The Rise of the Femoir
August 23, 2012
How the bare-all confessional gave female comedians a break—and then broke their legs (it’s a metaphor).
Recently, my mother, a savvy lady with a comedy and acting background, asked me a serious question. We were on a marathon telephone call at the time. “Who is this Chelsea Handler person?”
Deep breath, now. “Chelsea Handler is a comedian,” I told her. “She wrote some books, she had a late night talk show, and she has a sitcom.” And now, I might have added, she’s a household name. While my mother knows culture—she taught me to love oddball lady comics like Gilda Radner and Catherine O’Hara, and, as a high school drama teacher, she’s spent three decades with teenagers—she is still a 58-year-old woman from a small town. I am now the expert (she also asked me what dubstep was, and I declined to explain).
“Huh. Well, I decided I don’t like her,” concluded my mother, who had discovered Handler earlier that day via entertainment news segment. “She seems like she’s mean. One of those nasty popular girls.” I agreed.
But after we hung up, something nagged at me. No matter how obnoxious we may find Handler and her acolytes, back in 2005—the year she published her first book, the sex-life-on-display memoir My Horizontal Life (followed by Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea in 2008 and Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang in 2010)—there were no network sitcoms with female leads. The only female-helmed talk shows were of the daytime variety (The View, anyone?). Movies? Forget it—The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers, both as male-oriented as the day is long, were the banner comedies that year (though a small shout-out to Sarah Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic is probably in order). The only truly notable female comedian at the time was Tina Fey, who, after becoming the first female head writer of SNL in 1999, had transitioned to the Weekend Update desk.
Since the arrival of Handler’s book in 2005, however, there has been a veritable avalanche of Femoirs—memoirs by contemporary female comedians—culminating in the smash success of Fey’s Bossypants last year. These books have propelledtheir authors from acts to brands. Could it be that the “mean girl” I was so wary of actually served as the catalyst for the current female comedy movement? I shuddered to think.
The comedic memoir is virtually a career requirement for any funny person, helping to establish a comedian’s voice and character for a larger audience. In essence, it’s a longform version of a standup set (its contemporary iteration can probably be traced back to Woody Allen, whose effete comedic monologues were easily translated to profitable books that helped mainstream his sensibilities, and to Nora Ephron, RIP, who performed a similar feat, albeit more journalistically). Memoirs are particularly essential for female comedians, for whom awkward, soul-bearing confessions have become a currency. And because the success of Bridesmaids, HBO’s Girls, et al. has made the female comedic voice not only tenable but also desirable, the Femoir, while not unique from its male counterpart, is, in marketing parlance, So Hot Right Now. You can be a male comedian and not write a memoir. But if you are a female comedian, you would be stupid not to.
But while the Femoir is excellent marketing for female comedians, and a chance for them to build careers on a par with male comedians (leading to your Home Improvements, your Everybody Loves Raymonds, your Louies, et al), it is also a highly formulaic, and incredibly limiting genre. Because there are really only two roles for a woman in comedy: you can be a Chelsea, or you can be a Tina. How did we get here? Are we stuck in a two-party comedy system? Are you there, Femoir? It’s me, Kaitlin.
2005: The Chelsea Archetype
While most of us know about Chelsea Handler—the foul-mouthed blonde bombshell comedy powerhouse, late night talk show host, sitcom doyenne, dater of 50 Cent, etc.—not as many realize that the Big Kahuna of dirty, sexy comedy can trace her success back to a book. Back in the early 2000s, Handler was just another stand-up “comedienne” (a diminutive since abandoned, thankfully) hoofing from club to club and playing a man’s game. By 2004, she had a few development deals in the works, but network executives, according to an article from the actors’ rag BackStage West, were trying to remake her in their own idea of a female image (sweeter, kinder, more pliable than Ms. Handler actually was, says the piece). So Handler got herself a book deal with Bloomsbury [full disclosure: my current employers], for a memoir written by her in her own voice. My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands is a rangy collection of Handler’s perversions, recounted from the tender age of six, when, on a sibling-initiated dare, Handler photographs her parents having sex. The book goes on to detail her sexual adventures with midgets, much younger men, and more besides.
Bloomsbury, pockets lined with Harry Potter money and in brand-expansion mode, had taken a gamble: truth about lady business was heady stuff in those days. (Honestly. It seems almost antiquated now, doesn’t it?) But it paid off: MHL shot straight up the New York Times Bestseller List. While the market for female humour was, at the time, scarce, Handler had tapped into the internet-detonated mushroom cloud that is TMI-overshare culture—reality TV, YouTube, and celebrity gossip on one hand; revealing, mass-market autobiographical books on the other, including Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (later revelations notwithstanding) and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. The stars had aligned: a premium had been placed on the kind of information Handler was willing to share, in the format she wished to share it in. That she was putting dirty laundry on the line while looking cute and wearing heels only sweetened the pot.
Which is not to say the book isn’t worthwhile. It’s genuinely funny, and surprising, if a little scattered (Jeannette Walls she ain’t). And as self-deprecating, dirty, and full of hot shame as it is, it’s empowering in a sideways way. As the BackStage West interview implied, Handler had been a difficult sell in boardrooms and backrooms—her beauty and crude power made her intimidating in a male-dominated culture as yet unused to seeing women assert themselves. But by undercutting her power with tales of sex gone awry, she was able to maintain accessibility while still being fem-balls-to-the-wall.
I remember reading MHL and thinking, “Ew,” but also, “Good!” because although it was not good literature by any stretch—nor was its author someone I felt an affinity for—its existence felt important in a way I couldn’t then articulate, a way that now seems abundantly clear. MHL brought to the fore an enduring lady comedy archetype, a coinage that execs could spew in meetings: The Female Fuckup, who would go on to blossom in Bridesmaids (never has a female character failed so hilariously, miserably, and wholly onscreen as Kristen Wiig’s Annie). Then there’s Girls, in which Lena Dunham’s naked body alone is an affront to the notion of female achievement. It’s flabby and neglected—fuck-uppery literally embodied (and then it gets worse: she opens her mouth).
MHL saw the beginning of a Handler avalanche, which would over the next seven years net its star 22 million dollars, a late night talk show on E! called Chelsea Lately, and a primetime sitcom. It would spawn an army of Handler offshoots, including former Chelsea Lately writer Whitney Cummings, whose god-awful TV show Whitney somehow survived the axe this season. And—gulp!—it opened a mainstream portal to female comedy.