Nikki Finke, the secretive and mercurial editor of Deadline Hollywood, usually sticks to reporting the news about casting, box office, or personnel movies in the entertainment industry. But ever so often, as she did while liveblogging the Emmys this weekend, she ventures into criticism. The results are…mixed. Her latest opinion? Beautiful women (and men) can’t possibly be funny. She wrote:
Listen-up, Hollywood: Beautiful actresses are not funny. They don’t know how to do comedy. (As Bowen demonstrated with her acceptance speech that repeated the phrase ‘nipple covers’ 3 dozen times. To zero laughter.) Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups. Bowen isn’t a comedienne just like Brooke Shields wasn’t and a zillion more. Because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you. So stop casting beautiful actresses when you should be giving ugly women a chance. (Tina Fey always points out she looked like a troglodyte when she was younger.) This also applies to handsome men, by the way. Now argue amongst yourselves.
Which, though Finke styles herself a Hollywood feminist, actually sounds a lot like Adam Carolla’s declaration earlier this year that women are, on the aggregate, not as funny as men, and those rare few who he judges to be actually amusing are some kind of Aberration From Nature. They’re both totalizing statements that make the people in question sound parochial. And they’re both based on the idea that there is one essential way to be funny.
This is the problem about almost all of our conversations about comedy: they keep devolving into always and never statements. Rape is inherently funny. Rape is never funny. Men are funnier than women because they’re more willing to go for the gut, because they’re more willing to be gross, because they’re less sensitive, because it’s always funnier to be insensitive, because dominance is funny, because the differences between people are inherent and it’s inherently funny to point them out, because the most important thing humor can do is puncture political correctness. It goes on and on. But these discussions always blow up when someone tries to divine a hierarchy of comedy, a platonic form of it, something that suggests that some kinds of humor are better than others and ends up implying that there’s little or no value to be found beyond a narrow bit of spectrum.
And I also think that these conversations go wrong in part because they come from some places of real anxiety, be they realistic or not. Men like Carolla, who have some of the more marginal jobs available to comedians, start feeling pressure from the success of women. Chris Rock feels that recording at shows and distribution platforms like YouTube have made it nigh-impossible for stand-ups to work out their material in front of crowds in the recognition that it’s flawed and may improve. And…well, I’m not going to even try to speculate about what Nikki Finke’s motivations are, though as Glamour accurately points out, there are basically no women working in television comedy who are not, by any standards, quite pretty. But a point at which people feel that they have something to lose can be a bad basis for important conversations, or for welcoming innovation and innovators rather than pushing them out. And while I don’t have the answers for Chris Rock, I mostly feel bad for anyone who’s shutting themselves off from kinds of funny and different kinds of purveyors of it.