It's easy to take funny women for granted, considering how many of them compete for our attention.
Consider former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and "Bridesmaids" writer-star Kristen Wiig, who shook up Hollywood with her blockbusting, all-female comedy flick. Then there are stand-up bottom-feeders like Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers. Critically acclaimed, female-fronted shows like Tina Fey's "30 Rock" or Lena Dunham's "Girls." Comic takes on current events from Wanda Sykes and Joy Behar.And of course, Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres, who watch over their multimedia empires from their daily talk shows.
So instead of rehashing the specious argument about whether or not women are as funny as men — anyone who wonders about that clearly hasn't watched or read anything in decades — a pair of new books are celebrating the history of women in American comedy.
But with real obstacles still in place for many female stand-ups, it's a tricky balance of acknowledging reality while looking past comedy's less-evolved corners toward a more equitable horizon.
More to prove?
"Women do have a lot more to prove, and I've definitely been approached by people after shows who say, 'You're really funny — for a girl,' " said Kristin Rand, a comic who hosts the monthly "Delusions of Randeur" stand-up showcase at Denver's Beauty Bar.
"But I don't think about it a terribly large amount of the time. I really just focus on being a performer and being funny more than having to fight to overcome something."
That's largely the approach taken by the books, Yael Kohen's "We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy" (Sarah Crichton Books) and Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton's "Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady" (Applause Books) — both published in October.
Instead of rebutting Christopher Hitchens' infamous 2007 Vanity Fair essay "Why Women Aren't Funny," these new books mostly profile the dozens of funny women who have played an integral role in American pop culture. And however well-intentioned, they don't strike the right tone.
"We Killed," for example, fares best when sticking to the oral history of legends like Phyllis Diller, or contemporary comics such as Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho. But the commentary, while accurate, often feels like padding.
"Women have always been funny," writes Kohen. "It's just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule."
The far-less-polished but no-less-earnest "Comediennes" breaks out each performer with mini-profiles that run chronologically, from the early days of Gracie Allen and Mae West to Loni Love and Sarah Silverman. It's light on insight and heavy on generalizations, but its intent is the same: to rally around American female comics of the past century.
Still, separating female comics into their own books — or even calling them "comediennes," a term that many of them hate — is a risk when most stand-ups just want to get past this stale, circular conversation.
How can we celebrate their contributions and still evolve beyond the "noncontroversy that will not die," as New York journalist and comic recently Gaby Dunn put it?
There's no one answer, of course. Marginalized groups, however defined, have often been forced to toe the line between rah-rah solidarity and cultural integration. For better or worse, we see the world in categories, and there just happen to be more visible male comedians than female.
But the soul-searching has a purpose. Stand-up comedy is both hotter and more niche than it's ever been, so the recent focus on women can be seen as logical extensions of comedy's renewed vitality and reach.
And according to some female stand-ups, things really are getting better.
"There are some hurdles that a guy's not going to experience, but overall I feel really good about women comics in Denver," said comedian Heather Snow, who formerly ran the female-centric "Ladies Laugh-In" showcase at Beauty Bar. "I don't know if my show necessarily did it or if it's just the girls working hard, but there are so many shows now in Denver with multiple women in them."
Snow, who recently made her national debut on TV Guide Network's "Standup in Stillettos" show, counts local comics Nancy Norton, Nora Lynch, Christie Buchele, Jen Koscheka and Stephanie McHugh among her favorites. And Rand, the host of Beauty Bar's current stand-up night, is part of the all-female sketch troupe LadyFace, which kicks off two weekends of holiday shows at the Spark Theater on Thursday.
Perhaps then, an answer lies in a careful mix appreciation and forward motion, keeping the past sacrifices of female comics in mind while looking past gender when it's time to appreciate the jokes.
"The more you talk about that, the more it's existent," Chelsea Handler told The Denver Post last year. "I don't buy it at all. I work my ass off, and there's tons of results for it."
As Handler and others have said, it's often guys who are obsessed with the topic in the first place. Handler regularly provides opportunities for female comics and writers on her "Chelsea Lately" show, but doesn't hire based on any sort of gender quota.
"I think women comics are the last to say, "I'm a funny womanor I'm a funny female comic," said Fortune Feimster, a "Chelsea Lately" writer-performer who headlined Comedy Works South over the weekend. "We're not the ones always bringing it up. I want to move forward to the point where it's not even an issue or topic. I'm also a gay comic, but I don't even want to be considered 'funny for a gay comic.' I just want to be funny."
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johntwenzel
DELUSIONS OF RANDEUR. Stand-up comedy showcase, third Wednesday of each month, hosted by Kristin Rand with DJ Randy Washington. 8 p.m. Beauty Bar, 608 E. 13th Ave. Free. 720-542-8024 or beautybar.com/denver.
LADYFACE PRESENTS: "AN OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY." Sketch comedy featuring Timmi Ann Lasley, Melanie Karnopp, Chella Negro, Kristin Rand and Mara Wiles. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Dec. 13-15. 985 Santa Fe Drive. $12. 720-346-7396 or sparktheater.org.