Queens of Comedy

Why Do Lesbians Make America Laugh?

RGBWhile being openly gay in Hollywood is still a huge career gamble (especially if you haven’t made it already), when it comes to comedy, lesbians rule. Just look at Ellen, Rosie and Wanda and you’ll see that America openly embraces lesbian comics who openly embrace their sexuality. As we told you earlier this week, Wanda Sykes scored a late night TV deal with Fox. What is it about lesbian comics that makes them so easily accepted by a public that remains squeamish about gay male comics as well as gay and lesbian leads?

The answer is more complicated than you might expect. While Ellen, Rosie and Wanda all came out well into their career, all three haven’t shied away from discussing their sexuality publicly– and horror of horrors– haven’t been afraid to use their TV appearances to talk about gay and lesbian issues. What’s even more shocking is that all three have done it on network TV.

rosie200dp_5_14rEllen, for instance, used her talk show to discuss her marriage to Portia DeRossi, running photos of the wedding on the show. When Jon McCain showed up to discuss politics in the 2008 campaign, she talked to him about gay rights. On The View, Rosie frequently brought up her sexuality and when the show’s annoying Republican Elisabeth Hasselback argues against gay rights, the audience would side with Rosie.

Part of the appeal of these leading ladies is their talent, to be sure. All of them handle questions about their sexuality with humor and honesty. They put a human face on gays and lesbians, but they don’t shy away from confrontation. While Rosie takes the loud-mouth approach, Ellen uses her trademark self-deprecating style to diffuse any situation. It’s great these women are unafraid their true colors, but what’s more surprising, considering the way in which anti-gay groups attack anything tinged even the lightest shade of lavender, is how they’ve managed to do so without incurring the wrath of the Christian right.

When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997 on her sitcom Ellen, the Christian Right labeled her “Ellen Degenerate.” Today, they wouldn’t dare. The reason is basically that Ellen is too popular and beloved a figure to target. She’s won the Daytime Emmy for Best Talk Show Host for four years running. In fact, it’s the talk show format that’s vaulted lesbian comediennes to the big time.

wanda_almightyThere’s two factors at play here. The first is the talk show format itself. Unlike scripted television, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is a two-way medium. Ellen is more than just a comic by herself; she’s the Ellen Nation. Oprah pioneered the idea that daytime talk-show audiences are more than just passive spectators, both in and out of the studio. Instead, they’re encouraged to read books, take on pet issues and integrate the show into their daily life. The strategy isn’t just good for ratings. It makes audiences feel as if the show isn’t just for them, but a reflection of them.

The second factor plays on that. For the most part, talk shows cater to women and for the most part, remain the only place on TV where strong women not only get to sit center stage, but get to define the agenda. Beyond being a lesbian, Ellen’s appeal is that she comes off as a strong leader and role model.

Without jumping into a big discussion on feminism, women have a certain idea of what a female leader should be– and one of those things is that she must be someone in touch with her sexuality and to be emotionally honest. These are values that carry enormous weight with female audiences and so, far from being a hindrance, Ellen’s ability to talk about her relationships and sexuality– even if not everyone agrees with it– serves as an asset. Put another way, for female audiences, femininity trumps sexuality.

It’s also worth pointing out that none of these women garnered as much fame as they have until they left the world of sitcoms and stand-up (or at least moved away from that being their prime focus) as they did once they embraced the talk show format. Wanda Sykes’ planned show, expected to debut next January, follows that format, though it’s expected to be more political and brash than Ellen’s.

These pioneering leading ladies have done more to put a face on the gay and lesbian movement than any political leader or non-profit group and they’ve done it with very little prodding from the gay community. Partly it’s the demographic and the format they’ve chosen, but mostly, it’s courage, which turns out not only to be a great skill for getting through life, but also, for getting ratings as well.

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  • dvlaries

    It’s simply that female homosexuals have an easier time of it because the wingnuts that hate us already devalue and disrespect women as sex objects in the first place. And when a sex object is behaving like a sex object with another sex object …how worked up are you going to get? See how many hetero porn films you can find that don’t contain at least one woman-on-woman sex scene.

    As long as your homosexual relationship doesn’t conjure pictures in their pointy little heads of cocks going into male asses, you’re not going to have as rough a ride. Who’s holding their breath waiting for Fred Phelps to concentrate his warped ire on Rosie, Wanda and Ellen?

  • Alec

    Probably has something to do with the fact that when people object to homosexuality, the male variant is more what they have in mind. Which woud also explain why lesbian sex is so rarely condemned in criminal codes. I mean, you’ve read right wing literature, right? They’re more obsessed with anal sex between males than a gay porn aficionado.

    Easy answers to easy questions.

  • GayIsTheWay

    My view on why lesbians are successful:

    * Lesbians have to find a career because a man isn’t supporting them.
    * Lesbians highly value equality which means both girlfriends work.
    * Lesbians use comedy to diffuse difficult situations with their girlfriends.
    * Heterosexual males are turned on by lesbianism.
    * Lesbians use their social knowlegde effectively.

  • Queerky

    Simple. Gay men think with their dicks(note the number of bare-chested male torsos on this website). Lesbians learn to evolve beyond the adolescent sexual-discovery stage very early on. Lesbians are three-dimensional, fully-formed human beings. Gay men need to grow up.

  • Alec

    @Queerky: Right. Women are superior to men. Etc.

    Somehow I don’t think that is it.

  • Topher

    I am not sure it is something attached to their lesbianism. There are certainly plenty of examples of lesbians who struggle to find acceptance in mainstream Hollywood. I would suggest it has something to do how they handled coming out. They were already beloved by their fans, many of whom were straight, and then came out in a way that was non-threatening and endearing. This is the same approach many people encouraged as we were facing proposition 8. It is easier for homophobic people to overcome their fear/misunderstandings when they find out they already like someone who happens to be gay.

  • Aaron J.

    @Queerky: All men think with their dicks. It’s not a gay or straight thing.

  • Attmay

    @Aaron J.: But put two men who think with their dicks together…

    I am a gay man and I think Queerky has a point. Too many gay men who try to lump themselves into types of people and categories yet hate when other people do it to them.

    Those women doing it with each other in the breeder porn videos are gay for pay. Everyone knows that.

  • Strepsi

    Great topic, interesting article. One major reason missing is that lesbians own stand-up. Straight males and lesbians are almost the only stand-ups you’ll find. Being a sex-object is anathema to stand-up comedy for men and women. It’s your brain that’s funny. Straight men do not find fuckable women funny, or funny women fuckable — win-win for lesbian comics. Lesbians will not be judged solely as sex objects by male audiences – even if their not “out”, it’s in their attitude. Exception for Sarah Silverman, who used filth to balance her cuteness. I worked in a comedy c;lub for 10 years, and beyond the homophobia in most straight male routines, the other thing was there were almost NO gay men or straight women doing comedy, never mind being good at it.

    P.S. > LOVE WANDA. Go Wanda!

  • Uffieislulz


    /thread. There is really no need for more replies after this.

  • CMYK

    Marie Claire (I know, I know) ran an interesting article a few months ago about the life of female comedians. It quoted Joan Rivers as saying that a woman needs to be a “lion-tamer” on stage if she wants to be a successful comedian, and she went on to say that was the reason she thought so many lesbians went into comedy: lesbians weren’t afraid to be in control of an audience, whereas straight women (particularly when Rivers began her career) often were. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it is an interesting theory, and it could point to a reason why lesbians seem to be cornering the market on TV talk now, as Strepsi pointed out.

  • 33mhz

    I’m a big fan of Wanda Sykes, but Ellen is as about as funny as the tax code. And Rosie is responsible for the Big Gay Sketch Show, which actually hurts comedy in the same way that Crossfire used to hurt America.

    It’s not that they’re funny, it’s that they’re genial and non-threatening, which is the only way to get your own talk show on a network.

    What about real lesbian comics like Lea Delauria?

  • Alec

    @33mhz: Or Lily Tomlin?

    I think Ellen’s stand up is funny, btw, and Wanda Sykes is hit or miss for me. The talk show stuff is rubbish, by and large, but even comedians that are hilarious in some venues can’t make the talk show format work (are you listening to me Chelsea Handler?).

    I’ve never found Rosie O’Donnel to be that funny, but maybe that’s just me.

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