Last night I had dinner with Meghan and Rebecca, two very sharp lady comedy friends. We had just come from a Mindy Kaling book event and were thus a little hopped up and in a very particular headspace halfway between gossip and serious talk. The conversation careened from Mindy to HelloGiggles to stand-up to SNL, and then very specifically to Melissa McCarthy’s recent stint as the host of that show. As much as we all appreciate McCarthy — because duh, everyone in the country does, she’s like the Ryan Gosling of hilarious women that everyone adores right now — we had mixed perspectives on how McCarthy’s SNL episode was perceived. There had been a backlash on the internet at the time, mostly revolving around the idea that all of McCarthy’s sketches seemed to be elongated “fat jokes.” But, one of us argued, much of McCarthy’s episode was comprised of characters carried over from her Groundlings days. Yeah, another added, and for that matter, characters like Arlene, Lulu Diamonds, and the woman from the Hidden Valley Ranch sketch could have all been Kristen Wiig characters with no real difference. (For that matter, Lulu could have essentially been a Chris Farley character — it was pure, balls-to-the-wall physical comedy.) They weren’t necessarily fat jokes, for the most part — they were jokes, delivered by a fat person.
But what made those sketches work? It wasn’t just that they were outstanding material that anyone could have killed with. It’s hard to imagine a January Jones or a Scarlett Johansson throwing herself down a flight of stairs over and over in the name of a laugh. Despite their presence on the show each week, you’d be hard pressed to find a sketch in which comely, thin Nasim Pedrad or Abby Elliott play a character whose central joke is their grotesque appearance and/or general lack of appeal (though glamour doesn’t always negate playing such roles — see Tina Fey on 30 Rock, pretty much every week.). While McCarthy’s sketches didn’t necessarily hinge on her size, it would have most likely changed the atmosphere in the room to see a tiny woman like Anna Faris or Emma Stone literally throwing herself around the stage to get a laugh.
That point connected to something else we touched on, which was that there are nearly zero action comedies with female casts. The Hangover, I postulated, could have worked just as well with three women in the leads, searching for a missing fourth friend in the Vegas desert after a disastrous bachelorette party. Think about it: gorgeous, snitty Elizabeth Banks in the Bradley Cooper role, gamely flustered Rashida Jones as Ed Helms, improv-loose and off-the-wall Amy Poehler as Zach Galifianakis? It could have worked, in theory. But the problem here, we realized, is that audiences don’t like seeing women in dangerous situations, regardless of whether the spin is funny or not. Consider it a holdover from the damsel-in-distress days. When women in fiction get into trouble, we worry, and we hope the hero will save them — unless they’re Angelina Jolie and it’s been clear from the get-go that they’re there to kick ass. But the idea of throwing three female characters into a potentially life-threatening situation and then expecting audiences to laugh about it? It wouldn’t have worked, we realized, but not for the fault of anyone working on the film. Mainstream moviegoing audiences simply don’t go for that.
But why? Why are we tickled to watch Melissa McCarthy dive around the stage like a madwoman, but not a thin woman? Why aren’t we on board with the Female Action Comedy yet? Does it all have to do with looks?
Look, I’m not delusional. Film and television are visual mediums, and as a culture, we expect our movie stars to, by and by, maintain an almost dangerously thin figure (“What are we paying you for?”). It also helps if you have a lovely, symmetrical face to go with that; if not, there’s always plastic surgery — or you can play the weird best friend. But comedy has always been a different game. Comedy, historically, is the realm of the funny-looking folk: usually male, often fueled by insecurities about their appearances. It’s still true to this day — much is made of the so-called “growing trend” of films about fat schlubby man-boys, but really, has anything changed from the days of Jimmy Durante (not fat, but certainly weird-looking) to Jackie Gleason to Jonah Hill?
Well, yes. One thing has changed, and it’s that women are now not just expected to be hot, but also Hot And Funny. Sarah Silverman did Girlishly Inappropriate, Tina Fey brought the Sexy Librarian look to town, and now, with the advent of Whitney Cummings and Olivia Munn as this year and last’s “it comedy hotties,” we’re living in the age of the Bawdy, Boobalicious Broad. She’s Hot with a capital H, you see, and she loves a good French maid costume, and she can also tell a joke! And what’s more, she’s sexy, but she’s also a Guy’s Girl who prefers to hang with her bros! And did you notice that she’s sexy?!?! And as much as Paul Rudd, James Franco, and Andy Samberg (among others) have ridden the hot-guy-with-a-sense-of-humor train to mild Hollywood success, this trend still remains largely, and disturbingly, female. It’s no longer enough just to be a funny lady; you also have to be a bombshell. And yet, when McCarthy and Wiig get laughs, they get big laughs — and they mine different trenches for material.
It’s a body thing. There’s no other way to put it. Kristen Wiig is almost waifishly thin, but she’s also no conventional beauty — she’s pretty enough to play Sexy Shanna, the office bombshell, on SNL, but just odd-looking enough to sell the disgusting aspects of the sketch and actually get laughs. As women, we’re taught pretty much from birth that much of our worth and power lies in our body: its size, its shape, how we dress it, how much of it we cover or put on display. A woman whipping out her boobs or behind will never get as big a laugh as Jason Segel’s dick shot in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, because as women, our bodies are inherently eroticized regardless of the circumstances — unless, that is, you’re a fat woman who can display flesh for laughs (such as Rebel Wilson in Bridesmaids). But is either side really better than the other? If a fat woman’s body can essentially only be funny, and a thin woman can only be the object of desire and trussed up in elaborate French maid getups for laughs, is anyone really winning?
I’m not saying that lady comedians need to all immediately get topless, apropos of nothing, in their next movies. That doesn’t solve anything. I guess what I’m saying here is that it’s an interesting double-standard. But remember that scene with the Spanx in Tiny Furniture? Wasn’t that funny? Maybe there could be more scenes like that and more actresses like Lena Dunham, whose bodies are imperfect but representative of the area in between the Boobalicious Broad and the Funny Fat Lady extremes. That’d be cool, I guess.
Anyway, thanks to Rebecca and Meghan for inspiring this essay, and thanks to you for reading it (which I’m positive you did). Feel free to throw in your two cents. This wasn’t a manifesto so much as a set of musings — I’m open to hearing your thoughts.
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