Don't hate me because I'm hilarious

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2011 - 7:29 AM

Funny women finally get their piece of the pie -- even if it's being thrown in their faces.

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Kristen Wiig and Betty White

Photo: Dana Edelson, NBC

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Jennifer Aniston recently revealed that she turned down an offer to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'90s because she considered the show to be a "boys' club."

Today, the club has a new policy. Kristen Wiig is as valuable to "SNL" as Eddie Murphy was in the early '80s, proving week after week that women can be as outrageous, goofy, creative and unpredictable as the men. She's not the only one.

Consider Jane Lynch's version of Idi Amin in track pants on "Glee" or Toni Collette's arsenal of whacked-out personas on "The United States of Tara." Admire Kaley Cuoco's perfect eye roll on "The Big Bang Theory" or Tina Fey's klutziness on "30 Rock." Shudder at Betty White's spunk in "Hot in Cleveland" or question Cloris Leachman's sanity in "Raising Hope." Gawk at Sofia Vergara's beautiful destruction of the English language in "Modern Family" or Laura Linney's mastery of it on "The Big C."

Toast Courteney Cox's wine-guzzling antics on "Cougar Town" -- and while you're up, raise a glass to Mary-Louise Parker, Lea Michele, Patricia Heaton and Amy Poehler, all undeniable evidence that TV has never been more welcoming to funny women.

"We're lucky enough to be on shows where it's not just about the man's journey and the woman is standing there shaking her finger or waiting for him to come back from his fart fest with the guys," said Julie Bowen of "Modern Family," where the punch lines are split down the middle between the two sexes.

"These women have their own little story lines and their own little adventures, and sometimes you're in the front of the pack and sometimes you're not, but it's a huge change from the old standard Jackie Gleason format," Bowen said.

Setting the Barr

Not that female characters haven't been drawing laughs since Ralph Kramden threatened to send Alice to the moon. Lucy Ricardo was as animated as Daffy Duck, Carol Burnett made us glad we spent some time together and Laverne & Shirley turned in a fine impression of Laurel & Hardy. But for the most part, women spent the first 40 years of the television era playing the "straight guys." And then Roseanne Barr rumbled onto the screen.

"For a long time, the woman was there to have the guy bounce his comedy off of, to make him look like an ass," said Martha Plimpton, who deserves serious Emmy consideration for her role as a clueless grandmother on "Raising Hope." "But Roseanne changed that. After her, women got to take part in the comedy."

It wasn't just her dry-ice delivery that made Roseanne a groundbreaker. It also had to do with the fact that she ran her own show -- sometimes with an iron fist, but it was her vision -- a rarity before "Roseanne" premiered in 1988. It's not so rare anymore. It's not a coincidence that "30 Rock," "Tara," "Weeds," "The Big C," "Cleveland" and "The Middle" were all created by women.

Almost every episode of "How I Met Your Mother," another excellent example of equal-opportunity high jinks, is directed by Pamela Fryman, and at least seven of the show's 17 writers are female.

Television's last male bastion may be late-night, which remains a fraternity in large part because most of the writers are men. Jimmy Kimmel said that when he launched his show in 2003, only two of the 120 submissions for writing jobs came from women (one of whom he hired).

Nobody's girlfriend

Roseanne's reign also paved the way for such actresses as Emmy winner Lynch, no slouch in the looks department, but not the standard eye candy, either.

"I was never seen as the girlfriend of anybody," Lynch said. "When I first started, I did a lot of roles originally written for men. My agent would say to casting directors, 'Do you see a woman in this role?' And they would say, 'Yes, I do,' and walk about thinking they were geniuses."

TV's willingness to cast funny females who don't look as if they just walked off the Victoria's Secret runway explains why "Hot in Cleveland" is one of cable's hottest shows. It goes beyond America's continuing love affair with Betty White. "I just think that we're sort of redefining what it is to be a vibrant, beautiful woman," said cast member Wendie Malick, who recently turned 60.

That's encouraging news for younger women who are enjoying this golden age of female-driven comedy -- and want to keep on enjoying it for decades to come.

"I want to get old in this business, and I mean real old, like saggy and things drooping down to my socks," Bowen said. "I want people to like something about me other than my bangability."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

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