Yesterday Forbes released its annual list of the top-earning comedians, and it's a fucking sausagefest consisting of 9 men and 0 women and 1 Daniel Tosh, who technically counts as two men due to his supercock. What gives? Where are all the wit women at?
We've talked a lot on this site about the world of comedy, and what it's like to be a lady comedy nerd, and what it's like to date comedians, and how sometimes comedy is hostile to women (Knock knock! Who's there? Rape! Rape who? Nothing, just rape! Just a rainbow of rape!;etc). But I'm not here to whack that hornets' nest.
Nor am I here to offer comforting You Go, Girl! platitudes to make us all feel like we're Accomplishing Something. I'm not going to tell you that in the future, the list will be 51% women — it won't be. But it also could not be less relevant to the current state of comedy.
I ignored the number one rule of feeling good about humanity and read the comments on an internet article about gender — don't worry, it won't happen again — and, predictably, the usual jagoff line was being tossed around in response to the list. It's all men because women aren't funny! (Cool, original thought, dude. Chris Hitchens is going to rise from the dead and be your BFF now and you two are going to go out for frozen yogurt and everyone on Reddit will be sOoOoO jealous.) Some bullshit about how "female humor" is all about how terrible men are and it hurts people's feelings. You know. The sort of typical jackassery that would get a person booed off stage.
Forbes' Nolan Feeny makes a noble attempt to explain why the current state of comedy doesn't involve more women making bank — there aren't enough women doing comedy, stand up is hard, male comedy audiences don't like female comedians, etc. But that doesn't paint the entire picture; it's not even addressing the right canvas. The Forbes' list isn't a brofest because men 100% dominate the top echelons of comedy; it's mostly bereft of women because the list employs an outdated definition of what comedy is and who is earning money from it that is always going to skew male. The game is rigged.
Here's what Forbes thinks a "comedian" is,
In order for comics to make the cut for our list, their primary source of income had to come from concert ticket sales.
Okay, guys? That's a super weird definition of what constitutes a comedian, and it's inconsistently, bizarrely narrow when compared to other Forbes lists.
When Forbes calculates the net worth of celebrities with other specialties besides comedy, they don't specify that most of their fortune has to come from touring, or even from doing, uh, the very thing they're being recognized for; in fact, the top earner on last year's list of highest earning hip hop artists is Dr. Dre, who made almost all of his money off sales of Beats By Dre headphones — not album sales, not performing live, not even writing songs and licensing them to other artists for performance. Dude doesn't even have an album out.
So why does "comedy" have such a limiting definition that it excludes the likes of Ellen Degeneres (last year's earnings of $53 million would have placed her atop the list, if only she were a Forbes-seal-of-approval "comedian") and Sofia Vergara (who earns her massive $21 million paycheck playing a comedic role on one of the most beloved shows currently on TV) and Tina Fey (in 2011, Fey earned $13 million and continues to rake in cash)? Chelsea Handler, whose $12 million in earnings last year would have put her at number 8 on the list, is not a comedian by Forbes' definition. Neither is Amy Poehler, who is on the Forbes Celebrity 100 thanks to a ginormous book deal and continued success as an actress and TV writer, but who still isn't a "comedian."
If Forbes wanted to quantify success in "comedy," then their definition of what constitutes "comedy" should include the broad focus that comedians themselves would pursue to their own careers — books, films, TV, album or MP3 sales, and income earned from live performance. Anecdotally, I can't think of one comedian I've worked with or socialized with during my time writing for a comedic TV show (or frequenting live comedy shows full of up-and-comers with BIG DREAMS and TINY APARTMENTS) whose career goal is to be on the road touring and selling tickets as much as possible. I'm sure that's a thing that some comics want; it just doesn't seem like a goal for most young comics as much a means to an end. Being a touring jester is lonely at best and disgusting at worst. Why would anyone want that? Free Holiday Inn branded tiny shampoo bottles?
Actually, if you take a look at who is on the list — two dudes from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (the Monty Python of truck nuts), the aforementioned Mr. Tosh, two SEPARATE men who employ the use of sassy ventriloquist puppets in their acts, and Russell Peters, who Forbes describes as a Canadian who "relies on South Asian cultural stereotypes" and is HUGE in India— you'll notice that there's a lot of outreach directed toward the ever-lucrative lowest common denominator. I'm not saying that all of these comics are hacks by virtue of their success, or that they don't work hard; just that concluding, based on a list of top earners, that men are funnier than women is like concluding, based on food consumption, that marshmallow fluff is a better dessert than creme brûlée, or that bologna is tastier than pheasant. And, to be frank, some of this stuff is probably commercially successful because it's the type of comedy drunken casino attendees want to see after losing their car at the craps table.
But Forbes isn't to blame for the terrible taste of the general public. What they are to blame for is applying a metric to measure success in comedy that is unnecessarily narrow and exclusive and reflects only part of the picture of what "comedy" looks like. If Dr. Dre doesn't have to record an album or perform a concert to be consider a real "hip hop artist," then why does Mindy Kaling need to hold a mic in front of a brick wall to be a real "comedian"?