“Let’s cut that crap right now that chicks aren’t as funny. Women are funnier than men. We’re funnier because we have to work harder.” — Kathy Griffin
I don’t like those self-serving emails and Facebook posts that say “quick, describe me in one word and then hit reply/post it on my profile/send it to 50,000 other people” because, really, that’s just pathetic. Go see a shrink, for God’s sakes. Any word that I type back is gonna get bounced from your “Parental Control” filter, anyway, so you’re not gonna get my email. Or anyone else’s, if we’re being completely honest here.
But if I did ever send out one of those things — odds are that most people would respond with “funny.” It wouldn’t be “gorgeous,” or “smokin’”, or “MILF” (sweet Jesilu), or “ditzy” or “sweet” or “sexy.” It’s OK. I’m 42. I’ve gotten over it. But I’ve always been funny. Funny ha-ha to most, funny strange to others, but always funny.
I learned early in life that humor was power. My upbringing was classic Irish, classic New York, and classic comedienne-in-the-making. My parents were too young to know that they probably shouldn’t have married each other, or entered into parenthood so soon after tying the knot. (My birthday’s fourteen months after their wedding date. I’m legit. Do the math.) The flip side is that such unintended mistakes brought out the comic survivor in me — the one who could laugh off pain and dance like a trained monkey to re-direct the chaos. Years later, when my mother apologized for the hurt that she and my father had caused, I noted in all honesty that if it hadn’t occurred, then I wouldn’t be exactly who I was. For the most part, I truly believe that was a good thing.
My parents married young. They were also one of the first couples to reproduce amongst their group of friends, so I was brought along wherever the party happened to be. I soaked up the cutting humor that swirled around me — along with the cigarette smoke and God knows what else — in the midst of my father’s poker-playing college buddies. They swore creatively, they argued about Richard Nixon, they asked me to act out scenes from Jimmy Cagney films, and they made me wear Groucho Marx glasses while visiting friends’ houses on Christmas Eve. They coached me to say things like “f– me to tears” — at the tender age of two — when I dropped my ice cream or knocked down a tower of blocks. I count them among my mentors for my truck-driver mouth and quick wit.
My mother often commented that she should have been a nun, so you can be quite sure that she never taught me how to use my womanly wiles to get ahead. I didn’t have too many wiles in the bag to start with, but I never learned how to polish up and spit shine the ones I had, either. I was taught to keep my legs crossed at the ankles, to step lightly on the balls of my feet — never my heels — and to be a good Catholic girl. Please. For the love of God. (Literally.)
It’s a moniker which I mostly adopted, but with a hint of tomboy swagger, which I lifted from my father — a self-made mixture of Humphrey Bogart, Al Pacino, and Groucho Marx. My father was truly my headmaster of comedy. He allowed me to watch “Saturday Night Live” in its first season, when I was five, and called me into the living room whenever “Fawlty Towers” was on TV. I went to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in the movie theater when I was four, because my parents couldn’t afford both the movie tickets and the babysitter. I saw old Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs bits on PBS. I watched the entire collection of “Your Show of Shows” with my father when it was released on VHS. I walked around the house quoting Zero Mostel and Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and Peter Sellers. It was expected. It’s how life was in our house. And I ate it up.
My father didn’t have much use for the normal behaviors of children, so I learned to please him by doing killer imitations of comedians and movie actresses and the crazy man down the block with the three-legged dog. Doing so got me attention, and a pat on the head. It’s how a lot of Irish families were, back in the day. You fought for a spot at the dinner table to tell your story and you prayed that it got a laugh. And if it did, all was right with the world. If it didn’t, you weren’t always sure where you stood.
I also learned that I couldn’t make fun of my father. I could make fun of other people for his benefit, of course, but not him. That was a truth I tucked away someplace deep inside in my psyche. Men don’t always like funny women. Check. But while growing up in the still-sexist seventies, I picked up on the whole men-don’t-like-not-so-drop-
I idolized female comedians as I grew older — Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Jane Curtin — as well as all the sitcom actresses who stole the show week after week on my TV — Jean Stapleton, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, Bea Arthur, and Suzanne Pleshette, to name a few. I often dreamed of being a writer or a performer on SNL the way other girls dreamed of being a princess or a bride.
With age came more smart-assedness, which didn’t always score me points. In high school, I watched the “right” girls glide off to homecoming dances in Gunne Sax dresses, and hid my sadness with humor. And sour cream and onion-flavored potato chips.
In college, I tried out for the comedy sketch group on campus. And I made it. We were all walking wounded in some form or another — as most comedians are — but we were still quirky, funny and daring. I was never quite as good as some of the other writers, and I was horribly inexperienced in improv, but I gave it my all.
I wasn’t the girl who was cast as “the knockout” or “the blonde” to dress up the set and make the sketch look better. I started secretly wearing it as a badge of honor that I got the line, I got the laugh, and that I could be relied on by my male cohorts to help the sketch, but that was the best I’d ever do. I had a choice — funny. Or pretty. Not both. Sometimes, I hated to admit that I wanted to be adored, rather than laughed at. But I got over it and went for the joke, every time.
The group was run by men, for the most part. Men who worked hard and were hilarious and talented and often kind and sweet and charming. But it was still run by men. The girls were on the fringe, and in the background. We weren’t the head writers or the producers or the decision-makers. That wasn’t the guys’ fault, of course. It’s just how comedy was. We girls were given opportunities to write, direct and act, but it still seemed like we had to push harder for sketches to be approved and produced. Add in the fact that there was a helluva lot of fraternizing going on, or at least pining for fraternizing, which made matters even more complicated. But I digress.
I went to Syracuse University, which housed the Newhouse School of Communications. I was never accepted into Newhouse, mind you, but I hung around with everyone who did, because they were much funnier than my co-majors in post-modern English Textual Studies. (Lots of decoding going on. ‘Nuff said.) Often, there were famous alumni who returned to campus to indulge the administration, to serve on “panels” and fluff our fragile egos, and to tell us how to make it in “the business of show.” I’m sure they laughed their asses off at our pimply, pathetic faces while they knocked down a few Manhattans at the Hilton lobby bar afterwards.
One such celebrity was Larry Gelbart, a writer and producer for shows like “M*A*S*H.” He actually showed up on-set one day while I was acting in an on-campus comedy show. One of my roommates, a very hard-working, go-get-’em kind of guy who had managed to score the choice role as Gelbart’s “escort” throughout his stay at Syracuse, brought him to the studio, since he was the executive producer. Gelbart visited the set, watched us tape a scene, and wondered aloud where he could get a cup of coffee. And then he left.
Later that night, my roommate expressed his outrage that Gelbart hadn’t acknowledged his obvious talent, and hired him on-the-spot for some killer LA writing gig. After his rant, he said to me as an afterthought, “Oh, and Gelbart thought you were funny. A good comic actress.” Which annoyed him even more. I was dumbstruck. The guy who wrote for Sid Caesar thought I was funny. I didn’t even know how to process it.
When I graduated from college, I thought I’d tie a mattress to the roof of my car and head straight to Chicago to try out for Second City. That didn’t happen. Quite honestly, I chickened out. I tried stand-up in New York for a few years, but ultimately, I didn’t want to hack it.
I wanted to be in love. I wanted to settle down. And I wasn’t sure that I liked what I saw as I peered down the road of comedy. Women comedians could be loud and brash and coarse and tough. They weren’t sexy or soft or kind — qualities I realized that I actually possessed, and which made my boyfriend want to stick around. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the woman that comedy required. Maybe I was also saving myself the agony of pursuing a dream I had no business pursuing — since I wasn’t really that talented or special in the world of comedy. Walking onto a stage and yelling out to the spotlights, “Larry Gelbart thinks I’m funny!” — gosh, sister, that doesn’t get you the job. Somewhere in my marrow, I knew I wasn’t at that level. I’ve joked to my husband that I’m very mass-market. The people at the supermarket? They think I’m hilarious. The paying customers with a two-drink minimum at a New York comedy club? Probably not so much.
When I first started dating my husband in college, we were at a party, where I had managed to hold court for a few minutes amongst a group of friends. As we stumbled home from the party, he mentioned how uncomfortable he felt dating a girl who always got the laughs. He wasn’t used to it and didn’t know if he could share the audience. (The audience, mind you, was four people on acid, seated on a soiled couch from 1975.) In the nicest way possible, I told him to go fuck himself. Funny was all I ever had and the core component of who I was. I earned my funny, damnit. If he didn’t like it, he’d have to go find some nice, quiet girl who was going to be way bubblier and pouty-lip-pursed than I was — and incredibly boring. I gave him a minute to think it over while I dramatically marched off, tripped over the curb and out into the street. (It wasn’t a well-timed pratfall. It was beer.) He got over it, and we’ve been together for 22 years. Let the record show that I’ve been very happy to share the spotlight with my incredibly funny husband. A regular Burns and Allen, we are. The cat thinks we’re hilarious.
These days, the kids think I’m funny, too. Friends put up with my too-long tales. I still get the occasional “say something funny” from a well-meaning, clueless, and very drunk person at a cocktail party — one who probably wore a Jessica McClintock dress to her prom in 1985. (And still fits in it.) I smile politely and ask if they’ve tried the to-die-for artichoke dip, and usually make a quick exit.
In the alternate universe in my head — the one where I have Jon Hamm’s cellphone number on speed dial — it would be me, and not Tina Fey, who became the first female head writer on SNL (and who got to co-host the Golden Globes. But I’m not bitter. Really.)
I never did drive that mattress to Chicago. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I would like to raise my glass to Tina Fey (especially since the final episode of “30 Rock” recently aired). And Maya Rudolph. And Melissa McCarthy. And Betty White. And Kristen Wiig. And Imogene Coca. And Margaret Cho. And Madeline Kahn. You made the impossible possible. You scythed the fuck out of those tall comedy grasses and blazed a trail for women, forevermore.
It doesn’t matter anymore if I’m on a decrepit basement comedy stage, staring at a blinking, caged light bulb on a far brick wall, or just making my husband laugh so hard that he chokes while I do my Oprah imitation — I’m funny. I’m a girl who’s funny. And it’s exactly who I’m meant to be.