Jerry Lewis and The Man Problem: The Bullying of Women in Comedy

Jerry Lewis is at the Cannes Film Festival, so reporters had the bright idea to ask him if he has discovered any funny women in the 15 years since he had declared publicly that there weren’t such a thing.

Various reports, including the AP, noted that Lewis first jokingly offered two men as his answer. Then he added: “I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can’t do that.”

Stop for a moment and examine his answer.

Lewis, 87, didn’t say women are not or were not ever funny. He said then and says now he’s bothered by the notion of a woman stooping to the level of a man by playing the buffoon onstage. Never he mind that Lucille Ball was TV’s comedic superstar during the same decade that Lewis was goofing around on the big screen. He apparently couldn’t be comfortable with a funny woman in the 1950s, and he still cannot in 2013. Never he mind, also, that just a month ago at the Friars Club Roast of Jack Black, Lewis sat next to the dais podium and visibly and audibly laughed when Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer raked him and others over the coals.

To borrow a popular proverb from where his legacy remains most popular…

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

In fact, the comedy world seems just as inhospitable — if not more so — for women now than it did a generation or two ago.


GQ’s “Comedy Issue” this month may have flipped the script by having comedian/actress Ellie Kemper write an essay asking: “Can Men Be Funny?”

But it’s hard to keep your tongue in cheek when men are heckling female comedians from the audience and affecting their future bookings there, or when the men are onstage as the stand-ups and making light of rape and domestic violence.


What gives?

In the first case, a Canadian comedian (Christina Walkinshaw) found her upcoming gigs at Casino Niagra cancelled because when she middled there last September, a group of hecklers sexually harassed Walkinshaw, chanting: “Show us your tits!” And later: “Show us your bush!” The club didn’t kick out the audience members in question nor even confront them to quiet them.

As Walkinshaw recounted last week on her own blog, this happened on the Thursday night show. “I went back on Friday and Saturday. I thought about cancelling, but I needed the money. I know I was treated poorly, but at the end of the day, a comic needs money. So what if I got sexually harassed? It’s not as embarrassing as not having rent, right? When I got a gig sheet to return back to the club, I was relieved. I knew that weekend was awkward, but I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it, so I’m glad they didn’t. Or so I thought…”

She earned $500 as the feature act that weekend. The casino decided to nix her return gig this July.

As she noted on her blog and again today on xoJane: “I’ve been lucky enough to make (half) a living off my dream. I’ve had my own half hour comedy special, and toured as a comic for over 10 years. Oh, but I’m Canadian. So you’ve never heard of me.” That said, Walkinshaw also acknowledged: “I’m not a perfect comic. I don’t know if I dealt with the situation in the right way back in September, and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing now. But I will tell you this: For the first time in my life, I’m standing up for myself.”

Perhaps she feels a bit more emboldened to stand up for herself offstage and online after recent debates within the comedy community — prompted by a blogging inquisition — as comedians and bloggers butted heads over the right for men in stand-up comedy to joke freely about rape.

Cameron Esposito, who hosts the “Put Your Hands Together” podcast and live show at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles, found a way to address both sides in that debate while also expanding it beyond the narrow focus of “rape jokes.” As she wrote: “IN THE END: tell the jokes you want to tell. But know that it makes you a better comic to have to either ignore criticism or defend yourself. This is the rest of all of our careers: success balanced with ignoring criticism or self-defense.”

If you cannot defend your jokes, write better jokes.

But what about your attitude toward other comedians in the game of show business?

I spoke with several women in comedy over the past couple of weeks who also wanted to weigh in, wanted to stand up for themselves as well as the men in comedy and the right to make any kind of jokes, but who also wanted to point out the gross misogyny that continues to exist in comedy. That’s prevalent more in stand-up than in improv and sketch, but exists nonetheless.

And it is gross, the misogyny that pervades and perverts comedy.

Which is all the more surprising considering how the comedy industry and community no longer functions an exclusive “boys club.” Women hold key decision-making roles in casting agencies, talent management and even at Comedy Central.

And yet.

When slots are doled out for stand-up comedians on the late-night shows or the cable showcases (whether it’s five-minute sets, half-hours or hours), women are left behind or overlooked, relegated as if they’re filling a quota. Or worse, they’re set off to the side on another channel or stage as The Women of Comedy, or introduced by the emcee at a live show by their gender. “Are you ready for your first lady of the evening?” “Please welcome the lovely and talented…”

You don’t need to ask the audience if they’re ready for a female comedian or describe their looks. And women in comedy shouldn’t feel as though they need to take off their clothes for the laddie mags and online slideshows to feel validated as comedians and performers. That they do says a lot about how little our society has changed, and how much still needs to change about it.

We all need to stand up for ourselves, not just as performers but as people.

This isn’t about hand-holding nor is it about creating an environment where nobody is offended by a joke.

This is about putting a stop to bullying. Because bullying is never funny. Not in a schoolyard. Not on a social network. And not in a comedy club.

A comedian asks us to laugh with him or her. Sometimes at him or her. And hopefully speaks some truth to power, instead of from power.

So when Jerry Lewis worries about seeing a lady “diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator,” perhaps instead of arguing with him or agreeing with him, we should try to raise our game above that level. Raise our game. We can be better than this. Because we are better than this. We most certainly are better than this.

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 →

2 thoughts on “Jerry Lewis and The Man Problem: The Bullying of Women in Comedy

  1. Maybe stop worrying about what men think of you and do comedy. Just do it. Go do spots. Look at the ratio of men to women at open mics?

Comments are closed.