Guest Column: Women are funny, that’s no joke

Gina Barreca

Hartford Courant

Get your pen, keyboard or tattoo gun, everybody, and please write this down: Women are funny and always have been.

Women’s humor is not a “new thing.” It’s not like an iPhone 5, the use of genomic analysis in medicine or gay couples with babies on prime-time sitcoms.

It’s more like something that’s always been around but appears in the spotlight every few years and so seems to be newly discovered if you haven’t paid attention. That means it’s more like bustiers, holistic healing and couples where one partner was obviously gay but not out on prime-time sitcoms.

There have been a few media stories recently about how women are “suddenly” becoming funny. Women are no more suddenly funny than suddenly sexual, which makes me wonder whether it’s a matter of each generation being unable to see that others long before them might have enjoyed performing the same routines.

Evidence? Consider this story about classic movie star Tallulah Bankhead, born in 1902: In a public restroom during an intermission, Tallulah discovers there’s no toilet paper in her stall. “I beg your pardon, but do you have any toilet tissue in your cubicle?” she asks her neighbor. Receiving a negative reply, Tallulah tried again, “Do you have any Kleenex perhaps?” Again, a negative reply. “Not even some cotton wool? A piece of wrapping paper?” A long pause follows the third negative, after which is heard the click of a purse opening and Tallulah’s signature drawl through partition: “Darling, do you have two fives for a ten?”

Women’s everyday humor almost always helps other women feel less vulnerable and more human. Female humorists have always told their audiences “You’re not nuts and you’re not alone.”

A woman’s sense of humor has, historically, been more complex and layered than a man’s. It’s based on an appreciation of the absurdity of the human condition, whereas a man’s sense of humor is based upon the concept that farts are funny.

That’s not to say that things haven’t changed since Tallulah was in that stall.

A few decades ago it would have been tough to imagine that a soft-spoken lesbian comic would become not only one of the most adored and admired stars of daytime television, for example, but would also become the “face” of CoverGirl cosmetics. Twenty years ago, supermodel Christie Brinkley, known for her smile but not for her quick wit (did she ever speak?) was the face of CoverGirl. Ellen DeGeneres is a different a model, role and otherwise.

DeGeneres once appeared in terry cloth and furry slippers when she gave a commencement speech because “They told me everyone would be wearing robes.” She told another graduating class, “Life is like one big Mardi Gras, but instead of showing your boobs, show people your brain, and if they like what they see you’ll have more beads than you know what to do with.”

That DeGeneres is now the person telling us how to keep our lipstick from feathering is actually hysterical.

And who would have imagined that Wanda Sykes would become both the speaker for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and the spokesperson for Gain detergent, asking the women of America to matchmake their personal laundry scent? Sykes is best known for addressing difficult political, sexual and class issues without hesitation: “Why are they called illegal immigrants?” she asked. “They’re undocumented workers. If someone broke into my house and vacuumed my rug, I might be puzzled. But mad?”

Sykes asked whether it’s really “reverse racism” that white men fear since “reverse racism” would be better defined as what happens when, for example, a “racist is nice to somebody.”

Of course, some of the best parts of women’s humor remain unchanged over time. Women writers whose books have been bestsellers over the last few years (Nora Ephron, Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey) have moments and messages echoing works by earlier women writers (Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and Margaret Halsey, not to mention Fanny Fern, Jane Austen and Aphra Behn). There’s a fabulous continuity over time.

So don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of all celebrations of women’s humor. I’m simply suggesting it’s not a recent invention, even if — for some — it’s a new discovery.