Tasha: Last week, we all saw Tammy, starring current comedy superstar Melissa McCarthy, written by McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, and directed by Falcone, making his feature debut. We all liked it, though I liked it with a caveat: I was hoping for something more than what I got. I’ve been a big fan of McCarthy’s since The Nines, John August’s weird, fantastic, the-less-you-know-going-in-the-better 2007 movie starring McCarthy opposite Ryan Reynolds, who in my eyes has never been better. McCarthy shows a real range in that movie, and she plays a series of dramatic roles that never comment on her weight, her inability to run far or fast, her inability to vault a fast-food counter during a hold-up, or her inability to pick up a horrified stranger in a bar with a crude come-on line. The film roles that have since made her famous—in Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, and The Heat especially—have all had her playing big, loud, sloppy, and gross, and while she does that extremely well, with a complete shamelessness and openness that makes the ol’ fatty-fall-down-go-boom routine pretty charming, I’m really ready for more from her. All three of those films have given her at least a little opportunity to dig under the surface of her character and show that she can still do dramatic, emotional moments well, but I was hoping to see her use the mandate of a film she wrote to let herself stretch much more than this.
Instead of a stretch, I got a pretty consistently funny, charming, relatively low-key road-trip comedy headlined by some of my favorite film women: McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Kathy Baker, and Sandra Oh. While Tammy doesn’t feel significant in terms of breaking the mold for McCarthy, it does feel mildly subversive just in casting this many women in major roles, in effortlessly passing the Bechdel test, in setting a major sequence at a huge “lesbian 4th of July party” where virtually all the revelers are women, and in giving McCarthy a romantic arc. I haven’t seen this many women in a comedy since Bridesmaids, the film that launched a thousand “Women in comedy? Can it work? Are they really allowed to be crude and dumb like men in comedy?” thinkpieces. Did Tammy feel like a status-quo challenge to you guys the way Bridesmaids did?
Genevieve: I think the most challenging, audacious part of Tammy isn’t that it dares suggest women can be funny (gasp!), since, as you note Tasha, the comedy is of a piece with what McCarthy has been doing lately. Rather, I think it’s fairly remarkable in the way it lets its characters’ vulnerabilities shine through their brash, bawdy shenanigans. (Susan Sarandon’s character, Tammy’s alcoholic, diabetic, lusty grandmother, is particularly well-drawn in this regard.) It’s frustrating that McCarthy’s career has become synonymous with loud, obnoxious, crude characters, given that she started out playing warm, bubbly, and human, most notably as Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls, and in that Nines performance. (Which really is great.) She has a natural charisma that’s been overshadowed by her go-for-broke comedic style, and I respect Tammy for letting a little—but just a little—of that shine through between the pratfalls, particularly in the romantic subplot, which improved drastically over the course of the film.
This is also why I so enjoyed the recent Obvious Child, which indulged in plenty of scatological and gynecological humor in the context of its protagonist’s stand-up material, but made a point of building an actual character with flaws and problems behind the poop jokes. I think this is where Bridesmaids was, and remains, a bellwether for female-driven comedy: It set a precedent for funny female characters who aren’t solely defined by the funny things they say and do. (Well, maybe not quite in the case of McCarthy’s Bridesmaids character.) They’re characters, not catchphrases. And the funny things they say and do are the result of things that happen to them, not to a male protagonist, or even a female protagonist in need of a “wacky best friend.” It can’t be a coincidence that all three of the movies we’ve mentioned so far were written by women, and Bridesmaids and Tammy were written by their female stars. Actresses, comedic actresses in particular, have traditionally been so limited by the short list of “types” women can play in Hollywood, it makes sense that they’d want to create characters for themselves to play that go beyond those types.
In Nathan’s recent interview with Obvious Child’s writer-director and star, Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate, respectively, Slate made a really smart point: “There’s not just one voice for women, there’s not just one time for women in comedy, there’s not one project that speaks for all women. You have to be really careful to watch out for the difference between banding together, and being grouped together by people who don’t understand you.” Now that we’ve culturally gotten to the point where we can all acknowledge that women are, in fact, funny (we have, right? Good!), it’s even more important to acknowledge the different types of comedic voices, voices that come from actual women, not male writers putting words in their mouths. This isn’t an issue of quality—no gender is inherently more or less funny than the other—it’s a matter of parity, of affording women as much opportunity to explore and share their comedy as men. I think that’s why movies like Tammy and Obvious Child seem remarkable, even if they’re fundamentally not that different from any other comedy at the multiplex: They have distinct, and distinctive, personalities that can be traced directly to their creators’ sensibilities. They’re not simply filling a demographic hole, they’re speaking for themselves.
Nathan: Definitely. My Tammy review highlighted the dramatic elements I thought made the film resonant as well as consistently funny. One thing I loved was its lived-in quality, its sense that these characters existed long before the film began, and would continue to live long after the film ended. I was particularly taken by the surprising complexity of the relationship between Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy and her grandmother Pearl, and the way the transgressions of the past affected their attempts to start over. I loved how Tammy was a movie about women’s relationships with other women where the men are incidental or ornamental, and the two prettiest male faces in the cast belong to Mark Duplass and Gary Cole.
As Genevieve stated, what Bridesmaids, Obvious Child, and Tammy share is a willingness, even eagerness, to let their protagonists be vulnerable and gross, and do unsympathetic things while retaining the audience’s sympathy. Women in film comedies are generally subject to rules of propriety that men are not, and even at this late stage, it’s refreshing and liberating to see them rebel against conventional notions of propriety, whether through Obvious Child’s profane stand-up act, the mass defecation in Bridesmaid, or Tammy’s bull-in-the-china-shop recklessness in Tammy.
The downside is that this rich strain of scatology lets critics denounce these films as nothing but gross-out humor. I think it’s unfortunate that Bridesmaids today is probably remembered more for that mass-shitting scene than its nuanced depiction of female friendships.
In reviewing Tammy, I noted that thematically, the film has a lot in common with Adam Sandler’s movies, but the context and the star radically changes the film’s meaning. Where Sandler often comes across as a bully when he runs amok, there’s something cathartic and liberating to McCarthy’s brand of anarchy, which I enjoyed much more here than I did in Identity Thief and The Heat, perhaps because the film felt personal and even intimate in a way those films did not. To answer your question, Tasha, I do think Tammy challenges the status quo in the same way Bridesmaids did, and I can see it getting a much nastier reaction. As the Rex Reed incident illustrates, McCarthy’s ascent has unleashed a lot of the virulent sexism in pop culture—not that it’s ever been particularly well-hidden.
One thing worth noting is that movies like Obvious Child, Bridesmaids, Tammy, and They Came Together all star women who are famous for being funny, rather than women known for romantic comedies (Katherine Heigl, say, or Meg Ryan). Do you think this represents a paradigm shift? I would love to live in a world where Jenny Slate is a major star of romantic comedies. Is that an impossible dream? Am I delusional in thinking that there is a political element to this new wave of female-driven scatological humor?
Tasha: I think it’s political in the sense that any time women move into a traditionally male-dominated field, it feels like a political move. It feels like people are systematically looking for more barriers to break down, with women taking an “Anything you can do, I can do” stance in comedy, just as in other areas. And given centuries of societally enforced expectations for what it means to be ladylike, getting women onscreen farting and barfing and talking about panty gunk is as much an activist repudiation of outdated stereotypes as it is a comedy movement. Granted, I’m not always positive these particular barriers are worth breaking down—I didn’t personally find Obvious Child particularly funny, with its snickering references to girl-farts and vaginal discharge. And as much as I loved that interview with Slate and Robespierre, I didn’t much care for Slate’s Obvious Child character, who struck me as a pile of neuroses backed with bitterness, childishness, and entitlement, and not much personality otherwise. Plus I find it a little hard to buy that mass onscreen diarrhea outbreaks and slurred drunken phone calls about HPV are really political/artistic/creative goals worth fighting for. If that’s what female comics want to be doing, to prove they can hang with the big boys, more power to ’em—more voices means more choices, and that’s a good thing—but speaking for myself, there isn’t much incentive beyond solidarity for me to throw my dollars at them.
I do wonder, though, whether the rise of women in comedy has less to do with women’s growing willingness to take on gross-out humor, and more to do with the current face of comedy being much more self-effacing, vulnerable, and personal than it used to be. The comedy I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s was generally much more aggressive and shouty—typified by Sam Kinison, Denis Leary, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bill Hicks—and even when it was more querulous, it was still about sneering at the world’s ridiculousness. These days, the comic trend seems more internal and aimed at skewering our own ridiculousness—the Larry Davids, Marc Marons, and Louis CKs of the world seem more melancholy and thoughtful than furious, and more aware of their faults and willing to admit them, or at least engage in comedy that points them out on the regular. And that style of comedy seems a little more comfortable for women, who are statistically more likely to doubt themselves than men, and more likely to be trained toward self-examination and self-policing. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-the-egg issue; I couldn’t tell you whether women are just benefiting from an existing paradigm shift, or helped cause it in the first place by bringing their own sensibilities into the comedy scene. Probably some mixture of both.
I also couldn’t tell you how much of that theory comes from my own bias toward vulnerable (but not wallowing) humor. I enjoyed Tammy and Bridesmaids significantly more, and found them much more relatable, when they were focused on the characters’ emotional flaws than when they were focused on poop or floppy physical comedy. (And frankly, I wonder if we’ll see less poop jokes and floppy physical comedy as time goes on, once the mere fact that a woman is doing gross-out humor ceases to be a novelty, so ceases to get the shock-laugh reaction.)
That said, I’m also noticing women a little more in comedy roles that don’t fit either the sad-sack mold or the slob-comedy mold. One of the best developments in 22 Jump Street, as far as I was concerned, was Jillian Bell’s role opening up from sex-negative nag and creepy one-joke roommate into a plot-significant position that let her do violent physical comedy and hit the kind of big, broad, but not gross-out-focused beats that women in comedy often don’t get. The amazing thing about that role is that it doesn’t focus at all on her body type or body functions; she’s just a really funny bad-ass. I had the same reaction to Alison Pill’s manic comic turn in the otherwise-not-comic Snowpiercer. Have you seen any other women-in-comedy roles lately that you found similarly striking?
Genevieve: I’m already on record as thinking Slate is wonderful in Obvious Child, in spite of the way the role leans a little too hard on the “cute girl says dirty things” comedic mode, which in general I find a little exasperating as well. I was more taken by her natural charisma, and her unusual line delivery, than her character’s stand-up act (which, if I may be so bold, I don’t think we’re supposed to find all that revelatory). And I’m glad you told me to check out 22 Jump Street for Bell’s performance, Tasha, because it was really interesting, especially in the context of your recent Trinity Syndrome piece. What initially seems like a tertiary character bussed in to deliver creative insults turns into something much more integral to the plot.
But if I can diverge from movies just a bit, I want to bring up Sarah Baker, who has a small, not-exactly-pivotal, but memorable role in Tammy as the fast-food employee Tammy sticks up in the trailers for the film. Baker is good in the role, but those who saw her on a recent episode of TV’s Louie will probably sit up a little straighter when she appears onscreen. Baker’s guest appearance on the episode “So Did The Fat Lady” caused a bit of a stir, in part because she’s so charismatic and charming in the role, but more so because of what her character does—namely, call out Louis C.K.’s character on his deeply internalized fat shame, in a seven-minute speech that was tremendously cathartic and deeply uncomfortable (not least because it was written by C.K., which certainly seems indicative of the self-skewering trend Tasha talks about). Baker has been bopping around TV sitcoms for years, but I’m hoping the one-two punch of Louie and Tammy means she’ll get more movie opportunities. She actually shows up in a deleted scene from Bridesmaids, so she certainly fits into the little club of awesome comedic ladies we’re assembling here.
And no conversation about women in comedy would be complete without bringing up Tina Fey. Fey’s recent movie roles haven’t been exceptional—I haven’t seen Muppets Most Wanted yet, but I doubt it’s a hugely personal statement on her part—but I am curious about two of her upcoming projects: This year’s ensemble This Is Where I Leave You, which looks a little dicey in the previews, but puts Fey in the midst of a promising cast; and especially next year’s The Nest, which reunites Fey with her former SNL cohorts Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph (two more women I’d love to see pursuing more personal big-screen projects), and is written by SNL writer Paula Pell. Of course, what would be really great is if Fey returned to writing movies instead of just starring in them. While not a perfect film, Mean Girls has become a comedy touchstone in the decade since it came out, and Fey’s biting, insightful screenplay is a big reason for that. I have to believe Fey has another movie in her, ideally one she writes for herself to star in. Nathan, do you have such any dream projects for your favorite funny women?
Nathan: If we’re dreaming out loud here, I would love for someone like Fey orPoehler or Kristen Wiig to do a project that would lure Elaine May out of retirement. May hasn’t directed a movie since 1987’s Ishtar, which did not quite live up to expectations, commercially speaking. But she was a brilliant physical comedian herself in her feature directorial debut, A New Leaf. I’d like to see an intergenerational union of boundary-pushing talent that would plug May’s ahead-of-the-curve genius into the kind of discomfort comedy that is in fashion these days.
I did not see Walk Of Shame, which got uniformly poor reviews, but I think Elizabeth Banks has shown tremendous talent as a fearless physical comedian. Hopefully she’ll get a vehicle worthy of her soon. And I was a big fan of the bittersweet romantic comedy Save The Date, which, while not laugh-out-loud funny, let Lizzy Caplan play a meaty, complicated, prickly role, someone who did unsympathetic things, yet retained the audience’s sympathy throughout. Though the world didn’t seem to be paying attention, Caplan really proved herself as a lead. And it seems perverse that no one has released a movie with Save The Date co-star Alison Brie in a lead role, though there appears to be one on the horizon.
Tasha, I’m with you in being much more entertained by the deceptively high level of emotion and pathos in Tammy, and part of what impressed me about the film was its ability to inject pathos into jokes. And I was a little thrown by your statement about the “snickering references to girl-farts and vaginal discharge” in Obvious Child, which I remember as a tender movie about the self-actualization of a directionless young woman. A lot of what I liked about the movie were the characters around Slate’s Donna—her support system—and the sense of camaraderie among her friends and fellow comics. I liked the world the film inhabited as much as Donna herself.
Then there’s The Other Woman. I did not care for the film at all, but I was fascinated by Leslie Mann’s performance. She plays her character as completely demented, with an aggressive disregard for vanity that borders on heroic. She and co-star Cameron Diaz are both natural comic actors, and while The Other Woman isn’t at all good, it represents a strange union between formulaic romantic comedy and the nervier, more ballsy comedies we’ve been discussing. And Amy Schumer hasn’t yet done much film-wise, but she’s one of the current field’s brashest, boldest, most sexually daring comedians, so I’m really excited for The Trainwreck, which she co-wrote, and which Judd Apatow produced. Judging by Schumer’s persona, it should be much dirtier than Bridesmaids.
I suspect one of the reasons we’re having this conversation is because Bridesmaids made more money than any other film Apatow has ever produced; it was a newfangled vehicle that outgrossed You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless In Seattle, and so many other Meg Ryan hits of yore. Have raunchier, realer depictions of the complicated interplay between the sexes superceded the old-school romantic comedy?
Tasha: Oh, let’s hope so. The main reason I hate rom-coms is because rote formula is the enemy of humor. Laughter is the result of being startled and delighted at the same time (or sometimes, as Bridesmaids regularly nailed, startled, horrified, and kinda-secretly delighted), and it’s hard to be startled by something profoundly predictable. So one of the things about hearing more voices in comedy these days, with more women as stars, writers, directors, and producers, is that we’re more likely to run across something startling, something we haven’t seen a thousand times before. I’m all up for more Rebel Wilson, and less Meg Ryan. The latter is sweet, but the former is much more surprising. At this point, I’m surprised every time I see a creative, rule-breaking, envelope-pushing woman in a comedic role in a film, but it’s the best kind of surprise, and I’m looking forward to much more of it.