Tube Tied: Funny Is As Funny Does: SNL and Funny Women

Michelle Dean
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The television newswire was abuzz last week with the hiring of two new SNL funnywomen, Jenny Slate and Nasim  Pedrad, but as it turns out, they're not there to up the vagina quotient on a show that has always been Mostly About The Men.  No, Slate and Pedrad are replacements for last year's new ovary-hires, Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson.  And I suppose I should be saying something now about how insulting it is that women aren't considered funny (thanks a bunch Chris Hitchens) and that there appear to be designated lady-spots on the cast of SNL – the 2009-2010 cast will contain just four inner-gonads havers.

But as I was trying to build up the requisite head of steam to write such a piece, I found I couldn't, for once, muster the outrage.  See, I wish I had something super-intelligent to say about either Watkins or Wilson, but let's face it: at the best of times, I'm a casual SNL watcher.  And just for fun, ask yourself this question: do you know ANYONE who watches Saturday Night Live faithfully anymore?  I mean, absent complete boredom of a Saturday evening I can't imagine forcing myself through an entire live broadcast.  Hortense at Jezebel used to have people sit up and join in a thread, but once Tina Fey gave up Sarah Palin's ghost last fall there was little appeal in it anymore.  So I can't help but feel, somehow, that it's a compliment that few women are "funny enough" (scare quotes intentional) to be regular SNL cast members these days.  It's sort of like that time in my eight-grade gym class when the girls were made to watch the boys play basketball so that we'd "learn something."  Oh, we did, and that lesson was: bumping the ball with your knees does not count as dribbling.

Let me venture a theory here: like every cultural "authority" in the age of Facebook and YouTube, SNL has suffered because there are now a hundred things out there one could compare it to.  You want funny, women- entric humour in short, bite-sized pieces?  Sarah Haskins is just a click away.  You don't want to watch another dick joke?  Fine, don't rent that Will Ferrell movie on iTunes.

There is something profoundly liberating about living in a world like this, where one viral video could redefine funny in a way that SNL only dreams of.  I've never been one for the faux-empowerment high of doing art that no one will ever see; I'm too much of a believer in the affirmative action of successful communication to let high culture bear all the burden of representativeness and boundary-pushing.  I keep harping on this in these pixels, the expansion of the American imagination strikes me as the quickest and easiest way to convince people of the old sawhorse that stands as just about the only article of faith all feminists agree on: that women are human.  I can't, therefore, be too sad when I see funny women starting to pull ahead in media outside the old SNL paradigm of being Anointed By A Dude As The Next Big Thing.  It's nice to see us able to take charge.

Don't get me wrong.  I do think that funny dudes (and the dudes who produce their television shows and movies) ought to be taking a look in the mirror (oh yeah I'm looking at you Judd Apatow) and saying to themselves: how am I structurally excluding women from this industry?  Is my demographic really the only one entitled to define what's funny?  Is my scatological humour really all that clever or (ahem) fresh?  Should I not be challenged by other people in order to be funny?  But absent their doing so – and I think Lorne Michaels, for example, is a little too old and set in his ways to make this kind of leap of faith and build a new audience – I'm not sure there's too much to worry about semi-moribund entertainment institutions having trouble keeping up with the ladies.  We're doing all right for ourselves.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted


People were talking about <i>The Guild</i> at the last two social gatherings I've been to:

I am pretty geeky, but still . . I don't play online RPGs, but still enjoy it. It's written and produced by Felicia Day, and exactly half the main characters are female, in spite of the usual invisibility of female geeks in our culture. SNL should just cancel SNL and put <i>The Guild</i> on instead.

In your Face, Hitchens

Brava, Michelle! Having watched men of dubious "talent" soar to fame and fortune on the basis of being part of this particular bro-hood (Jimmy Fallon, anyone? Why why?!) I am pleased to see the net opening up the opportunities for exposure for funny women. Now, if only it also paid them. Sigh -- a longer range problem, but one that will get sorted out somehow.


Saturday Night Live launches and propels careers, and the recent surge of sitcoms around women on NBC is the result of SNL.

We wouldn't have 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation were it not for SNL. And, without the success of Tina Fey, we probably wouldn't have the upcoming show from Kelly from The Office.

I think in this case, since you don't like SNL you don't appreciate why it's important women are on it. Just like someone who it's partial to math or science doesn't understand (or value) the importance of women in those fields.

Why do women can't be funny?

Why do women can't be funny? Because most of them believe that they are always first and foremost an object to be observed. Their talents, well that's not really that important.
Men are subjects with needs and desires, women are objects to be desired. Men feel entitled to police women's bodies in all settings because as objects women exist for their viewing pleasure. So, it's even easier to be and to look glamorous and sexy than to train the fantasy and be funny.

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