January 31, 2005,
Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers recently issued his third apology for remarks suggesting that women might not possess the same aptitude in math and science as men. So, if the academic women of America are anything like my wife, another three or four apologies and he should be good to go.
The flap over Summers's comments raised an old debate in Hollywood comedy-writing circles: Are women as innately funny as men? The answer, I can tell you without fear of contradiction, is...(gets up, goes to door, checks both ways in hall) ...er...(checks again, closes door)...ummm...(remembers that almost every TV comedy development executive in town is a woman)...well, it's a damn good question, isn't it?
Wait a second. This is National Review Online. What are the odds of a woman in the notoriously liberal television industry seeing this?
Okay, men are funnier. Way funnier. Not even close. Male writers, male actors, male stand-up comedians. All funnier. Of course, there are exceptions. There are female performers who are fantastic, pioneers like Lucy and Roseanne who set the standards. I worked for two seasons with Ellen DeGeneres on her ABC series, and I said at the time that Ellen could read the alphabet and get 26 laughs. That is not hyperbole she really could do that. I am not just trying to stay off a Writer's Guild hit list here there are many women writers who are spectacularly gifted, inventive, and funny.
But there are a lot more funny men. And the funniest woman of all time in any aspect of the business probably doesn't crack the top ten of all-time funniest people.
Sorry, ladies. (Special apologies to the lady who will decide if this piece runs or not. She is hysterical, by the way.) Just so we're clear, we're talking about "on the whole," "in general," and any other qualifier you can come up with. No disrespect intended to Diane English (Murphy Brown), Marta Kauffman (Friends), or Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (a bunch of shows I couldn't stand).
In my 15 years in the sitcom business, I have worked side-by-side with 30 different women writers. Ten of them have since gone on to be show-runners, the highest rank a TV writer can attain, short of David Kelley, who is show-runner-married-to-movie-star. That a third of these women writers have done so well tells you two things: They were genuinely talented, and the industry has no built-in gender preference keeping women out of the higher levels. (In fact, it's just the opposite. The feminine point-of-view is highly in demand at the networks, so the most talented women will have excellent chances of selling pilots and series. Nowhere near a third of the men I've worked with have risen so high.)
But if a James Bond villain were to slip me a needlessly complicated poison that would render me dead within five minutes unless I sincerely laughed out loud, I would not call any of those 30 women until I had already tried any one of 30 different men. If I need a belly laugh, and the choices are The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, then there is no choice at all.
So what's up here? Is it an "innate difference in aptitude," as Summers suggested about math and science? Or is cultural conditioning more to blame? Why are there no Marx Sisters? Why are there so many Seinfelds, Carlins, Pryors, and Cosbys for every Roseanne, Ellen or...well, I can't think of a third one.
Okay, show of hands: How many girls memorized all the dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they were 14? No one? Not a surprise. But I did, and a ton of other guys did, followed by Steve Martin routines, Coneheads sketches, and the big John Belushi "Who's with me?" speech at the end of Animal House. What in the world led us to do that? Why is being funny important to young men? Does the Y chromosome carry something the X doesn't?
Well, here's an argument against anything genetic. I know for a fact that I wasn't born funny. I learned it in my teens as a way of getting attention. I wasn't a good athlete or particularly easy on the eyes, so getting a laugh was my best shot at getting girls to notice me. A good sense of humor is never going to compete with a 90-mph fastball in terms of babe appeal, but it's a better path to alpha-male status than, oh, say, learning to program a Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer. (I did that! So lonely!)
Most funny people I know tell more or less the same story: They learned to be funny in order to be noticed, sometimes by parents, frequently by the opposite sex. (One writer I know contemplated calling his company "Look at Me! Productions.") Young girls who want attention have other weapons they can scream, they can cry, they can grow breasts. They can be heartbreakingly beautiful and call me a nerd for imitating the Coneheads all the time. Learning to be funny would seem, for girls, to be more of a last resort.
Most serious commentaries on the Summers controversy have been careful to point out that no matter what gender differences may exist at the general level, there can be no tolerance of prejudice at the individual level, and I want to echo that sentiment. Every writing staff I have ever been a part of has benefited from the presence of women. A funny woman will pitch jokes a man would never think of, and not just for the female characters. Also, a writer's room filled only with men can descend quickly into pagan rites, the days and nights wasted with Nerf dart gun wars, discussions and demonstrations of bodily functions, and endless mind-numbing recitations of entire scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And as lovely as that sounds to the 14-year-old still very much alive in me, I need to remember that the women in the audience will not be impressed.
Warren Bell is a 15-year veteran of the sitcom business and a not-so-secret conservative. He lives just outside Los Angeles with his wife and two sons, who are all funnier than he is.