Laugh Line

Photo: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/AP Photo (Maddow); Courtesy of Comedy Central (Stewart)

Every year, it seems, we’re forced to suffer some version of the same sad debate, the one about the position of women in comedy (prone?). In 2007, Christopher Hitchens did his “chicks aren’t funny” routine for Vanity Fair; in 2009, David Letterman’s confessions put a spotlight on the scarcity of women in late night. This time, the trigger was a post on the feminist blog Jezebel calling The Daily Show a “boys’ club”—which in turn prompted a rebuttal signed by the show’s female staff (including producers, makeup artists, teleprompter operators, and assistants). In their show’s breezy-prickly style, the staffers bravely praised their boss while skirting Jezebel’s argument, which is not that the show doesn’t hire women but that it rarely hires them as writers or performers.

And look, the gender politics of late night are fair game, and even more so for Stewart, a progressive humor god. It’s definitely worth thinking about the complex reasons why funny women so rarely edge into the angry-nerd, white-guy, Ivy League culture of a typical late-night writers’ room, and why writers’ rooms are like that in the first place.

But perhaps the strangest irony about this drought of funny women is that it seemingly exists only when the news is fake. Tiptoe over the blurry line dividing satire from actual punditry and the polarities reverse. Read the New York Times and you find two female columnists: the dazzling light-touch satirist Gail Collins and the vaudevillian snark specialist Maureen Dowd. None of the male op-ed writers, from Kristof to Herbert to Brooks, has a particularly comical style (although Rich has his dark-humor moments), and a few are downright grim.

On television, right across the aisle from Jon Stewart—at least on that fake-to-real continuum—is Rachel Maddow, who leavens her actual news program with funny faces and sarcastic drollery. There’s also Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette. Right-wing women have their own share of slam-comedy put-down artists, from Mary Matalin to Ann Coulter to Andrea Peyser. (Though Fox News, which specializes in one-liner male commentators like Glenn Beck, just as often replaces “funny” with “furiously angry, seethingly hot blonde” as a female rhetorical style.)

A subset of powerful men are funny—Al Franken and Barney Frank—but they can also be dour, or angry, and still hold the microphone. In contrast, humor is often a litmus test for female authority. Why else would male pundits have spent weeks analyzing the naturalness of Hillary Clinton’s laugh? Sarah Palin’s whole act comes straight out of the Don Rickles playbook, with those Borscht Belt winks and “hopey-changey” punch lines and the sarcastic slams on community activists. As Rebecca Traister points out in her thoughtful forthcoming book Big Girls Don’t Cry, female comedy was absolutely central to the 2008 election, climaxing with Tina Fey’s brilliant parody of Palin and her “Bitch Is the New Black” routine: You can only fight funny with funny.

Because when women are actually trying to make an argument, not satirize one, comedy is, for better or worse, a survival technique: It lowers the feedback you get when adjusting that mike. Humor says you are not shrill, not bossy, not whiny, not a nag. It’s a way to keep people listening instead of calling you Tracy Flick and making that talky-talky gesture with their fingers.

As Jon Stewart himself pointed out admiringly, when Elena Kagan made her joke about Christmas dinner, it neatly defanged every coded Jew-barb—it made her look like Justice Kagan. “Boom!” he shouted, slashing the air with delight. “Boom! Boom! Yes! My people use humor to defuse situations! Boom! A moment of genuine humor.”

If that whole Supreme Court gig doesn’t work out, maybe he could give her a call.

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