Funny Women at Tribeca Film Festival by Lexi Feinberg

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At Tribeca Film Festival’s “Look Who’s Laughing” panel, five female entertainers laugh in the face of adversity.

In January 2007, an article came out in Vanity Fair citing “scientific evidence” that women aren’t as funny as men. That’s amusing, because I actually have “scientific evidence” that Vanity Fair is most often read by people in bathroom stalls and dentist’s waiting rooms. Never underestimate the power of solid research.

In response to the what-is-the-point article, Tribeca Film Festival launched a panel called “Look Who’s Laughing.” The panel, which ran for 90 minutes and was moderated by director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet The Parents), featured:

Samantha Bee

Comedy Central’s ‘Daily Show’ correspondent

Rachel Dratch

Former ‘SNL’ cast member from 1999-2006

Susie Essman

Actress on HBO’s ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

Rachael Harris

Sidekick from ABC’s ‘Notes From The Underbelly’

Debra Messing

Title female character on ‘Will and Grace’

Before attending a panel of this chancy nature–are women funny? Prove it!–I crossed my fingers for two things: 1) that it would be funny (because, really, how embarrassing would it be if it wasn’t?) and 2) that it would be free of excessive whining. Thankfully, both of my wishes were granted. The panel existed mainly as a forum to poke fun at unfortunate realities, debunk myths and offer solutions. It was a great time, and a nice diversion from the mostly mediocre movies at this year’s festival.

When the group of women strolled onto the stage, they were all wearing casual clothes in dark hues (black shirt, blue jeans, etc). Except for Debra Messing–she was sporting a sparkly, silver halter top and strappy, high-heeled sandals. She appeared like she made a wrong turn on her way over to happy hour, but still, she did look fantastic.

The best part about the panel is that the gals mainly bounced ideas and sarcastic quips off each other. It had a very natural feel, like friends hanging out and gabbing over Sunday brunch, which is always more enjoyable than witnessing a dry Q&A session. And they didn’t hold back–Essman, who plays Jeff Garlin’s hilarious, foul-mouthed wife on ‘Curb’, said early on that she thought the idea for the panel was stupid. “Nobody has an ‘are men funny?’ panel,” she sneered. Fair enough.

The girls discussed how it’s harder for female actresses to get meaty, comedic roles, mainly because of societal hang-ups. “People want to see Will Ferrell get naked and fall down,” Dratch said. “They don’t want to see me do that.” When the crowd laughed and suggested otherwise, she hopped out of her chair for a momentary fake-out. I can safely say that Debbie Downer did not reveal any hidden body parts during the session, tempting though it may have been.

They also talked about how audiences think that watching men in pain is hilarious, whereas seeing women get knocked out and brutalized just leaves you feeling sorry for them. Bee, the sole actress on ‘The Daily Show’, who assured us there’s a “big vagina presence” behind the scenes, scoffs at this concept and thinks “[onscreen] we should get beat more, get the shit kicked out of us.”

Likewise, it’s harder for very attractive women to get roles in which they are the comic relief. “It’s confusing to men because they don’t know if they want to laugh at you or fuck you,” Essman deadpanned.

Messing, following her sentiment, said she’s lost out on quality comedic roles due to not being homely enough. Her successful run on ‘Will and Grace’ was not always so hilarious behind the scenes, as she verified with two stories: one was about an improvised moment in which she used her flowing dress to air out her flatulence (“Grace can’t fart” the higher-ups said, and the scene was nixed); another was about her refusal to wear fake boobs in an effort to sex up her character. It takes balls, so to speak, to stand up to the president of NBC, but she did it. You go girl.

Power comes in many shapes and sizes. A few of the panelists follow the motto so eloquently laid out by Field Of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Since the person wielding the pen is granted more creative control–and free reign to turn stereotypes on their head–Dratch said she finds it empowering to write scripts. So does Harris, frequent contributor to specials like ‘I Love The ‘90s’, who was waiting for the right part and then realized she’d be waiting forever.

Moderator Jay Roach, looking slightly uncomfortable being the only Y-chromosome-sporting person onstage, said that one of the many reasons his film Used Guys got shut down (despite the super-bloated budget) is because the execs thought it wouldn’t appeal to women. “Futuristic cars won’t sell [to them],” they said matter-of-factly. Not so. A study relayed by USA Today in July 2006 found that three in four women would rather have a tech toy over a new piece of clothing. In other words, all bets are off.

By the time the panel ended, a lot of questions were raised and a lot of guffawing was had. With a sold-out show and five intelligent women challenging gender rules in an entertaining way (a dainty, prissy group they weren’t), girl power was in full throttle.

So what’s the secret to their success? “Be so funny that you can’t be denied,” Essman said.

Mission accomplished.

Republished courtesy of

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Lexi Feinberg (Archived Contributor)

Lexi Feinberg is a freelance film critic and has contributed reviews to Big Picture Big Sound, Cinema Blend, JoBlo, Pop Syndicate and Show Business Weekly, a New York City trade paper. She graduated from Adelphi University in 2004 and has since held editorial positions at TV Guide and Read Feinberg's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "Lexi Feinberg" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).