March 5 saw the premiere of Making History, a show on FOX about two fellas who travel back in time. The show stars Adam Pally as Dan, a rakish idiot, and Yassir Lester as Chris, a stuck-up professor. They’re both what I like to call “comedy bros.” Pally is a veteran of the Chicago comedy scene, a renowned Second City alum. Lester is a stand-up comedian. Both are oddballs — your typical comedy fare — but understandable picks for network comedy. To round out the three-pronged cast, there’s a woman. (I’d be writing a much angrier piece if there weren’t.)
Leighton Meester plays Deborah Revere, Dan’s love interest, and while I take no issue with Meester alone — I loved Gossip Girl as much as the next gal — I want to know: Where were the women comedians in this show? Why is it that comedic television shows often star men from improv or standup backgrounds, but no women from the same ‘verse? In the past, journalists have posed the question: Why are there so few women in comedy? But perhaps the real question is: Why is the industry so cold to women in comedy? There are female comedians — they’re just hanging in the periphery, supplying a laugh here and there. Where the male comedian like Louis C.K. has long since taken center stage, the female comedian has yet to do so.
When I say “women in comedy,” I’m speaking of the subset of women who studied comedy as opposed to acting. There are women actors who happen to be funny — for the sake of this piece, these women fall under the title of “actor.” For example, Amy Poehler is a comedian, as she got her start as an improviser. Other notable women comedians: Jessica Williams, Amy Schumer, Sasheer Zamata, Phoebe Robinson, Tina Fey, Leslie Jones, and Ellie Kemper. Of the seven listed, only two have starred in network sitcoms — Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. (If you’ve been dwelling under a rock, know that Fey starred in 30 Rock and Poehler played the beloved Leslie Knope on Parks And Recreation.) Those two likely obtained their roles because they were both executive producers on their respective shows. Kemper starred in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is written and produced by Tina Fey, and memorably befuddled NBC before getting scooped up by Netflix.
Let’s examine this season’s comedies. There’s Powerless on NBC, which focuses on the plight of non-superheroes. It stars Ron Funches, a standup comedian, as well as Alan Tudyk, who’s known for his improvisational skills. (Allegedly, most of his lines on Stars Wars: Rogue One were improvised.) Danny Pudi of NBC’s ill-fated Community rounds out the cast. And, at the very center of the series: Vanessa Hudgens. Vanessa Hudgens is a fine actress. She is not, however, a comedian. If a show is called a “comedy,” as Powerless has been touting itself, why doesn’t it feature a woman comedian at the center?
Network comedies fail the lady comic because they assume she's not pretty enough to warrant a lead role.
Note that Powerless has no issues hiring lady comedians. Jennie Pearson, a noted UCB performer, plays a disgruntled engineer named Wendy the series. (You can observe Pearson with all her comedy guns blazing on The UCB Show on Seeso.) There she is: the woman comedian, cracking jokes from the sidelines. It's not that she's unhireable — it's just that Powerless would rather keep the lady comedian out of the leading role. It’s almost as if network comedies don’t trust a funny woman to galvanize interest.
Other offenders include Love on Netflix, which premiered on Friday, March 10. Paul Rust plays Gus, the male lead. He’s a regular guest on Comedy! Bang! Bang!, an improv podcast, and a comedy writer. The female lead is Gillian Jacobs. Jacobs has a comedy background — she got her start on Community, like Danny Pudi — and starred in the film Don’t Think Twice, which is actually about improvisational comedy. Jacobs is funny, all grouch and pretty-girl oblivion, but she doesn’t lay claim to the title of “comedian.” Her role could easily be played by Claudia O’Doherty, who stars in the series as Bertie, Mickey’s chipper roomie. When it comes to comedy, O’Doherty is lethal — why, then, can’t she play the lead? Why is it that Paul Rust, a comedian, is paired with an actor rather than another woman comedian?
You cannot bring up the woman comedian without discussing beauty standards on television. In comparison to their godlike counterparts, comedians in general tend to run on the less magazine cover-ready side of things. (In real life, beauty is subjective. In the entertainment industry, it is absolutely not.) In honor of Love’s second season, Vulture republished an essay on the “attractiveness” gap, or the convention of the also ran man and his far-prettier counterpart. We see it in Love because Paul Rust doesn't have movie star looks, but Gillian Jacobs certainly does. It’s not just the woman in general who suffers from this trope — it’s the woman comedian. Jennie Pearson, who looks on from the sidelines in NBC's Powerless, doesn't have the cherubic looks of Vanessa Hudgens, the show's lead. Claudia O'Doherty, adorable as she is, doesn't have the "classic movie star looks" that Paul Rust's character tells Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs) she has.
Network comedies fail the lady comic because they assume she's not pretty enough to warrant a lead role. As a result, we have shows like Making History, where Adam Pally banters with Yassir Lester, but merely admires Leighton Meester's character. Or Powerless, where the side characters enjoy witty repartee, but Hudgens fails to successfully land her one liners. The woman comedian can handle the lead role — Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler taught us that. And she's there. There are plenty of women who study improv, sketch, and stand up comedy. They're just waiting in the wings, cracking jokes, while they wait for the limelight.