Television

Why Does Every Fictional Female Comedian Get the Exact Same Advice?

Whether you’re a veteran headliner or a struggling stand-up, there’s only one path to success.

Triptych of the three women smiling and dressed up as their characters
Emma Thompson in Late Night, Jean Smart in Hacks, Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios and HBO Max.

There are enough shows and movies about female comics at this point—Late Night, Hacks, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—that a formula of sorts is becoming apparent. The consensus is that what a fictional female comic needs, almost without exception, is to get more “real”: more autobiographical, more vulnerable, more spontaneous. She should tell painful truths in a funny way, ideally processing her feelings in real time. To do otherwise—to lean on jokes alone, or rely overmuch on a “perfect 10,” or accept that an act is just a rehearsed performance—is to go stale. Get hacky.

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Take Hacks. Jean Smart plays Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers–like figure—workmanlike, proficient, an absolute joke machine—whose problem is that she’s stopped evolving, gotten too comfortable, and is in danger of being replaced as a headliner at the Las Vegas casino where she’s worked for decades. Her opposite, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), is a rising young comedy writer who got canceled for being too spontaneous on Twitter. When her recklessness makes her unhireable, she goes to Las Vegas to write jokes for Deborah. The result is an interesting two-hander that revolves around their respective theories of comedy: Ava encourages Deborah—who has turned her brand into a moneymaking juggernaut and says no to nothing—to get more autobiographical, more personal. And so Deborah does. By the end of the season she’s doing something like a one-woman act. And bombing. And loving it.

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What’s weird is that Ava isn’t particularly funny. It would be one thing if she had a novel approach to comedy or a solution to the problem of stand-up that didn’t rely so straightforwardly on setups and punchlines. But she doesn’t. Save for the initial insult exchange with Deborah wherein she gives as good as she gets, Ava seems average and depressed. She mopes. She’s kind of fun to watch as she flails around Las Vegas, but it’s not her framing of things that makes you laugh. We certainly don’t get much insight into her creative process or see her transforming her experiences into comedy. But she does share a lot about her life in an unfiltered and not especially shaped way, and that’s the younger, hipper definition of comedy that will save Deborah from obsolescence. Once Deborah is persuaded to try Ava’s approach—and take offense at misogynistic comments she used to let roll off her back—she’s interesting to watch in the way that angry, unfiltered people always are. She becomes more spontaneous, reactive, autobiographical. But while it’s an interesting shift, is this better comedy? I’m not convinced that it is, but the theory that this is the direction authentic female comics should take only seems to be getting stronger.

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This isn’t exactly new. Back in 2019, Emma Thompson’s character Katherine Newbury in the movie Late Night, a late-night talk show host with dwindling ratings, is diagnosed as being (besides a woman-hater and a toxic boss) snobby, intellectual, and staid. But her real flaw—the thing she finally develops the courage to overcome with help from her newest writer, an upstart named Molly Patel played by Mindy Kaling, who wrote the script—is a refusal to share her true self: her beliefs, her passions, her challenges, her flaws. Katherine, you see, is afraid of self-disclosure. “Be careful of showing who you are. Once you turn that switch on, you can never turn it off again,” a lackey warns her right before she’s about to break with her tradition of impersonal jokes in order to tell an (extremely average) joke about Planned Parenthood that admits she’s going through menopause. The joke’s quality matters less than its narrative weight: It was written by Molly and coded as a dangerous step toward reckless vulnerability that might make or break Newbury’s flagging career. Katherine chickens out. Skips the joke.

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The movie’s thesis comes back in spades on both Hacks and Maisel: “I find that the best comedy comes from truth,” a social media starlet tells Katherine. But while she starts off as a punchline, her position gets validated as the movie’s “good comedy” comes from women who speak spontaneously and from the heart. When Katherine fires Molly, she does a stand-up set that opens by recognizing that she’s reeling from the incident: “My day sucked. I was fired from my job. No, yeah. Really, really, like 15 minutes ago. I was actually fired for coming here to be with you guys. … I got fired, and, um, I didn’t think that was possible. I mean, look at me, guys. Look. I am a dark-skinned Indian woman. Aren’t I unfireable? I mean, I’m a token.”

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Katherine, by way of apology, asks to follow Molly’s act. After a weak bit on how much she hates the way social media has cheapened the word fave, she turns to talking about her actual life: “Well, shit, guys. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I guess that’s why they’re taking my show away from me,” she begins. This is her breakthrough: Katherine eventually works her way toward making a joke out of her circumstances that touches on ageism in Hollywood. But the lesson is clear: She spoke from the heart and without rehearsing, and in so doing, she found her way to something vital and authentic that the film codes as “good” comedy—unlike the stuff she’d been doing for three decades on TV.

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Why does the authenticity fetish keep cropping up as a story solution for comedians—in specific opposition to an “act” that’s been polished and rehearsed? This isn’t limited to fictional women, by the way. Pete Holmes’ character in Crashing goes through a minor version of this when he’s struggling to be a Christian comedian and chafing under the constraints (and again when he opens for John Mulaney, who forbids him from using anything from his act—desperate for material, Holmes narrates his backstage interaction with Mulaney and kills). Even nonbinary characters like And Just Like That’s Che Diaz are afflicted by this consensus that talking about oneself is the same as being funny. Because Che’s “comedy concert” was more a TED Talk than anything, I thought at first that the trend was finally being ironized. Che’s cruel decision to inform Miranda of a major life change from the stage instead of having a real conversation with her seemed clearly awful; it certainly didn’t match their onstage nostrums about radical honest living. But by the time the show ended, it was clear that any satire was accidental.

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I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, by the fourth season finale of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. For most of the season’s run, I thought it was doing more of the same. In fact, the “authenticity” plot seemed even more strained. In Season 3, you’ll recall, Midge had basically made it as a professional comic: On tour with Shy Baldwin, she’d worked out and refined a set. During a performance at the Apollo, though, she made a mistake: She joked, in a semi-veiled and totally spontaneous way, about Baldwin’s (deeply hidden) homosexuality. It got her fired from the tour. It was catastrophic, and Midge pays dearly for her recklessness in the fourth season. But rather than reflect on how to make amends for outing someone whose friendship (and professional help) she valued, Midge announces, fairly early in the season, that she’s figured out her problem: She’s gotten too polished. Too filtered. Too written. She thinks she’s at her best when she’s riffing without that perfect 10, so she announces to Susie, her manager, that she only wants to do that from now on—the thing that cost her a career.

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It’s a deeply bizarre misdiagnosis. Confessional comedy is how she got started, after all, and one can understand why she’d want to stick to that: her spontaneous, unfiltered, abject rant about her divorce is what launched her, and her quick-witted self-disclosures were meant to be refreshing and brilliant (compared with the hacky stylings of the older female comedian in the show, a catchphrase machine played by Jane Lynch, whose boorish lower-class stage persona couldn’t clash more with her private aristocratic self).

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One hoped, however—despite Maisel’s tendency to find Midge charming even at her worst—that the show understood what Midge didn’t: that shooting from the hip can become a shtick too. So can deciding that you’ll only ever perform on your own terms.

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To its credit, the series eventually got there. At first the show seemed to be endorsing the confessional formula: Lynch’s Sophie Lennon rehabilitates her image by going on a late-night show and speaking frankly for the first time about her problems with addiction, mental illness, etc. She’s utterly compelling when not hamming it up as “Sophie From Queens.” She says she wants audiences to get to know the real her, and it works beautifully: She gets her own game show.

As for Midge, her new uncompromising stance, which includes saying exactly what she wants to and not opening for anyone, lands her work telling jokes at an illegal strip joint. It’s hard to gauge whether this is supposed to be better comedy than with Shy Baldwin, since Midge didn’t seem to be self-censoring much when she worked with Shy. But the authenticity fetish pops up frequently: One of her longer and more moving monologues at the strip club is about her father-in-law, Moishe, who’s hospitalized. The stuff she says is real and raw … but it definitely isn’t funny.

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Oh, well, I thought to myself when Lenny Bruce praised her backstage for that act, I guess the show thinks this is what she ought to be doing. Midge no longer listens to Susie, so Lenny is the only authority on comedy—specifically, what works and what doesn’t.

It’s extremely refreshing, therefore, that Midge, a character whose quippy, fast-talking competence hasn’t changed much since the pilot, finally grows a tad. She gets an opportunity to apologize to Shy for what she did to him and does so—correctly spelling out exactly what she did wrong and why. (She behaves horribly to the waitstaff at his wedding, so this is a much-needed moment of at least partial redemption.) And it’s particularly gratifying when Lenny Bruce lambastes her for the decisions she’s been making in the finale. After Midge turns down a gig opening for Tony Bennett that Lenny arranged for her (because she “won’t do” opening acts), he drags her onto the stage at Carnegie Hall and grills her over what she’s doing. It’s a great scene, the kind Amy Sherman-Palladino excels at: long, layered, full of surprising twists and competing motivations. But the upshot is that Lenny knocks Midge, hard, for her weird plan even as it reveals why she made it: She thought that by being messy, she was emulating Lenny himself. “The trick is to get good and get paid,” he says, in disbelief at how precious she’s been about turning down gigs. “You never compromise,” Midge says, aghast herself at his position. “Why is it wrong for me to want to do the very same thing?” “Jesus Christ, Midge, what a fucking pedestal you put me on,” he says, articulating a theory of comedy that seems humbler and funnier than the authenticity fetish that’s taken over our screens. “I’m a comic. An entertainer. Baggy pants. Banana peels. I’m not a stand-up messiah.” He describes what you might call his authenticity—the impulsivity that gets him arrested and locked up—as almost a curse that keeps him from success. What he wants is to make people laugh.

I don’t know if Lenny Bruce’s position is 100 percent correct. But it feels right as an overdue counterweight to the prevailing theory of comedy in these fictional shows, which seems to confuse being funny—that is, performative, people-pleasing, a constant and restless observer of reality accustomed to distorting it to make it amuse—with being yourself.

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