I’ve recently devoted quite a lot of brain power to figuring out where the idea that women aren’t funny comes from—brain power that could have been devoted to something more fun, like watching TV, or parasailing, or seeing if I could eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Quite frankly, I’m sick of thinking about this idea. And yet there always seems to be more of “women aren’t funny” talk to deal with (roughly 80 percent of which is generated by Jerry Lewis). Some days, it feels like the “debate” will never end.
But Bonnie McFarlane has given me hope. McFarlane, an acclaimed comedian and writer, directed the documentary Women Aren’t Funny—a film that uses interviews with comedians from Wanda Sykes and Chelsea Peretti to Dane Cook and Patrice O’Neil, as well as McFarlane’s own experiences (including a show McFarlane performed while disguised as a man), to get to the bottom of this story, and hopefully kill it for good.
The film has played the festival circuit, and is currently seeking distribution, but you can check out the documentary’s trailer below.
McFarlane talked with me about her motivation for creating the film, changing attitudes towards female comedians, and why you should probably just be embarrassed for people who think that women aren’t funny.
GABRIELLE MOSS: Do you remember the first time you were told that women weren’t funny?
BONNIE MCFARLANE: I don’t know. I remember getting, ‘You’re not funny” a lot. Mostly from my parents. From audience members I’ve gotten, “Normally I don’t like female comics, but you’re funny.” And then I found out that every single female comic gets that every third show.
What made you decided to examine the idea from a documentary perspective? Did you have any background shooting documentaries or anything like that?
My husband, comedian Rich Vos, and I wanted to make something because I couldn’t go on the road so much after I had a baby, and we knew this would be an interesting topic that we could get a lot of people to weigh in on. We just really thought this would be a nice little project to keep me busy. I had worked in television as a writer/producer and made some short films but I had no idea how overwhelming it is to make a feature film. It’s insanity. Half way through, I started making people promise me that if I ever talked about making a movie again, they’d kick me in the face until I came to my senses. But now that it’s done…I have some pretty good ideas for another…please don’t kick me in the face.
Do you feel like making the movie gave you any new insights into why women not being funny is such an enduring myth?
When I started the film, I kind of thought that people thinking women aren’t funny was the actual myth—and then, at some point during the making of the movie, I realized, “Oh my god, there are people who actually think women aren’t funny!” But during my second bag of Twizzlers, I had an “aha” moment and realized, those people are fucking idiots.
What did you hope to achieve by making the film?
Rich and I were really just interested in making a funny movie with funny women and a few funny men. And I think we succeeded. But then again, we’re both pretty arrogant. We don’t take the topic too seriously because I think the whole discussion is kind of embarrassing. The people who don’t think women are funny are like old racists and the people who defend that women are funny are kind of embarrassing, too. It’s like defending that women can read or chop broccoli.
Do you feel like attitudes towards women (and whether or not they’re funny) have changed in the comedy world over the course of your career?
Oh, definitely. There are so many funny women it’s impossible to ignore the sheer volume. As British comic Jimmy Carr says in the film, “As more women go into it, more women come out at the top.” It’s never been a better time for women in comedy. Don’t let the open letters to white male comics fool you. It’s all pretty good.
Photo: Comedian Wanda Sykes in the film.
Read this whole blog series on feminism and comedy!