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Guest Post: The Evolution of Women in Comedy: From Mary Tyler Moore to Amy and Mindy

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by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
July 17, 2013 12:30 PM
1 Comment
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Treva Silverman had spent most of her 30 years wanting to be funny and female -- and allowed to do so in public, maybe even collect a buck or two for her trouble. Growing up in the 1950s in Cedarhurst, Long Island, she'd looked up to Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur, those grand dames of '30s screwball comedies, then she'd discovered, via Dorothy Parker, the idea of writing comedy for a living.

Eventually, as a young woman in the '60s, Silverman persuaded the producers of a New York comedy revue, Upstairs at the Downstairs, to run some of her sketches on their stage. That got her a job on a short-lived CBS sketch show, The Entertainers, starring Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, and others. And that led to a gig writing for The Monkees.

But it wasn't until her old friend, James L. Brooks, hired her in 1970 to write for his new creation, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that she got to be not just a woman who happened to be funny, but someone who was funny because she was a woman. There, she and a dozen or so other female comedy writers finally put to good use their knack for seeing the hilarious side of being a woman: the gauche singles clubs, the old boyfriends you regret granting a second chance, the leering men, the ludicrous trap of weight anxiety.

The show's refreshingly realistic main character, Mary Richards -- single, over 30, underpaid, ambitious, and nervous -- and her even more realistic best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern -- less ambitious, more assertive -- would become the vehicles by which young, female comedy writers could share their stories with the world. And only now, four decades later, can we finally see the true extent of their legacy playing out on television through the increasing number of shows starring -- and, finally, created by -- women.

In researching my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted which traces the social and creative history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I interviewed many of the pioneering women who honed their comedy writing by helping Brooks and his partner, Allan Burns, create a life for Mary Richards that would cause female viewers to nod along in recognition. Time after time, the women used their own real-life stories in scripts, causing Brooks and Burns to erupt into laughter at the most ordinary happenings -- a terrible bridesmaid dress or an eye-rolling pickup line. Because the men hadn't experienced these things themselves, the storylines struck them as fresh and funny. Behold, the comedic power of the unexpected.

Though the feminist movement in the '70s created a brief craze for hiring more women behind the scenes, progress soon stalled. We found ourselves just a few years ago once again debating whether women could even be funny, an odd but telling refrain unique to the debate over women's rights. Is the right to be funny as politically crucial as, say, the basic bodily autonomy we continue to fight for in conservative legislatures every day? Or as vital as protecting women around the world from everyday brutal violence, lack of education, and basic indignity? Absolutely not. But a special kind of pride results from the ability to rise above your own circumstances through humor and wit. Seeing the ridiculous in the experiences unique to your group often marks the first step toward eradicating inequality, and sharing that laugh with others can bring them over to your side. Just ask Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, or Dave Chappelle.

So it's no surprise that women's humor has been continuously derided as inferior, and that thus we've yet to mine women's experience to its fullest comedic extent. That became clear when Tina Fey, for instance, punctured every previous portrayal of single career women with 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, who avoided neurosis by laying her foibles out in the open. Then Bridesmaids showed us that gross-out humor gets funnier in direct proportion to the pretentiousness of the bridal salon in which you set it. Standup stars Whitney Cummings and Sarah Silverman brought us another twist, playing their cutesy faces and voices against the most vulgar of punchlines.

The newly ascendant Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, both the creators of comedy shows they star in, show us still another twist on how being female can be funny.

Schumer and Kaling represent a subtle shift from Cummings and Silverman, who seem hell-bent on out-boying the boys club that comedy is. These new voices don't shy away from indelicate topics like sex or body humor -- because most modern women are a few steps beyond Jane Austen-style manners. But they don't try to beat the guys at their own game, either.

Kaling showed with her Fox sitcom The Mindy Project this season that she can do a killer awkward-shower-sex scene and poke elaborate fun at women's love-hate relationship with romance. Schumer's show, which just wrapped its first season, gave us a sketch on "porn from a female point of view," which shows mostly how ridiculous (and occasionally gross) sex is for women, all hairy chests coming at them and being slammed repeatedly from behind. This stands in stark contrast to those "porn for women" send-ups that show men with waxed chests doing housework. Because, ha ha, women have no desires beyond a clean house! Schumer acknowledges both female desire and the silliness of what we must endure to fulfill it. And don't even get me started on the sketch about a women's magazine brainstorming those horrible sex tips they always have. Just watch it.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Gloria Banta, who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Rhoda, recently told me that she's nothing short of obsessed with The Mindy Project. "I know I'm a little old for it," she whispered. "But I can't help it." Too old? Of course not. A former Mary Tyler Moore Show writer's never too old to see her legacy come to fruition.

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Jennifer Keishin Armstrong spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, co-founded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including O, Fast Company, and New York's Vulture. She's the author of a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted , and co-author of Sexy Feminism.

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1 Comment

  • Cary O'Dell | July 18, 2013 2:34 PMReply

    I understand the timeline of your book and the article above but the evolution did not begin with "MTM"--and, yes, the evolution was televised. Lucille Kallen wrote for "Your Show of Shows," Madelyn Davis for "I Love Lucy," Gertrude Berg, Peg Lynch. There were lots of funny ladies writing for TV long before 1970.

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