Mae West and Tina Fey: a Comparison of Two Notable Women in Comedy

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  • Topic: Mae West, Saturday Night Live, Double entendre
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  • Published : September 1, 2011
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The Evolution of Comedic Strategy from Mae West to Tina Fey
At first consideration, Mae West and Tina Fey are two completely different comedians who come from very different times and have comedic styles that are nearly polar opposites. West used her overt physical sexuality, coupled with innuendos and double entendres, to bypass the strict moral codes of the early 1900s. On the other hand, moral codes had been relaxed by the early twenty-first century and Fey had much more freedom of expression, but she chose to downplay her femininity and relied on sharp verbal wit instead. Despite their basic differences, Mae West and Tina Fey both broadened the horizons for women in that they were both among the first female writers in their fields and they both relied heavily on verbal wit as they rebelled against and strived to be counterexamples to the gender stereotypes of their times. For much of the twentieth century, women were widely considered to be inherently unfunny. Women were thought to be beautiful things that were to be cherished, not laughed at. Despite this belief, some women were able to succeed in comedy, but very few of them were allowed to write their own lines. By the time Mae West became involved in movies and Hollywood in 1932, she had already written many plays, one of which (Diamond Lil) was a Broadway comedic success. Thus, when she was displeased with her character in her first film, Night after Night, she was allowed to rewrite some of her scenes to suit her style. From then on, she insisted on taking a large role in writing the screenplays of her subsequent eight movies. In fact, the one movie that she was not able to contribute to the script (The Heat’s On) proved to be her last one for twenty-seven years (Miller). By the time Tina Fey joined the Saturday Night Live writing staff during the twenty-third season of the show, women had been on the writing staff there since the beginning of the show. However, women were often disrespected in the writing room and male cast members would sometimes even try to sabotage the female cast members’ proposed skits. Despite her extensive comedic writing experience from college and the Second City ensemble, Fey originally had troubles providing valuable sketch ideas at SNL (Gay). However, within a few weeks of her joining the show, her first sketch aired and in just two years, she became the first ever female head writer of Saturday Night Live. Both Mae West and Tina Fey managed to break into the dominantly male environments of writing rooms, but if Ms. West had not proven that women can be funny and original by writing her own screenplays in a time when men were the “funny” ones, Tina Fey may not have had the comedic and writing opportunities that eventually gave her the experience to break through another large gender barrier for female comedians. When Mae West launched her writing career in the 1920s and 1930s, there were strict moral codes and government-sponsored agencies that sought to prevent performers from performing material that was inappropriate for children and wives to see or hear. By this time, Mae West had already developed an openly sexual style after performing on vaudeville and burlesque stages for the majority of her life. However, the Hays Decency Code was in effect and organizations like the Society of Prevention of Vice (an organization that was sponsored by the state of New York) were actively trying to censor or end productions that did not follow their stringent guidelines, just as they did with West’s play regarding homosexuality, Drag, and another one of her plays, aptly named Sex. For example, West depicted womanizing, drugs, blackmail, attempted rape, a single man living with a single woman, and seduction in her 1926 play Sex. All of the topics addressed (and even the salacious title) were all strictly forbidden under the Hays Code and West’s blatant disregard of the rules and rebellion resulted her arrest and...
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