Does the Fall TV Lineup Finally End the ‘Are Women Funny’ Debate?

With women's comedy chops again being questioned, we take a look at the history of female-led sitcoms up to the present. It's time to put the final nail in the proverbial coffin

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Ali Goldstein / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon

As almost anyone who consumes modern entertainment can attest, there are many unanswerable questions about popular culture. For example, what was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? Did Agent Cooper eventually escape the Black Lodge and regain control over his body from Bob? Are Liam Neeson’s career choices the result of some practical joke that he’s playing on the rest of us? Something that’s just a little bit more complicated, however, is the seemingly simple matter of whether or not women can be funny.

The problem with that question, you see, is that humor is subjective. I immediately think “Of course women can be funny,” as if the very notion that they couldn’t is basically outlandish, but it’s possible that there are those out there who believe that only one gender can get comedy “right.” More than possible, in fact; within the last decade or so, we’ve seen Jerry Lewis tell a comedy festival that he didn’t like any female comedians and Christopher Hitchens write in Vanity Fair that a woman being funny is “so rare as to be like Dr. Johnson’s comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: the surprise is that it is done at all.” Earlier this year, Adam Carolla continued this train of thought, suggesting that “dudes are funnier than chicks,” and that affirmative action was responsible for the careers of many female comedians: “If Joy Behar or Sherri Shepherd was a dude, they’d be off TV. They’re not funny enough for dudes,” he said. Hell, he even has science backing him up, thanks to skewed studies that “prove” that women just aren’t as funny as men.

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Just last week, Deadline Hollywood’s Nikki Finke introduced a new wrinkle into the popular complaint, responding to Julie Bowen’s Emmy win for her role on ABC’s Modern Family. “Listen-up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy,” Finke wrote. “Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups.” For those who aren’t too busy having horrifying flashbacks to New Yorker critic Anthony Lane’s complaint that Tina Fey “hasn’t yet made up her mind how funny her body is meant to be” because she was neither comically fat nor stick thing, you can at least take some solace in the fact that Finke isn’t saying that all women can’t be funny, just the attractive ones (I’m no scientist, but I’m guessing that there’s strong scientific background behind this assertion. Maybe the pretty gene takes up all the space normally used by the comedy gene or something; you’d have to ask Finke, I guess). And yet… why does this keep coming up, time after time after time? Why are so many people determined to declare women to be comedy-deficient?

Much has been made of the success, last year, of the movie Bridesmaids. To believe the hype, it was the movie that ended Hollywood’s fear of funny women, opened the door for the success of movies like this weekend’s Pitch Perfect, and ushered in a new age of female-led comedies on television. And, to be fair, there are a lot of female-led sitcoms on the broadcast networks these days. Thursday sees the beginning of the seventh and final season of 30 Rock — a season which will address the “Are Women Funny?” issue with, I can only hope, the appropriate amount of both disbelief and merciless smack down, considering that it’s a show created, showrun and starring Tina Fey — joining former SNL-cast members Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation and Maya Rudolph’s Up All Night on NBC. (Unfortunately, the network also has Whitney, much to the displeasure of many.) Fox, meanwhile, has both New Girl and the new series The Mindy Project, while ABC offers Don’t Trust The B- in Apartment 23 and CBS continues with 2 Broke Girls.

It’s a sign, according to Don’t Trust The B- creator and showrunner Nahnatchka Khan that audiences are enjoying seeing well-rounded women on-screen, something often ascribed to Bridesmaids‘ influence on executives: “I worked on a show once where the ­female character had to be crying or screaming in every scene,” she told New York Magazine earlier this year. “Those were the two ­accepted emotions—sad or angry. But now you can have a flawed female character on a network show, and she doesn’t have to redeem herself at the end of every episode.”

While it’s true that women on sitcoms have often been forced to be either perfect or “quirky” in order to be likeable, it’s through the increasing success of women behind the camera, writing and creating sitcoms — like Fey’s 30 Rock, Up All Night, Whitney, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Don’t Trust The B- and 2 Broke Girls have all been created or co-created by women — that the “realism” of sitcom women has grown.  To suggest, however, that the increasing visibility of women in positions in front of and behind the camera on these shows is somehow the result of Bridesmaids demonstrating that — Hey! Women can get drunk and inappropriate and defecate in sinks just like men! — is, at best, lazy and incorrect and, at worst, veering close to self-congratulatory revisionism.

Although their numbers may have increased in recent years — something that’s due less to Bridesmaids, I’d argue, than the long-term success of something like 30 Rock, or the increasing visibility of women on traditional launching pad Saturday Night Light — women have not only always been at the heart of the American sitcom, but they’ve been the ones pushing the genre forward on a consistent and regular basis.

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Almost any list of “Classic American Sitcoms” will demonstrate the importance female-led shows have had throughout the years, all the way back to I Love Lucy in the 1950s. (Running for six years between 1951 and 1957, the series was never out of the top three rated shows on the air.) In fact, even though the sitcom genre — like the comedy business in general — has been traditionally predominantly male, every decade seems to have at least one female-led series that wasn’t just a success in terms of ratings, but in influence over the shows that followed, whether it was the subversive playfulness and proto-feminism of Bewitched in the 1960s or the socially relevant Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s (winner of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row, and one of TIME’s 17 Shows That Changed TV).

The late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s sitcom scene was ruled by Roseanne, which offered a family portrait more in tune with its viewers than anything that had come before, and was once described as a show that mattered “to the audience, to the zeitgeist, and to every show that has followed.” And that’s not even going near popular shows that quietly broke ground like The Golden Girls (hello, new audience demographic), or series that had one brief moment of zeitgeistial glory, such as Ellen‘s coming-out episode or the Dan Quayle/Murphy Brown feud.

Looking through the list of the successful female-led shows and considering the particular successes that they’ve enjoyed throughout the years — not to mention the outrage they’ve provoked, the conversations, revelations and discussions they’ve brought about — the question “Are Women Funny?” begins to seem ridiculous. (Matthew Perry may put it best, here.) Yes, comedy is subjective and it’s perfectly possible that there are those for whom women just can’t tickle their funny bones for whatever reason, legitimate (They are very, very hard to please) or otherwise (They are sexist morons). And yet, pop culture is something that doesn’t just create the environment it exists in, but is shaped by it; if women weren’t funny, then we wouldn’t have so many shows to fill up that list, no matter how extreme “affirmative action” programming could get, and there wouldn’t be such a response to those shows.

That female-led shows provoke such response — both positive and negative — may suggest that they’re funny in a different and more challenging way than male-led sitcoms, which might answer the truly unanswerable question about this whole thing: not whether women can be funny or not, but why so many people seem to want to continually tell you that they can’t be. Such complaints and criticisms may never disappear entirely — Haters gonna hate, as I believe the hep kids put it — but as time goes on, it would be nice to think that the idea of comedy being gender-neutral won’t seem so worthy of attention in the future. After all, there are so many other things to wonder about, instead. For example: Was Inception all a dream by the end or what?

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