The very first moments of Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre, make it clear that this is a film with a solid understanding of its own identity. We are introduced to Jenny Slate’s character, Donna Stern, during a several-minute, uninterrupted stand-up set where she lays bare the dirty not-so-secret secret of vaginal discharge and waxes poetic about her boyfriend who, lucky Donna, not only is “a human male” but also has “a working penis.”
Viewers fall under her spell immediately. She’s still a blossoming comic, and her performance is hardly flawless or iconic, but her energy, honesty, comedic timing, and utter commitment are impossible to resist. Donna is charming even and especially when she’s recounting all the farts she saved up while in the presence of her boyfriend.
Recently a male friend of mine mused that he had no idea whether or not girls did this thing that he knew most guys did, which was sit around in groups with other guy friends, saying weirdo stuff, gross-out stuff, whatever, just to make each other laugh. I was a little bit stunned. Short answer, guys: yes. Long answer: god, yes of course.
But despite how obvious this seemed to me, my friend was asking a valid question, and it makes sense that he wouldn’t necessarily have a clue. After all, the only ways he could know how women behave solely in the presence of other women would be for him to be a girl, which he is not, or for him to see representations of funny, ladies-only hangouts in the media.
As a woman, when I see girls being funny on TV and in movies, I usually see them trying to be funny for men—to charm them, entertain them, distract them, or compete with them. Alternately, sometimes “funny” female characters are funny on accident, ending up in embarrassing situations that tend to rely on physical comedy and the hilarious accident of being slightly less than feminine. Even those that defy the basic stereotypes tend to get little in the way of good comic material other than a single, well-timed quip now and then just to re-establish that her character possesses the character trait of “funny.”
It is in this respect that Obvious Child really stands out. Donna Stern is consistently, almost uncontrollably hilarious. And what’s most impressive about the film is how subtle and nuanced it is, while making fresh and fairly subversive statements about comedy, womanhood, and identity.
Obvious Child doesn’t make a huge deal out of the fact that its protagonist is female. It just lets this story unfold organically. That Donna is both a comedian and a woman informs the events, but this fact doesn’t seem intended to dominate the story with a single-minded message, nor does it seem to be shunted aside and hidden away like tampons shoved in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. It accepts that a woman telling jokes is just as natural as a man telling them.
2011’s Bridesmaids made a splash for similar reasons—it had scenes of women being bad, being gross, and trying to make each other laugh just for the sake of it. That film’s enormous success—made possible in part, I’d argue, by the fact that it places the characters in the familiar and stereotypically feminine setting of a lavish wedding, which is “safer” territory in which to mine jokes about ladies being naughty all on their own—paved the way for other big (or, at least, bigger) budget films with female comic leads. Obvious Child follows in Bridesmaids’ footsteps, and ups the stakes by taking on comedy in a conscious way, giving us a female character who is literally a comedian by profession. The film digs into the strange, challenging world of stand-up comedy in a serious way, acknowledging stand-up as a craft and a skill. Many scenes are set in Donna’s home base—the club where she performs—and even the ones that aren’t have a distinctly stand-uppy rhythm to them.
There aren’t that many pop culture depictions of stand-up that spend a good bit of time in comedy clubs, showing big chunks of routines and really engaging with the idiosyncrasies of this world, and they generally revolve around male comedians. 1988’s Punchline and 1992’s This Is My Life explore aspiring female comics, but both are over two decades old at this point and rely fairly heavily on male/female stereotypes. In recent years, we have Sleepwalk With Me (2012), television’s Louie, and Funny People (2009), the last being the only one I can think of that even showcases a female comedian’s routine—Aubrey Plaza’s character, Daisy.
In stand-up, too often, women aren’t the norm. They are niche. When I spoke with Los Angeles-based comedian Alison Stevenson about this, she mentioned that she’s been accused more than once of only booking a show “because they need a woman on the line-up.”
During one scene in Obvious Child, a fellow comic and pretty much total cad—played by David Cross, who makes being completely off-putting look too easy—sneaks a peek at some of Donna’s material as she’s writing it and compliments her. It’s great stuff, he says. “I think my bodega man is judging me, too.” It’s fitting that his praise is directed towards one of the only formal jokes we see from Donna that doesn’t involve a distinctly female experience. This is where he thinks she should shine, with the everyman stuff.
Stevenson, who has done stand-up in San Francisco and now in the much larger alternative comedy scene in LA, mentioned feeling a certain pressure in the past “to tell jokes that are less about my dating life, my looks, sex, etc. because I was so worried about how cliché it all is for a woman to talk about these things. However, I’d continue to see more successful male comics tell jokes about their dick, about porn, about picking up women.” So why not, she figured, just be herself, girl-stuff and all?
In scenes where Donna’s comic energy is set against her love interest, Jake Lacey’s sweet and subdued Max, it’s especially clear that the character is not trying to out-gross her male peers in an attempt to be “one of the guys.” She, again, is just being herself. And for Donna, being herself means she just can’t help but compare a comfortable material to “an angel’s titty skin” or make a joke about diarrhea when the situation presents itself.
In fact, it could be argued that Donna has far more in common with the prototypical male comedy protagonist, the Seth Rogen type, a character full of heart but with a tendency to make her paramour uncomfortable with her natural, crass humor and openness. Max functions well in the complementary “girlfriend” role. He’s fumbling, supportive, at turns both slighted and rejected but eventually rewarded with affection, and he shows occasional flashes of wry wit—the same flashes typically associated with the “funny” romantic comedy heroine.
Women being funny isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a new concept at this point, but the way that Obvious Child brings viewers a character who tells funny jokes that female audiences specifically can connect with—the camera spends a lot of time on audience reactions, tellingly lingering on the joyful faces of female audience members—is very exciting. “I’ve had women come up to me after shows,” Stevenson says, “and say things along the line of ‘I don’t usually like stand up but I liked your set.’”
Voicing the female experience onstage is not only admirable, it is vital, in part because it gives women a chance to show their true and varied selves to one another and to male audiences, and also because it allows stand-up comedy itself to prove it is capable of infinite variation. No male comic, however hesitant to give women their due, would be thrilled if stand-up was boiled down to, as Stevenson puts it, “Men going on and on about how weird their dick looks.”
That Obvious Child gives us a rare look behind the scenes of stand-up comedy and does this from a woman’s perspective means that even if the movie were merely okay, it would be a huge step in an important direction. That it consistently hits the mark when it comes to emotional resonance, character development, tone, and humor, just makes the film that much more exciting.
It contains one of the most accurate one-night stand depictions in the history of film. It manages to make abortion seem like what it most often is: a very personal, morally neutral, emotionally significant life event among thousands of others. It doesn’t overdramatize or minimize the awkwardness of the early stages of dating, and it examines family ties and friendship in sensitive, sometimes painful, and often heartwarming ways. Finally, it is absolutely, utterly hilarious. Almost every joke lands. This is a movie that turns the basic bathroom humor of a fart in the face into the sweetest meet-cute in recent memory.
Women’s stories, even and especially our gross, raunchy, and/or singularly feminine ones, are valuable, necessary, and perhaps most importantly, damn funny. Obvious Child makes this, well, obvious.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh occasionally writes for xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.