The first collection of humour by women that came out in 1976 was called Titters. Because well-bred women did not laugh loudly in polite company, they put their hands over their mouths and tittered, or if they were feeling particularly boisterous, they giggled.
The introduction to the book, edited by Deanne Stillman and Anne Beatts, that had pieces by the queens of wit of the time, like Emma Bombeck, Gilda Radner, Candice Bergen, Phyllis Diller and others, said:
“You see, we think women should be allowed to be outrageous, or even silly. After years of watching men play the fool, it’s a great release to be able to hold our shoes to our heads and go “hello, hello?” The book may be called Titters, but giggles, guffaws, and belly-laughs are in it as well. Come in, the Coast… hello? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, I have a tampon in my ear.”
The cover, with a picture of a woman’s torso in a very tight pink T-shirt, would be considered scandalous even by today’s relatively lax standards, but it was attention grabbing. Actually, it was not the first collection, before it, there were The Wit Of Women (1885) and Laughing Their Way: Women’s Humor in America (1934), according to Gabrielle Moss in her piece in bitchmedia.org, but they were so far back that nobody remembered.
In those days– and even now to a certain extent– women were not supposed to funny—jokes were made about them, not by them! It took a good 45 years for another collection to come out—Notes From The Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-Grade Panic from 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy, edited by Amy Solomon, a self confessed devotee of Gilda Radner, a comedy goddess.
There have been so few female humorists—Dorothy Parker immediately springs to mind, and then Joan Rivers and Fran Lebowitz; after that one has to strain to remember other names. Male humorists had a clear path to legend status; writers like PG Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Saki; actors like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers. Before the days of political correctness, in so much of the works by these men, women were scary caricatures. Jokes that would now be considered tasteless, if not outright mean-spirited, were made about domineering mothers-in-law, batty aunts, clingy girlfriends, bitchy ex-wives, air-headed secretaries. The ones who were spared lampooning were the ‘good’ women—devoted wives, sacrificing mothers. And the ‘good’ women would obviously not make fun of their husbands, or, god-forbid, their bawling, pooping, tantrum-throwing infants!
On stage or screen, men could openly talk about sex and female body parts, but women had to be ladylike; who wanted to hear jokes about child-bearing, menstruation, lazy husbands or pawing bosses? Women had to be cute or look dim-witted (think Lucille Ball) to get away with comedy, and preferably be attached to a male partner, because the comedy script-writing room was full of men, who did not want to work with ‘broads.’ Look back at Hindi cinema, for instance and the few female comedians there were, had to be overweight—Tun Tun, Guddi Maruti, and the more recent entrant Shikha Talsania. (To be fair, for many years, the male comedians in Hindi films too had to be weird-looking and with a flaw like a squint or a stutter.)
There is also the matter of perception—women are expected to be calm, dutiful, sacrificing their own dreams for the man/family, which is a situation that does not lend itself to humour. A man can be carousing all night, and leaving the responsibility of the family to the wife, and his boyish behavior is supposed to be charming. Any woman who does not think so is a joyless nag. Or a feminazi.
Charlie Chaplin in his tramp persona is a beloved icon; a woman in bag lady clothes would not have been half as amusing; in fact, most people would say that she should be taken off the streets and pushed into a homeless shelter.
After stand-up comedy became a part of popular culture, it took decades for women to break into this all-boys’ club. In their sketches, men can complain all they want about women, and make as many toilet jokes as they can get away with, but a woman doing the same kind of sets, will leave the audience uncomfortable. And the issues that concern women–misogyny, rape, unwanted pregnancy, discrimination at the workplace—just cannot be converted into entertainment. So, more often than not, the humour comes across as either bitter or self-deprecating. (Interestingly, two OTT shows, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel and Bhaag Beanie Bhaag had female stand-up comedians as protagonists.)
Unfortunately, Titters did not make any waves, nor initiate anything like an annual anthology of women’s humorous writing, even after hit shows like Saturday Night Live, launched the careers of a small number of women comedy writers and performers, including Gilda Radner and Anne Beatts.
For Notes from the Bathroom Line, Amy Solomon managed to bring together 150 of the funniest female writers, stand-up comedians, cartoonists and illustrators, to prove, one that there are at least150 bad-ass women out there and that they can be hilarious. Pity then, that their brief confined them to a narrow boundary of the personal– that is family, relationships, social media—when there was a wide open field of social and political satire. Everyone has a funny grandma story, or a nightmare date story, but surely women have crashed that comedy glass ceiling long ago?
Instead there is a mixed bag of essays, sketches, cartoons and rapid-fire answers to banal questions like their bad habits or social media gaffes (sending a nude selfie to an aunt, really?) most of which are not laugh-out-loud funny. However, there is a refreshing lack of coyness in the entries, and there are also genuinely witty pieces like The Other Ilana Wolpert and a Star Wars parody written by Alexandra Petri, in the style of Ernest Hemingway. Still, it must have involved a lot of researching and networking, and it took Solomon three years to put together; because the pieces and illustrations were commissioned for the book, not curated from already published work.
Solomon, a film and TV producer, said in an interview to Peter O’Dowd and Allison Hagan of wbur.org “Funny women have always been my favorite thing in the world. Clearly we should be making room for way more. And I hope this book shows people like, oh my God, you could hire all of these women to make your TV and movies and everything.”
That may not happen in the near future, but every opportunity for women to drop their metal inhibitions and sharpen their wit needs to be encouraged. Hopefully, the next anthology of women’s work with humour will not take so long!
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 16, 2021)