The onstage Phyllis Diller fans came to love in the 1960s wasn't just laughably unfortunate-looking, though--lest we forget, she was also lazy, rampantly irresponsible, clumsy, and as hopeless in the bedroom as she was in the kitchen. Diller told audiences she hated office Christmas parties because it was such a bother to look for a new job the next day; she professed to love going to the doctor because, as she put it, "Where else would a man look at me and say, 'Take off your clothes'?"
But Diller, who was married three times and had five kids, clearly wasn't quite as much of a slouch in the love and relationships department as she made herself out to be. She also held a degree from Bluffton College, and she worked steadily and successfully from the time she was 35 until as recently as August of last year, when she appeared on her friend (and disciple) Roseanne Barr's reality show.
Fey, similarly, is married with two daughters; she's the face of Garnier hair color treatments, and lives in a posh apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But many of the running gags on 30 Rock revolve around Liz Lemon's sloppiness and chronic singledom. So why are we laughing at Diller and Fey for their shabbiness, their sofa dependence, and their chronically sad love lives? Why do these well-loved, impressively accomplished women invent incompetence to fuel their comedy?
Barreca, a humorist herself, puts it simply. "Women lead with their vulnerabilities," she says. "This is how we get men and other women to like us."
Humor, Barreca explains, is in itself an act of power and aggression; audiences are known to be intimidated by comedians, especially at live venues. (That's why nobody sits in the front row, she says.) "When women in are in comedy, there still needs to be a certain mitigating factor for the ferocity that goes with any kind of effective humor," Barreca says. "So if we show someone our neck, rather than our squared shoulders, we'll be more appreciated--and they'll permit us into their company."
Robert Lynch, a cultural anthropologist from Rutgers University and a part-time stand-up, agrees: "Maybe women have to go overboard with the self-deprecation because comedy can be an alpha thing," he says--the alpha being the class clown, the attention-grabber, the presence dominating the room. "Women alphas in general tend to be disliked. They can sometimes be distrusted, I think. And they're not sought after."
This, however, may be the money quote:
Lynch says. "A big part of humor is rearranging hierarchies, and putting other people down." So comics of both genders, he says, often self-deprecate early in the routine to, one could say, come down to the audience's level.
If someone were looking for a reason why a great pastor should not also be a gifted comedian/ienne this might be a reason. It may be that centuries of pious Christians who seemed to lack a sense of humor did not truly lack a sense of humor, they might just have had too acute an awareness of what humor entails to see it as necessarily befitting truly Christian humility. ;-)