Dear Comedy Lovers,
Sometime around the year 2000, I had a sad epiphany. While talking movies with some friends, I realized there was no female equivalent to the big comedy stars of the day: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, etc. The only counterexample we could think of was Cameron Diaz. But other than There’s Something About Mary, there wasn’t much to base that argument on.
At the time, I had no answer as to why a woman hadn’t broken through with the same success as so many men. But I figured it was only a matter of time. A new century was upon us, after all.
Fast forward to last weekend: another epiphany.
There are currently three sitcoms in my weekly must-watch TV schedule: Girls, Broad City, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Three shows that don’t just feature female leads, but each boast deep rosters of hilarious female characters and creators. And this is on top of other shows chalk full of great female leads like Veep, The Mindy Project, Parks and Rec, and easily a dozen others.
But then I tried to think of equivalent female movie stars. Women who are performing in comedy films with the same success as their small-screen counterparts. Needless to say, I couldn’t.
What gives? Why is it that television has long been, and is now (perhaps more than ever) filled with funny female actors and rich characters, while female film stars are always one-and-done when it comes to big comedy successes?
My first instinct is to blame Kristen Wiig. Who can forget the fervor that surrounded Bridesmaids, and the countless think-pieces that heralded the coming of an exciting new world of female-driven comedies? The film’s wild crossover success (evidenced, for me, by the fact my 81-year-old grandma also loved the film) resulted in a critical and financial bonanza, including two Academy Award nominations (Best Original Screenplay for Wiig and Annie Mumolo, and a Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy). But Wiig seemingly took all that goodwill and burned it with a string of low-energy indie films (Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, Friends With Kids, The Skeleton Twins). Maybe it was a conscious reaction to the pressure, but, so far, it certainly feels like a squandered opportunity.
In the four years since Bridesmaids, I don’t feel like we’re much further ahead. There are exceptions, of course. The Heat made almost as much money as Bridesmaids, and co-starred McCarthy, who has made a valiant effort to be crowned the queen of comedy. Her crude clowning can kick ass, but her big test at solo stardom was Tammy, which failed to generate significant business (or laughs). Her co-star, Sandra Bullock, also bucked the one-off comedy curse (Miss Congeniality’s lackluster sequel, notwithstanding), but no one will ever consider the Academy Award-winner a comedy-first movie star. Same goes for Reese Witherspoon, Barbara Streisand, and Diane Keaton.
Wiig still seems to be the Great White Hope for female comedy superstardom. Her campaign got a serious boost this January when she was announced as one of the leads in the upcoming, all-female Ghostbusters reboot (along with McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones). But any excitement generated by that bold decision was quickly deflated by the seemingly knee-jerk follow-up announcement telling us not to worry because, of course, there will be an all-male Ghostbusters remake as well.
Oh, I’m so relieved.
Who’s to blame here? Is it the writers who can’t generate funny female-driven scripts? Is it the studios? Can they really be that entrenched in sexism when audience demand is so obvious? From Clueless to Mean Girls to Pitch Perfect, people buy tickets when something good is in theaters. And the talent pool for funny female performers has never been deeper: Emma Stone, Aubrey Plaza, Zooey Deschanel, Amy Schumer, Rose Byrne, Kat Dennings—all of them are talented enough toone day wear the crown. Even Rebel Wilson has a shot (even if she's destined to always be the Josh Gad to McCarthy’s Jonah Hill). Then there’s Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Queen Latifa, Leslie Mann, Elizabeth Banks, and Jennifer Aniston, all of whom are proven comedic talents, but seem to have only a fleeting interest at headlining rom-less coms. Or maybe they’ve just never had the right chance?
All I know is that we need more of what we’re seeing on TV every single week. It’s not hard for women to be funny. Or for them to be movie stars. So why can’t they be both?