Review: “Women Aren’t Funny,” a documentary

Are women funny?

Are you funny? That’s a fairer, more legitimate question.

WomenArentFunnyPoster-194x300In a new documentary by stand-up comedian Bonnie McFarlane, shot with her husband, comedian Rich Vos, Women Aren’t Funny wisely takes a humorous approach to the topic. “It seems so obvious to me that women are funny, that to take it seriously would give credence to the argument that maybe we aren’t as funny as men,” McFarlane said at a screening over the weekend at Barnard College’s Athena Film Festival. “If you just leave and go, ‘That was a funny movie,’ that speaks more to the argument than anything could.”

That there’s even an argument about whether women are funny, or as funny as men, is such a bullshit question.

“”Is there sexism in show business? Yeah!” says Susie Essman in the film. “There’s sexism everywhere!”

And yet, it’s a very real argument when you hear comedy club owners or other gatekeepers of show business talking about selling tickets and booking the acts that sell the most tickets. And, in turn, it’s a very personal argument as well as a life-or-career-death one for women in stand-up comedy, like McFarlane. Who, as she explains and you see in the film, often tours as an opener for her husband. In one deliciously ironic clip, they share a very televised moment a decade ago when Vos and McFarlane both appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing; Vos as a “celebrity talent scout”; McFarlane, as a contestant.

Thanks to Christopher Hitchens and his January 2007 essay in Vanity Fair, this nonsense line of reasoning has bounced around the Internet and into your own personal discussions on a regular basis for the past six years. So McFarlane and Vos decided to take the debate to Hitchens. In one case — a 2010 weekend in which the couple was performing at Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia while Hitchens was also in town for a speaking engagement — as literally as they could. McFarlane also sat down for a lengthy chat with Adam Carolla (who himself was quoted by the New York Post last summer claiming, when pressed, that women generally aren’t as funny as their male counterparts).

Rather than give credence to nonsense, McFarlane tackles other pressing and topical tangential arguments.

Such as: Do only pretty women land lead roles in sitcoms and funny movies? You only have to go all the way back to this past weekend, when old dead media specimen Rex Reed couldn’t get past Melissa McCarthy’s looks in her performance in Identity Thief — the nation’s most popular movie last weekend. Similarly, ancient Saturday Night Live insider (and former Washington Post TV critic) Tom Shales put his own personal resentments and prejudices front and center by declaring Michaela Watkins too pretty for SNL a few years ago. Of course, these are men critiquing women. Could a woman writing about a woman focus on the content of her characters, and not on the shape of her skin?

For that matter, would a man telling a woman’s jokes receive a better response from comedy club audiences?

And where have all of the female headliners gone, anyhow? Rita Rudner is still going strong, but notes that the number of women on the road with her as top draws are dwindling. Are the bad apples ruining the bunch, so to speak? “Maybe we should just go out and get rid of all of the female comics who aren’t funny, and giving us a bad name.”

Would society be as willing to even have this debate, if, as Chelsea Peretti asks aloud, Hitchens had asked in his essay: “Are black people smart?”

Essman, Rudner, Peretti, Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Joy Behar, Judy Gold, Rosie O’Donnell, Maria Bamford all offer their own perspectives and experiences being in the minority of comedy circles. The men of comedy also weigh in, too. More than a few wonder why women even would want to put up with the sometimes savage and sloppy conditions of life as a stand-up comedian on the road, from the “comedy condo” to the loneliness and the interactions with strangers and stranger business types. Dane Cook, the late Patrice O’Neal, Doug Stanhope, Artie Lange, Andy Kindler, Michael Ian Black, Colin Quinn and more join the conversation.

Vos sometimes inserts himself into those conversations.

At other times, the couple amusingly juxtaposes individual interviews to give a he-said, she-said flair to the debate. Even funnier are times in which McFarlane postures as an “investigative reporter” for WAF (Women Aren’t Funny) News to deliver reports from the field, as it were.

We also see the debate and meta explanation for the documentary unfold in several short scenes in the SiriusXM Radio studios of Opie and Anthony, where Vos sits at the table with the jocks while McFarlane is stuck on a sofa in the corner of the room. From her corner, McFarlane explains her “cockumentary” to the boys. “It’s a comedy documentary,” she says. “And you’re in it.” (Note: Gregg Hughes and his wife, Lynsi, are producers on this documentary.)

McFarlane and Vos only had screened Women Aren’t Funny once before, as a brand-new print in November 2012 at Carolines Comedy Club as part of the New York Comedy Festival. They’re currently in discussions with potential distributors, and contemplating a stand-up tour combined with screenings. Perhaps you’ll get to laugh off this debate along with McFarlane and Vos at a club or theater with you sometime soon.

Related: Watch the trailer for Women Aren’t Funny.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

4 thoughts on “Review: “Women Aren’t Funny,” a documentary

  1. Watch audiences. They’ll tell you who is funny. If a woman is funny she’ll get laughs. People vote with their wallet. It has nothing to do with gender.

  2. You know what I got out of this? I got that Bonnie’s husband is an asshole and she’s stupid for staying in this relationship. He calls her stupid, he’s rude. What the heck?

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