This Friday, I’m going to see Date Night. Not because I love Romantic Comedies, not because Mark Wahlberg is shirtless, and definitely not because The Office isn’t enough awkward Steve Carell humor for me. I’m going to see Date Night on Friday because I believe in Tina Fey. She makes me laugh, unexpectedly, sheepishly, loudly, thoroughly and consistently. She is, without question, one of the ten best comedians working today. She’s John Belushi doing Joe Cocker. She’s Richard Pryor killing on the mic. She’s Norm MacDonald cracking jokes about O.J. Simpson, Vince Vaughn standing on a diner table and Johnny Carson direct addressing his audience as K-Mart shoppers. I believe in Tina Fey because she makes me laugh, and that’s why, for the first time in my life, I’m going to see a comedy entirely because of its female star.
Date Night doesn’t look great. Outside of its ingenious you stole our reservation? What kind of people do that? line, the trailer is largely forgettable. The set-ups seem a little too forced, some of the comedy seems to be aimed at re-proving how out-of-touch middle-aged white people are, and the premise itself seems a bit hokey. But it’s the new Tina Fey movie, and despite twenty-three years of watching forgettable female fronted comedies, I’m ready to shell out nine dollars and seventy-five cents.
Have you ever heard the word “cooning”? It’s a derogatory term black performers use to describe acting roles which require them to act intentionally black to please a white audience. Well, I don’t know what the female equivalent is, but I’ll call it “estrogening”. Since the days of Mabel Normand, female comediennes have been “estrogening” to please male audiences. And the said thing is, while black performers get laughs “cooning”, cheap as they may be, the “estrogening” of female performers has historically been used to set up laughs for their male costars. Wife freaks out, husband offers advice, wife freaks out even more, husband delivers jazzy one-liner to raucous delight of the audience.
I’ve lived through Roseanne. I’ve lived through Sarah Silverman, Anna Faris, Whoopi Goldberg, Molly Shannon and that sarcastic English bitch from The Weakest Link. I’ve laughed along with Gilda Radner as she pretended to be the prettiest girl in the whole wide world, I’ve rolled my eyes at Janeane Garofalo as she bitched about the injustices of life and I’ve admired Jane Lynch as she ranted on the perils of b.s.ing a b.s.er. Female comediennes, like their male counterparts, run the gamut from genuinely funny (Kathleen Madigan) to decently amusing (Maria Bamford) to brashly awful (Chelsea Handler), but as lead actresses in a comedy, they’ve never produced anything better than above-average.
Comedy is dirty. It’s mean-spirited, rugged, sarcastic, bitter and frequently, loud. It comes at the expense of others, at the expense of one’s own self-esteem, at the expense of maintaining privacy. Comedy is David Letterman admitting he cheated on his wife on national television before the general public found out. It’s Bill Hicks telling adverting executives in the crowd to go kill themselves. It’s brutal honesty all the time. From Will Ferrell intentionally putting on weight to Jeff Bridges fighting off a marmot in the bathtub, comedy is a way of looking at the world. It’s Adam Sandler and his goofy noises, Larry David and his OCD obsessions, Louis CK and his saddest hand job in the world. It’s the thirteen year old kid coughing “fag” after his classmate admits to having read Twilight. It’s the old man snickering at his grandson falling off the trampoline. It’s a specific way of dealing with both the hardships and the happinesses of life, and until Tina Fey, I’d never appreciated a unique comedic female perspective enough to go see a movie because of it.
It’s not that chicks aren’t funny. My girlfriend makes me laugh all the time. She’s clever and just the right level of cynical, but she never lets herself become a sideshow. My male friends and I are a sideshow. We’re shameless. From whipping out our balls to pretending to talk like the deaf, we’ll lower ourselves to outright embarrassment, we’ll stoop to referencing JonBenet Ramsey, sink to making Lindbergh baby jokes, cram in thirty-five chocolate chip cookies at the same time because goddamnit, we’re men and for some reason, we can get away with it. It’s probably because we don’t know any better or at least, have systematically ignored the part of the brain that tells us it’s a bad idea for so long that it no longer bothers fighting. Women know better. They’re sensible and good with details and better about remembering how hard it is to get out grass stains, which is great for real life and awful for comedic lead roles.
This sensibility we expect from women typically forces female comediennes to either ignore the rules and adopt a brash, look-at-me persona or blend into the background to deliver the straight lines. Adopting a brash, look-at-me persona typically involves playing obnoxious, overbearing bi-polar, hyper-feminine women or masculine, unattractive blowhard best friends, the type other women role their eyes at and men are disgusted by. Blending into the background to deliver straight lines typically dooms a performer to any one of the thousands of concerned mother or slightly kooky best friend roles, an easy way to be immediately forgotten.
For the purposes of clarity, let’s go ahead and call these opposites the Isla Fisher and the Jane Curtin. In Wedding Crashers and to a lesser degree Confessions Of A Shopaholic (and maybe Hot Rod?), Isla Fisher plays a spoiled, pretentious, obnoxious, intentionally stupid bimbo exploiting her ample features and all-too-easily-bemused idiocies for the “pleasure” of the audience. Is this role inherently anti-feminist? Probably not. These crazy bitches are out there. We’ve all met ’em; some of us have even dated ’em; a few of you reading this probably are that girl. But that girl is completely unwatchable as a main character. We’ll gladly watch Vince Vaughn lie, cheat, steal and shoot quail as a main character to the tune of two hundred and fifty million dollars, but Isla Fisher playing the spoiled, over-privileged female counterpart doesn‘t translate over the course of a movie. For some reason, women who can’t help themselves because of ridiculous personality disorders just aren’t fun to laugh with, or even at. And then there’s Jane Curtin in I Love You, Man, playing the good-natured mother, throwing out a humorous aside here or there but mostly just observing. A lot of movies need concerned mothers. They need best friends too, but these parts aren’t breakout worthy and they’re not becoming of the talent of an ignorant slut like Jane Curtin. They’re just filler, and movies built primarily on filler are inherently awful.
It’s been a lose-lose proposition for a long time now, but over the last few years, we’ve started to see female performers come into their own in great supporting roles. Look at Wanda Sykes’ scene-stealing turn in Clerks 2 or Jane Lynch going toe-to-toe with Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights. Look at the work of Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey and Catherine O’Hara in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries. These women are a little crazy, sure, but they’re believable and full of enough heart to make the audience care. Judd Apatow has made a living out of glorifying the obnoxious best friends, but behind every you-know-how-I-know-you’re-gay, there’s enough realistic character development and genuine heart to make the audience appreciate the smushmorshan jokes. We’ve finally starting to see that with female characters too, and no one personifies that woman coming into her own more than Tina Fey.
Tina Fey isn’t as dirty as her male counterparts. She’s not as rugged or sarcastic either, but that’s a good thing. Trying to do feminine comedy with a masculine sensibility is a disaster. Just as the Vagina Monologues is never going to be a big hit among the twenty-something frat boy juicer crowd, Roseanne trying to fart louder than the boys is never going to win men (or women) over either. Tina Fey plays her uniquely feminine sense of humor down the middle. She doesn’t apologize for being a woman, but she never masks her femininity either. She’ll joke about periods and bad relationships with men and other more typically girly fodder, but she’s just as willing to laugh about the AIDS epidemic or little kids falling down. Because she’s willing and talented enough to run the entire spectrum with her comedy, most men (including myself) are more willing to laugh with her about problems fundamental to being a female. I can laugh with her about gaining three pounds because I know her next joke is going to be about bacon or Sarah Palin or douche bags at the mall. Tina Fey is funny. She’s the first performer I’ve ever seen “estrogen” and then deliver the jazzy one-liner. She’s savvy like that. She’s willing to exploit the stereotypes when they’re called for (and sometimes they’re not called for), but it’s frequently to set herself or another female performer up later. Watching her play off Amy Poehler on Weekend Update (not Baby Mama) was an absolute joy, and I can’t wait to support her on Friday.
Maybe she’s not a movie star. Maybe she’s a better writer than she is performer. Maybe 30 Rock is only the best show on television because she’s surrounded by Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. It’s possible. But maybe, just maybe, Date Night will prove Tina Fey is an A-list comedienne. Or maybe her next movie will prove that. Or maybe it will inspire a new generation of female comediennes who won’t feel they need to do it like the boys or be hyper-feminine to maintain their Lilith Cards. I haven’t the slightest idea, but for the first time ever, thanks to Jane Lynch, thanks to Wanda Sykes, most of all thanks to Tina Fey, and in honor of so many great female comediennes like Gilda Radner who never truly got a fair shake, I’m excited about where female-driven comedy is headed. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is, the question is whether you’re ready to join me.