23 July 2016

Comedy and the Older Woman



Today, I’m writing a serious blog.  (‘NO!  Don’t do it!  Don’t’ <sounds of heels screeching on floor as body dragged offstage>)

I write comedy.  I wrote stand-up, and had a regular column gig for many years.  My published crime books and most of my short stories are (hopefully) humorous.  My blog…well, that sometimes goes off the wall.

But I’m noticing that as I get older, the comedy seems to become more shocking.  Or rather, I am shocking people more.  They don’t know how to take it.  I see them gasp and act confused.  Did I really mean what I said just then?  Was it meant to be funny?

I don’t believe it’s because I’m writing a different level of material.  Nope. 

So why?  Why does my comedy seem to shock readers more than it did twenty years ago?

It’s not the readers.  It’s my age.

Writing comedy when you are thirty is ‘cute’.  I can’t tell you how many people told me that I ‘looked cute on stage’ as I innocently said some outrageous things that made people laugh. 

Saying outrageous things on stage when you are over 50 is not ‘cute’.  Women over 50 are never described as ‘cute’ (unless they are silly and feeble and quite old. Not to mention petite.)  Women over 50 cannot carry off ‘innocent’ (unless portraying someone very dumb.)  Women over 50 are expected to be dignified.

Phyllis Diller was a wonderful comic.  She did outrageous things on stage, and we laughed with her.  But she dressed like a crazy-woman and had us laughing AT her as well as with her.  Some women I know dislike the fact that Diller made herself ridiculous in front of an audience.  I don’t, because I know why she did it.

Forgive me while I pull a Pagliacci.  Yes, I still write comedy.  But I don’t do stand-up anymore.  I’ve found that women my age are not well received by crowds (especially liquored-up crowds). 

Women who are young and pretty can get away with murder.  Even better, they can get away with comedy.

But this is what I've found: A woman over 50 who makes fun of younger women is (often) seen as jealous.  A woman over 50 who makes fun of men is (often) viewed as bitter. A woman over 50 who makes fun of other women over 50 can get away with it, but the big audience isn’t there.

So my hat goes off to women like Rita Rudner, who do it still. I admire her so (and not just because she is slim and petite.)  I’ll stick to combining comedy and crime on the printed page.  At least that way, I won’t end up murdering my audience.

Postscript:  I paid a tribute to Phyllis Diller, at the launch of my latest book, The Goddaughter Caper.  I wore an outrageous hat and a sign that said, "Return to the Holy Cannoli Retirement Home."  Everyone laughed and loved it.  I made myself look silly.  Which demonstrates that when a woman over 50 engages in self-deprecating humour, it is approved by audiences. 

What do you think?  Yes, an older woman can make fun of herself and delight an audience.  But is there a similar acceptance if she makes fun of others?  Ageism or sexism?  Both?

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11 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Melody, I think you might be right about coming up against ageism and sexism. But I also think it's the tenor of the times. I think people are highly sensitive today. I've heard younger comedians of both sexes complain that audiences sometimes get upset with their humor. So I think it might be what you say but also the times we live in.

Art Taylor said...

What a thoughtful and provocative post, Melodie. I don't know that I have a good answer to this, certainly not one that would draw from my own experiences here (by which I mean obviously I'm not an over-50 female comedian myself, but also I haven't witnessed first-hand the types of reactions you've gotten). However, I'd think it is a combination of ageism and sexism--maybe distinctly the cross-currents of both of those in one place.

I remember my own thoughts about Phyllis Diller when I was younger (ridiculous indeed) and then a greater appreciation of her as I grew older myself. I don't know Rita Rudner well, though have seen her on TV before. I'm curious how Joan Rivers would fit in here? Similar to Phyllis Diller, or....? She was a favorite of mine even when I was a teenager (and she was then already around 50).

In any case, a nice post here, much to think about.

Melodie Campbell said...

Art, I teach comedy writing, and actually use both Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to demonstrate different kinds of humour in my course. Phyllis specialized in self-deprecating humor. Joan made fun of others (I use her scathing, hurtful humour about Liz Taylor as an example.) People loved Phyllis, because she didn't hurt anyone. Joan did not have the same affectionate following among women, for good reason.

The other cool thing I do is talk about research we did about the difference between American and British humour. But that is a post for another day. :)

I still do some standup, but only at conferences (I'm on the speaker circuit.) I find that audience more receptive and less brutal.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I was a little leery about leaving this post, as it might be shocking and uncomfortable for some people.


Melodie Campbell said...

Paul, you've got me wondering. I think comics today are more crude than in my time, and yes, they may find themselves being criticized for that. But I also find audiences are more receptive of young women comics than they were in my day. I cheer them on, of course.

B.K. Stevens said...

Melodie, I can't really comment on the issues you raise because I just don't know. (Forgive me, but I don't go to comedy clubs and have pretty much given up on late-night comedy shows). I'll tell you about one thing I've long wished for, though. I wish a woman who has a sense of humor and weighs more than 100 pounds would make an exercise DVD. I've tried a number of exercise tapes and DVDs, but the woman leading the exercise is always a perky, skinny twenty-year-old who talks about how good it feels to do exercises I find painful and humiliating. I remember putting up with one such DVD until the woman said, "Now, are you ready to have some REAL fun?" I thought it over and said, "Yes, I am." So I turned off the DVD, fixed a snack, and read a book. If someone made an exercise DVD that took a more realistic approach and joked about the exercises being unpleasant but necessary, I bet it would find an audience.

Herschel Cozine said...

Food for thought, and here are some of my favorite comics:
Phyllis Diller
Bob Newhart
Jack Benny (not stand up, but worthy of mention)
Rita Rudner
Steven Wright
Red Buttons

All of the above have humor primarily self effacing. Benny was the master of that. All of them were "gentle". And as far as I'm concerned age or sex had nothing to do with it.

I enjoy Don Rickles, but only in small doses. His humor, of course, is directed at putdowns of others, but it is done in such a way that one doesn't take offense.

Then there is Kathy Griffith (Griffin?). Sorry, I'll take a pass.

Melodie Campbell said...

BK - YES! With you all the way, Sister. Sadly, I will not be the one to be featured in it (I'm the before picture.)
But I bet it would earn a pretty penny.

Melodie Campbell said...

Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett were my two major influences, Herschel! Loved their good-natured humour. That's what I try to write. Miss them both.

Eve Fisher said...

BK - I'm with you, too!
Melodie, I think humor in movies has gotten a whole lot cruder than it used to be. Most of the comedy movies today are more cruel than funny, and have almost no wit. Compare "The Jerk" (considered very crude and vulgar in its day) to "The Hangover" and you'll see what I mean. On the other hand, I LOVED "40 Year Old Virgin", "The Darjeeling Express", and [almost] anything by Kevin Smith, so I'm no blushing virgin myself.
Re women and comedy - I don't know. I apparently crack people up a lot around here, no stand-up, just wisecracking about politics and media, and I get away with a lot. ("The Chico's look - telling women for decades that a pair of tight jeans and a baggy shirt will keep them sexy during hot flashes.")

Melodie Campbell said...

"more cruel than funny, and have almost no wit" - Eve, you've nailed it.

I'm thinking the Sleuthsayer's audience is clever...dare I say, a lot more clever than some audiences I've found at comedy clubs. (waiting for the slings and arrows now :)

Art Taylor said...

Bonnie! Your response to "Now are you ready to have some REAL fun?" made me laugh out loud!