Smart Female Characters in Comedy

I mentioned a few months back that I was planning to take a comedy sketch-writing intensive at the PIT Theater. And I did. And I LOVED it — loved it like, I felt like the heavens opened up and were like, “DO MORE OF THIS, AMANDA.” Which is similar to how I felt the first time I ever did improv. The heavens seem to like it when I pursue comedy.

Anyway, I’m continuing to study sketch — I start a class with Armando Diaz at the Magnet Theater next week — and in the meantime, I’ve been mulling other kinds of comedy writing I might want to try. Writing for The Onion? McSweeneys? Dare I consider…. writing for TV?

My dream would be to get to write for Parks and Recreation. Amy Poehler is my hero. First of all, she’s an amazing improviser, and no matter how famous she gets, watching her improvise, it’s not all about her. She takes care of herself, sure, as any good improviser should, but she’s a very supportive player, too… she makes other people look good. This translates to her work on Parks and Rec. The show is ostensibly about her character, Leslie Knope, but look at how much that entire cast of characters shines. She strengthens herself by surrounding herself with other awesome performers.

The other reason I love that show is that it has heart. I read an interview with Amy Poehler in that bastion of entertainment reporting, Amtrak magazine, and she talked about how at the kernel of the show was a genuine interest in exploring the idea of whether government can work. Obviously, they don’t hit you over the head with that idea, but it’s there; the show is ABOUT something. And 90% of the time, the humor isn’t mean-spirited… they aren’t getting laughs by cutting people down (except for that one poor character, Jerry).

I’m not saying comedy has to be nice, just that I find such positive humor to be tremendously refreshing, especially when it’s anchored in an interesting subject that doesn’t get explored much in popular entertainment (government).

Most of all, I think what I appreciate about Parks and Rec is that Leslie is a strong woman with integrity. Sure, she has her foibles, but she is never portrayed as a moron. When she messes up, she’s a smart woman messing up, not a ditz.

I think of all of this in direct contrast to 30 Rock. I adore Tina Fey — her book, Bossypants, made me literally guffaw (I woke Jordan up with my laughter) — but I remember the first time I watched 30 Rock, I was so disappointed. Why was Liz Lemon so… dumb? The reason we all liked Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live was that she played it smart. So why wasn’t she playing to the top of her intelligence on her own show?

Leslie Knope wants to govern well. Liz Lemon wants a donut.

As I think about writing for television, I find myself assuming that anything I write would have a female lead. I don’t consider myself a feminist, but as a female writer/performer, I just can’t see creating yet another comedy about a man. Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill seem to have quite enough work, thank you very much, and there’s still so much unexplored potential for telling women’s stories in funny ways — especially, smart women’s stories.

As a bit of research, I rented The New Adventures of Old Christine via Netflix. I don’t watch many sit-coms with laugh tracks — they just aren’t my style — and this didn’t seem like my kind of show, but I adore Julia Louis-Dreyfus from her Seinfeld days (next time you watch a re-run of that show, pay attention to how much of Elaine is her characterization, versus the lines on the page… she’s a genius). And I knew the show had won some Emmys, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Last night, I settled in on the couch and watched the first disc of season one.

What a disappointment! JLD completely overacts, and her character is a tremendous ditz. It was heartbreaking to watch. Why couldn’t Christine be smart??

My life is filled with smart, funny women. Why can’t I find more characters like them on TV and in the movies??

It’s enough to make me want to do something about it.

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5 thoughts on “Smart Female Characters in Comedy

  1. You're talking about the actors and their characters as though they are the same person – which is confusing to me, and the last time I checked Jonah Hill and Seth Rogan did not write for TV. Though Jason Segal does – so maybe him?I think Liz Lemon is actually really smart – the pitfalls she stumbles through on the show seem to have more to do with running the chaos of TGS and the chaos of her personal life. The contrast between managing the show and her personal life is whats funny. If her personal life was tackled with more common sense then she would just be Jack.I think Leslie on Parks and Rec is very different – I am not so sure I would say smart is her thing. I think its that she has a lot of faith in others and believes in what she does – to the point that she gets into some funny situations.I love JLD on Seinfeld but lets be honest – her character is as shallow as Jerry, George, and Kramer. I am not sure I would even call Elaine smart – she's smart enough to have a good job, and manipulate others, but is she smart enough to fill in for J Petermen?I really like JLD on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Playing herself and not herself was really fun to watch. I think TV is filled with many strong female leads – but I cannot think of that many comedies – mostly serious dramas and action shows. I think a lot of it has to do with the subject matter itself – single women struggling with professional and personal life is funny to a lot of people. Its also identifiable for both men and women. I think Elizabeth Banks on 30 Rock, and her role on Scrubs were solid. As were the female characters on Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks (Apatow interestingly).

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  2. Rugg, you're right, I am conflating the actor and the role, to some extent. Probably because, given how celebrity works in our culture, actors = personas to some extent, which = characters…. You're right that Elaine and Leslie aren't "smart" over and above other traits (they certainly aren't meant to be taken as intellectuals, or geniuses), but there is something about those characters (in contrast to Liz Lemon and Old Christine) that make me feel like the actors are playing to the top of their intelligence. I don't feel like they're selling themselves out. Whereas Liz Lemon…. she is so bumbling, and inept, it bugs me. I don't feel like we ever get to see her being good at something. I love her chemistry with Jack and the show is funny in a lot of ways, but I have this nagging feeling whenever I watch of, "c'mon, Tina Fey, why are you selling yourself out? Why don't you trust that we'd like to watch you being competent?" I felt the same way watching the first handful of episodes of "Old Christine." Like, I know the actress is capable of playing a far more competent woman. I know, Elaine was superficial, but the performance didn't feel designed to charm us into liking the character for being incompetent or dumb. Does that make sense??

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  3. Fair warning – TV and movies are something I can talk about endlessly…It makes sense – you want to see these characters progress in some direction. You also want to see the actors in roles that challenge themselves and the viewers. That is very rare on tv and even more rare on a comedy, let alone one that features a strong female lead. Not many networks put out shows like that and when they do it seems almost accidental. I doubt anyone thought Community would be as strong a show as it is, or that it would go in the directions it does. Other than the random ensemble sitcom the only networks putting shows like that out there are premium cable stations like HBO and FX.I think Liz's character is exactly where she wants to be – TGS is her life and her family. Another aspect is that this is a sitcom – like Modern Family and other shows the writers have no intention to take us in some unexpected direction (maybe every once and a while only to circle back to where we were). Its the trap of the network sitcom. I think if you want to see Tina Fey in something more substantial its going to be another show. I don't think there is anything wrong with JLD or Fey doing the sitcom thing – aging actors, especially females, don't get as many opportunities. I say they run their sitcoms into the ground and hope something more exciting will come along later.Are you caught up on Parks and Rec? I think the upcoming season will take Leslie in a new direction, but probably drop her back in the same place by the end. Are you watching Community? While its not a show with strong female in the lead Allison Brie is pretty solid and her character is crazy funny. That show is unpredictable and willing to go in almost any direction. Also check out Party Down on Netflix watch instantly, again the women arent the stars but are part of a strong ensemble cast.I think as shows like Louis and Community continue to grow and get a stronger audience networks will start to take more chances and give the stars more freedom. The old days of people like Pryor, Murphy, and Carlin – the types that do not care and have the courage to go anywhere are pretty much a thing of the past. Sure Louis C.K. seems like the type who would rather fail doing his thing than become another bumbling insecure funny man like Kevin James, but most will do their sitcoms and bit parts in exchange for some freedom down the road.Years ago I read a great article in Sport Illustrated that talked about steroid use in football and basically said the fans had to shoulder the blame – no one questioned 300 pound line men that had the agility of a track star or the fact that in a short time period the average weight of players shot through the roof. I think the state of TV sitcoms and comedy falls into a similar situation – at some point Richard Pryor's assault on race became white people cannot dance – its funny. George Carlin's comedy about excess and a lack of common sense turned into stupid observations by Dane Cook and Jerry Seinfeld. Make them laugh – don't make them think. I think a big part of the problem is us – time is a huge commodity these days. After cranking out a ton of work are you going to sit down to 30 minutes of Louis, where the laugh doesn't come until the end (or not at all) or 30 minutes of Modern Family, where you know you'll laugh IM a couple of jokes to a friend the next day and forget?I guess my point is there really are not a lot of strong comic roles with male or female leads that also challenge the cast and the viewer. This is a problem with TV (and film) in general – not just comedies. Networks and writers have broken everything down to the basic elements and made it easy to digest. Viewers fall right in line. I read an awesome review of a show I used to watch called Criminal Minds – the show used to be a procedural about serial murders. The author pointed out how the show was no longer about solving crimes and instead centered on the act – the hideous murder. The show opened with the crime and showed the criminal – the rest followed the investigators combing through the details. Sitcoms are in a similar situation – Louis having to kiss a crazy hillbilly cop will never appeal to as many people as Kevin James getting kicked in the nuts, the writers know it and they use it.

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  4. Dude, you know your TV! I think you're right, there are a lot of dumb characters in popular entertainment, period… not just women, not just sit-coms. It's interesting to watch a show like Louie take the kinds of risks it does — personally I wish it were funnier so it could prove that playing smart doesn't need to mean sacrificing laughs, but it's still interesting to watch. Curb Your Enthusiasm is awesome but I'm also tired of comedy shows about comedians' lives… come on, guys! There's a world of material out there! Anyway, fun "chatting" with you about this 🙂

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