Groucho's Girls

Today's stand-up comediennes are fast, funny, and leave no taboo untouched. Just whose problem is that?

By Abby Ellin, published on May 6, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Girls with Groucho Max mask on w/ cigar

A funny thing happened to Sarah Silverman at a Comedy Central Roast that aired last fall. Although James Franco was the roastee, the barbs were quickly turned on Silverman, one of only two women (among eight men) on the dais.

First, Roastmaster Seth Rogen introduced the wide-eyed, raven-haired femme-enfant as "No. 29 on Maxim's Hot 100—in the year 2007." Jonah Hill continued the assault. Silverman, he said, was "not just hot for a comic; she's hot for someone her age."

"Sarah is a role model for every little girl out there," he went on. "I mean, every little girl dreams of being a 58-year-old single stand-up comedian with no romantic prospects on the horizon. They all dream of it, but Sarah did it." (Actually, she was dating comedian Kyle Dunnigan at the time, and has been most recently linked to actor Michael Sheen.)

Silverman, 43, didn't blink. She lobbed the ball right back at him, caustically attacking his weight gain. Still, though she appeared unfazed, she later admitted that it had taken a bit to regain her equilibrium. It was "nothing that a couple of days in bed couldn't fix," she later joked.

"It's just so woman-based," she said on the now-defunct talk show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. By the time a "woman gets to an age where she has opinions and she's vital and she's strong, she's systematically shamed into hiding under a rock." As Tina Fey put it in her book Bossypants, "the definition of 'crazy' in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*ck her anymore."

Silverman argues that women comics deserve no special favors, they just have to be damn funny—and that in itself is progress. Roasts are notoriously vicious; if women want to play in the same sandbox as men, well, they might get sand in their faces sometimes. She also defended the right of anyone, male or female, to hit her where nearly every woman is vulnerable: smack in the ovaries.

Indeed, the episode raised some lingering questions. Is everything acceptable within comedic bounds, especially in the hothouse of stand-up? Do men and women have different takes on humor? Sure, women wield formidable power on the larger comedic stage—Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Ellen DeGeneres. On the other hand, no other Roaster was pilloried for being "old." Nor was anyone else's reproductive status ever mentioned.

"Every time a woman opens her mouth and says something funny, she makes trouble," says Regina Barreca, professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut and author of eight books on women's humor. Women are (still) supposed to smile, titter, giggle, and sigh. They're supposed to be polite and accommodating, and never unleash their anger. That would be unfeminine.

Humor is bold. "It inverts the world, and once you turn the world upside down and make people see that it can be absurd, it's very hard to put it back in its original position without retaining some idea that it could have been different," says Barreca. It's not called a punchline for nothing; the swift shift in perspective that the best humor delivers can carry the force of a body blow.

Perhaps no comedian today is bolder than Silverman, who thrives on defiantly un-PC observations: "I don't want to be labeled as gay or straight. I just want people to see me as...white." The ultimate non-titterer, she points out just how upside down the world can be: "I was raped by a doctor...which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."

Shifting the gender divide in humor isn't for the weak, Silverman shows. The double standard for female comics reared its head again in February, when Chelsea Handler, the 39-year-old host of E!'s Chelsea Lately, blasted The New York Times for a story it ran on Jimmy Fallon and his new Tonight Show gig. Handler had no objection to the article's subject matter, just to the fact that when she was mentioned along with other late-night TV hosts, hers was the only name put in parentheses.

"A parenthesis," she later observed, means "incidental, subordinate in significance, minor, or casual." Until the Parenthesis Incident, Handler said, she had not thought about being a woman in a man's world, but rather about "delivering a consistently funny and entertaining show each night. I believe the success of any woman should never be qualified by her gender."

 Red curtain with microphones

Laugh Tracks

Until the 1950s, female performers essentially had three responsibilities: to sing, to dance, and to look cute. Men monopolized humor, which was both sexist and racist, says John Morreall, professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, sometime stand-up comic, and author of five books on humor, the most recent being Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor.

"The 1950s was the era of mother-in-law jokes," says Morreall. "Nobody ever told a father-in-law joke. Men could make fun of women for not being able to cook well, but women couldn't laugh at men in the open." Women were allowed into the world of comedy only if they were willing to malign other women—or themselves.

In 1957, Phyllis Diller walked on the stage as a "parody of a woman." She wasn't very good at being a woman. A wife, mother, and former beauty queen, she showed up in a Medusa-like wig and outlandish garb, looking like a frazzled housewife who had stuck her finger into one electric socket too many. And boy was she disparaging—about herself. "I'm the only woman who can walk in Central Park at night...and reduce the crime rate."

A decade later, Joan Rivers donned a black sheath and pearls but was equally self-deprecating, poking fun at her body, her kitchen skills, her inability to find a suitable husband. "My vagina is like Newark," she quipped. "Men know it's there but they don't want to visit."

When Roseanne Barr grabbed the mic in the '80s, she spoke blisteringly about her weight, her kids, and her marriage, and dubbed herself a "Domestic Goddess." With her aggressive, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners mien, she pushed the comedic envelope with pure anger: "Have you heard about the woman who stabbed her husband 37 times? I admire her restraint."

"She came right out and used heavy duty sarcasm with her whole family, and did it in a way that was just like men," says Morreall. The final barrage of her assault? "'If you don't like it, suck my dick!'"

Ellen DeGeneres offers a kinder, gentler humor: "Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else's expense," she says. "I find that that's just a form of bullying." She wrings laughs out of the everyday: "I really don't think I need buns of steel; I'd be happy with buns of cinnamon."

And then Sarah Silverman burst forth. Audiences loved her—when they weren't squirming in their seats or covering their ears. Her punchlines bruise the brain's piety center: "So, I'm licking jelly off my boyfriend...and all of a sudden I'm thinking...oh my God, I'm turning into my mother."

Critics have blasted the "self-absorbed" Silverman for being "determined to prove she can be as dirty and distasteful as the guys." But rule-breaking is an integral part of her persona.

"Drop-dead gorgeous, apparently brilliant, and filthily funny, Silverman is a puzzle society must solve," says Barreca. "She relies on the outsider's recognition of society's deeply entrenched moral hypocrisy."

Unblinkingly, Silverman can tell an audience, "I need more rape jokes," before adding, "who's going to complain about rape jokes?" Pause. "They barely even report rape."

"By confronting the authentically taboo subject—not that rape happens but that women are still too afraid, ashamed, or appalled to admit they've been criminally assaulted," observes Barreca, "she's using humor to slice, dice, and present for examination one of our culture's most deeply buried dirty secrets."

Stand-up is extremely powerful from the second you walk on stage, says Susie Essman, a 30-year veteran of comedy clubs. "It's in your face. It's very angry." Essman gained fame for playing foul-mouthed Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a woman profoundly in touch—and comfortable—with her anger. Greene, she says, is a proxy for all the women in the world who'd like nothing more than to unleash the anger they were brought up to conceal.

Hot—and Bothered

Audiences don't always like women who go up against taboos. But, like the newest generation of female stand-ups, Silverman gets away with it in part because she's such a babe. She looks sweet and innocent, but then—Yowza!—she socks you right in the kisser. "I like having sex," Silverman has told audiences. "It gives you the feeling that you're working together toward a common goal." Pause. "His orgasm."

Chelsea Handler, a blond bombshell who isn't self-deprecating, doesn't apologize for liking sex, and prides herself on being just like a guy, jokes: "I went out with a guy who told me I didn't need to drink to make myself more fun to be around. I told him, I'm drinking so that you're more fun to be around." As she tells audiences, "Men don't realize that if we sleep with them on the first date, we're probably not interested in seeing them again, either."

Whitney Cummings, 31, says that her looks affected how she presented herself in clubs. When she was first starting out, she didn't wear makeup and she favored frumpy clothes. "I was trying to get women to like me," explains the creator and star of the TV show Whitney and co-creator of the sitcom 2 Broke Girls. "I just didn't want people to spend any time on my appearance, negative or positive."

That included her male colleagues. "Before and after you go on stage," she explains, "you're in clubs with a bunch of dudes. I wanted to make it clear that I was there to work, not to date or look sexy. That's my office." Like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Mindy Kaling, she no longer has to downplay her appearance.

 Two pink cardioid microphones (looks like boobs)

She Jokes Just Like a Woman

Silverman has been accused of being "too male" in her humor, too focused on "shock value" rather than cleverness. Huh? What, after all, is "women's humor?" Jokes about PMS? Breast-feeding? Premature ejaculation? (Men certainly don't joke about it.)

"Men are much more sensitive about men things and women about women things," contends Joan Rivers, who is starring in season four of WE tv's Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best, as well as in E!'s long-running Fashion Police and a Web series, In Bed With Joan.

"Men don't think erectile dysfunction is funny; women find it hilarious. It's a whole different way of looking at things. Women are much funnier about themselves than men are."

Nothing is off-limits in comedy, insists Rivers, who did a 22-minute bit on suicide after her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, killed himself in 1987: "My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head." Humor was how she dealt with it.

Humor is how she deals with everything. At 80, Rivers has no shortage of aging jokes. She recently told an audience she was starting "Feels on Wheels," a service delivering sexual contact to the elderly. And she wondered why women of any age spend $5,000 on a body cleanse—"when they can just go to Mexico and eat a burrito."

She makes no apologies because, she says, comedy is close to the bone. "I do Holocaust jokes to remind people—'You asses, it happened.'" Nor was 9/11 taboo, even in the early aftermath. "Everyone was so grim," Rivers recalls. "I joked about how happy some wives must have been to get $5 million and not have Harry come home. It was general, not specific; I never want to hurt anyone."

In a now-infamous article in Vanity Fair magazine, the late Christopher Hitchens opined on this very issue. "Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone's expense, and understands that life is possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste," he wrote. "Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is."

In joking about rape, in joking about menstruation, in joking about sleeping around, are not women confronting the messiness of life in all its miserable glory?

There is, nevertheless, a comedic divide between the genders. "Women's humor is not less effective than men's," Barreca insists. "Men's and women's humor are entirely different." Male humor is Larry the Cable Guy, the Three Stooges—slapsticky, physical, even somewhat violent.

Female humor, on the other hand, is mind-centric, novelesque. "Women like long, layered, complex, and nuanced, and we love the labyrinthine storytelling aspect of things," she says. "When a man says 'I got something funny to tell you,' you can set your watch. When a woman says that, if you're smart, you'll sit down."

Women are not as funny as men, Hitchens maintained, because humor is a weapon wielded to attract members of the opposite sex. Men need to lure women with a laugh, whereas women "have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way," he said. "They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift."

He was elaborating a longstanding theory of evolutionary psychology—that humor production matters more for men than for women because it is essential to their mating success. Since women do the choosing and the men are chosen, men's mission in life is to signal their desirability to women. One way is by being strong and athletic. Another, the Woody Allen way, is through intelligence and creativity—in a word, wit.

"Because men are trying to impress women, humor is a form of intrasexual competition," says evolutionary psychologist Gil Greengross of the University of New Mexico. "Men are trying to get advantages over other men, and showing a good sense of humor is one way of doing so. Men try to be funnier when women are present. It's a good indicator of intelligence. Intelligence also has clear advantages in survival. You can be a better hunter, a better handyman, but also socially—very smart people are very good at making political alliances and making friends."

Humor, in this line of thinking, is the cognitive manifestation of the peacock's plume. "In principle, many women could be as funny as men," Greengross says. "But because men are more motivated to produce high-quality humor to attract women through small steps of intrasexual selection, it's more likely that a great comedian will be male."

The evolutionary argument that men are funnier has a too-familiar ring to Barreca. "The same thing used to be said about intelligence." Morreall lands somewhere in the middle. "Displays of humor show cleverness, eagerness to please the female, and playfulness, which are generally attractive to potential mates," he says. "But a lot of traditional male humor was based on humiliating opponents, and many women today do not find that kind of humor attractive."

Ladies Don't Laugh Out Loud

No question, humor is a clear sign of intellectual heft. And as all the agonizing about the lack of women in science affirms, too many women have been taught to conceal just how smart they really are, lest they risk their appeal to the opposite sex.

"Boys are raised and encouraged to be funny, to do practical jokes and stunts," says Morreall. "They want girls to laugh at their stuff. Women are not encouraged to be funny in traditional American culture." (It could be worse: In Asia, until recently, women who laughed out loud and didn't cover their teeth were thought to be prostitutes.)

"The great thing about women's humor is that it's come out of the kitchen, out of the bathroom, from behind the closed doors where it used to be," says Barreca. "It's only been since the early '90s that women really started to laugh out loud in front of men. For a very long time we had the giggler."

Cummings believes that whatever the differences between male and female humor, the best comedians of both genders possess some stereotypically female traits. "They're sensitive, emotional, fall in love easily, are very easy to get hurt, and incredibly vulnerable," she says. "You go onto the stage and reveal the darkest, most revealing parts of yourself and hope the audience still likes you. It's an incredibly vulnerable thing, but if you have all the traditionally male qualities, you're not going to be as vulnerable."

Tour de Farce

If stand-up comedian and NPR host Ophira Eisenberg has her way, the term "female comic" will soon go the way of the pterodactyl. Sometimes, Eisenberg admits, she'll be the only woman in a club, and it can get lonely. "I used to joke that if there were more than one woman in the show the audience would be like—'Oh my god, is this a breast cancer benefit?' It is a boys' club. It's getting better, but it is still a boys' club."

She recently talked to a booker about doing a tour. His second question was, "Do you have children or plan to have children?" recalls Eisenberg, whose 2013 memoir is Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy. "I said, 'It's not a problem,' but I was a little taken aback. I said I had a needy dog, would that be an issue for my tour? He wasn't trying to be rude; he was speaking from experience. But is a guy being asked that?"

She is more frequently asked what her parents think of her book. "Has any guy ever been asked if he got his parents' permission to say something on stage or to write a book?" she marvels. "Never."

Jane Condon wears her gender as a badge. A wife and mother of two boys from Greenwich, Connecticut—"Other than that, everything's fine"—Condon has been performing stand-up for 25 years. She jokes about politics, relationships, aging. Being female in a male-dominated business means that people remember her: "I'm the mother from Connecticut."

Cummings sees the Roast Debacle as a compliment to Silverman. "If they're calling Sarah Silverman, who looks like she's 25 and is a beautiful woman, old, that means they can't make fun of anything else," she explains. "They can't say she's not funny or successful. Single and childless—that's supposed to be an insult?"

Barreca has no idea why "being like a woman" is considered the ultimate put-down. Why do so many women get offended at that? "What, I can't pee in a ditch?" she says. "I can't."

Excessive, playful, blasphemous, brilliant, indulgent, insurgent, and fiercely courageous, great women stand-ups have one crucial thing in common, she says. "They know humor is the shortest and most electric line between two or more points. They set about connecting the wires so the rest of us can hear the noise inside their heads. By questioning, mocking, and demystifying the world, they illustrate in every line that humor is our culture's third rail—electrified, powerful, and dangerous."

Rude, Lewd & Hilarious

"I'm at a point where I want a man in my life, but not in my house. Just come in, attach the VCR, and get out."—Joy Behar

"Last night I asked my husband, 'What's your favorite sexual position?' and he said, 'Next door.''—Joan Rivers

"I look at husbands the same way I look at tattoos. I want one but I can't decide what I want and I don't want to be stuck with one I'm just going to grow to hate and have to have surgically removed."—Margaret Cho

"I'm at an age when my back goes out more than I do."—Phyllis Diller

"Me and my black boyfriend, Daryl, just celebrated our two-year anniversary. Come on, folks, two years—that's nine and a half years in black."—Lisa Lampanelli

"When I meet a man I ask myself, 'Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?"—Rita Rudner

"Women complain about premenstrual syndrome, but I think of it as the only time of the month I can be myself."—Roseanne Barr

"Let's admit it, yellow hair does have magic powers. You could put a blond wig on a hot-water heater and some dude would try to f*ck it."—Tina Fey

"I think we can all agree that sleeping around is a great way to meet people."—Chelsea Handler

"I understand that the doctor had to spank me when I was born, but I really don't see any reason he had to call me a whore."—Sarah Silverman