There is a certain dumb thesis that keeps rearing its cretinous head, even though there’ve never been more funny women working in the entertainment industry. While it’s hard to take the argument even remotely seriously (Tina Fey is funnier than the five funniest men on this planet put together), its persistence does demand a rebuke of sorts, which comedian Bonnie McFarlane provides in debut documentary Women Aren’t Funny.
McFarlane treats the titular insult with the respect it deserves: none at all. She strikes a playfully annoyed tone throughout, and never for a second doubts the worth of her fellow female comedians. Instead she devotes herself to finding the source of the bias and examines the effect of institutional sexism in the entertainment industry. She interviews Opie and Anthony, Artie Lange and the late Patrice O’Neal, who are all too willing to argue how funny women aren’t. (It should be pointed out that O&A make their living being contrary jerks, and O’Neal was known for leveling crowds with shocking opinions he didn’t take seriously; it’s hard to tell to what extent they feel women aren’t funny and to what extent they are goading a colleague. To be fair, O’Neal concedes that Margaret Cho is “one funny bitch.”)
Women explores the relative dearth of headlining female standups, the lack of industry support for women and the difficulties they have booking high-profile late-night spots. She talks with Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes and Chelsea Peretti about the sexism they have dealt with and the stereotype that all female comedians ever do is talk about their periods. (Peretti’s retort is too good to spoil.) Maria Bamford comes off as den mother for embattled female comedians everywhere; one of the film’s funniest running jokes is McFarlane continually asking to be added to Bamford’s website’s “Funny Women” list.
McFarlane is a personable host, and her passion for the community is evident. This sense of purpose makes the haphazard construction of the film easier to forgive. Interesting tangents like the idea that female comedy fans don’t like female performers or the dangers women face on the road are only touched upon briefly before the film moves on to the next topic, and the idea that the industry systematically ignores women isn’t engaged with in enough depth. The problem might be that McFarlane had too much good material. Women screened this weekend at the Athena Film Festival, where McFarlane said she hoped to close a distribution deal soon. Her husband and co-producer, the comedian Rich Vos, mentioned that McFarlane edited from more than 60 hours of footage.
It’s clear she wanted to stuff as many important ideas into her film as possible, even if she didn’t have the room to properly explore every topic raised. But while the results might be unwieldy, it’s hard to hold a grudge against a film so suffused with good cheer and righteous purpose. And whenever the narrative gets wobbly, McFarlane is smart enough to cut to another scene of a smart woman saying something funny, which is always the best counterargument possible.