There May Be Cracks, But The Comedy Glass Ceiling Still Exists For Women

3/14/2008 3:00pm EDT | Danielle Turchiano By: Danielle Turchiano
Parker Posey
In this town (Los Angeles) and this industry (entertainment), there are a handful of strong, intelligent, funny women who - once they finally broke onto the radar - have worked consistently in equally strong, intelligent, funny roles.

After reading this month's "Who Says Women Aren't Funny" issue of Vanity Fair, it is impossible not to notice just how many beyond the current "it" girls of comedy were left off that list (which included funnygirls such as Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler). This is an attempt to rectify that and garner them the recognition they so rightly deserve.

Christopher Guest comedies always employ the same talents time and again, with Catherine O'Hara leading the pack for the women. There is something about her overtly animated eyes and voice that just elicits laugh-out-loud moments (notably in Home Alone but even in the trashtastic Surviving Christmas when she read aloud from a script within the script and couldn't find the right way to emote; there's something chuckle-worthy about acting ingénues who have to pretend to be dumb in that respect).

O'Hara is fearless in her performances - from teasing her frizzy hair out to an almost electric Afro in Best in Show to manipulating her facial muscles to appear Botoxed beyond salvation (For Your Consideration). O'Hara has mastered adult comedy and will finally cross over for new generations, next being heard in the classic Where The Wild Things Are.

Catherine O'Hara

As little as O'Hara might be written up in the press, her recurring Guest co-stars, Parker Posey and Jennifer Coolidge, grace the insides of magazines and entertainment news sites even less. Both steal any scene they are in with the oxymoronic nature of their inherent acerbic wit yet soft baby voices. Though she is most commonly known as "Stifler's Mom," Coolidge has mastered simple one-liners, bringing a third dimension to some otherwise flat characters. Who can forget her turn as faux-Brit Amanda on Friends, where eye-rollers like "I feel like a perfect arse" and "It's not perfume; it's my natural scent" caused guffaws so hard they were interspersed with snorts? With three films in post, Coolidge just signed onto Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson, in which she will undoubtedly be relegated to a supporting role once again, but in which she will also undoubtedly add a whole lot of comedy cred.

Jennifer Coolidge

Posey, on the other hand, is finally starring (no more supporting roles for her!) in Amy Sherman-Palladino's sophomore series, The Return of Jezebel James, so the gripe that she doesn't get celebrated enough might become moot in a few weeks. Posey is such a natural talent that she comes across as the girl-next-door despite the shrill, bundle of nerves she portrays (see past performances in Best In Show, Scream 3, and Will & Grace as examples of variations on the type). Her big, bright smile offsets any oddities that fly out of her mouth and the tenseness at which they do, creating a well rounded - if slightly neurotic - woman. It is in those flaws and complications that make her real.

Parker Posey

Like another underrated funny girl, Judy Greer, Lizzy Caplan has also unfortunately had to take a backseat to bigger names (Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls) and too-many-to-know-what-to-do-with ensembles (Related and The Class). Caplan's raw talent is sophisticated, but she is unafraid to appear imperfect, taking on roles that often require some very unladylike outbursts - something for which she is unapologetic. These semi-flawed women make her seem that much more accessible, like she could easily be your childhood best friend all grown-up. Caplan is branching into multiple genres lately, with the upcoming "Crossing Over" about immigration; "The Pitts," a satirical look at the world's unluckiest family; and My Best Friend's Girl, yet another romantic comedy in which a plan to win an ex back goes awry.

Lizzy Caplan

From slicked-down hair and odd accents (Austin Powers) to matronly suits and odd accents (Drop Dead Gorgeous) to baby-bjorned miniature dogs and yet another slight accent (Reno 911), Mindy Sterling is the epitome of a "That Gal" actor: she is the quirky aunt or neighbor whose stories you will tell for years but whose name unfortunately you probably will not remember even if when you see her. You immediately shout out: "Oh, it's that gal!" Though she pulls out all of the punches for any role (no matter how small, or even if it goes uncredited like her second stint on Friends) and consistently has audiences laughing out-loud, like Lizzy Caplan, her recognition (let alone love) from critics or the studio higher-ups is minimal at best. She will continue her small but memorable roles with "Weiners," a road trip comedy that sounds to be all slapstick and no substance.

Mindy Sterling

Aisha Tyler's most recent front-burner work (24, CSI, Ghost Whisperer) has been on the serious side of things, but she started her career making people laugh (Talk Soup) and still dabbles in jest with bit parts, like her recent stint on "Reno 911" as Lt. Dangle's half-sister. Her dry sense of humor got buried in the indie comedy Meet Market, which favored visual prop gags to get a reaction from their audience, went over the heads of the Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause's demographic, and went just plain unseen with the monstrosity that was Balls of Fury. Tyler is at her best when she utilizes her serious nature to play the straight man, er, straight woman, but without laudable material. She is returning to the solemn in "Black Water Transit."

Aisha Tyler

Finally, we'd be remiss if Lauren Graham was passed over from yet another list of acknowledgment. Never nominated for an Emmy despite pulling out bubbly banter week after week for seven seasons on Gilmore Girls, Graham has not yet been given the opportunity to really shine on the large screen. At least on The-WB-turned-CW, Graham was allowed to be both the beautiful romantic lead and the quirky (usually secondary) character who always had something offbeat to say, but in the half-dozen or so independent comedies in which she has acted during and since (Seeing Other People and The Amateurs, to name two) and even the fewer big studio films (Bad Santa, Evan Almighty, Because I Said So), she has been resigned to take a backseat as characters who flit on-screen just to offer a few meek punch lines.

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that Graham is moving into slightly more dramatic material with the upcoming Birds of America and Flash of Genius in order to prove her intense training (she holds a Master's Degree in acting) will not be wasted on second-best roles. And whatever happened to that seven-figure deal she inked with NBC? Presumably the scripts they tossed her weren't worthy because she is in development on a show of her own - the only one on our list to follow in the footsteps of many in that Vanity Fair profile and make something happen for herself.

Lauren Graham

Yes, women in television and film are no longer just pretty faces and fit figures at which the male characters who get things done gawk and get distracted by. They accomplish things on their own as more than just mothers or wives or girlfriends: they are career women too, and they multi-task as the mother, the wife, the girlfriend, and the ad exec/student/doctor/artist.

So, yes, women in television and film have made great strides in shattering the glass ceiling - that cannot be denied or disputed - but to say there is not still an unfortunately long way to go for the real women behind the reel women would be a gross understatement, especially considering the immensely talented aforementioned who still haven't been given the right big-screen roles in which to shine.

Maybe the lesson here is really that there are dozens of funny women in this town, but not nearly enough quality material to match their sense of humor and style. Now we need the up-and-coming funny female writers to get to work and carve out a more permanent place for these immense talents. But maybe that's another list for another time...

Story by Danielle Turchiano
Starpulse contributing writer

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