SNOW WHITE -- 20 years later


Snow White and women’s humor :  20 years later

What’s changed in terms of the creation and reception of women’s comedy since the publication of my break out book on women’s humor They Used To Call Me Snow White… But I Drifted hit the shelves in 1991?  That year, Thelma and Louise hit the big screen and Anita Hill hit the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings. In ‘91 Comedy Central began broadcasting in its current format and the Soviet Union stopped existing in what was its current format. In 1991, the cold war ended and the Gulf War began. Designing Women, Roseanne, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Married with Children were television hits, while books by Erma Bombeck were on the bestseller list.

For the record, Clarence Thomas made it to the Supreme Court. But so have Sonia Sotomeyer, who seems never to appear in a photograph without her signature smiling face, and Elena Kagan.

In 2010, Kagan proved what I’d been arguing in Snow White in 1991:  give women an education and a chance at the microphone, and we’ll prove we are funnier than most men.

During the hearings that confirmed her appointment to the Supreme Court, Kagan got the last laugh at the expense of South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsay Graham during a moment that can serve as a template for women’s smart answers. When Graham, rather lackadaisically, intoned, “Christmas Day. Where were you on Christmas Day?” I’ll admit that I held my breath. Kagan began what sounded like an elaborate, roundabout and detailed response concerning the finer points of law in conjunction to a question about the 2009 Christmas Day (a.k.a. “underwear”) Bomber.

Kagan, remember, was being examined precisely on those finer points of law, but  Graham interrupted Kagan and drawled, “I just asked where you were on Christmas.” That’s when the world heard Kagan's laugh—it was a real laugh, not some tinkling-bell girly self-deprecating simulation of laugh. It was a serious Bea-Arthur-ish “You got me” guffaw.

And then the soon-to-be member fourth female member of the Supreme Court did something remarkable: She refused to let this gentleman’s funny remark stand at her expense. She was going to win because she would get the last laugh. And win she did. Kagan shifted the ground. She answered, matter-of-factly,“Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."

It’s great when somebody can answer a question while addressing the invidious issues beneath it: Why is the Senator from South Carolina asking where she was on a Christian holiday, anyway? Some of us thought Kagan should have asked Graham where he was on Purim.

Other changes in 20 years -- Chelsea Handler picked up where Cynthia Heimel left off; Designing Women gave way to Sex and the City, which has now turned into Girls; Golden Girls morphed into Hot in Cleveland; Married with Children became Modern Family. Nora Ephron hated her neck but everybody loved her; Joan Rivers still hates everybody, and some return the favor; Wendy Wasserstein’s legacy still searches for the next great American woman comic playwright; and Phyllis Diller kept her edge until her 90s, as Betty White continues to do, thereby proving that life only gets funnier with age. A combination of Imogene Coca, Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin have come together, like wickedly clever improv fairy godmothers, and fashioned a world where Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig flourish. Susie Essman, Joy Behar, and Lizz Winstead have grown from the fledging stand-up comics I could interview personally in small, smoky venues to hosts, stars, and producers with layers of assistants, like bubble-wrap, protecting them from too much knocking on the dressing-room door from pesky, if admiring, academics. Rita Ruder now has the longest-running, most-successful one-person comedy show in the history of Las Vegas.  Bette Midler continues to star in films, shows, and win awards for her performances, having left her own long-running show at Caesar’s Palace to return to New York and L.A. Carol Leifer, Elayne Boosler, and Margaret Cho have attained international fame and have influenced a new generation of performers, male and female, who grew up enthralled by their work.

Roseanne and Fran gave way to the sexualized and moneyed urban glitter of HBO’s “Sex and the City”; actually, “Murphy Brown,” “The Nanny” and “Sex and the City” occupied one year (’98). Styles of women’s humor were changing as swiftly as their hair and their shoes. By the second season of its six-year run, one of the characters in “Sex and the City” could blurt, “All we talk about anymore is Big, or balls, or small d$#**}. How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends? It's like seventh grade with bank accounts!”  While criticisms of Sex and the City—too glib, too glitzy, too shallow—abound, it has to be noted that Candace Bushnell’s column’s for The New York Observer, on which the show and movies were based, was witty and sharp—as well as being less circumscribed by traditional marriage plots or, at the very least, less bound by their inevitable conclusions than the television or film adaptations. In Bushnell’s book, the heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, does not marry “Big” but rather, according to Bushnell, lives her life “happily single.” It’s interesting to note that, however shocking the characters on television seemed to be, their textual versions were even more decidedly and deliberately iconoclastic. Bridget Jones is, of course, Carrie Bradshaw’s equally famous British counterpart.


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