Okay, the last one wasn’t actually in there, but it would’ve been a welcome addition if Dagnes could’ve drummed up a medium to get Lenny’s take on the question, or maybe Dustin Hoffman (star of Lenny), or some schmuck detective in New York (you know, another performance by Lenny Bruce—in substance). Anyway… I digress.
Either way, the book was good and Dagnes makes a nice clean case about how “the big tent” party (that would be the Dems) means a bigger pool to draw on for an audience and subject matter and therefore the potential for greater success as an entertainer. Said another way, the Left-leaning comics probably only lean left because they are actually free market conservatives when it comes right down to it.
All of this is a giant meandering introduction for this post. Dagnes book was interesting, but it left me wondering not why there were so few conservatives in political satire, but why there were/are so few women in political satire.
Think about it. Which of the top-tier satire programs airing right now feature women? The Daily Show always has a female correspondent or two (Currently, four of the twelve are women: Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams and Sarah Vowell) and Saturday Night Live—when they remember that they’re supposed to be topical and funny and not suck—has been known to permit women to drop a political bomb or two. But aside from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler sending up Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle (see video below), no program trading in political humor features a woman.
My intent is not to bring back the Jezebel accusation against The Daily Show (Initial argument— Jezebel says, "you're sexist!" and female Daily Show employees respond, "Go f@#k yourself!") and the comedy establishment. Rather, it is to point out that the contemporary Mount Rushmore of political satirists is more likely to include a conservative satirist, say… Dennis Miller, next to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher (who already has his libertarian edge) than it is to include a woman.
The question is why?
The answer is not because “women aren’t funny.” Okay, I’ll grant you that Lisa Lampanelli isn’t funny, but there is a whole host of women comics who are tremendously funny. I dare you to take in the stand-up routines and comedy records of Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Jackie “Moms” Mabley (see below), Ellen DeGeneres, Rusty Warren, Whoopi Goldberg, and Margaret Cho (I could keep going, but this list should keep you busy) and tell me otherwise.
It’s also not because women aren’t “into” politics. According to Gallup’s demographic breakdown of the 2012 election, there not only were more women registered to vote going into the election, but they were more likely to vote then men. In fact, the “gender gap” (Obama won the female vote by nearly 18%) has been credited as a key contribution to the 2012 election outcome. What is more, the 2012 election was groundbreaking for women winning elections. The current Congress boasts the highest number of both female Senators (20) and Representatives (78) in history. Of course, even with the historic numbers in the 113th Congress we still only have 98/535 seats (or 18.3%) of the legislature representing just over half of the voting population. If we start with the gross misrepresentation of women in politics, we might begin to outline the problem of women in political humor.
First of all, the conventional wisdom about politics is that men are more interested than women and therefore men would be more likely to be interested in political humor than women. Given the trends cited above, this is not likely the case. What is significant here, is that comedy deals in conventional wisdom rather than reality as a place to mine punch-lines (hence why stereotypes are still so prevalent). Thus, until the conventional wisdom changes, comedy will be more like George W. Bush—who, in Stephen Colbert’s estimation, believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday regardless of what happened on Tuesday—than John Kerry—who actually signs his Secretary of State Tweets “JK,” you know just in case the wind changes.
Thx for the tweets and for following. W/ my new job, I tweet from @statedept, signed –JK. Follow for latest! — John Kerry (@JohnKerry) April 12, 2013
Second, the problem of the female satirist is more analogous to the problem of a female president than the problem of the female legislator. There are 535 seats in congress, but only one in the oval office thus it is statistically less likely for a woman to become President than for a woman to become a Senator or Representative. As Dagnes indicates in her book, political satirists are an incredibly small subset of all comedians because the audience for political comment is way smaller than the audience for fart jokes. Thus, it follows that if there is less opportunity to be a political satirist for comedians in general then it is likely even more difficult to be a female political satirist especially since comedy tends to be a male dominated field (hence the whole “women aren’t funny” BS). To draw on the Daily Show as an example, it’s no surprise that 33% of the correspondents are women, but it would be a big shock if one of them replaced Jon Stewart (a bit The Daily Show has tried with Samantha Bee).
Third, there may be something unique about political material that just doesn’t jive with female comic’s comedic style. As Joanne Gilbert argues in her essay on female stand-up comedy, women in stand-up tend to favor self-deprecation as a key laugh-getting trope in order to invite the audience to both laugh at and identify with them. Of course, men also use self-deprecation (Aristotle argued that it was the most acceptable form of humor for use by the orator), but political satirists generally avoid it. Satire requires the comic to be the “smartest person in the room.” So even when satirists self-deprecate, they almost always do so in order to ridicule their target to an exponentially higher degree. Generally, I am no proponent of the “men do it this way and women do it this way” approach to rhetoric, but there may be something to the role of self-deprecation in women’s humor and the rarity of female political humorists. If nothing else, it is clear that self-deprecation and political satire don’t play well together in the sandbox of comedy.
In sum, I’m not entirely sure that I can answer the question. I can’t put my finger on any one glaring reason why there aren’t more women doing political humor, but it does seem like a question worth asking. In fact, it may even be more compelling than the conservative satire question because while conservatives may not be doing much political humor (excluding most of the programming on Fox News, which has to be comedy, right?) they do have access to the political structure—even the crazy ones. Women, on the other hand, have to count 18% representation as an historic victory and can’t even make a joke about it.