By Cary Chapman
How do female comedians present themselves in stand up and in interviews? Are these self-representations consistent or otherwise? Here’s what I’ve found:
Famous for her promiscuous, ignorant-white-girl caricatures of herself, Amy Schumer’s stand up is full of raunchy humor poking fun at her own sexual and physical failures. In one Comedy Central stand up video, she says, “I mean I thought the freshman fifteen was how many guys you were supposed to sleep with […] Gained it!” This murky and rather uncomfortable convergence between sexual behavior and body weight is particularly “Schumerian.” These half easy, almost slapstick sexual humor and half brutal honesty about female shame, jokes carry over into Schumer’s interviews. In a conversation with Ellen DeGeneres in 2015, Schumer says, “I mean, I don’t fit in [LA], just straight up body type, like in LA my arms register as legs… like why is that octopus on Sunset?” The sadly relatable sense of repulsion towards oneself as something less than a real woman is a major part of Schumer’s comedic persona, and she performs that version of herself even when she’s ostensibly operating as a person in conversation with a peer rather than an entertainer putting on a show. The latter state seems to be the comfortable default, at least in public settings, for Amy Schumer.
Ali Wong (Spoiler alert)
Ali Wong’s Netflix stand up special, “Baby Cobra,” filmed during the eighth month of her pregnancy, takes the audience through her relationship with her husband. “The first thing I learned about [my husband] was at the time, he was attending Harvard Business School. And I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna trap his ass.’” She paints herself as the ultimate cynic who gets into a relationship for selfish financial gain, ironically lamenting feminism for forcing her to “lean in” rather than “lie down.” But by the end, Wong discovers that her “beautiful, Harvard educated husband was $70,000 in debt. And me, with my hard earned TV money, paid it all off. So as it turns out, he’s the one who trapped me […] now if I don’t work, we die! Why else do you think I’m performing seven and a half months pregnant?” It’s a brilliantly sentimental, sweetly choreographic twist to an otherwise resolutely unromantic ride. In a 2016 podcast interview with Marc Maron, Wong talks in a halting and unrehearsed manner about her creative process, saying, “It’s very, I mean, I don’t, I mean, a lot of people I think have intentions about the kind of comic they want to be, and I, it’s so hard to just be funny. And that’s all I ever wanted to be, and even now it’s like what is going to make them laugh and what’s going to make me laugh? That’s the goal.” While the stand up comedian Ali Wong is shrewd, jaded, and manipulative, the interviewee Ali Wong is just a person talking about her goals. There’s no cynicism or affected cynicism, there’s no concerted attempt to be funny in the interview itself. In fact, Wong admits that for her, humor does require that concerted effort. Being funny is a performance, and she seems less willing than, say, Amy Schumer, to perform on multiple platforms.
Titled “One of the Greats,” Chelsea Peretti’s stand up special on Netflix makes fun of her insecurities by describing the work of a caricature artist online who exaggerated the size of her nose. The thing about being a comic is that by making fun of yourself, you expect to be able to control your own caricature. Seeing a stranger’s unflattering portrait of you can’t be fun in any circumstance, but I can imagine how especially frustrating it must be to receive that kind of put-down when your profession is already self-ridicule. Peretti is aware of this difficult and unique negotiation between respecting oneself, exploiting that self for comedic effect, and having others exploit you too. “One of the Greats” question the entire project of performing humor for an audience with various shots of the crowd, including actual dogs and a man who shouts that notorious double-edged compliment, “You’re my favorite female comedian!” Several times throughout the show, a version of Chelsea herself dressed as a clown or a child whispers to the performer that she doesn’t have to bare her emotional life to the public eye. Throughout the special, Peretti is wry, trolling, and cynical, exhibiting a dryness that translates from her stand up into her interviews. Sometimes, Peretti’s jaded boundary testing comes back to bite her, as in 2015 when she admitted to Conan O’Brien that she and her friends tweeted ironically at Donald Trump telling him he should run for president just to get him to retweet them (which he did). As she well knows, a Trump presidency went from a laughable absurdity to a frightening possibility partially due to the complacency of people whom, like her, sat in front of their screens with a figurative tub of popcorn, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the political theater. “At the end of the day,” Peretti says, “I am rooting for him because I hate women.”
Each of these women has done some image controlling—some aspects of our personalities are inherently funnier than others and therefore make for better comedy. Amy Schumer and Chelsea Peretti tend to present relatively consistent “selves” to stand up and interview audiences alike, while Ali Wong leans more towards a separation between her “on” (consciously funny—stand up) and “off” (looser, more candid—interview) personalities. This is about branding: does the woman want to present a unified, single self with a few dominant and exaggerated traits, or a more multifaceted one that aligns more closely with her private life? It’s about the business of humor: in what settings is it important for a female comedian to be funny? And, of course, it’s about personhood: how much of one’s true self is it emotionally bearable to expose? There’s an expression: “it’s funny because it’s true.” But the truths that we as audience members laugh at rarely illuminate the whole truth, but rather a constructed version of it.
Cary Chapman is a contributor for Barnard Bite.