I started this post months ago. I’m not 100% sure what my overall argument is, just that I’m a mad, mad girl. In the time elapsed, the incomparable Take My Wife has been released on iTunes and via Starz. Busy Phillips got a late-night talk show. Things are happening. But we’re still stuck. Perhaps one day I’ll finish this piece. But until then, enjoy some wine-fueled ramblings from last winter.
I want to preface this by saying RIP to The Mighty Quinn, the show that Jen Kirkman sold to ABC that unfortunately didn’t go to pilot. Also, RIP to NBC’s Whitney, which lasted 2 great seasons, Comedy Central’s Sarah Silverman Program, which lasted a mere 32 episodes, Hulu’s Difficult People, which was cancelled after 3 seasons despite being one of the most well-written shows of its era, and potentially, NBC’s Great News. If you’re a comedy neophyte, you may not know what these series have in common. Thematically? Nothing. Because “woman” isn’t a genre.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 50 years, you know that women have been changing the comedy game since the day they were first allowed on stage. From Moms Mabley, to Phyllis Diller, to Joan Rivers, to Carol Burnett to contemporary performers like Silverman, Kirkman, Alice Wetterlund, Phoebe Robinson, Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher, Naomi Ekperigin, Sam Jay (Chelsea, stop listing people you’re obsessed with, it’s thirsty af), women are and have always been a vital part of the standup scene. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t falling on deaf ears. (P.S. Bravo to Brosnahan for such incredible delivery.)
Male-led shows about comedy (I’m dying up here notwithstanding since I haven’t seen it) tend to be funny by virtue of the fact that they star male comedians. Watch an episode of Louie (in secret, lest anyone find out you’re supporting the Infamous Masturbator), and note the jokes. Outside of the scenes where Louis is performing standup, are there any? C.K.’s series makes a concerted effort to be #deep regarding body image and race, but it’s not funny, per se. Maron‘s final season is fucking depressing—he goes to rehab, fathers a child with whom he’s not allowed a relationship, and absconds to rural California in ruin. Crashing starts with a man-child cuckold without the slightest ability to care for himself. Women-led comedy series, however, don’t have the luxury of leaning on the fame (or notoriety) of their stars. They just have to be fucking funny. So funny, in fact, that they’re often too funny for a general audience used to pratfalls and “Bazinga!”s.
Say what you will about Fey & Carlock’s 30 Rock [insert objection to Alec Baldwin’s existence], it is one of the best pieces of television in the medium’s history. It is expertly written, by a fairly diverse staff of writers (Tracey Wigfield and Donald Glover are notable alums). The main plot of 30 Rock, at least at its inception: Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney spearhead The Girlie Show, a women-led comedy sketch series, at NBC. Due to low ratings, a GE executive (at the time, GE owned NBC—now Comcast does) Jack Donaghy decides to add Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to the cast, due to his popularity with the 18-24 year old male demographic. Hilarity ensues.
30 Rock, despite consistently low ratings, survived seven seasons, a milestone that many woman-run series never achieve (holla @ Gilmore Girls). 30 Rock, for a long time, filled an essential gap at the time—it portrayed a flawed woman in all of her glory, a flawed woman whom the audience is supposed to root for. It’s not perfect (Twitter hates Tina Fey because she made a couple of shitty off-hand comments about stripping over the years), but it’s of its time and essential to a contemporary audience attempting to understand the history of women in television. Bush was still President when this show was airing! God, remember him? We hated him so much, the war criminal, but we had no clue how bad it could get. Bring back Bush/Cheney if it means North Korea won’t take out my California family.
Digression aside, apart from Queen Regent Shonda Rimes, there truly are not that many female showrunners (or for that fucking matter, trans or gender-fluid TV showrunners) in the biz at the present moment, so we millennials have to give respect where it’s due.
There is plenty of good stuff about Louie, Maron, and Crashing. I don’t mean to pick on them, but two of them are goddamn named after their respective creators. Louie is one of the few shows I’ve ever seen to employ obvious race-blind casting. Maron does a good job of painting its central character as the unsympathetic “problem,” and Crashing portrays Pete’s cheating wife with a touching level of sympathy. But each of these show is bolstered by its women, who are subsequently given no recognition for their roles In Crashing, specifically, Jamie Lee has revitalized Crashing in a way I didn’t think possible. Lauren Lapkus was the undeniable highlight of season one, and Jamie Lee is stealing the show in the sophomore season. I love Pete Holmes, so I hesitate to criticize him, but his story as a layabout man-child aspiring comic is far less compelling than the journey of his woman costars.
If we’re going to see gender parity and inclusivity in comedy, we’ve got to give woman-led series a chance to breathe. A chance to grow. It’s time.