September 14, 2017
Do not look to this weekend’s Emmy Awards for representation of the best comedy created by and for women. As usual, it’s not there.
Thanks in large part to the diverse, lady-heavy writing staff of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee—which took home an armload of trophies during last week’s untelevised Creative Arts Emmys--the variety categories are stocked with women. Yay! But there is just one woman nominated for comedy series writing (Lena Waithe, with Aziz Ansari, for Master of None), and one woman nominated for directing a comedy (Jamie Babbit for Silicon Valley). Both shows focus on the male point of view.
I’m rooting for Lena and Jamie (and always for Full Frontal), but I can’t help but cheer even louder for the shows being created and written by and for women, featuring female storylines and an unabashed perspective of what life is like for humans with vaginas.
The new frontier of comedy centers on women writing for women, and supporting one another. They prioritize women’s relationships with one another. They are sweet and meaningful, embarrassing and sometimes gross, and hilarious. The point of view is so unabashedly female, it sends a clear message to dudes who go, “I don’t get it,” to kindly move along. This stuff is for us. And there’s something for every woman.
In the season-four opener of Broad City, which premiered Sept. 13 on Comedy Central, we’re treated to the Abbi and Ilana origin story. Of course, it’s awkward. The two run into each other randomly in the subway. Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) has just run out of credit on her subway card, and the train is about to leave. Ilana (Ilana Glazer) swipes her through, then can’t get in herself. The train arrives, and the doors open. Abbi looks distressed. Ilana, in typical fuck-it fashion, hops the turnstile, invoking a quick pursuit by a subway guard, and into the train they go, high on their hijinks. It’s fairly mild on the scale of Abbi and Ilana shenanigans--which over three seasons have included getting locked in a porta potty attached to a moving truck, catering a party with a stolen gift basket, and accidentally melting down a strap-on in a dishwasher. But it’s a perfect meet-cute for two people destined to end up together.
Broad City brilliantly flips the classic meet-cute story arc that has been played out over countless Hollywood romances. It usually goes something like this: A flustered woman and a fast-walking man run into each other by chance. They exchange flirtatious glances. He maybe picks up her dropped blueprints, or broken shoe. They giggle their awkward hellos, then turn away, instantly wanting nothing more than to be with each other again. Save for Ariel actually breathing life back into Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, this formula has typically cast men as the saviors, and women as the fumbling ones, always getting their dresses caught in doors, or burning pies, or flinging escargot across the room. She pratfalls. He stalks. It’s funny! And a bit predatory.
I’m over this dynamic, and so are female auteurs. Women don’t need men to save them. We save ourselves—and each other—just fine, thanks.
How many comedies have you seen where a young woman goes to the big city to start her career, but really just ends up focusing on some guy? Don’t answer that, there are a bazillion. The Bold Type, Freeform’s adorably empowering new show about three friends working at a women’s magazine a lot like Cosmopolitan (in fact, it was inspired by Joanna Coles’ tenure there), is not your average coming-of-age tale. Creator Sarah Watson was intent on developing a show about Millennials navigating career, love, and friendships that avoided the workplace cattiness and ice-queen bosses depicted in every book, movie or TV show set in the New York publishing world. She also made the male romantic interests ancillary, at best. Instead, three twentysomething friends (Katie Stevens, Aisha Dee, Meghann Fahy) act as each other’s lifelines as they navigate first orgasms, racial inequality, sexual identity, and workplace sexism. And when these three friends can’t catch each other when they fall, their extremely supportive boss (Melora Hardin playing otherworldly nurturing compared to any other female boss character in the history of time), ushers them into adulthood with encouragement and tough love.
Women who remember who David Cassidy is will find relatable humor in the new Canadian import, Baroness Von Sketch Show, which debuted on IFC in August. Creators and stars Meredith Macneill, Aurora Brown, Jennifer Whalen and Carolyn Clifford-Taylor are IRL friends who are all (whispers) over age 40. Each sketch deals in topics specifically relatable to this demographic. They are the women of a certain age who understand the humor in the impossibly long crotch zippers of 1980s jeans, the freedom in giving no fucks about nudity in the gym locker room once you’ve spotted your first grey pubic hair, and the head-numbing frustrations--and sometimes selfish victories--of competitive parenting. Like Broad City, the humor isn’t always obvious. No jokes, no puns, just life lived in women’s skin.
The biggest success story of the past two years is HBO’s Insecure, and the fact that it is not dominating this year’s Emmy nominations--or even included!--is just fuck-balls crazy. Insecure’s stratospheric rise in popularity--Hella is already as much a part of the zeitgeist as Yaaas, Kween--proves that there has been a hunger for shows by and about black women. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, creator and star Issa Rae defined her purpose: "This not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes."
Insecure does more than just break the selfish-white-friends-with-problems mold popularized by Girls and Sex and the City before it. It delves deep into its flawed characters, leaving viewers confused as to whether they should root for them or not (to Lawrence or not to Lawrence, that is the question), and approaches sex like a grownup. What would become tongue-in-cheek episode arcs on traditional sitcoms are simply matter of fact on Insecure: Women can--and do--have sex like men. And, yes, sometimes that gets messy--both figuratively and literally. They prioritize their careers over romance, again, like men. And the most important relationships in their lives are with each other. Insecure’s most dynamic, dramatic pair is Issa and Molly (played by Yvonne Orji), best friends who have been tested by jealousy and misunderstanding, but who will always be there for one another, even when they make terrible, awful--and often hilarious--mistakes.
Writing funny is hard. Not only do you have to actually make people laugh, but your material--unless you’re a total hack--must speak to what’s happening socially and politically, and delve into sensitive areas such as race, gender, and economic inequality. No one is doing this better than women right now. Samantha Bee and her Full Frontal writing team—including writer/correspondent Ashley Nicole Black, who became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing a variety special (woot!)--are crushing the late-night bros with their satire clearly rooted in the female-gaze. The women of Saturday Night Live are continuing the legacy of women on that show developing the most memorable and searing sketches and characters. Alec Baldwin as Trump is good. But Kate McKinnon as a stalky Kellyanne Conway, or Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer will go down in history.
Women are still embarrassingly underrepresented in comedy jobs both on and off screen. And the Hollywood wage gap requires a super, extra absorbency stopgap. When Lena Waithe became the first African-American woman nominated for a comedy-writing Emmy (yes, the same only woman nominated in that category this year), the Internet went berserk, as it does over, well, everything that’s a first. But there’s a problem with treating milestones like this as anomalies. When industries--particularly entertainment and media--are reminded that certain voices and images are still unproven, it gives them the jitters. Studios are less inclined to greenlight projects from woman artists, and still consider it a “risk” to hire female writers and directors, especially women of color. We need to stop treating women in comedy as unicorns and honor them as the real-life magical creatures that they are.