Social Misery Becomes Professional Hilarity (or Not)
Over at Salon, Lynn Harris addresses the under-representation of women on the writing staffs for TV comedy. Much as been written in other venues on this problem (Harris provides links), so I’ll just excerpt the bit that I found interesting:
Still, even some of the most florid trash-talkers — Hirsch included — also said that other lines do get crossed. And that’s where things get tricky. With so many bitch, asshole and cocksucker stories already flying, of course, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens; that’s the problem. But some women do say they’ve felt it like a sucker punch when everyday chain-yanking makes the leap from “process” to personal. Just one example of many, from an experienced female writer: Once, in the writers’ room, she told a couple of jerky ex-boyfriend stories she thought could be good script fodder. This prompted another writer to start ranting — angrily, not riffing — about how women “always date jerks.” Another narrowed his eyes at her. “A guy acting like an asshole?” he said. “That’s what makes you spread your legs?”
Her observation: “When a guy tells a story about an ex-girlfriend screwing him over, he gets laughs and maybe sympathy. When a girl tells a story about a guy screwing her over, she gets a lecture, or worse. The whole discussion becomes a referendum on women’s sanity,” she says. “I call this ‘nice guy misogyny,'” she goes on. “Overt sexism is easy to deal with. Someone zings you, you zing him back. The real problem comes from the supposedly ‘nice married guys’ who secretly resent women for being on their turf and take it out on them in various subtle ways.” In a place where personal misery becomes professional hilarity, everyone brings a back story of pain — mommy issues, a nasty ex, hatred for the head cheerleader — so perhaps it’s especially easy to become a lightning rod when you’re the only one in the room with two X chromosomes.
Emphasis mine. The rest of the article is worth a read.
The parts I emphasize in bold reflect two continuing strains of misogyny — doubting women’s authority and integrity, resentment from male entitlement — running headlong against the aspect of comedy that most attracts me to it: “personal misery becomes professional hilarity.” Comedians are drawn to humor, because it is cathartic, an “exorcising of personal demons” that can serve the comedian and the audience through a direct and honest confrontation of pain, stupidity, fear and loss. With humor a comedian can take control, trivializing the terrible, reducing it to a manageable size; or at least putting it at a distance, achieving some breathing space, or perhaps thinking space, to analyze the source of one’s pain, to (hopefully) understand it.
Of course, the flip side is that comedy can also be a means of inflicting pain, of trivializing others, of humiliating and attacking people we don’t understand and fear. Either way, it also requires carrying around that “baggage,” keeping in touch with that part of you that hurts. Confronted by a woman’s personal misery, the “nice guy” lashes out with his own, denying her the right to laugh at her own pain, because he feels he is somehow the target of her humor. But he’s wrong, of course; he forgets the important distancing function of comedy, the ability to abstract oneself from the target. She’s talking about her ex-boyfriend, dude; not you.
Granted, I have heard some women make the same mistake, confusing a gripe about one woman as slander against women in general. Love and romance can be touchy subjects, and adults into their thirties and forties can still feel embarrassment about perceived inadequacies (if male enhancement commercials are any indication, adults into their senior years, too) as lovers or some aspect of the Hetero Norm we’re expected to adhere to. Yet the boy’s club of comedy — including my own tree house of cartoonists and comics creators, which is thankfully and FINALLY (!) seeing a larger influx of women — is especially touchy, precisely because it has been for so long a place for white straight men to escape to, like Fred and Barney heading to the Water Buffalo Lodge. It’s ridiculous for men to expect this status quo to last. As Harris observes, the male dominance of late night writing staffs is already out of touch with social demographics. I wonder what comedy will look like when those demographics overtake the staff roles. What is the harbinger? Ellen? Chappelle Show? Wanda Sykes? It’s something to look forward to. Keep an eye on how all of this pain that roils comedians becomes mediated through humor — on how it changes the nature of humor itself.