Wide Angle

The End of Male Approval in Comedy

Tina Fey and Rachel Bloom are changing the way female comics engage with male gatekeepers.

Tina Fey chatting with David Letterman.
Netflix.

It’s pure coincidence that Rachel Bloom’s interview on Marc Maron’s WTF aired just three days after Tina Fey’s appearance on David Letterman’s new Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, earlier this month. But if you encountered both, you might come away wondering, as I did, whether something major is changing in the way female comics engage with male gatekeepers.

Don’t get me wrong: Bloom and Fey are perfectly pleasant in these interviews; there’s nothing remotely shocking in either appearance (though Nell Scovell does a masterful breakdown of David Letterman’s odd question about women in comedy). But that’s partly the point. Fey and Bloom convey the politeness and self-deprecation of conventional interview guests, but these segments nevertheless at times felt thrillingly blunt.

Real cultural transformation is as laggy as its effects are subtle and hard to name, but the novelty is this: Neither Fey nor Bloom court Letterman’s or Maron’s approval. In fact, Fey repeatedly rejects it. When Letterman raises Fey’s controversial August “sheet-caking” bit and tries to declare it a success, she doesn’t let him, implicitly rejecting the authority he (just as implicitly) claims to pronounce her comedy good or bad. Both women are affable and funny interviewees, but when it comes time to indulge in the tired mutual-approval party these comedy chats so often become, Fey and Bloom refuse to participate. “Well, dig into that. Why?” Bloom replies when Maron says he considers Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a “guilty pleasure.” After describing for him plot points (including a suicide attempt) that Maron knew nothing about, Bloom pleasantly observes that shows written by and starring women tend to be dismissed as fluff—even after Maron, thinking aloud, admits he hadn’t thought the phrase through.

It’s a small thing, but if you know the codes of etiquette these women operate under—and carefully dissect in their comedy—it’s pretty wild. Something major is afoot when not one but two comedians whose material deals with (mostly female) insecurity adeptly confront two of comedy’s biggest, most popular dudes. These female comedians are most definitely not their bumbling and uncertain creations: They’re independent, honest, and confident speakers about the good and bad of their own craft. And they do so in a way that feels not just comfortable but downright friendly.

It’s clear that Letterman brings up Fey’s post-Charlottesville cake-devouring with an eye toward publicly absolving her of a comedic misstep: “I marveled at it for the writing of it and the execution of it, which was not easy. It was no short piece. But I thought, ‘This is perfect,’ ” he says. When Fey starts to demur, Letterman tries again to bless her with his approval: “I’m well-aware that there was some differing views,” he says. “But I just thought, here’s something to let the gas out of a situation that should not have happened. And I thought it was performed beautifully and written beautifully.”

This effort is in one sense typical of Letterman, whose rebrand consists largely of excessive avuncular praise. But it’s doing a couple of other things, too. First, it’s participating in a long-standing comic-on-comic tradition of aggressively bonding the two comics together against the unwashed masses who get offended at jokes. As the comic-on-comic interview has ossified into a genre, this is one of its most predictable beats: the wry moment when the comics sympathize and agree that crowds have gotten hypersensitive and just don’t get what “we” do.

As Letterman attempts to bestow forgiveness on Fey, people in the live audience can be heard clapping. But Fey is not having it. “Thank you kindly,” she says firmly. “Here’s what was wrong with it.”

What Fey is responding to, perhaps more acutely than the audience, is the second function powering Letterman’s remark: Letterman isn’t just presenting his approval of her sketch in the spirit of comedic bonhomie. As one of comedy’s high priests, he’s doing so from a position of superiority. He clearly expects Fey to be moved by his support, but he also seems to believe his opinion carries real authority, and he expects her to consider his approval definitive. She does not.

When Fey’s Bossypants came out, a lot of people thrilled to the story about Amy Poehler snapping at Jimmy Fallon (who said he didn’t find a vulgar joke of hers “cute”) with “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” In this odd little faceoff with Letterman, Fey shows exactly how well she learned that lesson from Poehler. She doesn’t care if Letterman likes it—even if he’s deploying his authority in her defense. And there’s a weird power to that.

The debate Fey and Bloom are having with these men is really about whose opinion counts. When earlier in the interview Letterman seems to be asking for Fey’s absolution for not having more female writers, she doesn’t give it. She goes on to explain why a more diverse staff improved the material at SNL: As the demographics of people present during the table-read changed, so did the balance of material that got laughs.

Bloom touches on this point with Maron when she talks about coming up as the junior and only female writer in several writers’ rooms: The idea of “speaking up” when something was offensive instead of funny was almost unthinkable. Maron asks whether “as a comic” she was actually offended. “Yeah,” Bloom says bluntly (sidestepping the implied opposition between “comic” and “woman”). But she had to pretend not to be.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the traditional “us versus them” rapport of comedians interviewing each other; one of the pleasures of a comedy podcast is the appealing sense that you’re an outsider eavesdropping on a conversation between old pros. But there’s a cost, and it’s most evident when men interview men. Nested in the outpouring of mutual approval is a secret devil’s bargain: No matter what you joke about, I won’t be offended. I get it. We’re cool. It’s a bargain that asks a great deal more of minorities and women than it asks of white men. For women to fully enter into that “we’re cool, right?” agreement requires, in effect, that they be the kind of girl who’s a good sport and takes misogyny in stride.

Neither Fey nor Bloom register the slightest interest in making that trade. They show respect differently: When Bloom asks Maron about why men tend not to hire women, she does it in the spirit of frank exchange that Maron himself embraces.

That might be what’s most remarkable about these interviews: Despite their candor, these female comics aren’t cold or unavailable or uninteresting. They’re almost actively carving out a “third way”: not playing along and not charging toward confrontation. That doesn’t mean they withhold the kinds of intimate disclosures that make conversations like these worthwhile: Fey breaks down talking about her father, and Bloom is frank about her fears of becoming a parent. But both firmly decline to participate in the standard insider dynamic. The takeaway, for those tuning in, is that these conversations aren’t about showcasing the camaraderie of those onstage or behind the mic. Rather than affirm her links to Letterman against an audience that doesn’t “get” her sketch, Fey talks to them—and shows she’s listening, and that her frame of reference is bigger than the usual club of two.

The same can’t be said for Letterman, who tries to approve of Fey yet one more time. “I’ll take another look at it,” he says after her careful, pained account of the problems with the sheet-caking sketch and how she’d do it differently, “but I was watching it and I missed your chunking it. I’m sorry.”

For a split-second the shadow of a “gimme a break” expression crosses Fey’s face, and then it’s gone. “That’s all right,” she says, not missing a beat—and not yielding an inch.