When I was a growing up in Iran, a favourite past-time was watching boot-legged Betamax video cassettes of Hollywood films, Turkish soap operas, and British comedy shows. I distinctly remember The Benny Hill Show as a recurring features. Benny Hill played the character of an old jolly slap-sticky comic whose act largely revolved around chasing very young, very attractive women and accidentally undressing them or otherwise engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviour bordering what we call assault these days. I don’t mean to judge poor Mr. Hill based on our modern sensibilities and standards. Yet you can’t note that The Benny Hill Show was an international hit in the 80’s! An international hit! The average person found the show not offensive but hilarious. Just in my lifetime alone, we’ve come far in the West. Back then few families even contemplated how this type of comedy might impact their children’s perception of gender roles or acceptable behaviour. Even in the nineties when I was a teenager in Canada spending idle hours watching The Comedy Network, fat chick jokes were the standard stock of most stand-up comedians.
Growing up, there was an undeniable dearth of women comedians in the English speaking world. Women were not deemed funny. In the past decade however, there has been an explosion of female comedians on the scene. The likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Schumer have created their own shows, penned best-selling memoirs, and made films. In short they have created a space for a female perspective on big issues like rape culture, body dysmorphia, violent pornography, equal representation, and the tiring over-obsession with “having it all”. Among these disruptive pioneers, I personally have a special soft spot for Samatha Bee, not least because she is an alumnus of the Daily Show and a mentee of Jon Stewart, the father of all political satirists on TV. Sam Bee has created an interesting format for late night TV (thankfully available on her YouTube channel for us expats but also international audiences). Devoid of guests, stiff suits, and big desks as a permanent fixture in the middle of the stage, the show has a fast-paced high-action feel to it. She goes on long monologues, often tirades on one or two specific topics per show. Sam Bee is the best kind of comedian! The angry type. Her segments are a mix of righteous indignation, razer-sharp analysis, and investigative journalism. She has been critiqued for her “empty vitriol”. But her millions of viewers seem to disagree week after week. Given that her topics are often lady-relevant ones, I think I am not the only women out there who gets strong satisfaction from seeing her express our frustrations so well and so passionately. It is her passion and anger that make her segments all the more authentic. When covering the Orlando shooting Sam said “Is it okay if, instead of making jokes, I just scream for seven minutes until we cut to commercial?” showing that her primary objective is not telling jokes but doing satire. I’ve never been a fan of aloof dead-pan comedy. That why I never fully got into the new the Daily Show with Trevor Noah or the Late Night with Seth Meyers. So for me and over 2 million other viewers, having Sam Bee on TV to vent our frustrations is a gift.
It is amazing that in my lifetime alone we have TV comedy shows have transformed beyond recognition. That is not to say that sexism or even violence cloaked as humour doesn’t exist, but at least it doesn’t go unchecked. Now I am only awaiting Jessica Williams to have her own show to be truly content with the cadre of female comics we have on our airways.