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Meghan Daum: Breaking comedy's raunch barrier

EntertainmentMoviesBridesmaids (movie)Nicole HolofcenerThe Kids Are All Right (movie)Lisa CholodenkoThe Hangover (movie)

The results are in: "Bridesmaids," the much-hyped girl-raunch comedy touted as the long-awaited antidote to Judd Apatow's "bromance" phenomenon, opened way bigger than expected at the box office, thereby proving that women can be just as funny — and, moreover, sell as many tickets — as men. (Apatow, it should be noted, is a producer on the film.)


FOR THE RECORD:
Funny girls: In Meghan Daum's May 19 column about comedy and women, Amy Heckerling was identified as the director of "Mean Girls." Mark Waters directed "Mean Girls"; Heckerling directed "Clueless."


Billed in its tagline as evidence that "chick flicks don't have to suck," "Bridesmaids" is being seen as a watershed, a final blow to the notion that women in Hollywood comedies have two choices: the predictable, bland heroines endemic to romantic comedies or the improbably hot love interests of Apatow-style schlubs.

This logic has largely been based on the theory that women will see movies about men (no matter how drunk, crude, clueless or otherwise unappealing) but that men would rather subject themselves to a Brazilian wax (memo to Apatow: How about "Brazilian Wax," a buddy comedy set in Rio, where five guys looking for fun get more than they bargained for?) than sit through two hours of big-screen female funny business. The spin on "Bridesmaids," however, is that men will like it as much as women, and come to it in the same droves that turned films such as "The Hangover" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" into blockbusters.

That remains to be seen, of course. Only a smattering of men braved the showing of "Bridesmaids" that I attended, almost all of them in the company of a woman. If the film's promise of crossover appeal holds true, those men will presumably report back to other men that there's enough gross-out humor and scatological set pieces in the film to offset all that estrogen. They may also mention that the film's gamine star and co-writer, Kristen Wiig, exposes so much leg that she often appears to have forgotten to put on pants. That might offset the appearance of the '90s pop trio Wilson Phillips.

It's hard to come by a serious discussion of "Bridesmaids" that doesn't invoke Christopher Hitchens' infamous 2007 Vanity Fair rant, "Why Women Aren't Funny." Working with the thesis that men have a biological imperative to make women laugh, whereas women — thanks mostly to the gravity of their reproductive duties — are imbued with sacredness and seriousness that are antithetical to the very nature of humor (also, if they look pretty, they don't have to speak), Hitchens seems to regard comedy as a poor cousin to more respectable genres like drama (and in this case motherhood). Besides, he wrote, filth is connected to 50 percent of what composes humor. And the "fair sex" doesn't go for it.

"Bridesmaids" literally vomits all over that. It skips most girl-movie cliches (the shopping scenes; the lip-syncing to Aretha Franklin using a hairbrush as a microphone) and jumps headlong into boy-movie cliches. The result is not only critical acclaim but sociopolitical props. It's suddenly "irrefutable," says the New York Times, that "women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men." Slate suggested that Hitchens' "perennially circulated head scratcher" has been definitively answered with "a whoopee cushion fart."

Does that imply that the whoopee cushion, as the basest form of humor, is also the purest form of it? The anointing of "Bridesmaids" as a breakthrough suggests as much. After all, despite the hype, it's not the first time we've seen women writing and acting in funny, atypical chick flicks. (Amy Heckerling's "Mean Girls," Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right" and the films of Nicole Holofcener come to mind.) It is, however, the first time we've seen women writing and acting like men in funny movies (and, even then, only a certain subgenre of men; we're not talking Michael Palin or Chris Rock). The fact that it's being touted as a yardstick for measuring a comedian's skills — "If she can do a fart joke, she can do anything!" — suggests that the problem all along hasn't been who is considered funny but what is considered funny.

So listen up, aspiring comedy stars, if you want to make it in Hollywood, it's not enough to deliver the jokes. You need the whoopee cushion too.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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