Comedy is a tough profession that's not for the thin-skinned, and for women, it's even harder, since they usually have to push past the big boys to get their turn at the microphone. That may be why female comedy has long been an especially caustic field full of ladies saying outrageous things you'd never hear over tea and pastries. They have to fight for the spotlight and are somehow required to be extra fiery in order to keep it. The days of dry but affable lady comics now seem as quaint as the era when shoulder pads and perms were considered slightly dangerous.
These days, we have Sarah Silverman, one of the most prominent proponents of embracing a snarky point of view in order to poke merciless fun at it (though she showed a softer side at the DNC). In an interview, Silverman once told me, "For me, there's a kind of power to saying the opposite of what you feel. The truth is what emanates. What am I gonna say—'I think people should be nice?'" Eww, no way. That would be absolutely gross!
Comedy's other queens of mean take a similar approach, deflating various phobias by trotting them out in breathless succession. Their savvy fans get what's going on, knowing full well that the comics are making fun of stupidity, not exuding it. Meanwhile, Amy Schumer is unafraid to plumb personal material in her comedy for a subversive but accessible brew that led her straight to Hollywood. Schumer's breakthrough Trainwreck movie had her pulling it together for the love of a man, but along the way, it did deliver the edgy goods. Pretending to be a mess is the self-deprecating way Schumer's chosen to make her mark, and it's worked like a charm. (Her new movie, Snatched, opens today.) She's also had to deal with a lot of body shaming and other attacks on her appearance, which have no doubt made her stronger and funnier, though it's got to be annoying and something the guys don't have to worry about nearly as much.
Some relatively straightforward female comics are still out there, proving they don't have to use a jagged edge to score laughs. But for the darker ones—who owe a debt to Joan Rivers, not to mention a male pioneer of incorrect comedy, Howard Stern—the key to "getting away with it" is that the top women comics are savvy enough to offset their take-no-prisoners stage personas with unrelenting professionalism. Silverman, Chelsea Handler, and Kathy Griffin are smart and visible, proving to be totally together as they enact the roles of sharp-tongued divas with no control mechanism. Forced to work extra hard in a man's world, these women have had to be zanier to get noticed while maintaining a studious dedication to their career in order to up things a notch.
That also applies to Margaret Cho, who told me the iconoclastic point of view she brings to her commentary on Fashion Police. Cho said her colorfully absurd outfits used to draw criticism, "but I like tasteless, garish stuff. I liked Bjork's swan dress. The crazier, the better." And that makes today's potty-mouthed comedy divas even more interesting—they have an appreciative side, and once in a while, they're even willing to show it.
But I have the ultimate proof that it's women who are the sharp-tongued rulers of comedy these days. A guy named Roy Haylock dresses in drag as Bianca del Rio, spouts hilarious venom, wins RuPaul's Drag Race, and becomes a star!
Splash photo by Johna Salangsang/BFA.com