The Difference Between Being In On The Joke And Being The Punch Line

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Must women transcend their femininity to truly be considered funny?

In a recent piece on women and raunch culture, Emily Heist Moss wrote the following:

“There’s a danger here that we [will] slide too far past refreshing, humanizing, true-to-life humor, and skid into the arena of that lowest common denominator humor that my mother was so resentful of. The bottom of this slippery slope is discussed at length in Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigsin which young women objectify themselves and each other as a form of faux-equality. If dudes can whoop it up in a strip club, why can’t I? If I holler at Girls Gone Wild, or tattoo a naked woman on my shoulder, or discuss Scarlett Johansson’s breasts, then I’m in on the joke, instead of part of the punch line. But of all of the things we’re going to borrow from dudes, is raunch humor really where we want to play copycat?”

The question is an important one to raise when it comes to a variety of situations that men and women find themselves in on a regular basis (Edwin Lyngar’s post on the way men tease each other about their weight is a great example of this), but it seems to take on a particular salience in any discussion of women in comedy, women in film, and women’s relationship to raunch and shock humor.

The idea, as Moss implies, is that raunch is typically a male domain and by entering it, women have to somehow transcend their femininity; when we talk about being “in on the joke” in this context, what we really mean is that women have left behind some aspect of what makes them women and replaced it with something more masculine, something that makes it possible for them to tolerate humor that would otherwise be alien to them. It’s like some sort of rite of passage or hazing ritual: Give up or shed what’s comfortable to you in order to gain more status and be seen in a different—and, we can assume, more positive—light.

But whenever I hear someone talk about a woman being in on the joke, I can’t help but wonder if that’s even possible. A woman who decides to be in on the joke compromises something, whether it’s big or small. Does making that compromise invalidate or threaten what she ultimately achieves? To put it more simply, can she have her cake and eat it too? 

It’s entirely possible that these questions don’t have answers, or at least not clear ones. But they’re certainly worth exploring, and there is no shortage of examples of women in the public eye who have so thoroughly blurred the line between being in on the joke and being the joke itself that it’s almost impossible to locate at this point. To my mind, one of the most interesting of these examples is Kathy Griffin, who not only built her career on jokes, but also on an intelligently nuanced preempting of the joke that she already knew herself to be. 

Around the time she started filming “My Life on the D List,” Kathy Griffin was mildly famous, though by no means a D-List celebrity (if such a thing even existed before she coined the term); however, by putting herself in the lowest possible category, Griffin deftly defied anyone else to undercut the statement she’d made. In the show, she cast herself as a merciless social climber—in doing so she cleverly satirized a lifestyle that seems all-too-common in Hollywood while very openly declaring that she was part of the group she was mocking. She was up front about struggling with her looks (and the way in which doing so as a female comedian was different from doing so as a female actor), straightforward about being unhappy with her weight, comfortable appearing on-screen without makeup, and unafraid to wear frumpy clothing and not conform to the image of the Hollywood starlet. A lot of her act was, of course, founded on exaggeration—Griffin was and is attractive, intelligent, thin, and successful—but the exaggeration was an essential part of the joke that she was telling. 

As the series evolved, though, Griffin underwent a transformation. She became more glamorous, started doing more high-profile events, lost weight, and (it would seem) hired a new stylist. At the same time, the premise of the show and the way she presented herself stayed the same: She remained self-effacing and cynical, and continued to mock an industry she was busting ass to become a part of. 

These days, the image I see of her most often is from the DVD cover of one of her most recent stand-up shows, “Pants Off.” In it, she’s dressed in a Vargas-Girl-style get-up, complete with thigh-high fishnets and Bettie Page bangs. She’s leaning seductively on a red leather ottoman in one those slightly mechanically sexual poses that’s characteristic of images from the era she’s emulating. Her chest is thrust slightly forward, and her lips are parted a bit—for a cynic, she’s got a very well-practiced sexyface.

Every time I see the picture, I study it hard in an effort to find the joke. But if there’s one there, I have yet to find it. If it weren’t for the red hair, Kathy Griffin would be unrecognizable in this picture, just as she is in the promo for her new talk show on Bravo. She’s sexy now, with a Hollywood body and Hollywood good looks to match. Although her comedic style remains the same, she’s conformed to a standard that she used to flout brazenly, which takes a lot of the edge off everything that used to make her so funny. The D-List Griffin was always a couple steps ahead of everyone, looking back and winking. She’s still winking now, but it’s coming from a glossy pin-up and the message just isn’t the same. Something has changed.

Griffin shouldn’t be denied her evolution, but the way in which she’s changed does make it seem like her hold on the joke was tenuous from the beginning. By establishing herself as a lovable iconoclast, she made it so that she couldn’t integrate into society without compromising an important part of what made her who she was. As a result, the fact that she’s now integrated (whether she wants us to believe it or not) is incredibly problematic.

She’s now become the joke, but not the one she has been telling all these years: Now she really is the social climber who made her way into society by accepting the terms that it laid out for her; she’s conceded to conventional standards of attractiveness and appears to be catering to a male audience through overt displays of sexuality instead of adopting a raunchy attitude and going toe-to-toe with her male counterparts; she’s toned it down and become a more palatable version of what she once was. She’s still Kathy Griffin, but is she really still Kathy Griffin? Could she have had her Hollywood makeover and still remained the cynical, raunchy outsider that she started out being? 

It’s tempting to say that the slope between being in on the joke and being the punch line is a slippery one. But I think if we look closely, what we really find is that there’s no slope at all—the two are on level ground, one just a step away from the other.

Emilie Littlehales lives in New York City and works in academic publishing. She’s contributed to LUNA’s Chix Journal and Jezebel, and writes regularly for the RUNiverse and her personal blog, I Came to Run. She is interested in questions of body image, physical and mental health, gender roles, and sexuality, and especially the various ways in which they are shaped and affected by society’s expectations.

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