We'll Show You Who's FUNNY

With Amy Poehler's new sitcom, Parks and Recreation, premiering this month, and Tina Fey ruling Hollywood from atop a pile of Emmys, funny women are having a moment. MC rounds up the pioneers, the visionaries, and the chemically imbalanced to talk about how we got here.

We ask the pros

Can a pretty girl be funny?

MARGARET CHO (Lifetime's upcoming Drop Dead Diva): I remember seeing beautiful girls do stand-up, and it was a disaster every time. Not only were people not gonna listen to you because you're a woman, if you're good-looking, people really don't want to listen to you.

SUSIE ESSMAN (Curb Your Enthusiasm): I've had to give some young female comics advice about what they're wearing. Like, you can't wear something too provocative — it's too confusing to the men in the audience. They don't know if they wanna fuck you or laugh at you.

JOAN RIVERS (comedian): Phyllis Diller used to dress like a fool. Totie Fields was a big fat woman. In the beginning, women comedians were all grotesque in one way or another.

PHYLLIS DILLER (comedian): When I started, I had a broken nose, my teeth were crooked, and I was very skinny. And you know what? It all helped.

ESSMAN: I always wondered if Roseanne would have been accepted by the country, being as strong as she was, if she weren't fat. Lucy was beautiful. But she played dumb, dumb, dumb.

SUZANNE SOMERS (Three's Company): [When I was fired from Three's Company], a producer said to the ABC people, "She's a blonde. I trained her, I'll train another one," like I was some sort of seal ... [But] a comedy is musical. It took me two years to understand the rhythm, the beat, the timing, but once I heard the music, oh, my God, I so got it.

LARAINE NEWMAN (original cast member, Saturday Night Live): Women always had their role, which was the bimbo, the big-titted woman in the sketch. Nobody really understood that those women had comic timing, too. They were always thought of as a prop.


JANEANE GAROFALO (24): In mainstream television and film, the nature of the beast is that the women still have to be good-looking. I think Leslie Mann was the anchor of Knocked Up. She was fucking hilarious. But she probably wouldn't have been playing that part if she wasn't great-looking.

LISA KUDROW (Friends): I once had an agent who said, "We don't know what to do with you. You're not gorgeous, so you don't really fit in anywhere." Because those were the only roles for women.

KATHY GRIFFIN (My Life on the D-List): After Suddenly Susan, I went to every network and said, "What if you put four funny chicks together? Not newcomers, but four women who are proven in television: me, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Cheri Oteri, or Molly Shannon..." And the network people said, "What about Carmen Electra?"

CHO: When I was younger, I was really fat. And that was good, because then you just automatically get some kind of weird authority. By the time I got to Hollywood, I was so much thinner — but not by TV standards. So I was like, "What do you mean, I'm still fat?" That's when I had a lot of hard times.

GRIFFIN: I'm constantly dieting, constantly working out, because unlike Will Ferrell, I'm going to take more hits if I don't at least have a normal figure. I was walking through Central Park yesterday without any makeup, and I come home and I'm on fucking TMZ for being old and ugly.

JAY LENO (host, The Tonight Show): They used to say in the '60s and '70s that if you were an attractive woman, you couldn't be a comedian because it would be really distracting. Well, I think Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman and others have proved that wrong. Now you have a generation of women that doesn't have to do self-put-downs. They talk about exactly the same subjects as male comics — drinking, carousing, dating.

SANDRA BERNHARD (comedian): I just didn't want to do self-deprecating humor. I was kind of, like, from the post-feminist era where you were supposed to feel good about yourself as a woman.

ROSEANNE BARR (Roseanne): I proved that you could be fat and funny and sexy. And so did John Goodman. It was a hot duo — everybody knew that they were sexually active with each other.

GRIFFIN: Chelsea Handler is hot, but when I watch her show, what do I care that she's a hot blonde? I just think she's funny. Do I think it helps Tina Fey that she's good-looking? Of course it does. But man, she just worked the system in a way that she was able to let her actual material come through, more than the fact that she's a supercute brunette.

RIVERS: Nobody wants to be the ugly funny girl.

Stand-up: the ultimate boys club?

GAROFALO: You only want one woman or one black comedian per show — club owners would actually have the nerve to say that out loud. Or they would say, "We had a female comic last weekend headlining and she bombed, so we're not going to have anymore women."

BARR: It was their own bigotry. They'd put on, like, four white guys who did impersonations of black guys, and then they wouldn't put on any black guys. Most of the other women quit — but I wasn't going to do that 'cause I knew I was funnier than all the men there.

CHO: In the early '90s, there was a coffeehouse boom, and there was this one called the Ministry on La Brea [in Los Angeles]. And Ben Stiller was there, Judd Apatow and Colin Quinn, all writing in their notebooks. So Janeane was like, "Oh, we've got to do that, too. We've got to work." So everyone would just get together and sit and write.

BERNHARD: At the Comedy Store in L.A. in 1978, they opened the Belly Room, primarily for women comedians, which, of course, was kind of sexist and weird. But women could be more themselves, and they weren't under the pressure of following a man who was doing, like, really tacky, sexist, racist — whatever the hell they were doing.

PAULA POUNDSTONE (NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me"): I followed a man one night — Steve Sweeney, who is now a radio guy in Boston. The last thing Steve Sweeney said was, "So I was eating out the cunt of a bear." You know, that's hard to follow. Suddenly my joke about busing tables ... So did anybody deliberately exclude women? No. And I could have played along. But I knew that wasn't where I was going to thrive.

BARR: "How to Become a Stand-Up Comic" was my first routine, and I was mostly making fun of men comics. The first time it just really killed, 'cause I had followed so many of them doing the penis jokes and fart jokes. But the second time I think they all had their hackles up, and it didn't go so well. I got banned from the Comedy Shoppe in Denver. So I started to work in Unitarian churches and lesbian coffeehouses.

CHO: The boys were always supersupportive of each other. And the girls didn't really have that until Janeane Garofalo came to L.A. She was like this punk-rock girl. She had really black hair and only wore red lipstick. She sort of lifted the veil of what comedy was about. I used to think, Oh, you've got to think up all these jokes. She's like, "No, they just want to see you. They want to know what you're thinking."

GRIFFIN: When I first started, I called Janeane and said, "I can't get a break. Everybody is getting on SNL but me." Janeane said, "I think that we should do something called alternative comedy. Fuck the Comedy Store. Fuck the Improv — rent your own theater. Go do stand-up yourself." So I printed flyers: "Comedy night with Kathy Griffin and Janeane Garofalo." We would charge $1, and the show was only an hour. And then we would get celebrity guests — Lisa Kudrow, Quentin Tarantino. And it became the talk of the town.

CAROL LEIFER (writer, inspiration for Seinfeld's Elaine): Look, it takes a lot of balls to be a comedian.

JOY BEHAR (cohost, The View): Male comedians would bomb, and they'd go, "I had a good time." But when the women didn't do well: "They hated me, I bombed." And I think that it serves the men well because they can go on and on in denial until they get better at it.

ESSMAN: Yeah, it was a boys club. But once I proved myself as a strong act, I got put on. No club owner is not gonna put you on if the audience is laughing.

BEHAR: It's easier for men, because it's natural for them to be in a powerful position. To put a microphone in a woman's hands and say, "Hey, you have power now" is disconcerting. We're not raised like that.

RIVERS: That's why there were so many lesbians in it. You have to be strong to get on a stage. You're like a lion tamer.

LEIFER: I think a new generation started with Elayne Boosler. Watching her is like, Wow, there's a woman doing stand-up who wasn't saying, "Am I right, ladies?" It was just like an act that a man would do. She had a funny joke about how she had nothing in her apartment, and it wasn't well-decorated, so anytime she brought a guy over, she'd open her door and go, "Oh my God, I've been robbed!"

RIVERS: The whole thing has changed. Women are supporting themselves, women are single parents ... It's not a man's world anymore; it's no longer Daddy coming home. You're both coming home. Women are allowed to speak about many, many more things now.

CAROLINE HIRSCH (owner, Carolines on Broadway): I went to see Sarah Silverman at Club Soda in Montreal. There were 300 people in the room, and when the audience was waning, she did something very sexually explicit with her hand down her pants. Sarah's about the shock value. She once said something about Jimmy Kimmel's balls smelling like her grandmother's clothes. I mean, the things that would come out of her mouth. But she's of a generation that is no-holds-barred.

Ready for prime time?

GAROFALO: On television, they tend to write women as the straight person and guys as the funny person. The classic paradigm in sitcoms is the heavyset, funny husband and the hot, not-as-funny wife.

KUDROW: And if you have to be the reasonable one, then it's hard to find the comedy in it.

MARY TYLER MOORE (the Mary Tyler Moore Show): [On the Dick Van Dyke Show], I was hired to be the straight man for everybody. You know, I would do the question-asking: "Oh, Rob, what are you going to do?" That kind of thing.

KUDROW: For women in comedy, you better write your own stuff, because it's going to be very hard to find a man to do it for you.

KRISTEN SCHAAL (Flight of the Conchords): The ability to write is really one of the main things that has kept me grounded. If you can write, you have control over your career. If you don't, then you're just waiting for someone to give you a job.

BARR: With my show, I wasn't at the whim of a writer defining me or what I wanted to say. I was a strong woman writer. And I oversaw all the writing for the entire show, like Tina Fey does now.

LEIFER: It's always important to have women in the writing room, because there are things that women know about that men will never know about. I did an episode of Seinfeld called "The Skinny Mirror." And, you know, the guys in the writing room didn't know what I was talking about.

LENO: We have two female writers on the show out of 20. You don't get a lot of women submitting. I'm talking joke-writing, like two-guys-walk-into-a-bar gags. That tends to be primarily male.

PENNY MARSHALL (director): I married someone who was very funny, Rob Reiner, and we had people over all the time — Albert Brooks, Jim Brooks, all the Brookses. They didn't want to hear from girls. God, no. Once in a while, I could shoot a line out from the kitchen.

KUDROW: Depending on who the director was, when we would rehearse stuff [for Friends], I know that there was a feeling sometimes like, Wow, they're spending a lot of time on the guy scenes, figuring out how to make it as funny as possible. And sometimes with the girl scenes, we'd run it, and it was like, Alright, well, that's good. It felt like there was a little more enthusiasm to figure it out with the guys.

BURNETT: If a sketch wasn't working, Sid Caesar or Gleason might go in and say, "Hey, guys, this stinks." But I would call the writers and say, "Gee, I don't know. I'm not getting this as well as I should." I didn't want to castrate anybody. A woman doing that in those days would be considered bitchy.

SOMERS: I was fired from [Three's Company] because I said, "I'd like you to pay me what you're paying the men." I knew that I was number one in that coveted demographic, 18 to 49; why were men getting paid 10 times more? But they wanted to make it an example so that no other female could ever get that uppity on television. Penny Marshall told me years later that when she and Cindy Williams went to renegotiate their contracts, they said, "Remember what happened to Suzanne."

RIVERS: I was the first permanent guest host they ever had on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Then one day, a friend of mine who was the vice president at NBC got an internal memo saying, "When Johnny leaves, here are the 10 people to replace him." And I wasn't on the list — it was all men.

GRIFFIN: The last time I was on Leno, he turned to me during the commercial break and said, "Why aren't you up for my job? You should get a late-night show on Fox." And I said, "Jay, I'm very flattered, but tell that to [Fox president of alternative entertainment] Mike Darnell." Have you met Mike Darnell? He's like 4'11" and puts on shows like Joe Millionaire. That's who I'm dealing with.

ESSMAN: Comedy Central has no qualms about telling you their demographic is young male. The mistake that they all make, though, is they think young males only want to watch young males.

BEHAR: There's no way that they will ever hire a woman for a Leno job or a Letterman job, because they claim that it's a male audience that watches — as if women are not working and staying up late watching Late Night.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (the New Adventures of Old Christine): On Seinfeld, it was a boys' club, but I was a member. I felt that I could go toe-to-toe with everybody in, frankly, the way that Elaine did.

LEIFER: God, I think if you look at any episode of Seinfeld, Elaine is never anybody's straight man.

CASEY WILSON (SNL): Amy Poehler's like a cheerleader — kind of like mama bear. She wanted other women to succeed. It's like, Why can only one of us do well? One time I remember we were doing a Mad Men sketch, and I was playing the redhead. And I had a funny bit where basically I came in and dropped off some papers, but I didn't have a line. It wasn't even Amy's sketch, but she piped up and said to the writers, "Let's give Casey a funny line when she comes in." She didn't have to do that.

KRISTEN WIIG (SNL): The boys'-club thing, I don't know if it's referring to an old SNL that I'm not familiar with. Because it seems very equal right now.

Back in the day

DILLER: I'll tell you the landscape in about 1955. All the men were working double — two men doing comedy together. A single female comic was a real standout. For the first 10 years, I was the only female comic. Then came Joan Rivers and Totie Fields. Totie died. That's why you don't know her. But you know Joan — she's funny as hell.

RICHARD BELZER (comedian): Joan Rivers was like a female Woody Allen when she first started. That's what she was called.

CAROL BURNETT (the Carol Burnett Show): When I started, the head of CBS said, "Variety is more of a man's field: Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle ... We've got a great sitcom pilot you could shoot. It's called Here's Agnes." I could just picture it: "Heeeeere's Agnes." Oh, God.

RIVERS: Washing my dirty linen in public is what it was — which wasn't done. I was talking about my mother, who was desperate to get my sister and me married, or how I was having an affair with a married professor, or I was talking about my gay friend. I listen to my old material, and I go, "Ugh, how dull is that?"

DILLER: Stand-up is the ultra-final funny. You don't sing, you don't dance. You talk. It's just brain to brain.

The gay factor

RIVERS: I wouldn't be here without the gay audience — absolutely wouldn't be here. They were the ones who laughed and encouraged and gave you the impetus to move on.

BEHAR: I started in Greenwich Village, where there were a lot of gay guys who thought I was funny and were very supportive. Then I realized you have to go uptown and face a straight audience, a lot of them from out of town, who may not really get the references.

ESSMAN: Gay guys traditionally like strong women, whether it's Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler. They like a ballsy woman. They're not as intimidated.

GRIFFIN: Gay men look at Rosie O'Donnell, and they think funny. They don't see overweight lesbian.

HIRSCH: Honey, when you have the gay men coming to your show, you're going to be a big star.

Funny doesn't discriminate

KUDROW: I've heard guy writers say, "I don't think women are funny." But if the only funny thing they get to do is knock over a glass of water, then, yeah, women aren't as funny as men.

GAROFALO: Unfortunately, what tends to get made are the Bride Wars movies. Even though there might be 50 scripts written by women, the one that's written about a wedding that you can put Kate Hudson in will get made.

MICHAELA WATKINS (SNL): What Amy and Tina did is outstanding. Because they were on SNL, they brought it to the public, in their living rooms. There is a spotlight on Tina and Amy — it's like, "Oh, well, would you look at that, women are funny." It's like, "Yeah, duh."

RIVERS: If you're funny, they'll come. If you're not, they're not going to come, whether you're a man or a woman or a dog. If you make them laugh, fuck it! They'll be thrilled to have you.

GRIFFIN: Let's cut that crap right now that chicks aren't as funny. Women are funnier than men. We're funnier because we have to work harder."