Sandra Bernhard was supposed to be performing in Boston this week.
The notoriously controversial comedian and performance artist was scheduled to headline Funny Women . . . Serious Business, a fundraiser for Rosie’s Place, on October 16 at the Hynes Convention Center, but was dropped from the show when officials from the women’s shelter got wind of some of her latest edgy political material from a performance she gave in Washington, DC. Specifically, Bernhard sarcastically predicted that when Governor Sarah Palin made a trip to Manhattan, she “would be gang-raped by my big, black brothers.” That didn’t go over so well at Rosie’s Place.
In a statement issued by e-mail earlier this week, Rosie’s Place Executive Director Sue Marsh wrote, “We just learned of Ms. Bernhard’s remarks about Sarah Palin and were shocked and deeply disturbed. We do not condone nor support her comments. Rosie’s Place provides a safe haven for poor and homeless women, some of whom have experienced violence in their lives. Therefore, we do not believe that violence against women is a joking matter and will not be including Ms. Bernhard in our upcoming fundraising event.”
Bernhard has since been replaced by Carol Leifer as the headliner for the Rosie’s Place event. When I contacted Bernhard’s publicist for comment, he referred me to a statement that Bernhard made to the Huffington Post, in which she denied making any jokes about gang rape or rape at all during the show. She further said that she’s unapologetic for outrageous material and that she’s concerned about Palin’s stance on reproductive rights. Bernhard told the AP that, in criticizing Palin for opposing abortion rights, her material “challenged whether [Palin] would keep the baby if she became pregnant after being violated by a group of black men in New York.”
Which begs the question: is it ever okay to use “rape” in a punch line? Some, like Boston comedian Bethany Van Delft, think it’s not the concept but the context that made Bernhard’s material so controversial. “Bernhardt’s words were irresponsible — not as a comedian, but as a woman,” says Van Delft. “I don’t want to say you can never joke about rape, but you have to be exceptionally funny to make it funny. Otherwise, you’re just saying it to be shocking. I do feel what Bernhard’s saying is that she hates Sarah Palin that much. If she’d wished gang rape on John McCain, I would laugh.”
Comedian Maria Ciampa echoes the sentiment. “Context is everything,” she says. “George Carlin taught us that. People are sensitive to hot-button words. They freeze up, they don’t want to listen. . . . Once a comedian starts using anger and becoming aggressive and threatening toward other people, it’s not funny, whether that comedian is a man or a woman.”
Well, then, how does one define “funny,” exactly? Is it all about the jokes? The delivery? Context? Contrast? Gender? A combination of all of these things?
There are certain topics and buzzwords that seem to rarely, even never, be funny. A rookie mistake that amateur comedians often make is to attack these topics head-on and do a set filled with material that they perceive as pushing the envelope. Newsflash, Monday-night bringer-show kings and queens: just because a word or a phrase is culturally sensitive does not make it fodder for comedy gold.
“The challenge for a comedian is to make whatever words she chooses meaningful, and have a point,” says Ciampa. “Do men and women have different responsibilities when it comes to material? I don’t think so. I think it’s a human responsibility to use comedy to help people think differently.”
Men are from mars, women . . . aren’t funny?
Regardless of whether men and women have responsibilities to their respective genders, both face the same obstacles when stepping onstage to encourage a room full of strangers to identify with, be entertained by, and laugh at their stories. But there’s a general Neanderthalian attitude about female comedians: they’re limited to telling jokes about “girl” things, and therefore can’t possibly compete with their male counterparts. (Because, let me tell you, watching a fat, scruffy dude with hair in all the wrong places tell jokes about his teensy, flaccid member is nothing less than a gut-bustin’ chuckle fest, every single time.)
The bar is set awfully high for female comics. In 2006, Maxim magazine issued a list of the 12 worst comedians of all time, and six of them (including Bernhard) were women. (Of the six gents on this knuckle-dragging lad list, two were minorities and one was born in Russia. Surely, this was a roster Rush Limbaugh must have approved.)
Then, in January 2007, Christopher Hitchens penned an essay for Vanity Fair entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Among his reasons? Women don’t need to be funny in order to attract men. Needless to say, a lot of women were pissed. The topic is still relevant, perhaps even more so now that there’s an increasing number of female comedians peppering the stand-up scene, especially here in Boston.