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The El Paso Herald was the first to break the happy news in 1916: “Women’s Sense of Humor is Steadily Developing” ran the chipper headline. What a relief! No doubt there were women all over the country, speaking to one another in worried whispers over cups of tea and cucumber sandwiches: “I don’t know, Gertrude. I can’t seem to manage more than a smirk. A chuckle feels positively daunting! Maybe I should fake it.” Gasps and pearl-clutching. Heavens!
As the writer of the Herald article so helpfully pointed out, it appeared that more and more women were allowing themselves to enjoy their sense of humor and even participate in comedy. When they gather together, claimed the writer, they aren’t just complaining about their difficult lives running households for indifferent husbands, managing ungrateful children, and dealing with the occasional freeloading relative. Instead, they joke about their miserable existences full of drudgery. Progress!
People seemed to fall into two camps. The first, that women were not funny, were not equipped to “get” humor or be humorous (you know, because of our small brains and delicate sensibilities). Or they fell into the other camp, claiming, “Malarkey!,” “Nope!,” and “Are you out of your damn mind?!” In another article published in the Indianapolis Journal in 1900, an anonymous writer clocking in for Team Women-Are-Funny wrote, “The claim that all wit and humor is an excessive masculine possession will not stand, and it is time it were dropped.” Adding, “If women do not laugh at men’s jokes it is because they are poor in quality.”
More than a century later, I can still feel the heat from that burn. Attempting to defend women’s equal right to create and enjoy all things funny or to have to explain why the whole “Are women funny?” debate is bananas and very last week’s tweet. We’re here, we’re hilarious, get used to it! It’s time to turn our focus to celebrating and amplifying the voices and contributions of women past and present using their humor to make the world a better, and definitely a funnier, place. Enter the ladies of The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women!
This project comes out of a long, genuine, personal love and passion for comedy, as both a proud comedy nerd and the kind of woman who rarely passes up an opportunity to crack sarcastic quips, break the tension by doing a silly accent, or essentially use the world as her personal funny playground. I know that humor does much more than entertain. It heals, it exposes truths, it allows us to talk about hard, difficult, and painful experiences, and it unites. Humor is powerful mojo and when it’s in the hands of women—watch out.
Historically, funny women have often been overshadowed by funny men or simply obscured by a narrow focus of what comedy should look like. Moms Mabley might have been one of the first women performing stand-up comedy in the 1920s, but she arrived onstage carrying a legacy of funny women who came before her for decades—writing, performing in theater, vaudeville, burlesque, and even film. As I learned more about the earliest funny women, like nineteenth-century satirical writer Fanny Fern and the cheeky, outrageous vaudeville comic Marie Dressler, I knew that I wanted to compile what would be a compendium of women, comic styles, and sensibilities that spanned from the past to the evolving present. I wanted to spotlight the astonishing body of work generated by funny women as well as the ways in which each one has made important changes to both the comedy industry and the world at large.
Many women in this book are “the first” in some respect (the first African-American woman to host a late-night show, the first head writer of a major sketch comedy show on network television), but none could have made it to bat without another woman’s efforts laying the groundwork before her—shifting the makeup of a writers’ room, refusing to settle for less than what she was worth, standing her ground when a producer or executive said, “Women don’t” or “Women can’t.” It takes a village to raise a planet of funny women and the women you’ll meet in these pages are some of the fiercest and most fearless comedy matrons and mentors of the tribe. There are plenty of familiar faces in The League—women you might have admired for ages, like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and Amy Poehler. But you’ll also find others, like Lena Waithe, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Issa Rae, who, I hope, will become your new funny lady crushes.
Choosing only fifty women to include was no small feat. I desperately wanted to go Oprah on this book: “You get a spot in the book! And youget a spot in the book! EVERYBODY GETS A SPOT IN THE BOOK!” Only in a perfect publishing world. However, in each section I’ve included a brief list of additional funny women for readers to get to know and love. And it has to be said that, regardless of how I’ve categorized these women for this book, they could each claim a spot under every heading: Each has forged the way for fellow rule-breakers, boundary-pushers, and comic innovators. They do not speak for or represent all funny women, of course. Hardly! And nothing would make me happier than to hear from readers asking, “What about so and so? How come [insert name of kick-ass funny lady here] didn’t make it in?” Because that would mean: sequel! Kidding (a little). It would mean that the hilarious, groundbreaking women of The League truly are everywhere, multiplying by the minute, changing the world bit by witty bit.
Intellect and wit make for an incendiary combination, kind of like Beyoncé showing up unannounced at Target. There is no topic too complicated or top-heavy for the smart, funny woman to skewer with her keen insight and probing curiosity. From as far back as the late 1800s, women used humor as a kind of Trojan horse to insinuate their adroit opinions and points of view in conventionally male-dominated territory. Some of the funniest and savviest voices of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries belonged to women writing under pen names or performing satire in theater. They used humor in clever ways to comment on hot-button issues of the day, like women’s suffrage, abolitionism, and politics. Remember, this was a time in America when women were viewed as pieces of lovely, childbearing furniture. The kind of woman writing satire about the double standards of marriage in 1869 was basically a witch.
Fast-forward a hundred years and the legacy of these brainy, funny women continues without a sign of slowing down. From wading into political subjects to adding more depth and complexity to the humorous portrayal of women’s experiences, this group of women are bringing all their intellectual and funny muscle to make us laugh.
Samantha Bee is an Atomic Fireball. That’s the name of the all-female sketch comedy troupe Samantha helped to build in Toronto in 1999. At the time, the Canadian-born comedian had just graduated from the University of Ottawa. She enrolled thinking she’d become a lawyer, but after taking one class in the drama department, she quickly reconsidered and changed her major to theater. Your loss, Supreme Court of Canada. After college, Samantha auditioned for every kind of acting job available—commercials, theater, television, and film—while supporting herself (barely) as a waitress. And when she wasn’t hustling to get her big break, she was breaking audiences up with the insane, comedic acrobatics of the Atomic Fireballs.
For Samantha, what was really great about the Fireballs was the tight sense of community and fellowship the women fostered. They booked, promoted, and created all their original shows out of little more than their skills and an intense passion for comedy. A lot of their material came from the happenings of everyday life, especially the petty grievances, which made for some of the funniest and most relatable comedy. Working alongside similarly smart, gifted, hilarious women, Samantha honed her deft wit and canny intellectual and feminist perspectives. This mighty combination would ultimately carry her into the top echelons of the late-night comedy show circuit as the only woman to currently host, create, and produce her own late-night comedy show, the award-winning Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Raised by her grandmother following her parents’ divorce, Samantha describes herself in interviews as a relatively shy kid. This might seem like an odd characterization of a woman who decided to ditch the law library for the improv stage. If she retained any of that shyness, comedy chased it out of her, especially when she got her first big break working on the satirical news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. There she wrote and filmed absurdly funny field reports with strangers ranging from farmers and fast food workers to politicians and pastors.
Most Canadians were unfamiliar with Jon Stewart’s show. However, Samantha and her husband, Jason Jones, were avid fans. In 2003 when Samantha heard that producers were scouting in Canada for female performers, she quickly put a tape together and submitted it. Impressed with Samantha’s work, the producers invited her to audition for Stewart in New York. As soon as she got the news, she did the thing you typically only see in movies: She walked into her boss’s office at the ad agency where she had been eking out an income and quit. Cue the fist-pumping Bikini Kill or Bruce Springsteen anthem of your choice.
At The Daily Show, Samantha embraced her role as senior female correspondent, the token female correspondent at the time. She relished doing location stories that no one else wanted, and saw the comedy potential in everything, even if it meant flying to interview an alligator farmer in the middle of a Louisiana swamp. In her correspondent role, Samantha supplied the mock seriousness and even indignation while her subjects’ honest guile provided the comedy. Her often oddball segments gave her a chance to stand out and sharpen her comic on-air persona.
“You’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to be willing to stand up on the stage for no money for ten years.”
Samantha’s pieces steadily evolved from traveling to Kentucky to report on a labor law loophole allowing children and teenagers to work on tobacco farms to covering national politics, such as the 2004 Republican National Convention. As the show’s only female correspondent—until 2008 when Kristen Schaal joined the cast—Samantha also served as the spokesperson for pressing feminist issues. Many of these involved Samantha adopting a funny, contrarian stance to skewer the absurd, typically stupid, and, at times, even a little gross, logic surrounding contentious women’s issues.
For instance, in one segment she joins Stewart at the news desk to speak about a recent debate about women serving in military combat. He mentions that some people argue that women can’t be protected in the military because men can’t control their base, caveman urges. Samantha cheerfully, sarcastically responds that it’s simply the way it is when you’re any kind of woman in a man’s world. Just ask any “gal reporter, lady doctor, teacherette, or aviatrix.”
Stewart announced his departure from the show in 2015, leaving many to speculate that Samantha might be next in line to assume the mantle. Instead, the gig went to Trevor Noah, which made many people a touch grumpy, and rightly so. After all, wasn’t it about a thousand years past time for a funny woman to rule late night? Fortunately, the TBS network swooped in and offered Samantha a deal to develop her own satirical comedy show. She readily accepted and on February 8, 2016, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee came charging into viewers’ lives, rearranging the field of late-night comedy forever.
Formatted like The Daily Show (if it ain’t broke, as the saying goes), Full Frontal tackles the news and cultural trends of the day. The show is broken up into segments that range from monologues about topical headlines to field reports and “grab bag” pieces that are a mix of both. Samantha and her cohort—Michael Rubens, Ashley Nicole Black, Allanna Harkin, and Amy Hoggart—power the show through a raw, fierce commitment to unseat and expose injustices. There are no sacred cows for the Full Frontal crew. Consequently, Samantha’s opening editorials are often searing takedowns of nearly everything from the NRA to Facebook to sexual harassment and wage inequality to up-to-the-minute happenings in politics. Her delivery is frenetic and excoriating, like a runaway deli slicer. She stands firm behind her opinion or point of view as she fearlessly expels her thoughtful, critical rage through a ruthlessly and very funny sardonic persona. The comedy is Samantha’s spoonful of sugar, making the harsh, painful, and rancorous truths easier to swallow.
In the process of realizing her vision to create a no-holds-barred type of topical comedy show, Samantha was also able to make another significant impact in the comedy industry: supporting diversity. The Full Frontal writing room is 50 percent female, 30 percent nonwhite, and features people who come from a wide array of comedy-writing experience, from barely none to quite a lot.
In the short time of Full Frontal’s existence, Samantha Bee has not just changed the way we think about and understand current events, she’s proven that there is real power in using humor to fight against inequality and hypocrisy. In fact, every week Samantha proves that a woman is not only as strong, capable, and qualified to lead the fight as any man, she might just be the next hero we never even knew we needed.
Humiliation is awful, but if you’re Lena Dunham, it can be awfully funny.
Lena is the fearless visionary who wrote, created, and starred in the critically acclaimed HBO show, Girls. On the show, Lena played twentysomething Hannah Horvath, a young woman living in New York City, struggling to become a writer and struggling even harder to become herself. In the pilot episode, Lena dares audiences not to laugh at a string of Hannah’s shameful and awkward missteps.
First, her parents arrive for a visit to tell her, ungraciously, over dinner they are cutting her off financially. Then she gets fired from her unpaid internship after pleading with her boss to make her position a paid one. Finally, Hannah makes one last-ditch effort to sway her parents to float her economically for a while longer. She barges into their hotel room, clutching a sad, wrinkled stack of manuscript pages, asking them to read it and reconsider. Fixing them with a wide-eyed, wholly sincere gaze, Hannah says: “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, avoice of a generation.” It’s a darkly funny experience watching Hannah’s cluelessness, sense of entitlement, and self-importance collide with her parents’ exasperation. This is Lena Dunham’s daring comedy at its best: mining flaws, failures, epic wipeouts, and everyday humiliations for the humor underneath it all. And that makes us all feel like less of a disaster, for a little while at least.
Lena was raised among a community of artists, thinkers, and eccentric creative types, which fueled her unique outlook on the world. Her father is a painter and her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a well-known artist/photographer, whose projects involve photographing dolls and dollhouse furniture in strange and unnerving scenes. For a lot of girls, it’s younger siblings ransacking their Barbie collections, not usually their mom pilfering their stuff.
Lena’s earliest interest in writing and film found a natural outlet in the bohemian atmosphere of her home and family life. She brought those interests with her later on to St. Ann’s, a secondary school with a strong arts culture. Before she had even graduated from high school, Lena was studying playwriting. She wrote and produced her own plays as well as trying her hand at stand-up comedy.
At Oberlin College, Lena immersed herself in writing and film. While other students made narrative films about their families or the interesting history of the town, Lena made herself and her peers the subjects of her movies. Aiming the lens at what was right in front of her, Lena used the camera to explore regular, sometimes boring or uneventful, but always a little uncomfortable, experiences, like dating or living with a roommate or girlfriend. The same kind of psychological curiosity and dry humor that Lena brought to her college films later burst into the world of Girls.
“The parts I enjoy playing aren’t really available to me, so I have to write them.”
After graduation, Lena moved back home with her parents in Manhattan, took on various part-time jobs, and continued making short films and working on other creative projects. One of these was a web sitcom called Delusional Divas that featured Lena and two other friends as spoiled brats from the art scene doing outrageous public stunts in an attempt to get famous. Lena using humor to push the limits of unpleasantness was a bit like the comic abrasiveness of the British show Absolutely Fabulousfused with the uncomfortable, public absurdity of Ali G.
She took these ideas a bit further in 2009 when she wrote, directed, produced, and starred in her own independent film, Tiny Furniture. It’s a film that introduced audiences to Lena’s way of exploiting her characters’ faults and deep vulnerabilities to find the ironic comedy underneath. Tiny Furniture not only won the Best Narrative Film Award at the annual South by Southwest music and culture festival, it led to Lena inking a deal with HBO to produce her own series. The idea she had in mind: four young women, just out of college, gracelessly and, often embarrassingly, moving through the confusion, heartbreak, and challenges of making a life for themselves in New York City.
Girls first aired in 2012, bringing viewers fresh, unnerving female characters who were a mess of contradictions and a mess in general. Hannah and her friends—Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna—navigate jobs, relationships, and their friendships with one another through disquieting experiences and scenarios laced with Lena’s signature bleak humor. Girlswas also one of the first shows, run by a young woman, to take a stark and unflattering look at dating, relationships, and, more specifically, sex. The girls of Girls exposed the weird, empowering, sometimes unpleasant, and often mortifyingly hilarious realities of the twentysomething hookup culture.
Girls ran for six seasons (from 2012 to 2017), winning two Golden Globes, and sparking a national conversation about feminism, race, privilege, art, humor, and the creative hurricane Lena Dunham herself. She waded into the discussion in a significant way in her 2014 memoir/essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.”
Part memoir and part girl guide, Not That Kind of Girl is Lena at her most pointedly self-deprecating and comically honest and insightful. She leaves few stones of her own life and experiences unturned—terrible sexual encounters, an ongoing love-hate relationship with her body, and the quagmire of anxiety and neurosis she wades through on a regular basis. Deploying her deft, funny candor as she picks through the detritus thrown up on shore from the tumultuous ocean of her life, Lena manages to make herself both relatable and sympathetic. She scores the dark matter of what life brings with lashes of black humor to unapologetically announce herself as a woman who is real, complicated, and nowhere near done with her “awkward” phase.
Improv comedy is risky business. You’re onstage in front of an audience, sometimes alone, sometimes with a few other people, making up stories, scenes, and characters on the fly. No rehearsal, no script; there’s no guarantee that anyone will laugh, clap, or even stick around long enough to see you finish your scene. It is not an art form for the timid, unadventurous, or easily cowed. Luckily, Elaine May is none of those things.
In 1948, Elaine was not your ordinary sixteen-year-old living in Los Angeles. She was married and expecting a child. Two years later, Elaine found herself a divorced single mother seeking something more beyond preparing baby formula and cutting coupons. Nineteen fifty was not exactly a “lean-in” kind of year for women. Most women were encouraged to aspire to raising children, running the home, and not complaining about doing either. Elaine’s private desire to be more than a mother was bold enough without her acting on it. But “bold” was Elaine’s best friend. She left her daughter in the care of her grandmother and hitchhiked from LA to Chicago to check out the University of Chicago—rumored to be a highly unconventional place, full of artists, thinkers, and creatives. The rumors were true.
To the casual onlooker, the university probably seemed like a fantastic place to chill out for a few years and grow your brain for fun. And it was a fantastic place, but there was nothing “chill” about it. There was no age requirement to get into the university, but you had to pass all fourteen of the school’s egregiously difficult entrance exams. Attendance was not mandatory and all classes were discussion-based. Your grade was determined by a single year-end exam for each class, based on everything you learned, read, and talked about over the course of the year. Defusing a bomb on a runaway train hurtling toward a nuclear power plant while fighting off a pack of ninjas would have been less pressure-filled than getting in and making it through one year of the University of Chicago.
Elaine couldn’t be bothered to try to get into the university by passing its Mount Everest–like entrance exams. Instead, she spent time on campus, hanging out in classes that interested her, and falling in with a group of theater nerds in the Playwrights Theater Club, an off-campus drama group learning performance through a newish technique called improvisation.
Theater was not new to Elaine; she grew up in a Jewish family who traveled around the country performing Yiddish theater. From time to time, Elaine appeared in plays with her father when she was in her toddler years. But this improv business was nothing like the plays she knew inside and out.
It’s worth noting here that in 1955 improv was not yet the hot spot of funny superstars angling for TV pilots and film deals. It was more like small groups of very dedicated and serious theater types (think black turtlenecks, black-rimmed glasses, lots of name dropping of pretentious playwrights like Ibsen and Brecht) using unscripted theater games to create new types of scene work. Some of it made for rich, dramatic acting and seemed to unleash people’s playful sides, leading to scenes that happened to be very funny.
The raw, unrehearsed, spontaneous, rule-bending nature of improv appealed to Elaine, who was fiercely intellectual, deeply self-possessed, and insatiably curious about people and the inner workings of their minds. Even though she wasn’t enrolled at the university, Elaine had developed a reputation around campus for being something of a renegade savant. One legendary Elaine May story that made the rounds involved her sitting in on a philosophy class where she convinced everyone, including the professor, that all the men in Plato’s Symposiumwere drunk. Seriously, this was what passed for a “good time” at the U of C in the 1950s. Regardless of her antics (alleged or not), the truth behind the Elaine May mystique was that she was a unique young woman, capable of leveling astute insights about art, culture, politics, and people with a laserlike precision reserved for snipers and neurosurgeons.
Elaine found an outlet for her powerful brain when she met a theater major named Mike Nichols. He was also involved in the Playwrights Theater Club, trying to turn himself into a respectable actor. At Playwrights, Elaine did a little bit of everything, from working concessions to directing, acting, and running the players through workshops and theater games. Nichols was a similarly brilliant thinker and artist. He was one of those scary-smart individuals who had been accepted to the University of Chicago at the age of fifteen and was clearly headed to making his mark on the world in an enormous way.
He and Elaine clicked on- and offstage. They were both interested in the truth, especially as it related to the inner workings of people, of what motivated individuals, and what was behind their choices. Elaine and Nichols shared a deep fascination with the experiences of everyday life that everyone encountered. They were both brilliant, and they were both interested in seeing how the spontaneous humor that came out of real, unscripted moments onstage could reveal deeper insights into human nature. For Elaine May, this was definitely what passed as a “good time” at the University of Chicago.