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Tue April 3, 2012
A Comedy Showrunner's Lament And The Status Of Lady Jokes
If you follow TV types on Twitter, you've already heard about some recent comments from Lee Aronsohn, who co-created Two And A Half Men with Chuck Lorre and is also a producer of The Big Bang Theory. Aronsohn, when asked about explicit female humor on TV, told The Hollywood Reporter that while he thought it was great that women like Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings had made a place for themselves in television, it was probably time to cut it out with the shows where women go on and on about, you know, woman stuff.
"Enough, ladies," he said, starting off on the best possible foot by using the two-word phrase guaranteed to set off the condescension detector. "I get it. You have periods." He went on to tell them that with shows like Whitney and 2 Broke Girls kicking around, "we're approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation." (These are clinical medical terms, by the way. So.)
These comments, while they seem to have been specifically in response to a query about the growth of sitcoms where explicit humor is made about women's bodies and functions, were unfortunately wrapped up with something he'd said during a keynote address at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference when asked about Two And A Half Men's portrayal of women: "Screw it. We're centering the show on two very damaged men. What makes men damaged? Sorry, it's women. I never got my heart broken by a man." [Rejoice, oh men who are so fortunate as to be gay, for your heartbreak-free lives!] Although he later acknowledged that probably the guy who writes the fart jokes on Two And A Half Men might not have the best credentials for dictating when "peak vagina" occurs, that didn't stop him from doing it.
Look, I get it. It's tough for him to hear about lady bodies all the time. All of television is just beating him to death with female anatomical description, so I will do him a favor: For the remainder of this piece, I will not mention women's parts by name. We'll just substitute names of ... vegetables, OK? Vegetables are unthreatening. Vegetables it is.
There's no question that television had a bit of a [rutabaga] moment this last fall, what with the jokes on 2 Broke Girls and Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? Bill Carter wrote about it in The New York Times all the way back in September. We may not be at peak [squash], but we are certainly at increased [squash]. Aronsohn is not the first person to mention it; he's not the 50th. Not being into vulgar jokes is certainly your prerogative, provided you do not make Two And A Half Men as your job.
Because honestly, the problem isn't noticing that more people are talking about [brussels sprouts] than ever before. The problem comes when the co-creator of a show that makes penis jokes with a regularity to which the 5:15 p.m. train to Albuquerque can only aspire decides that it is his prerogative to pronounce the appropriate closing moment for the season of the [broccolini]. Because he may not have noticed, but anyone who spends any time in current popular entertainment who does not go substantially out of the way to avoid them is awash in penis jokes and has been for some time. Any woman who has been watching prime-time television comedy for the last, say, 25 years has been up to her [sweet potatoes] in the male form in all its states and conditions and sizes and its constantly changing statuses in re: loved versus unloved. Two And A Half Men does it, but so do The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother and wow, look, I have already found three shows without even thinking about it that are just as fond of penis jokes as the three shows that are really at issue here — Whitney, 2 Broke Girls and Are You There, Chelsea? -- are of jokes at the expense of the humble [yam].
In fact, The Big Bang Theory — an Aronsohn credit, remember — had an entire B-plot involving the seizing of a scientist's non-robotic equipment by his robotic equipment; viz: a mechanized hand, the unforgivingly clamping form of which sent him to the hospital. You want to know how many shows have ever done, or (I believe) would ever do, a joke in which a woman wound up with a robot hand similarly engaged? That would be none. On no show will you be seeing that joke. It's still mostly true that [shallots] are heard and spoken of, but not really seen in physical comedy.
If there is in fact a [celeriac] trend, it is in [celeriac] jokes being treated the same way their male counterparts are. And as difficult as I know it is when a position of relative privilege — no matter how utterly lowbrow that privilege is, or how much it takes the form of the now-universal right to make lots of cheap jokes that seem "edgy" but often wouldn't get a laugh at the annual convention of the Nitrous Oxide Deep Breathers' Association — is challenged, we have a massive amount of ground to cover before we even reach [artichoke] equity, let alone peak [artichoke].
The truth is that shows about women that talk about the way women live have been so outnumbered for so long — and when they exist, they are often created and run and written by men, making them far less likely to riff on female physicality — that any proliferation may feel overwhelming. It isn't. I hate to break this to the dude, but this is not "peak vagina." IT IS ONLY THE BEGINNING, GRAAAAAAAR!
Just kidding, there! Aronsohn says he was kidding, too. He tweeted, "Yes, yes - it was a stupid joke. I'm sorry." (Congratulations on that "yes, yes," which is kind of a perfect accompaniment to "enough, ladies." If tomorrow he tells us to "calm down," he will have hit the trifecta!)
In fairness to him, the guy was asked about explicit humor about women, and he talked about it. The problem isn't really that. It's that when you traffic in one kind of vulgar joke and take it upon yourself to lament the rise of another kind of vulgar joke at the same time you're spouting off about women being the thing that damages men, it's impossible to avoid creating a sense of "for me, but not for thee, oh damager of my kind."
And when it comes to sex jokes, that will get you in trouble every time.