Heard the one about the filthy female comics?
After the success of Bridesmaids, potty-mouthed funny girls are setting their sights on TV, writes Ed Power
Published 18/10/2011 | 05:00
It's not quite the second coming of the suffragettes but the whiff of revolution in the air is nonetheless unmistakable.
One of the last bastions of the entertainment industry is about to be stormed by a new crop of female comedians: the low-brow, potty mouthed sitcom. Starting this autumn, a series of groundbreaking shows will aim to prove that , when it comes to swearing, drinking and fleeing commitment, the modern woman can give any man a run for his money.
Three new comedies are leading the charge. Starring cult movie star Kat Dennings, 2 Broke Girls chronicles the disastrous love life of a straight-talking New York waitress. How straight talking? Well, in the first episode she tells a customer that -- look away now, sensitive readers -- the sound of him clicking his fingers "dries her vagina".
Equally explicit is Whitney, a vehicle for X-rated stand-up Whitney Cummings whose screen character is a liquor-loving wise-cracker who refuses to marry her long-term boyfriend.
Seeking to make a television star of indie cinema queen Zooey Deschanel, New Girl, meanwhile, is about a recently dumped 20-something who sits around her apartment all day watching Dirty Dancing and sobbing into her kleenex.
All these shows have just debuted in the US to impressive ratings and are expected to air on Irish TV before Christmas.
Until recently edgy female comedians were about as common a sight on TV as an Irish rugby team at a World Cup semi-final. Even when the 'gas ceiling' was shattered, the expectation was that lady comics, in addition to being hilarious, would stay demure and graceful. There's a reason you didn't see Carrie Bradshaw chugging beer in her underwear or why the cast of Desperate Housewives never crack any fart gags. Received wisdom stated that, though audiences might theoretically be open to the idea of a funny woman, they wouldn't warm to one who threw around the 'v' word or had a violent aversion to marriage.
However, such stereotypical views were spun on their head this year with the surprise success of Bridesmaids, a low-rent chortle-fest in which women occupied the badly behaving roles usually taken by men. Even though it was produced by gross-out king, Judd Apatow, the general view was that Bridesmaids would flop.
When it was a huge hit, earning $283m on a budget of $32m, every assumption the industry had about women in comedy went up in smoke.
Not that all the credit can go to a single movie. Over the past decade, comedy has become notably less hostile to women. In the late 90s, female stand-ups were a novelty. Nowadays, nobody blinks when a woman gets on stage.
'When I started, people would look at you as if you had two heads," says Birmingham-based Irish stand-up Sheila McMahon. "There was definitely a sense of 'what does she think she's doing up there?' It's all changed. I was doing a show last night and there were two other female comedians on the bill. Nobody blinked."
Behind the scenes, of course, comedy remains very much a man's game. The majority of comedy writers are male and most tend to come from the same social class. "It's mostly white middle-class educated guys," says US comedian Demetri Martin of his time writing for Conan O'Brien. "When I was there I think there was, like, one woman writer on staff."
The other big vogue in American comedy is the 'washed up guy' sitcom. Last Man Standing, Man Up and Up All Night portray men as underemployed spongers whose only talent is lounging on the sofa as their significant others go out and support them.
You can see what the writers of such programmes are getting at. Men, they seem to be arguing, have been so emasculated by the sexual revolution they don't know what their purpose is anymore. Or as Tim Allen's character says in Last Man Standing: "What happened to men? Men used to build cities just because they could burn them down. They used to get a haircut from a guy named Hank. Modern men, what do you do? You run from things, from responsibility, from fatherhood. You can't even change a tire. Get off the couch, you moron, and go outside."
For all that, feminists tempted to toast the dawning of a new era are advised to keep the champagne corked for now.
The risqué fem-com could well be merely a passing fad. Television, after all, is notoriously quick to hitch aboard the nearest bandwagon. Look at the slew of Mad Men-inspired shows about to come our way (starting with Christina Ricci's Pan Am and the Hugh Hefner approved Playboy Club). There is always a sense of easy come, easy go about these trends.
Nor is there any avoiding the fact that, though they may swear and drink like troopers, the stars of 2 Broke Girls, Whitney and New Girl have something else in common too. All are conventionally good looking.
It remains the case that the only ugly comedians you see on television are men. Until that changes, it's hard to think that women are even close to achieving equality.