This 1970 New York Times Trend Piece on Woman Comedians Is Eternal

In Depth

“Time was when a woman comedian had to make herself ugly, cross her eyes, or fall down in order to get laughs. Her hair stuck straight up in the air–or else it resembled a ragmop. And it didn’t hurt any if she was a few dozen pounds overweight,” is the lede to this New York Times piece from 1970 about the rise of woman comedians entitled, amazingly, “The Funny Thing Is That They Are Still Feminine.”

“Today, however, there is a new breed of funny girl emerging–one who believes that a woman can be both funny and feminine at the same time,” writer Judy Klemesrud continued. Well I never!

This gem was unearthed by Emily Nussbaum while she was working on her recent (excellent) New Yorker piece on Joan Rivers. The piece goes on to profile Rivers, Madeline Kahn and Lily Tomlin, plus the now less well-known Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Jo Anne Worley, as they grappled with being funny but also looking attractive.

In the piece, Rivers and Tomlin both discuss how they try to walk the line between looking good for men but not wanting women to be threatened by them. It really makes it clear that they couldn’t win no matter what they did. Perseverance was the only way:

Madeline Kahn is curvaceous and red-haired, and looks as though she should be entering beauty contests instead of making people laugh.
“I think the fact that I’m funny scares a lot of men,” said Miss Kahn, who is 27, single, and lives with her mother in Queens. “I guess they think that I can’t be serious at the right time.
“I’m always afraid of being overbearing,” she added before a recent rehearsal session of the Merv Griffin Show. “I try to be quiet and suppress my comic urges when I’m out with a man–but I just can’t do it.

As revealed in a Lifetime documentary about Kahn, Tomlin and Kahn were friends, and Tomlin credited part of her start in comedy to Kahn, who helped her out after they met at the club Upstairs at the Downstairs.

(Please take a moment to appreciate this detail: “…Miss Kahn, who is 27, single, and lives with her mother in Queens.”)

There are so many mixed messages in this piece: Try to be quiet so you’re sexy in your personal time, try to be funny so you get work (don’t bother trying to be funny, women aren’t funny), try to be attractive all the time, except it will make women hate you – Bottom line: just give up. In this way, Klemesrud really captured her moment, while also inadvertently foreshadowing a conversation that would continue over the coming decades.

Even though these comments are still being made (I have never in my life read a piece of writing that commented on the discrepancies between a male comedian’s looks and his talent), it’s nice to hear woman comedians today more confidently saying how bullshit they find the whole thing. Take Amy Schumer’s recent response to a male reviewer who said Schumer’s forthcoming romantic comedy Trainwreck was unrealistic because there’s “no way she’d be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world.” It’s understandably so much more assured than anything even the mouthy Rivers says in Klemesrud’s piece:

From the bottom of my heart — I could not care less.

The Times article ends thusly:

Miss Worley said she got her philosophy of comedy from Jerry Lewis, the comedian, when she attended a humor workshop he conducted in 1960.
“He told me a female comedian should never be unattractive, she said, “and that a man should always want to take her in the next room and give her a big hug.”

One thing certainly has not changed: Jerry Lewis.

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