Janeane Garofalo, in her review of Tina Fey’s Bossypants for NPR. (via seafaringwoman)
WOW can you say APPLIES TO MY PROJECT?
Lucy Ricardo (played by Lucille Ball in the hit 1950s show I Love Lucy) was a wife to Ricky. Lucille Bluth (played by Jessica Walter in the 2000 hit show Arrested Development) was the manipulative matriarch, secretly controlling the family business and stealing ideas from unassuming Korean banana stand owners. As you might assume in reading this blog, I, Lily, really enjoy watching television. I am a television fiend—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, I Love Lucy, Arrested Development, Gilligan’s Island, How I Met Your Mother, Portlandia—if I continue the list, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of this blog post.
As a child, I watched I Love Lucy on Saturday Nights in my mom’s basement, usually eating Cool Ranch Doritos and drinking purple Gatorade. I laughed at the ridiculous situations that Lucy and Ethel would get themselves into, and then, later, when Ricky would inevitably yell at Lucy and Ethel. Today I see Lucille Ball as a hero in comedy—she was one of the originals. But there are issues with her characters—because even she thought it okay to play Lucy as (to borrow a word from the great librarian Andrew Lee) subservient to Ricky. Ricky is often embarrassed by Lucy, who is witty and sometimes a bit clumsy (clumsiness to be discussed later.)
Later, as an (almost) adult, I started watching Arrested Development, about a messed up wealthy family whose patriarch is suddenly arrested for some (light) treason. Michael Bluth has to take over the family business, as well as deal with his vapid mother and sister (Lucille and Lindsay) and clueless brothers (Gob and Buster.) The breakout character in this series is most certainly Lucille Bluth, who is, as I mentioned earlier, played by Jessica Walter. Lucille is revealed at the end of the series (SPOILERS AHEAD) to be the entire mastermind behind all of the crimes of the family business. In one of the last scenes in the show, she attempts to escape arrest by trying to hijack the Queen Mary, where a family party was taking place.
Lucille is not incredibly lovable—she’s manipulative, she’s a drunk, she cheats on her husband with his twin brother Oscar and she always wants her adult daughter on a diet. She’s a hyperbole of the ultimate WASP, but she’s also more of that. She’s a business magnate and a criminal mastermind. She is sexually free and tough when it comes to her bossy and often sexist husband. She’s definitely racist when it comes to her maids—Luce and Lupe. Lucille Bluth is a three dimensional character and shows how far we’ve come in female characters in television comedy—and shows how there’s still a ways to go. There’s a lot to improve, but she is a commentary.
But back to Lucy: it’s been a while for me. So I went on YouTube and checked out a few clips—the show is mostly what I remembered, Lucy and Ethel being silly, Ricky and Fred getting angry. But watch this clip, because the implications of character and gender are befuddling to me:
For those who don’t feel like watching, Lucy and Ethel attend charm school. Lucy spends a lot of time making fun of the woman who is teaching the class (rightfully so, she is ridiculous) then they present their new, classier selves to Fred and Ricky (who are confused as to why Lucy and Ethel aren’t in their bedrooms?) Lucy and Ethel are not themselves, but two characters they think will be more pleasing to their husbands. And it’s hilarious. It’s also hard to figure out whether or not Lucy and Ethel are doing this to get back at their husbands, the snotty charm school teacher, or simply because they want to class up for their husbands? Fred and Ricky just seem to “punish” the ladies right back. Lucy says this, a sad housewife’s lament: “I thought you’d pay attention to me if I was well groomed, charming, and attractive.” Then they go back to being “four, natural, lovable slobs.” Lucy is constantly searching for ways to both please Ricky and piss him off.
Now I’ll get to that clumsy characteristic that bothers me so much: almost every female in romantic comedies is a klutz. She falls down the stairs, trips on the sidewalk, and runs into the lead man. The clumsiness of Lucy Ricardo is similar in this way—it’s a way to distinguish her from every other woman, to make her endearing and literally bring her down. Lucille Bluth isn’t even clumsy when she’s drunk.
This is the uneven picture that Lucille Ball presented in the 1950s. To many, and to me, she is a feminist hero for many of her pursuits and accomplishments, not to mention she’s hilarious. But I hate to admit that there’s more to Lucille Bluth. She’s not as loveable—she’s a drunk who is mean to her children. But the way that she’s written is crucial: her character is a social commentary, which should be clearly understood by viewers. Not to mention, she’s smart, she’s shrewd, and, in many cases, she’s sexual. Just check out the video below, and, if you’re running out of time, just watch the last 20 seconds.
I can’t completely come to a conclusion to this comparison, because Lucille Ball was, in many ways a feminist, and Lucille Bluth often does play a negative stereotype. I think it’s important to consider these changes, especially in relation to what I’ve written about my project. There has been an evolution in these characters and it has a lot to do with who is sitting in these writing rooms and what they were raised in thinking about gender and stereotypes.
The last year has been a lot about dealing with my own insecurities. To say that the past year, starting from the beginning of spring semester 2011, has been rough is an understatement. And it’s also been one of the best years of my life. But, beginning last January, a lot of my life had to deal with figuring out my disease- Crohn’s disease. I hadn’t gotten sick since I was a freshman in high school, when my life had been much different. In college, it was hard to score sympathy from my friends after four months straight spent in bed, not that I didn’t pity myself enough. In January, I was just getting on medicine and really depressed. My friends didn’t recognize me anymore and neither did I- I was oversensitive, petty and not fun at all. And then April came. Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, came out. I read it cover to cover and realized I had never associated with something or someone so much. The goofy side, the feminist side and the sort of sometimes being lame side (that I realized you have to embrace) all really resonated with me. A few days later, my friend Katie and I went to a signing to meet her in person. Nothing significant happened except I got tongue tied when it was my turn and I met Grizz from 30 Rock.
But I owe a lot of comedy, particularly comediennes. Comedy has always been a comfort to me, in ways that I only realize now, while actually thinking back on being a kid watching Saturday Night Live, or skipping Thursday nights out with my friends in high school to watch 30 Rock.
But after that visit to Barnes and Noble, my comedy obsession had officially begun. It was time to dig deeper. Any my life in comedy wasn’t just about funny ladies like Fey and Amy Poehler, but I branched out. My first visit to the Upright Citizens Brigade occurred in June, with my friend Nick, to a show called ASSSSCAT. I was silently suffering from a flare up of my Crohn’s, and doing little else than my internship and occasional visits with my closest friends. It was the first time I laid eyes on Shannon O’Neill, Chris Gethard, and Will Hines, three comedians who I’ve come to love. This year, I actually had the opportunity to interview O’Neill for an hour about her journey through comedy and her thoughts about women in comedy. O’Neill, who is always in support of her fellow UCB colleagues, particularly those who are female, actually had very little to say on the topic—instead, she lets that passion for being a tough woman in the New York City comedy scene show in her performances and in the sketches that she writes.
So, despite feeling sick as a dog, being malnourished and anemic, I started going to UCB pretty much every Sunday to go see ASSSSCAT, a long form improv show that never failed to be hilarious. I saw some of the greats—Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo—and comics who I had never heard of before—like O’Neill and Fran Gillepsie. Women who I saw in the background of my favorite TV shows were main performers and they were hilarious. I owe a lot of this to living in New York, which boasts one of the biggest comedy communities in the country. Had I attended a small school in the Mid-West, I would not have figured out how much I love comedy, nor would I have been able to cultivate this passion beyond Fey and Poehler.
What particularly impressed me was Ruby Karp, an 11 year old girl and the daughter of American feminist writer Marcelle Karp, who became a fixture on the stage. The women weren’t exploiting her, but exposing her to a community in which women were currently thriving (this was also the summer of Bridesmaids.) O’Neill often hosts a UCB show called “The Lady Jam,” a fun night where lesser known female comedians and improvisers perform. Then there’s a dance party. One of the best things about this event is the emphasis on inclusion: “men welcome,” a poster enthusiastically reads. Karp, meanwhile, is a presence on HelloGiggles, a sight for women by women.
But I didn’t really think about all of these gender dynamics until the end of the summer, when I started considering a career in comedy. Would I be included, too? I see a lot of white, females thriving, but very few with hips like mine. Writer’s rooms, too, are still dominated by males including SNL, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. We still live in a world where Christopher Hitchens writes so adamantly on how women aren’t funny. But then again, we live in a world where many people would disagree.
As I continue on my comedy journey, whatever that may mean, I realize I have a long way to go. I still haven’t been to every comedy club in the city, and I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to non-mainstream comics. But this world has sucked me in and I don’t plan on stepping out any time soon. Female comedians are the inspiration for the insecure girl in me—their beginnings as awkward and unsure give me hope that one day, like them, I’ll have embraced those quirks. Which is why I believe in comediennes so much, and why I think that this project is so important, not just for me: I can’t think of a better community for young girls to be inspired.
(Blog post not about the retail store of the same name)
Here’s where a lot of my project lies: an empty (figurative) shelf in the library. A lonely search in Bobcat, no results to be found. A meeting with a very helpful librarian, who, herself, found many results from today, not so much from yesterday.
When I presented this project last week, I emphasized that there is a giant chunk of history missing here, about women in comedy, particularly in the 1990s. Today, however, we’ve been bombarded with discourse on mainstream female comedians, and on those who certainly weren’t so mainstream back then. For every one comic who has found mainstream success, there are likely hundreds who are still trying to make it. So when and how did this discourse of females in comedy make it into the mainstream? Were we just not paying attention and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler just snuck by us, with a gaggle of funny ladies in their wake?
I could (and have, in other blog posts) pinpointed a moment when this all changed, but the truth is that there are several. I could trace it back to Tina Fey becoming the first female head writer in SNL history (1999), the movie Mean Girls (2004), the movie Bridesmaids (2011), or even the TV show Girls (2012). There’s no one moment, one piece of work that defines this discourse coming into a mainstream platform. I think that’s where I’ve run into so many issues in considering my project- a lot of my first inclination was to go and talk about Bridesmaids…But I had to dig deeper (see post about the 90s and Housewives.)
Race, in relation to gender, is only just entering the discourse on comedy—particularly in relation to the show Girls, brought to us by Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham as well as a smaller web show, picking up speed, (brought up in class last week) called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIVa9lxkbus) a show that I would recommend to anyone. In the case of Girls, the specific complaint of many bloggers (http://jezebel.com/5903382/why-we-need-to-keep-talking-about-the-white-girls-on-girls ) is that there is little to no representation of women of color. Many women of color are asking: am I supposed to be seeing myself in this show, as the advertising campaign implied? The only black person on the show was a screaming homeless man on the sidewalk, who the main character wistfully passes by on the street. If you’re interested in reading about The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, check out this story (http://www.xojane.com/issues/people-internet-can-be-hella-racist) from xojane.com. The comments are almost just as interesting. Myself, in all of the comedy shows I’ve attended in the past year (I would say the number surpasses 100), I’ve only seen one woman of color perform live. Her name was Sasheer Zamata and she was fantastic (check out this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJjOX_C8RJQ) if you don’t believe me.)
So why are we just getting to discussing all of this? Why did take so long? This discourse is important, and it would be a shame for it to disappear. There is no end of discussion, so it’s tough to come up with an end to this blog post— we need to talk more about women of color in comedy, and women in comedy in general— it doesn’t mean picking up every non mainstream comedienne in New York City and making her a star overnight— that might be what she wants, but the comedy scene here would suffer a serious crisis of authenticity.
For those of you who are strangers to my blog, welcome to my introduction post. I say the word “project” a lot, as I’m referring to a project I’ve been working on during the spring semester of 2012, as a junior in college. The class I’m in (I was in) is about intermingling and subaltern studies (what I understand as the study of those with no history). We were all asked to choose an artifact that would represent a subaltern group. At the time, and still today, a lot of what I was considering was the world of comedy, an evolving community, especially since the previous summer’s release of the movie Bridesmaids, which was referred to by bloggers and writers alike as a serious change for women in comedy. The discourse on women in comedy is now plentiful- just Google it.
But there’s more to this history, that hasn’t been talked about. So my artifact comes from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: 1997. It’s a Saturday Night Live monologue in an episode where Sylvester Stallone was hosting. The monologue is Rocky-themed and Chris Kattan, a talented comedian, plays Adrien, Rocky’s wife, in drag (unfortunately not found online, but can be found on Netflix Instant Watch.) In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey lets the reader in on what was happening backstage: Cheri Oteri, a young cast member, actually wanted to play the part of Adrien. Yet, the writers thought Kattan would be funnier. Today, Fey says this wouldn’t have happened…So what was happening then, in 1997?
A lot was happening. And not so much. It’s really hard to tell because there’s almost nothing written during this time about female comedians. The 1990s are known for the ever-present sitcom. It was the time of Friends, Frasier, Roseanne, Boy Meets World, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Family Matters, and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. There wasn’t too much deviation in the jokes the characters made or the characters themselves. Females, in particular, often played the same old stereotype. I present the sassy and/or overworked housewife. See: Roseanne, Boy Meets World, Home Improvement, Family Matters, and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Vivian Banks, the mother in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a sassy professor at the beginning of the show, then, adopted a “less fiery demeanor” as the show re-imagined her character. I actually found this assertion on Wikipedia , and can back this up in many viewings of The Fresh Prince. Aunt Viv, as Smith calls her, changed to a much weaker character as the 90s wore on. Yet, one of my favorite episodes of the show features earlier, badass Vivian Banks, trying to revive her dance career, while receiving little support from her family. When it comes to audition time, OldViv (played by Janet Hubert-Whitten) kills it:
Sigh. Then NewViv (played by a different actress) comes in, and it’s less about her awesome academic career and more about being a homemake and a mom. OldViv goes on to trash talk Will Smith. Double sigh.
The domination of these types of sitcoms spoke to a lot to where the United States was—baby boomers were having families and the culture followed. Shows were either about families (Full House, Home Improvement) or on young 20 somethings (Friends, Seinfeld). The TV show, Ellen, however, may be one of the few exceptions to this cultural trend, prompting a lot of conversation when the main character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, comes out as homosexual. The show was set up as a classic sitcom comedy, until the second to last season in 1997 in an episode called “The Puppy Episode.” A year later, the show was unfortunately cancelled because it had far too many gay themes. Like in the case of Aunt Vivian, a unique character played by a comedienne was shot down. Sitcoms were not a place for innovation in comedy by ladies, at least not then.
I see the early 2000s as a time for change in the industry. Tina Fey took the SNL Weekend Update seat in 2000, with Jimmy Fallon. Until recently, the desk has been dominated by ladies. Amy Poehler, an unknown comic at the time, started UCB in 1996, the theater then became a New York institution at the turn of the 21st century. Mean Girls, a pre-Bridesmaids Bridesmaids, took on the heavy topic of teen girls mentally abusing each other. And then the discourse began.
I’ve done quite a bit of searching for documents, opinions, newspaper articles, or anything talking about any fearless females doing comedy in the 90s. I can assure you, they were there—but you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t been alive during this time or if you didn’t ask. Sarah Silverman, for example, was doing stand up all over New York City and was getting booted off Saturday Night Live. Susie Essman was doing stand up. Janeane Garafolo was at the Luna Lounge.