Does Hotness Diminish Humor?

[Chris Bodenner]

Yesterday in Aspen, Michael Eisner stirred up controversy during his conversation with Goldie Hawn. Spencer was there:

“From my position, the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman,” [Eisner] said. “By far. They usually—boy am I going to get in trouble, I know this goes online—but usually, unbelievably beautiful women, you [Goldie Hawn] being an exception, are not funny. […] In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.

You can listen to the full context of those remarks above. Reader Duncan Tweedy doesn’t understand why people are getting so offended:

I don’t think Eisner should be excoriated for this comment. He wasn’t saying women aren’t funny, which is a stupid and indefensible argument. He was merely noticing that “unbelievable” physical beauty makes being a successful female comedian much more difficult. I think there’s plenty of evidence for this.

Self-deprecating humor just doesn’t connect as well when it comes from a beautiful person. And as difficult as it might be for an audience to sympathize with a good-looking man, that difficulty will be an order of magnitude worse for a woman. An “unbelievably beautiful woman”* does not elicit the same extreme reactions as a beautiful man (outside a gay bar anyway). People will trip over themselves to offer beautiful women all sorts of advantages—nor are all these reactions beneficial, as Hawn’s Al Capp story illustrates. [Listen to that disturbing story here, retold by Hawn to Eisner.] People both revere and resent beauty, and that undercuts opportunities for comedy.

When Louis C.K. portrays himself as a young man, he invariably describes a younger version of the way he looks now, i.e. sorta fat and pudgy and kind of ugly. He apparently doesn’t want to admit that when he was a young man doing stand-up, he was a generally handsome and physically fit guy. There’s plenty of footage from those days to confirm this.

If Louis C.K. was still a good-looking guy, would half his material connect nearly so effectively? I think not. Losing his good looks was a fantastic boon to his career.

I think Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig are “unbelievably beautiful” (see also Lucille Ball). However, if you compare them to A-list female movie stars, you see that there’s a difference, if not in quantity of beauty, certainly in quality. I’m laughing just remembering the dopey faces Poehler and Wiig (and Ball) use to great comedic effect. Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence, great actresses though they are, just couldn’t pull that off. Most of what makes an A-list actress beautiful is very similar to a top model’s beauty. Most of what makes Poehler, Wiig, and Ball beautiful is in the twinkle of their eyes and the funny expressions they make.

Herein lies the confusing convergence: In a very real way, funny is beautiful.

Regarding that point about Louis C.K. downplaying his looks for comedic effect, check out a piece Ashley Fetters wrote for us a few years ago, “Why Do So Many Pretty Female Comedians Pretend They’re Ugly?” — namely Phyllis Diller and Tina Fey:

tina-fey-esquire-april-2010And her 30 Rock character Liz Lemon, a high-powered, frequently frazzled TV showrunner who’s somehow always losing at her own game, is often put down, even inadvertently, by her colleagues for her appearance: “Lemon, the grown-up dating world is like your haircut,” sighs Jack, Alec Baldwin’s corporate condescender-in-chief. “Sometimes, awkward triangles occur.”

And yet, in the spring of 2010, Fey had her own Phyllis-Diller-in-Playboy moment. One surprisingly smokin’-hot Tina Fey graced the cover of Esquire, vamping in red lipstick, stilettos, and handcuffs. It’s hard not to look at the hard-partying themed spread–especially the cover image–without hearing a Tracy Morgan-style “Damn, Liz Lemon!” in your head. But Fey herself was quick to declaw any notion that the photos had captured the real, raw, “unleashed” Tina Fey. “The idea of the photo shoot is something like my wild night out. The irony being that I don’t do that,” she explained in the accompanying interview. “I got to get my kid into kindergarten.” Almost every photo from the spread, too, features Fey cheekily derailing the shoot’s straight-faced, male-gaze sensuality–absentmindedly streaking lipstick across her cheek, for example, or falling into a laundry cart in the hallway of a swanky hotel.

[Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut] says there’s a line in the sand for women: On one side, there’s too funny to be sexy, and on the other, there’s too sexy to be funny. And trying to straddle that line, she says, doesn’t often end well.

What do you think? Email me at hello@theatlantic.com.

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