Something strange is afoot in the world of the American sitcom. A breed of character has emerged that curses profanely, talks frankly about sex, sleeps around and drinks too much, all while wisecracking rudely with the best of them.
None of those attributes is especially original, except that these characters are all women. A fresh crop of TV comedy shows has hit the US cultural landscape anchored on a new breed of sassy, independent, freethinking woman.
Building on the success of the hit Hollywood movie Bridesmaids, which seemed to convince movie executives that male cinemagoers would pay to see funny women, America’s television channels are now also placing a big bet on a feminine twist to some tried and tested comic set-ups.
They have even raided the worlds of independent cinema and cutting-edge stand-up to get their talent. First up is New Girl, which stars indie darling Zooey Deschanel in her own show about a woman called Jess who moves in with three men. Though it is an ensemble cast, the show is firmly centred on Deschanel as its main draw. Next is 2 Broke Girls, which features another star of the independent scene, Kat Dennings. She plays Max, a gritty waitress with a strong line in witty put-downs that have stretched what is previously tolerated on mainstream TV. In the first show – on the CBS network no less – Dennings’s Max responds angrily to a restaurant customer who clicks his fingers at her to get her to come to his table. “You think this is the sound that gets you service,” she says, clicking her fingers right back. “I think this is the sound that dries up my vagina.” That line alone inspired a wave of hand-wringing articles in America wondering about current broadcasting standards.
Finally, there is Whitney, a show that stars Whitney Cummings, a rising stand-up comedian who has drawn rave reviews for her comic routines. Now she has been given her own TV show. The format is standard – it explores Whitney’s life as she lives with (and refuses to marry) her boyfriend – but network executives have been promising the show will not pull its punches in dealing frankly with sex and relationships. “This has been coming for a while. A lot depends on these shows. If people respond well to them, then that is all we are going to see. If not, then we’ll have to wait another five years to try again,” said Janette Barber, a stand-up comic turned radio host on SiriusXM satellite radio.
Of course, there is a long tradition of sassy, funny women in US television comedy. From almost the very start of the genre, major female stars emerged, like Lucille Ball in the classic 1950s show I Love Lucy. In the 70s Bea Arthur starred in Maude as an outspoken liberal, while Loretta Swit was nominated for 10 Emmys during 11 years in M*A*S*H. In the late 80s Roseanne Barr, as the lead character in Roseanne took a wisecracking female lead character to new heights. However, those series nearly always placed their female comics in the role of a wife or mother. With a few notable exceptions – such as the TV news comedy show Murphy Brown – they were set against a husband or with a family.
That phenomenon reached its apogee with a wave of comedy shows in the 2000s which seemed to make a fetish of placing attractive, intelligent and witty women in roles where they played second fiddle to often overweight and not especially clever husbands. Shows like The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond and According to Jim were enormously successful using this formula. “We were seeing a lot of this. The pretty, attractive woman who lives with a schlubby guy. Why did these women marry these guys? They are brighter and more intelligent and more funny than their husbands, who clearly often infuriate them,” said Professor Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University.
The new TV comedies are helping to end that. Here the women characters are not defined by men, even as they fulfil some of the cliches of the sitcom genre: by getting dumped, or trying to bring spice back into a relationship or going on a first date. They put the woman character first and are building on a number of recent female successes, especially Tina Fey’s award-winning role in 30 Rock and to a lesser extent the Amy Poehler-led comedy Parks & Recreation.
But the largest influence is the runaway critical and commercial success of Bridesmaids, which starred and was co-written by Kristen Wiig. That movie blew away the critics with its focus on female friendships and, far more importantly in the minds of entertainment executives, it cashed in at the box office in spectacular style. It notched up a staggering $283m in ticket sales, on a budget of just $32m: a paper profit of almost a quarter of a billion. No wonder a host of follow-up films, such as the upcoming Bachelorette, are now in the works. And no surprise that America’s TV executives hope to cash in with their female-centric shows. “New things don’t happen on TV. They happen somewhere else and TV gloms on to them. The audience for Bridesmaids had a lot of purchasing power and they want a piece of that,” said Barber.
That clear-eyed focus on the bottom line is gradually shaking up US television’s natural conservatism when it comes to recognising social change. After all, American life is filled with several generations of independent, working (funny) women unconstrained by their men. But TV, many experts say, has a history of being slow to catch up with the society it claims to reflect. Thompson points to the success of the 1960s comedy show Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Despite being set on a marines base during the brutal height of the Vietnam war, the show never once mentioned the conflict. Instead it focused on the daily tribulations of its main character, a former petrol station attendant who had signed on in the military. Or look at the furore surrounding the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres as a lesbian on her sitcom Ellen in 1997. Though it became a momentous event in TV history, gay people in actual public life in America were already prominent and had long won numerous civil rights and social acceptance. But with these new shows it is possible that the medium is at last catching up with the reality of everyday life. “We are finally at the point when TV is not so many steps behind. Soon it might even sometimes be a few steps ahead,” said Thompson.
However, there is still a way to go when it comes to the treatment of women in comedy. It has long been a male-dominated world. “I’m saddened that we are still talking about women in comedy as if it were an oddity. When I first started doing stand-up in the 80s, I was usually introduced: ‘And here’s something different – a female comic!’,” said Judy Carter, a comedian turned motivational speaker. Despite the wave of new women-led shows, there still does seem to be a double standard when it comes to female comics. They are not entirely judged on the quality of their jokes, but also on their gender, in a way male comics are not. Perhaps the new shows will help change that. To do so they will have to be successful in terms of ratings, thus generating the required advertising revenue to make them a standard part of the broadcasting ecosystem. The early signs are good.
New Girl‘s debut scored some 10.1 million viewers and was the most popular show of its night among younger viewers. Meanwhile, 2 Broke Girls got a huge 19.2 million viewers for its heavily promoted first show. If such performances are kept up, the shows might cease to be viewed as sitcoms featuring funny women and just seen as funny TV shows. “I look forward to the day when we laugh at a movie such as Bridesmaids, and we don’t even notice: ‘Oh my God, women are funny!’ Funny is funny regardless of gender,” said Carter.
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