Damn, It’s a Good Time for Funny Women on TV

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Photo: Comedy Central, CW

As a little girl who liked comedy, I spent my childhood desperately seeking out funny women on TV. There were the women of Absolutely Fabulous, swilling their martinis and cursing like sailors in zebra-print blazers. There was the short-lived and delightfully odd Sarah Silverman Program. There was the smart-girl dream team of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, first on SNL’s Weekend Update, and then on their own sitcoms. Further back, there was Roseanne and characters like Elaine Benes, but as a rule, all these women were much-dissected anomalies, outliers in a world of comedic programming starring and created by men.

Now, in my role as a culture writer, I spend a lot of time writing about how bad stuff is for women in the entertainment industry. It’s not something I particularly enjoy writing about, but in a world where only four women have been nominated for the best-director Oscar (and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won), women hold only 27 percent of behind-the-scenes roles in TV, and you can’t wear a righteous leather jacket at an awards show without getting death stares, it remains necessary.

But recently, I realized something pretty cool: All my favorite TV comedies of the past year or so were created by and star women. How could this be possible, I wondered — do I actively change the channel when I hear men speaking and making jokes? Am I only capable of enjoying things that mirror my own myopic, identity-based lens on the world? Am I fucking sick of dad shows? To varying degrees, maybe. But there’s also an argument to be made that female creators are currently serving up the most-discussed and most-innovative shows on-air — the ones that are raising the bar in terms of how we think and talk about comedy on the small screen.

Just some examples:

-Inside Amy Schumer (returning for its fourth season on Thursday): The buzziest show of last year, back to rev the internet’s think-piece engine with hot takes on Hamilton and vaginal odor.

-Broad City (which ends its third season tonight): Cheech and Chong in crop tops and Magen Davids.

-Crazy Ex GirlfriendA sunny musical-comedy about a high-powered lawyer’s midlife crisis.

-Unbreakable Kimmy SchmidtA joke-a-minute sitcom about a sunny, PTSD-afflicted kidnapping victim and her rag-tag band of New York oddballs.

-Full Frontal With Samantha BeeBiting political satire from Jon Stewart’s true late-night heir.

-GirlsA poignant and original coming-of-age story that, despite the endless backlash, just had its best season yet.

That list doesn’t include the more dramatic comedies/comedic dramas like Jane the Virgin, Transparent, and UnReal, or Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s team-up Catastrophe (TV’s most original relationship comedy). While these shows all deal, in their own ways, with what it means to be a woman in the modern world — which necessarily involves addressing sexism and exhausting gender norms — they also all have distinctive viewpoints and comedic sensibilities. Broad Citys outlook on what it means to be a young woman living in New York is totally different than, say Kimmy Schmidt’s outlook, while Jane the Virgin, The Mindy Project, and Catastrophe have very different takes on pregnancy and motherhood. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Inside Amy Schumer both act as gadflies nipping at the heels of institutionalized sexism, but do so in very different ways. Lots of shows this year — Girls, Kimmy, UnReal, plus Gretchen on Youre the Worst  have depicted women struggling with mental illness. Never before have there been so many specifically female stories, told in such a funny way.

Which is not to say that the TV landscape is great for women (it’s better than film, but that isn’t saying much). There’s still plenty of work to be done. For one thing, as you may have noticed, the recent crop of female comedies is overwhelmingly white (for a good example of how hard it is to be a black woman in the industry, read this 2015 New York Times piece on comedian Issa Rae). Samantha Bee may be the smartest voice in late-night, but she is still the only female voice in late-night. While Netflix, Amazon, and cable networks like the CW have opened the door for marginalized voices, the major networks remain overwhelmingly white and male. These shows are still outliers, and the simple fact of their existence is unfortunately still noteworthy. As Tina Fey recently put it, “If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”

But as someone who has always gravitated to funny women onscreen, I can’t deny that this is, if not a golden age, at least a nice strawberry-blonde one. A few possible reasons: The rise of powerhouses like Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey (Shonda Rhimes would be the dramatic analogue) has helped other women get their foot in the door, both indirectly and directly; for example, Poehler produces Broad City and Julie Klausner’s Difficult People. What’s more, as issues related to gender and identity have become major cultural talking points, funny women have proven particularly well-situated to address them. Comedy thrives on freshness and originality, and unfortunately even addressing gender as an issue — or race, which is for another piece— still makes a show feel novel to some degree (as much as I love Louie, white dude after white dude pontificating about his own misery starts to feel stale). There’s also the simple fact that it’s still pretty fucking difficult for female showrunners to get stuff green-lit, so anything that actually makes it to air better be pretty damn funny and original — a challenge that the creators I mentioned have met with aplomb.

Watching the screeners of Inside Amy Schumer, I found myself wondering something Schumer herself has wondered in the ads for this season: Has she still got that zeitgeist-hammering, girl-power magic, or is she “overexposed”? Admittedly, the show’s format — latch on to some contemporary gender norm or sexist practice, magnify and distort it to highlight its absurdity — can feel a little paint-by-numbers at times. But on the other hand, this is still a show that, in a single episode, can tackle ageism against woman, congressional overreach on women’s health issues, and yogurt’s ability to cure vaginal odor, and do so in a way that consistently makes you laugh and feel surprised. I’ll take “overexposed” instead of invisible any day.