What Jerry Lewis Really Means When He Says Women Can’t Be Funny

Jerry Lewis defends his stance against female comedians. Here's what he doesn't know he's saying.

At Cannes, Jerry Lewis opened his very opinionated mouth again, explaining why he still doesn’t like female comics: “I can’t see women doing that. It bothers me. I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can’t do that.”

It’s not the first time he’s knocked female comedians: In 2000, he disparaged the work of Lucille Ball, stating that “a woman doing comedy… sets me back a bit—I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.”

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What bothers me about these types of soundbites is the men who say them rarely spit out the whole truth, because it’s never just that they think women aren’t funny. There’s a world of connotation and innuendo to believing women aren’t funny. Here are a few logical implications

1. It doesn’t matter what women have to say.

The point of comedy is valuing a performer’s point of view, whether he/she is standup comedian or a clownish slapstick performer. When Jerry Lewis says that a woman “diminishes her qualities” when trying to be funny, he’s actually saying she’s less valuable when representing her point of view. He’s saying she should shut up. Or at least be very mindful of how much she’s “giving up” when wanting a laugh. Some of us believe clever self-representation is actually an interesting, edifying quality about anybody, including women.

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2. Women have nothing to be funny about.

Jerry Lewis’ “lowest common denominator” comment is pretty telling. He’e saying he thinks it’s embarrassing when women attempt to do what he does, which is get a laugh through comical self-humiliation. Dear Jerry Lewis: Your version of comedy is not the only existing version of comedy. I can’t believe it’s 2013 and you’ve found a way to believe that the “Hey laaady” school of comedy is the standard or prevailing one. Female comics are not just trying to fit themselves into a male mold when they perform. Seriously. They’re representing themselves, and if you think that’s inherently a male quality, you have problems. But you’re probably too scared to acknowledge those.

3. If you’re a woman who wants to be funny, you’re classless.

I mean, that is basically word-for-word what he’s saying. Which is such a desperate thing to say about Sandra Bernhard, who is totally funnier than Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy.

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4. It’s up to Jerry Lewis to decide what is valuable about a woman.

What the hell does “diminishing her qualities” even mean? Women should be pillars of unfunny motherliness? Virginal, graceful, silent, unthinking matriarchs? All I can say is some of us actually like talking to women.

5. Jerry Lewis doesn’t want women to be funny.

The biggest implication here is that Jerry believes there’s an orderliness to the “Men can be funny; women don’t have to be” paradigm. Like, “Why are these dames ruining this perfect system?” Because it’s a system that only suits you, Jerry Lewis, but you’ve managed to confuse “Jerry Lewis” with “everybody.” No one else has that problem, thank God. But of course, the reason Mr. Lewis feels he has the platform to express such a Neanderthal point of view is the assumption that many other people agree with him.

My feeling is: Jerry Lewis should want women to be funny, even if he literally doesn’t laugh at a single thing a woman ever says—which is probably, almost definitely not the case. Because if the world is adhering to some outdated standard about comedy, then comedy will probably die soon.

Comedy needs to become more inclusive or it will simply not matter. Kind of like certain people.