In Neanderthal society (2 million B.C.-1977), man had three jobs: To kill mastadons, to initiate sex, and to make people laugh. Everything else was woman's.
That's all changed, of course, but while women have been
pioneering their way into hunting-gathering and pleasure-initiating, it's only recently that much attention has been paid to their inroads into laugh-making. "Wisecracks," which opens today at the Charles, seeks to change all that.
It's a work of anthropology that dissects stand-up comedy culture, female-style, in an orthodox, sometimes ponderous way, and, when it stops trying to analyze, is frequently hysterical.
Directed by Canadian Gail Singer, the film offers performances from 24 woman comics or comic groups, interspliced with comments by the performers themselves; additionally, archival material from a variety of sources is included, among it outtakes of Ronald Reagan's blowing lines in some early TV appearance with Eve Arden.
If I tell you that the funniest woman in "Wisecracks" is Lucille Ball, you may not be surprised; the film reprises Lucy's famed Armageddon in a Grape Vat that has entered mythology as perhaps the funniest 40 seconds on television, and those 40 seconds are still mega-hilarious.
Of the others, the variety is considerable. Such post-feminist comics as Paula Poundstone and Joy Behar get a few minutes each to kill the room and each, in her fashion, does; Maxin Lapiduss and Jenny Jones are also quite funny and I liked a performer I wasn't familiar with, named Pam Stone, who does a nice riff on the southern woman. The material reflects, sometimes savagely, on the inner lives of women: In other words, the two favorite topics of humor are breasts and menstruation, with the stupidity of men an easy third. Rage underlies everything, as it does male comedy. Happy people do not seem to be funny people.
Singer tries, somewhat gamely and somewhat lamely, to organize the material topically, running through arcs: There's a sequence on how women comics handle men hecklers and a sequence on sexism in show biz and, inevitably, sex its own self.
I wish there had been more Whoopi and more Lucy; I wish there'd been more of the Canadian lip-synch group the Clichettes; I wish there'd been some Sandra Bernhard; I wish there'd been less Robin Tyler, a rigid feminist comic who is so busy being indignant she never gets to the jokes. And I wish there'd been less palaver about the "existentialism" or the "zen" of standup; far too much of "Wisecracks" sounds like Albert Goldman lecturing on Lenny Bruce at the New York Public Library.
Still, when it's funny, as it oh so frequently is, it's a killer.
Incidentally, "Wisecracks" is double-billed wiht "The Hairdresser's Husband," a French comedy about an erotically obsessed man trying to marry someone who will shampoo him. I haven't seen it, but it received admiring reviews earlier this year in New York.
Directed by Gail Singer.
Released by Alliance Films.