Michael Eisner’s comments rekindle a tired discussion about women and comedy.
“In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women — a Lucille Ball — that are funny, is impossible to find,” former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said in a conversation about mindfulness, of all things, with Goldie Hawn at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “The hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman. By far.” Then he added: “Boy, am I going to get in trouble.”
Eisner is not really in trouble. He’s merely the catalyst for the latest round of a tired, long-running discussion about women and comedy.
“Are women funny?” is one of those questions with an obvious answer that, nevertheless, works reliably as click-bait and talk show fodder.
Are funny women beautiful? Are beautiful women funny? Is there traffic on the 405? Are you spending too much time on your phone? Do America’s gun laws need reforming? Is Hollywood going to reboot that superhero franchise again? Is there a pill for that? Is racism still a thing? Should you call your mother more often? Is Christopher Hitchens dead? Do we still need feminism?
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Yes, for chrissakes. Yes.
I’d prefer we dedicate our conversations, both digital and analog, to far thornier questions. Should I spend $12 on that smoothie? Is this sexism or does that man just hate me personally? What’s the deal with gluten? How do we solve entrenched income inequality? Do open relationships work? Are humans alone in the universe? How relevant are the opinions of that dead white guy? How relevant are the opinions of that still-breathing white guy?
Alas, we are not discussing any of these pressing issues today. We are, once again, being forced to address whether women can be both desirable and humorous.
The perpetual recycling of this nonquestion has its roots not in genuine confusion — which can be interesting — but in entitled bloviating. And such entitlement is, by this point, dreadfully boring.
“It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good,” wrote Tina Fey in her autobiography, “Bossypants.” “I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
If there’s any truth to what Eisner said, it’s on the level of truism: Most people are neither really beautiful nor really funny; almost no one is universally regarded as both. Humor, like beauty, is subjective.
Is the world full of really beautiful, really funny women? I happen to think so. But I am not bound by casting norms. I don’t think a woman needs to meet Hollywood’s exacting physical standards in order to tell a sidesplitting joke or even to carry a feature-length comedy. Given the box-office performance of movies such as “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Spy” this summer, I am not alone.
In essence, Eisner wasn’t saying beautiful, funny women don’t exist. He was admitting that he, along with many of his peers in Hollywood, have a problem finding funny women sufficiently beautiful and beautiful women sufficiently funny.
Seen in this light, his comment was less a sweeping statement on the status of women in comedy than it was a cry for help. He should be dealing with this on a couch in his therapist’s office, not on a stage in Aspen with Goldie Hawn.
Even Christopher Hitchens, whose 2007 Vanity Fair essay, “Why Aren’t Women Funny,” is a must-read for cultural critics seeking a lesson in disguising their personal shortcomings as trenchant commentary, admitted that his analysis was personal.
“The achievement of my essay (was) to make sexier women try harder to amuse me,” he said later. “Well, that was my whole plan to start with.” Turn your head if you feel yourself starting to vomit.
Humor is power, as columnist Meghan Daum noted on the occasion of Hitchens’ death in 2011. Usually the extent to which men find women funny is correlated with the extent to which they’re comfortable with women wielding power that goes beyond their physical beauty or sexual appeal.
It’s not surprising that Eisner cited Lucille Ball as an exception to his rule that funny and beautiful rarely coexist. “No, I’m not in favor of women’s liberation,” Ball told the Free-Lance Star in 1970, at the height of the feminist second wave. “I don’t have anything I want to be liberated from.”
Some women are able to meet Hollywood’s exacting beauty standards. Many are not. Both groups, I can assure Eisner and his colleagues, are capable of hilarity. The hardest thing to find is actually a Hollywood power broker who realizes physical perfection is not a prerequisite for telling a good joke.