Merrill Markoe is an Emmy award-winning humorist, author, and sometime comedian. She was the original head writer and co-creator of Late Night With David Letterman.
Inside the DNA of the average joke is usually a story about an underdog seeking to level the playing field; someone trying to right a wrong by pointing out the holes in its logic, so everyone stops accepting it and starts making fun of it instead. When you think about it that way, comedy is a woman’s art, ripe territory for people who are 50.8% of the population and somehow still living with minority status.
Which brings us to the irony-laced dilemma that only the women pursuing careers in comedy face: Even though comedy is supposed to be the art form where the outcasts and underdogs go to expose the lies inside of unfairness, women have been regularly expected to overlook the poor treatment we receive, lest we be called humorless and viewed as bad sports. In other words, we’re the one group asked not to use our “minority” status as a way to rise comedically. This is why we’re regularly labeled as unfunny.
Comedy in all of its various mutations has been my home for the past 40 years. Luckily for me, my idea of home has always been a place where I expected to be treated rudely which is why I was not knocked that far off balance when I heard about Louis C.K., whose meteoric rise to success as someone with deep insights into the human condition now seems pretty suspect.
In 1978 when I first went rushing headlong toward the professional comedy lightbulb like a medicated moth, it never occurred to me that it was a male-dominated field, because I didn’t imagine that anyone smart thought laughter had a gender bias. I was aware that historically speaking most of my comedic heroes were men: Ernie Kovacs, W.C. Fields., The Marx Brothers, Monty Python. But also there was George Burns and Gracie Allen. Mae West and Lily Tomlin had their own empires. In the midst of all those guys at the Algonquin Round Table, there sat Dorothy Parker.
And things looked to me like they were really opening up for women in comedy because there was this brand new show called Saturday Night Live, which was introducing more contemporary parody and satire onto the mostly corny TV landscape. Not only were half of the cast members women, there were three female names on the writing staff! That meant a grand total of six women creatives, a big leap forward from the usual token one.
So I got in my car, which had only one functioning door, and drove from my home in San Francisco to Los Angeles with no way of knowing that 23 years later, in 2011, Jane Curtin, one of my favorite Not Ready for Prime Time Players and the one who anchored Weekend Update, would appear on Oprah and say the following about the women on the show’s writing staff back in the beginning: “Their battle was constant. They were working against John [Belushi] who said women are just fundamentally not funny. So you’d go to a table read and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He felt as if it was his duty to sabotage pieces written by women.” I also couldn’t have imagined that even five years after the world began a whole new century, I would pitch a sitcom idea to ABC only to be told “Well, the truth is we aren’t looking for any female character driven shows this season.”
But in the beginning, I didn’t know how heavily things were weighted against women. So just a few years out of art school, I went racing full steam ahead. At 27, I checked into a scary hotel in Burbank where they charged for the room by the hour and began seeking employment as a TV writer and stage time as a stand-up comedian, completely unaware that the very underpinnings of the comedy establishment had been constructed on a foundation designed to work against women from day one. I had no idea that straight through to the end of the 1960s, a mere ten years prior, all the clubs that hired stand-up comedians were owned and run by the mafia — not exactly a group known for its even-handed treatment of women and their career dreams. Says Kliph Nesteroff, comedy historian, “it didn't matter if these clubs were in Cleveland, Portland, Corpus Christi or Baton Rouge — if it was a nightclub — the owners were the Mob. For a good forty years the Mob controlled American show business.” For those who now fret about how comedy club owners and festival directors are misogynistic, imagine waiting around for a guy in the mafia to give you a time slot.
Looking back, I have to laugh at the view I have of myself in my twenties, trotting cheerfully into a mob-run patriarchy where even the women on the most progressive show in television were being shunted to the back of the comedy bus. But the truth is that none of that occurred to me because, okay, I was young and stupid but also: It made no sense. Comedy was one of the things I loved most in the world. I saw it as a tool used by people intelligent enough to have figured out how to elevate the human condition by transforming dark, hidden, appalling truths into something over which we gained power via laughter.
I had yet to learn the most commonly repeated tropes used as an excuse not to hire women, which were the equivalent of the 16th century sink or swim method of identifying a witch. Back then the set of excuses went something like: “Having women in the room makes men feel inhibited. If they can’t swear and talk about their dicks, it gets in the way of being creative and funny.” The newer version of that describes the exact opposite: “Having women in the room causes men to become so hormonally imbalanced that the overwhelming fatigue caused by trying to exercise dick control gets in the way of being creative and funny.”
To which I would say: Hmm. Interesting. Maybe it’s the gender with so many roadblocks to being creative and funny who are bad hires.
Meanwhile, there in the middle of it all, are the women, expected to exhibit both empathy and support, to be accepting and non reactive to a firestorm of freeform sexual innuendo, while also helping construct an invisible barrier capable of helping these poor guys resist their own worst impulses. And at the same time be creative and funny.
Actually, I would argue that this very situation gives women the comedy advantage because there’s no better starting place for joke writing than the awareness that you’ve been trapped in the middle of someone else’s inescapable, neurotic behavioral limitations. Hey comedy! It’s 2017. Don’t keep breaking my heart by allowing yourself to become just another tier in the looming monolith full of dim bulb thinkers who degrade women and stand in their way.
This very situation gives women the comedy advantage because there’s no better starting place for joke writing than the awareness that you’ve been trapped in the middle of someone else’s inescapable, neurotic behavioral limitations.
Okay yes, throughout your history, your most powerful players have overwhelmingly been rage filled, frustrated narcissistic men. But now we’ve got a president for that!
Come on! It’s time to join the modern world. (By which I mean the better one I envision after the Trump administration leaves the building.) And while we’re at it, how about if maybe we can also teach heterosexual men how to play a useful part in the promise of a better humanity. Or at least how to stop acting like assholes.
There are apologies and there will be more. Which brings us to the only one on the list of shamed public men currently under discussion that I know personally: Al Franken, who I’ve always thought of as one of the good guys. The omnipresent and casually demeaning treatment of women appears to be bi-partisan, which I guess is something every woman has always known.
Whether Al or Louis or anyone else has actually learned anything from the women they stunned into submission remains to be seen. A few people try and learn something from big moments like this one. Most do not. Time will tell if the culture of infuriating, insensitive, quasi-legal male behavior improves because of any of this, or if everything just cycles back to ground zero, as I have seen feminist progress do before. After all, the rest of these guys, (Harvey Weinstein, that creepy Roy Moore, our awful president, Bill Cosby, even Bill Clinton) have continued to call their accusers liars. If there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that there is no hope for redemption if powerful men don’t acknowledge that they did anything wrong.
Meanwhile, the women I know are no longer into holding our breath while we wait. We have had it with this shit. Notice has been served. The answer to these problems seems to be the same one that is being suggested in politics: Women need to run. We need to own the shows. We need to own the clubs. For too long men have been allowed to justify their behavior by selectively using statistics. For example, the way they claim to be the best most innovative high end chefs, while at the same time being unable to help out in a regular kitchen.
It’s our turn now. Time to relegate men to the minority status they so richly deserve. After all, they are only 49.2% of the population.