We're With The Banned: Cracking The Crass Ceiling
The New York Comedy Festival ad features ten men and no women.
Broadly speaking, comedy is, obviously, still a male-dominated bastion within the entertainment business. The Primetime Emmy Awards showed that women writers on a comedy or variety series are a rare and endangered species. Only seven of the 81 writers were women. There are no women writers on Leno (of 19), Letterman (of 14), and O'Brien (of 16). Colbert has two women of 14 writers. The Daily Show has one of 16. Samantha Bee is a busy worker bee and a "correspondent." "Saturday Night Live" has five women of 22 writers.
LOL: Larry Summers School for the Advancement of Women
Historically, some men have difficulty accepting women comedians. The Larry Summers School for the Advancement of Women should hire Tom Shales, Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Lewis, to teach "Why Women Aren't Funny." The three wise men opined as much in the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and at the Aspen Comedy Festival, respectively.
Shales, Washington Post TV critic, wrote that ex-SNL "Michaela Watkins may have been just too classically pretty to be hilarious." Lewis told the Aspen audience in 2000, "I don't like any female comedians" and couldn't think of one who was good. He only viewed women as baby-making machines.
SNL announced two new women for the 35th season to much press attention: Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad. Just hours later it was reported that Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins were gone. Does SNL have a female quota? Is their comedy calculus: addition = attrition? The two new women are "featured performers," rather than full repertory players.
Kristin Wiig was SNL's MVP Iron Man last season, earning the most screen time of any cast member, with 124 sketch appearances. She is currently the only official woman cast member.
Plus, she has seven feature films in development. And she is beautiful. Please explain, Mr. Shales.
Having joined as a staff writer in 1997, Tina Fey's term as SNL's first woman head writer (1999-2006), coincided with the most women cast members in regular performing roles in its history: Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. Much to her credit, Fey teamed with Poehler, to create the groundbreaking "Weekend Update" all-women anchor team in 2004. The dynamic duo proved they were not "Mean Girls" and sparked no cat-fight messages in the media. When Fey started on "Update," there hadn't been a woman anchor since Jane Curtin in the late 1970s and she was not afraid to promote her BFF Poehler. In fact, the two newest women are troupers from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, co-founded by Poehler.
Kudos to Fey and Poehler for empowering women, following decades of male-dominated sketch comedy. Fey and Poehler know that women succeed when they are responsible for their own material. They play comedic roles, perform standup and write and direct films and TV shows. Fey's "30 Rock" was nominated for a record 22 Emmy awards. She was named the AP Entertainer of the Year in 2008 for the greatest impact on culture and entertainment. Poehler is the lead star on "Parks & Recreation."
Timing is everything in comedy and in life. SNL mirrors the advances of women in society. In 2002 Ana Gasteyer was their first on-air pregnancy. The TV management "suits" have matured since the 1950's when the word "pregnant" was forbidden and Lucille Ball was asked to hide behind furniture, which she refused to do. The fact that nine-months pregnant Poehler posed as Hillary Clinton was a non-issue. Her absence and baby's birth were announced on "Update."
Now that SNL has accepted the pregnant pause, perhaps they may consider hiring a Black woman to play Michelle Obama and other women newsmakers and celebrities? Do they think it adds to the levity to dress men in drag or is there a women shortage? I don't communicate with Eleanor Roosevelt very often. But I do think of her and her personal equal opportunity employment act when I see a man playing a woman on SNL. Upon learning that women reporters were not admitted to the National Press Club where newsmakers spoke, Roosevelt held regular news conferences exclusively for women reporters and photographers, thus creating jobs for women. You go, girl!
Actually, in the first season in 1975, the original SNL cast was equal with three women (Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner) and three men (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Garrett Morris) and Chevy Chase was promoted to "Update" anchor from writer. By 1993, the ratio was three women to eight men. Janeane Garafalo quit halfway through the '94-'95 season because of the male writers who "didn't write for women."
Chicago's Second City improv-sketch troupe, an SNL talent feeder incubator, only allowed two women on a six-person improv team into the '90s. Fey and Poehler are alumnae.
This is Wanda Sykes' banner year. Her HBO special just aired and "The Wanda Sykes Show" will debut in November, at 11 PM, against SNL. Sykes was the featured entertainer this year at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. This annual event honoring the president is a prestigious gig with the nation's dignitaries.
Traditionally, even though women were fully-accredited White House reporters and members of the association, they were barred from attending the dinner. Prompted by Helen Thomas, for the first time in 50 years, women were finally admitted in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy agreed not to attend unless the women did. Thomas was inducted as the first woman WHCA president in 1975.
The old boys club network is alive and, well, begrudgingly coming into the 21st century at The Friars, the premiere club for professional comedians and entertainers. Founded in 1904, Liza Minnelli was admitted as the first official woman member in 1988. This followed the Supreme Court upholding a New York City statute that barred discrimination at large private clubs. Previously, women couldn't join or enter the Townhouse before 4 PM to attend the notorious stag roasts.
Sally Jessy Raphael was the first officer (Prior) in 1999. Previously, women were honored but could not join. Sophie Tucker was the first woman roasted, in 1953; followed by Martha Raye, 1954 and Lucille Ball, 1961.
Joy Behar was the first woman Roastmaster, at a tribute for Danny Aiello in 1997. Rita Rudner was the first woman performer at a Roast for Chevy Chase in 1980. Phyllis Diller, dressed as a man in a suit, wig and mustache, attended the 1983 Sid Caesar Roast, because women were not allowed. She was outed at the end of the event and honored at her own roast in 1985. Diller was the first woman inducted into the California Friars Wall of Fame in 2001. Last year, at the behest of Behar, the Friars named one of its chambers for a woman, Lucille Ball. Currently, women comprise 20 percent of the Friars membership.
Women need to showcase their talent to survive and succeed in the comedy business. Barbara Walters first saw Joy Behar at a benefit for Milton Berle's 89th birthday at the Waldorf Astoria. Walters then invited her to audition for The View. Behar just debuted her nightly talk show on HLN. Her co-hosts on The View include comediennes Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd, who stars in her own show on Lifetime. Goldberg was the first woman and fourth honoree to win the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2001; Lily Tomlin won in 2003.
More Than Chick Shtick: "Seinfeld" Without Elaine? Get Out!
Imagine Seinfeld without Elaine. Get out! Actually, Elaine was not in the first show but executives insisted they add a woman to the cast by the second episode. Would an all-male cast have become the same audience success story without her? Not!
Liz Lemon told Oprah on 30 Rock that she hates her feet. Nora Ephron told the world that she hates her neck. It took Elle Woods' life experience in Legally Blonde to solve the murder case. Her Harvard Law colleagues didn't have a clue about women's hair treatments. Chris Rock parlayed that message into a feature film. Maybe the sexes can learn to live together and better understand each other through humor and women comedians?
One of the challenges for women comics is that society expects good girls to be well-behaved and to act lady-like. Comedians have to be aggressive and take control of the audience. The boys who were the class clowns and spent more time in the principal's office than the library are now making big bucks for their antics. Not to pooh pooh Winnie-the-Pooh, but the first new authorized female character believes that everyone should follow the correct etiquette. Lottie the Otter will be more like Martha Stewart than Martha Raye.
It's easier for women to get to the moon than to get a network late-night talk show. Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson had no experience as late-night talk show hosts when they were given their shows. Ferguson had not performed stand-up for ten years and had a strong Scottish brogue. O'Brien was an unknown SNL comedy writer with little performing experience. Joan Rivers was the first and only permanent host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. When Rivers learned that she wasn't on the list to replace Carson, she accepted the offer to host her own late night talk show to launch the Fox Network in 1986. She was fired six months later.
The talk show format is a cheap alternative to scripted TV and yields self-contained YouTube-friendly takeout promos. As viewers migrate away from appointment network TV, cable should create new opportunities for women. But the old boy network ways persist. The Daily Show was co-created by Lizz Winstead and Madeline Smithberg in 1995. Winstead was also the head writer. Then host Craig Kilborn made an offensive remark about her in Esquire in 1998. He was suspended for a week. She left the show soon after. Chelsea Handler has her own late night talk show on E!
Only two women comedians were listed on the Forbes "100 Celebrity" list: Ellen DeGeneres, Power Rank #40, $35 Million Pay and Tina Fey, #86, $7 Million Pay.
She Who Laughs, Lasts: "50/50 in 2020"
Last month more than 200 women met to hear a panel address and outline a "50/50 in 2020" initiative to advance women in the theater business. Three sponsors are taking the lead: the League of Professional Theatre Women, the New Perspectives Theatre Company and the Women's Project.
In 2007 Oxygen presented the "50 Funniest Women Alive." There are women who are ready, willing and able to perform at comedy festivals. They can turn the world on with their smile... and spunk.
Stand Up For Women In Comedy! Parody and Parity Proposals
1. Action! Organize a meeting during the New York Comedy Festival, November 4-8, to focus on "The State of Women in Comedy Today," to become part of the media coverage and raise public support. Since there is no professional organization for women comedians, create one or develop a Comedy subcommittee of the "50/50 by 2020" project or another industry-related association.
2. Produce a counter "Funny Femme Festival" during the New York Comedy Festival to showcase talented women comedians, become part of the media coverage and raise public support.
3. Distribute this treatise and contact the New York Comedy Festival.
4. Submit your comments and suggestions here.
5. Stay tuned. Watch this space for announcements and progress reports. Thank you.
See Beverly Wettenstein's PBS interview on youtube.com.
See Beverly Wettenstein's Letter in the NY Daily News, Sept. 4, 09
See Beverly Wettenstein's Letter in the NY Times Science Times, July 21, 09
"Celebrate Women Every Day!"
B. 1901 Edith S. Sampson First Black woman elected judge, in Illinois, 1962.
First Black woman named UN delegate.
1905 English suffragists Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney arrested.
Women over 30 got the vote 12 years later; all women in 1928.
B. 1925 Margaret Thatcher First woman Prime Minister in England and Europe, 1979-1991.
B. 1969 Nancy Kerrigan Olympic silver medalist, 1964; Oksana Baiul, 16, won gold medal.
1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini earned Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Source: Beverly Wettenstein's "Women in History and Making History Today
- 365-Days-A-Year Database"