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The golden age of women in comedy

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The cast of 'Ghostbusters' reboot
Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig and Kate McKinnon star in the all-female "Ghostbusters" reboot, due in theaters in 2016.
Courtesy of Sony

The question isn't whether women are funny — that question has been asked, repeatedly, and answered. It's how the current golden age of women in comedy developed.

And it is a golden age — or at least a cubic zirconium age — according to actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch. Gurwitch and comedian Ophira Eisenberg joined MPR News' Stephanie Curtis to discuss the state of women in comedy.

So how do things look? Women created two of the top dark comedies of the moment: "Transparent" and "Orange is the New Black." All three finalists for the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor were women. The first-ever Emmy for sketch comedy went to a woman. And women-led comedies led the box office this summer: "Spy," "Trainwreck" and "Pitch Perfect 2."

Things are changing in the entertainment industry, from the board room to the small comedy club. "Even in clubs and on the stage, the audiences are not asking those same questions that they used to. They're not saying, 'Oh, it's a woman on stage. Is this going to be funny?'" said Eisenberg. "We're turning a corner."

Gurwitch credits Tina Fey with helping pave the way for today's funny women. "Saturday Night Live has always been a male-dominated show in terms of the powers behind the show. When [Fey] became the head writer, that was a game-changer. It opened the door to so many great writers."

Of course many women came before Fey: Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Lily Tomlin, to name just a few. Women comedians in previous decades faced tremendous barriers, two of which Gurwitch said are still being broken down today: age and looks.

Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph
Actresses Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph pictured in 2015.
Michael Buckner | Getty Images

Gurwitch recalled her stint hosting the HBO show "Not Necessarily News" in the late 80s. She couldn't change her hair without causing an uproar on set while her male co-host escaped any similar kind of physical scrutiny.

As for the age barrier, people were excited to see Leslie Jones move from the writer's room to the TV screen on Saturday Night Live. The 48-year-old actress is the oldest debut performer in the show's history. (Jones is also part of the cast for the groundbreaking women-led "Ghostbusters" reboot coming next year.)

The types of characters women are playing — and writing — have changed as well. When you think of Liz Lemon on "30 Rock," Selena Meyer on "Veep" or Amy Schumer on her show, "they're not the people-pleasing, pandering, making-everything-okay female stereotypes of comedy that we have had as a trope in entertainment over the years," said Eisenberg. 

Actress Leslie Jones
Actress Leslie Jones at the 40th anniversary celebration for Saturday Night Live in New York City, Feb. 15, 2015.
Larry Busacca | Getty Images

The characters can be unlikeable, and still tremendously successful. "I love that the people-pleasing aspect of the female comedic character is being removed."

That said, both Eisenberg and Gurwitch admit there is still room for improvement. When Vanity Fair published a spread this month with the current slate of late-night television hosts, the magazine wrote that the line-up was "better than ever." 

People on Twitter couldn't help but point out that there was one thing missing from the photo: a woman.

Who better to respond than Samantha Bee, former correspondent on The Daily Show? Bee will have her own show on TBS, come January.