For female comedians, a major career obstacle is the emphasis the entertainment industry places on their looks; too good looking, and nobody will listen to you. Not good looking enough, and you'll never be cast.
Marie Claire has an interesting interview up with several prominent female comedians—everyone from Margaret Cho to Kristen Schaal to Kathy Griffin—who discuss the challenges they face in terms of overcoming appearance-based scrutiny to get people to laugh. "I remember seeing beautiful girls do stand-up, and it was a disaster every time," Margaret Cho admits, "Not only were people not gonna listen to you because you're a woman, if you're good-looking, people really don't want to listen to you."
Yet many actresses have encountered the opposite end of the spectrum: "After Suddenly Susan, I went to every network and said, "What if you put four funny chicks together? Not newcomers, but four women who are proven in television: me, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Cheri Oteri, or Molly Shannon..." And the network people said, "What about Carmen Electra?" Griffin goes on to state that she's "constantly dieting, constantly working out, because unlike Will Ferrell, I'm going to take more hits if I don't at least have a normal figure. I was walking through Central Park yesterday without any makeup, and I come home and I'm on fucking TMZ for being old and ugly."
Joan Rivers, who is not shy about her love of plastic surgery, admits that many comedians start out without movie star looks but take the opportunity to change their appearance, once success kicks in: "Every comedian that does well becomes more attractive. Look at Roseanne, look at Lily, look at Goldie Hawn, whose face is totally different from where it started; Carol Burnett, Kathy Griffin. Nobody wants to be the ugly funny girl."
Yet are looks alone the only factor in deciding who will and won't be successful? Not necessarily. A woman who writes her own material has a better chance of shaping her career, says Kristen Schaal: "The ability to write is really one of the main things that has kept me grounded. If you can write, you have control over your career. If you don't, then you're just waiting for someone to give you a job." Women can also help each other: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler both apparently made a point to create better roles for women during their SNL days. (Though Janeane Garafolo takes a swipe at Casey Wilson by stating, "Unfortunately, what tends to get made are the Bride Wars movies. Even though there might be 50 scripts written by women, the one that's written about a wedding that you can put Kate Hudson in will get made." Ouch.)
When I was in college, I was one of only three women in a popular sketch comedy troupe. I also wrote a decent portion of our live skits, and tried to create roles that went beyond "mom," or "girlfriend." I can't lie and say I didn't find it easier to write for the boys, but I did make an effort to make sure that the women in the troupe had good parts and great lines; it's not a question of whether women can be funny (they are), it's a question of whether anyone will give them the opportunity.
"Look," says Carol Leifer, "it takes a lot of balls to be a comedian." Especially if you're not born with 'em.
We'll Show You Who's Funny [Marie Claire]