at them, is a vital one.
Janus' insight most obviously applies to the Jews, a persecuted minority who have produced comedy writers, directors, and performers out of all proportion to their percentage in the population. The Jewish culture has historically idealized the intellect (including the ability to be funny) and denigrated violence. For Jews, humor has been a survival kit, a bittersweet elixir that transforms oy to joy. As Jews immigrated from European ghettos to Hester Street and even Hollywood, Yiddishkeit has flavored sitcoms, stand-up acts, and films and moved from the shtetl to the stars.
Of course, there are successful comediennes from all ethnic groups. Some of today's successful comediennes are African-American, like Whoopi Goldberg, Bertice Berrie, and Marsha Warfield; Italian-American like Joy Behar, Judy Tenuta, Fran Capo; Hispanic-American, like Marga Gomez; or Asian-American like Margaret Cho. If you're not an ethnic minority--it helps to feel like an outsider because of your looks, family background, disability, or personal history (Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Geri Jewell, Rosie O'Donnell, or Brett Butler). Kate Clinton, lesbian comic, says:
What's outside the norm is funny, so women are funny because the norm is clearly male. Lesbians are even further outside the norm than other women, so we're really funny.
Minority cultures are influenced by the mainstream and other subcultures. Jews learned to like hamburgers and Chinese food. Lenny Bruce blended American English with Yiddishisms and the improvisational stylings of Black jazz musicians. Women's comedy often mixes male comedy styles with female concerns. Joan Rivers was most strongly influenced by Lenny Bruce; and Phyllis Diller's comic mentor was Bob Hope.)
It has always been more acceptable for masculine styles to influence feminine ones, rather than vice versa. Women wear slacks, man-tailored suits, shoulder pads, and even designer jockey shorts. Males in skirts, dresses, and feminine lingerie are more suspect. We accept it as natural that a subordinate group should copy the fashions of the dominant one. The powerless take on the trappings of the powerful, not vice versa. To most parents, a little girl who acts like a tomboy is cute; a little boy who acts like a sissy is embarrassing.
Like other groups that have suffered discrimination, women are classified as a minority by affirmative action programs. However, unlike ethnic minorities, women are a numerical majority and, rather than being segregated in ghettos, have been intimately involved with men. A woman's survival and comfort often depended on a man's willingness to care for her and her children. She needed to behave so that he would do so, in other words, be "feminine." What that often meant was mentally subordinate, dependent, and unchallenging. When a woman is funny, she presents herself as mentally strong and daring--challenging and mocking patriarchal assumptions. She risks alienating those upon she is dependent for survival.
In 1981, Janus wrote:
The fact that women in comedy account for at most 12 percent of the field, whereas in other areas of show business they represent at least 50%, attests to their lack of credibility as power figures.
Lily Tomlin, commenting on why female comics sometimes encounter difficulties because of their gender, says:
Funny is probably threatening, 'cause for people to laugh...it's submissive. When people laugh, they're vulnerable.
The feelings of release, the letting go that allows you to laugh, can be frightening to someone who feels that maintaining control is crucial to survival. Michael Iopoce, author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Boardroom: Using Humor in Business Speaking, says:
Most pros agree that an all-male audience can often be the hardest to make laugh, while an all-female group is the easiest. And it has nothing to with a relative sense of humor. It's much less complicated than that. Humor successfully used, confers power or control over an audience. We must "let our guard down" to laugh. If we laugh too hard, we become "helpless" or "weak" with laughter. In our society, men are conditioned to avoid this at all costs. They are more reluctant to laugh than women, perhaps because they have been conditioned to avoid appearing weak, helpless, or just plain silly. Think about it--tough guys never laugh (except maybe when they're putting a few slugs into another tough guy). This sort of foolery becomes magnified when they are surrounded by other men. Who wants to be the first to let down his guard? It's just not macho.
Argus Hamilton, comic and m.c. at the famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles, prefers to think of himself as a "preacher" and the audience as his "congregation"--a benign model of domination. But he readily admits that many male comics describe themselves as "matadors" and the audience as a "lynch mob." If comedy is on some level a power struggle between comic and audience, what he-man wants to be beaten by a girl?
Iopoce offers advice to his reader on how to get around the problem of male resistance to humor.
...when facing an all-male audience, it's especially important to make sure you joke about something of common interest, so that you bond yourself with your audience--kind of become one of the guys, right? If it's not a homogeneous group of men in the same company or the same field, the locker-room standbys are generally a good bet: sports, business, or--women.
Iapoce does not explain how a woman is supposed to become one of the guys (probably because his imaginary reader is male), especially if she has limited experience with team sports, business--or locker rooms. Presumably, she can joke about women (a subject about which she has considerable first-hand knowledge). However, her point of view may be different.
Kate Clinton does a sketch on the male-oriented porno film Debbie Does Dallas, where she muses on the cheerleaders in the shower room who keep washing their breasts. And washing. And washing their breasts--big circular motions.
Well, we do know how dirty breasts do get. I, for example, sometimes change my bra three or four times a day.
And even if a woman makes herself the object of the joke, the very fact that she is taking center stage and making people laugh assumes authority.
Passivity and wit are diametrically opposed; the former requires acquiescence to rules and the standards imposed by the dominant society, while the latter, with its associative values of intelligence, perception, and irreverence, implies the "tilting of unofficial values over official ones."
The notion that funniness implies power has a basis in the physiology of laughter. Basically, laughter is the build-up and sudden release of tension. Laughing means going along with a set-up, which builds intellectual or social tension and suddenly breaking the tension with an explosion of laughter, triggered by a punchline or comical action. The release is both intellectual (getting the joke) and physiological (laughter).
The person who laughs is rendered temporarily defenseless and physically weak--muscles relax, breathing becomes spasmodic, tears may come to one's eyes, and the laugher may even lose bladder control and fall down. (There is medical evidence that all this ultimately strengthens the heart, lungs, endorphins, and immune system, but that happens on an unconscious level. What the laugher immediately experiences is loss of control.)
Besides laughter, the body has other responses that involve increasing tension and sudden release, followed by deeper relaxation. They include yawning, sneezing, and...orgasm. Yawning and sneezing are passive responses to physical needs--sleep and irritation in the nasal passage. We don't seek them out or particularly enjoy them when they happen.
Laughter and orgasm are sources of pleasure. (Of course, there are fake laughs, usually done to placate someone in power or show that you get a joke (when, in fact, you might not enjoy or even understand it). A fake laugh is a lot like a fake orgasm--intended to smooth over a difficult social situation and not much fun for the laugher.)
Laughter and orgasm do seem to go together on an instinctive level--maybe that's why strippers and comics are often booked on the same bill. Strippers take off their clothes, and today's stand-up comics, who often base their comedy on their own lives, metaphorically bare their souls. Comedy and stripping are designed to give pleasure by stripping away respectable disguises. The audience responds with laughter or sexual arousal.
Both laughter and orgasm have intellectual and physical aspects. Of the two, comedy is more intellectual--getting the joke--resulting in a physical response--laughter. (Although physical tickling can produce laughter, it's not called comedy.) Sexual passion may involve very little conscious thought, and too much analysis, guilt, or worry can interfere.
Not much has been written about the relationship between laughter and orgasm, probably because of the difficulty doing research. (Imagine the classified ad--"Wanted: Sexual Surrogate with Great Sense of Humor.") But the fact is, you can't laugh and have an orgasm at the same time. The muscular tension that leads to orgasm dissolves in laughter. Comic Judy Carter, looking like Peter Pan in a lavender necktie, says:
You can't be sexy and funny at the same time. Have you ever tried to have sex and laugh? It totally stops it.
The issue is complicated by the fact that funniness can be highly attractive. A good sense of humor is consistently listed as among the top ten qualities people seek in a mate. Desi Arnaz once noted that Ball was one of the few women who "could make you laugh, and yet at the same time, make you want to go to bed with her."
I suggest that while a good sense of humor can be appealing, when a relationship moves into the directly physical, the intellectual pleasure of comedy is distracting at best. And, if the humor is based on a kind of rapier wit, the effect may be chilling. An anonymous seventeenth century passage attributed to the comedic playwright Moliere says pointedly:
There is nothing more contrary to the passionate feeling of amorous pleasure than the intellectual pleasure which ridicule affords.
If laughter interferes with orgasm, sexual stimulation gets in the way of the mental focus necessary for comedy. Judy Carter says:
Breasts aren't funny. If I have something tight on, they don't hear me. They look at me. It hits a different region. Comedy hits the mind--they laugh--it's an idea. But if you're hitting the groin.... (She tilts her head to the side in an idiot version of the RCA Victor dog.) Ever watch men in a strip club?
Perhaps this is why men who are threatened by female strength don't like funny women. Laughing means acknowledging their power. The slang of the stand-up comic succinctly sums up the power issues and the tension between humiliation and domination--either you "die" or you "kill." Either you "bomb" or you "murder the audience." Doing badly on stage can produce a state of fear physically manifest as "flop sweat." Doing well produces a state of exhilaration; the comic is likely to exult: "I slayed 'em!...I slaughtered 'em! I destroyed 'em!"
Sexual relations don't have to be experienced as humiliation or domination. Sexuality can be loving, mutual vulnerability--as can comedy. Lotus Weinstock, a comic who plays a sweetly spaced-out survivor of the sixties, says, "Comedy is a way of being the most intimate you can be with folks outside your home because when a whole roomful of people are laughing, suddenly you've dissolved the pain and shame of separateness. At that moment, there's no judgment--it's a true release."
Weinstock's opinion expresses an ease with vulnerability that many comics do not share. Eddie Murphy's humor is hard-edged macho: highly aggressive, frequently obscene, and anti-gay. Like his humor, his model for sex relations is a mutual power struggle, with women as "schemers" and men as "cheaters." As Murphy told a New York Times reporter: "The key to male supremacy is sexual performance.... After a woman has experienced a good orgasm, no matter what you do wrong, as long as you say, 'I'm sorry,' she will listen to your story."
The notion that male supremacy depends on sexual prowess is particularly strong in cultures where men are denied power based on income, profession, or education. Women's power was also traditionally limited, mainly to the bedroom and kitchen. The old model for the nuclear family was based on women supplying emotional nurturing to ambitious men--tending their personal needs, making a home, and raising the children. Not many men are willing to be house-husbands to ambitious women.
Today, however, the majority of women work outside the home. Even if both partners prefer that the wife be a full-time homemaker, most families need both incomes. Although most are in a pink-collar ghetto of low-paid service jobs, the percentage of women in the elite professions and management has risen dramatically since the 1950's. Women have moved from bedroom to boardroom and from house and garden to house and senate. And so, not so coincidentally, have funny women stepped out from standing behind Tom, Dick, and Harry, to standing behind the mike in comedy clubs.