Rise of the funny women

Rise of the funny women

Women are funny.

But you may not know this if you watched only the big-screen comedies of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow and his merry men.

In those movies, women are desirable, kind, long-suffering, exasperated and/or baffled, but seldom funny.

With the success of the film Bridesmaids (2011) and the Tina Fey-helmed series 30 Rock (2006-2013), this is perhaps as great a time as any to be female and funny. And not just as the requisite half in a romantic comedy.

Women, including Fey, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, are fronting projects on both the big screen and small. And Melissa McCarthy is the headlining star as the down-but-not-out Tammy. The road-trip comedy of the same name opens in cinemas tomorrow.

It is no coincidence that McCarthy, 43, was part of the breakthrough female-centric comedy Bridesmaids. The film was made for US$32.5 million and went on to take in US$288.4 million at the global box office.

She played the raunchy member of the bridal party in a film remembered for the extreme scatological consequences of food poisoning. It proved that women could get down and, er, dirty when it came to comedy - and that audiences would pay to watch.

McCarthy has since cleverly parlayed that success into a series of comedic hits. She shared top billing with Jason Bateman on Identity Thief (2013), which earned US$173.9 million (S$216.8 million). And then followed that up with buddy-cop flick The Heat, which also starred Sandra Bullock. That made US$229.9 million.

In an October 2013 BuzzFeed post on the top comedy box-office draws in Hollywood since 2002, McCarthy came in at No. 3 with an average opening weekend gross of US$36.8 million. The only other woman in the top 20 of the list, which Zach Galifianakis from The Hangover movies topped, was Jennifer Aniston at No. 17.

Although the list focused on actors whose forte was comedy - and hence did not include those with a more diverse body of work, including Bullock and Cameron Diaz (There's Something About Mary, 1998, and The Other Woman, 2014) - it only underscores how much of a boy's club big-screen comedy remains.

In comparison, the small screen has been more fertile ground for funny, even subversively so, women.

There have, of course, always been notable women in comedy on TV, from Lucille Ball in the 1950s and 1960s to the central foursome in the groundbreaking Sex And The City (1998-2004).

But Fey, 44, paved the way for what Forbes called "other superhero creator-producer-writer-lead actor types" such as Dunham in Girls and Kaling in The Mindy Project.

Fey created and executive-produced 30 Rock, and had writing credits on all 139 episodes. She also starred as Liz Lemon, described as "New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and- pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed" in the pilot episode.

While ratings were ho-hum, the show was a critical hit and racked up a number of accolades and awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series from 2007 to 2009.

By wearing multiple hats, women get to flex their creative muscles and create more and better roles for themselves as well. And even make a statement or two in the process.

Dunham's Girls is about a group of 20somethings living in New York City. It has been criticised for its copious amounts of nudity, particularly of the ordinary-looking Dunham, 28, but it can also be seen as a rebellion against the unrealistic images of female beauty that people are inundated with.

Also rocking the boat in her own way is Kaling, 35, the first South Asian-American to headline a network show. Perhaps the most subversive thing going on here is that, in the show so far, Mindy has dated only white men, completely normalising - or ignoring - her ethnicity.

The show has drawn flak for that decision but Kaling told Entertainment Weekly: "Do people really wonder on other shows if female leads are dating multicultural people? Like I owe it to every race and minority and beleaguered person. I have to become the United Nations of shows?"

What is less contentious is the fact that women in comedy are gaining power and becoming more visible. And that is happening on the big screen too.

Apart from McCarthy, there are several others working on upcoming projects.

Bridesmaids star and co-writer Wiig, 40, is producing and starring in Welcome To Me, about a woman who wins the lottery and spends the cash on her own talk show. Fey is producing and starring in The Nest, about two estranged sisters who throw a last party at their house before it is sold, alongside Poehler, 42.

With office sitcom Parks And Recreation winding up next year after seven seasons, Poehler is gearing up to cross over to films. Apart from The Nest, she also did They Came Together (2014), a parody of romantic comedies, with Apatow clan member Paul Rudd.

For now, McCarthy is the undisputed champ with both movie hits and the ongoing TV series Mike & Molly, about a couple who first meet in an Overeaters Anonymous group. Not bad for an actress who had to squat over a sink and let it go in Bridesmaids.

In time to come, Dunham and Kaling may well tickle your funny bone at the movies and the queen of comedy will be a title up for grabs. And the thought of more works from funny and talented women is enough to put a smile on anyone's face.

This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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