Last night, the Thurber Prize for American Humor was awarded to novelist Julie Schumacher for her quietly uproarious epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members. It was, without doubt, a momentous occasion. The Thurber Prize—named in honor of the late James Thurber, a much-loved American humorist—has not been bestowed upon a woman since its inception in 1996. The two runner-ups for the award were also women: cartoonist Roz Chast was nominated for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, as was actress Anabelle Gurwitch, for her essay collection I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50.
It always makes news when a woman shatters a frontier within the comedy landscape, which is a rather sad state of affairs in the year 2015. That women can be just as funny as men should by now be a firmly established fact. Gifted female talents like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Sofia Vergara, Chelsea Handler, Lena Dunham, and Melissa McCarthy (really, though, I could go on) have emerged as some of the most sought after personalities in Hollywood, imprinting their signature brand of hilarity on many beloved TV shows, movies, and comedy specials.
Still, it’s hard not to feel a little thrilled when funny women come out on top—when Amy Schumer wins an Emmy in the male-dominated category of Variety Sketch Series, when Mindy Kaling writes a best-selling book, or when Julie Schumacher scoops up an award for something as sweeping and grand as “American humor.” Which begs the question: if we know that women are funny, why does validation of their skill continue to be so damn satisfying?
Given the meteoric success of so many female comics, the “are women funny?” question has become terribly dull. But much has been said about this subject, despite the fact that dissecting whether or not a group of people is funny seems to be the least humorous endeavor a person can undertake. Perhaps most infamously, the late Christopher Hitchens asserted in a 2007 Vanity Fair essay (reproduced here) that women are not as funny as men because, from an evolutionary perspective, they don’t need to be. Men require a sense of humor to get women into bed, Hitchens claimed, and then wrote: “Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” For what it’s worth, he also referred to women as “cunning minxes,” which is a rather intolerable offense, even if he was British.
Many writers pounced on Hitchens’ assertions, of course. But in fairness, Hitchens wrote his essay before our appreciation of funny women had really hit its stride. Though comedians like Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett managed to carve out a space in the entertainment scene long ago, female-driven comedies used to be a hard sell, particularly on the big screen. In the early aughts, as Nicole Sperling points out in EW, Hollywood studios became overwhelmingly preoccupied with superhero films, which have significant blockbuster potential. Judd Apatow also became a heavy hitter with movies that somehow managed to balance sentimental reflections on male friendship with a healthy serving of penis jokes.
Then in 2011, Bridesmaids—that shining beacon of hilarious women and explosive diarrhea—burst onto the movie scene and gave the bromances and costumed heroes a run for their money, quite literally. The film grossed $300 million dollars worldwide, proved that women-fronted comedies could become box office hits, and gave women permission to be funny.
And yet, there are plenty of folks who have not caught up with the times. In February of last year, for example, the BBC decided to put the kibosh on all-male panel shows, which prompted a flurry of angry commenters to assert that women did not appear on these TV programs because they didn’t deserve to be there. At the Aspen Ideas Festival this past July, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner made the ill-advised decision to remark that “unbelievably beautiful women … are not funny.” And within the ever-shifting landscape of late night television, not a single network has recruited a woman to host an existing program.
All of this is to say that it’s vindicating when someone like Julie Schumacher is recognized for her work because—silly and sexist though it is—funny women still have something to prove. That Schumacher became the first woman to take home the Thurber Prize is perhaps doubly exciting because female literary humorists are a rather neglected corner of an already marginalized group. From Mark Twain to David Sedaris, the most famous American humorists have been overwhelmingly male, and Dear Committee Members cements Schumacher as a worthy addition to their ranks. Through a series of recommendation letters for unpromising students and colleagues, Dear Committee Members chronicles the unravelling of Jason T. Fitger, a put-upon creative writing professor at an undistinguished university. Schumacher’s writing is taught and wry, and her novel emerges as a masterful sendup of a beleaguered academic.
Roz Chast and Anabelle Gurwitch did not take home the Thurber, but their status as runner-ups was something of a triumph for women in comedy too. The work of both writers focuses on very personal and rather unsexy chapters of middle-age life; Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? chronicles the author’s experience caring for her aging parents, while Gurwitch’s I See You Made an Effort features a selection of essays on topics like anti-aging cosmetic procedures, money management, and parenting a teenager.
We should trumpet voices like these while also celebrating young comedians like Amy Schumer, because when funny people present us with their personal history and we acknowledge it—with laughter, with nominations, or with awards—those experiences become validated as stories worth telling. There is enough room on stage, on screen, and within the pages of books to accommodate the voices of a diverse range of comic talents—be they young or not-so-young, gay or straight, male or female.