Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The funniest actress on television

The fairer sex is enjoying a rare moment of dominance atop the world of comedy. Well, maybe not dominance: comedy is still dominated by skinny, pasty white males and is likely to stay that way so long as cracking wise yields greater sexual returns than sitting-, pulling-, and pushing-up. But GWS digresses. Since Amy Poehler's baby came along, there's no clear answer as to who's the best comedic actress on television right now. GWS takes a look at some of the candidates you might expect, but DBMIVFK's choice may surprise some.


Tina Fey: The multi-Emmy-winning Fey is the reigning empress of mainstream comedy. After her well-publicized turn at "Saturday Night Live," she wrote the smart and funny Mean Girls, which should be remembered as both a great comedy and the height of The Lohan's pulchritude. She's since been toiling in critically-acclaimed-but-unwatched no-man's-land as the driving force behind "30 Rock." Throw in some American Express commercials, add some broth and, you got a stew goin'.

Fey doesn't get our award for a number of reasons.
  • First and foremost, GWS is not as big a fan of Fey or her work as everyone else on the planet seems to be. Her work at "SNL" was nothing special, and GWS thought that while the skits were funny, they lacked teeth. This shift at "SNL" to sillier humor coincided with "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report"'s collective ascent to the throne of political satire, a position once held by "SNL" and a former source of some of its best work. It's arguable that Fey was simply being smart and playing to her strengths, getting "SNL" out of the way of Comedy Central's satrirical juggernauts, and if this is the case, Fey should be commended for her good business sense. But if we assume this is the case and give her credit as a businesswoman, we must then recognize what she recognized: that Fey and her team at "SNL" couldn't compete on satire in a 24-hour news-cycle world.
  • Secondly, Fey has always written better for herself than for others. That's not a knock, that's just a statement of fact. Go back and watch the tape. Aside from Alec Baldwin's consistently scene-stealing performance as Jack Donaghy, Fey's characters seem to get a disproportionately high percentage of her pieces' best lines. Fey writes wonderful work for herself and admittedly great work for others (Kenneth had some great lines in last week's "30 Rock"), but this trend leaves GWS with questions.
  • Thirdly, have you noticed that the first two points were about Fey's work as a writer? Me too. Fey is, fundamentally, a writer and show-runner. It's what she knows, it's her profession, and it's what she does better than 99.9% of the rest of the planet. But she's not really an actress. Here is where the unfair slight that "Fey gets by on her looks," rings somewhat true: a less-attractive actress of similarly limited range and similarly prolific writing and production skills would probably see less screen time. Fey is endearing as Liz Lemon, and girl-you-want-to-take-home-adorable...but she's not a great actress, and that's why she's just a contender.

Sarah Silverman: The writing on "The Sarah Silverman Program" ranks among the least "safe" in all television. As a result, it's hit and miss, but it's mostly hits, and that speaks volumes about Silverman herself as the show's prime mover. Sarah Silverman is almost certainly the funniest female comic working today, and again, her telegenic good looks don't hurt; the jappy caricature through which she delivers most of her lines on and off the show depends on it. But again, we're looking for the funniest actress, not the funniest comedienne or female writer.
  • Sarah Silverman never breaks character as Sarah Silverman, an admirable feat for a comedic actress. It's an ingeniously devised persona, but it is so based on her previous "character" in stand-up comedy that it can be difficult to see where the writing starts and the writer stops. Silverman's not really playing a character in the traditional sense---it's not a big stretch for Sarah Silverman to get inside the character of Sarah Silverman.
  • Moreover, Silverman's character is remarkably consistent. While this is further testament to her writing and creative skills, it means she has to do less and less as an actress. This is a luxury our winner does not enjoy.
  • Finally, Sarah Silverman doesn't win this award for the same reason Tina Fey doesn't. It's not that they're bad actresses. In fact, they're really very, very good. It's just that they're better at other things related to acting. Babe Ruth was a helluva pitcher, but we remember him as a homerun hitter. As Fey will be remembered as a writer, Silverman will likely be remembered as a comic.
Jenna Fischer: The woman behind Pam Beesly gives our champion a serious run for her money, but comes up just short. Fischer's portrayal of the Dunder-Mifflin receptionist deserves the accolades it receives, so here's GWS's reasoning of why she doesn't get the award:

  • Of the four main charaters on "The Office," (Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam), Pam's character is the least funny. That's not Fischer's fault, and she deserves credit for staying within her character's role in the show. But it also allows her very few show-stealing moments. If the women on this list are Patriots wide receivers, Fischer is Wes Welker to our champion's Randy Moss: she's an absolutely necessary component of her show, better than just about anyone else out there, and she'll win a game for you if you let her. But Welker's not the game/show-changing presence Moss is, and neither is Fischer compared to our champ.
  • Because it's not Pam's job to be her team's "big-play receiver," it's her job to do other things on the show...things that aren't related to comedy. The Pam-Jim romantic subplot on the American "Office" is a major part of how NBC's series has been able to generate four-plus seasons of content where its British predecessor called it quits after two. Fischer's on-screen chemistry with John Krasinski's Jim can't be faked, and if you're not cheering for those two characters to live happily ever after, then you, sir, are an asshole. But, again, that means that Fischer's character is something deeper than just a comedic foil, that she's working with a real character, which means that more comedic heavy-lifting has to be done by other actors (mostly Rainn Wilson).
  • Jenna Fischer is the only candidate on this list whose looks can't be cited for why she's considered funny (this is not a curse unique to talented female comics and actresses. See also: Cook, Dane). Don't get GWS wrong: Jenna Fischer is a professional film and television actress, and as such, contractually obligated to be way, way prettier than any woman DBMIVFK's male readers or GWS has any right to meet. She's a brilliant casting decision as Pam Beesly: imminently accessible, with the kind of eyes that can stop you across a room, and a megawatt smile. But her frumpy receptionist's outfits tone down her natural good looks, and again, she's limited to a specific, well-defined role on "The Office." Pam can't play the sexpot, the shrew, the out-and-out bitch, and it's a good thing "The Office"'s writers never ask her to do so. Ultimately, Fischer loses this competition on degree of difficulty. She might be the best actress on this list, but she's not the funniest actress on television right now.

Without further ado...


Wait for it...

Kaitlin Olson!: Olson is the unsung star of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," and in GWS's opinion, the best comedic actress on television. Her bio says she was born in Oregon, but GWS is convinced she was custom-milled in a comedienne factory, a top-secret prototype that somehow broke free. Olson's work as Deandra Reynolds on "Always Sunny" consistently steals the show despite the absolute misery inflicted on the actress by the show's writers. A leggy 5'8" blonde, Olson's physique gives her writers options that other women on this list don't. She's the most intimidating of the four women on this list and simultaneously the least cute and sexiest. Simply put, she can do things the other women on this list can't.

"Sweet Dee" is expected, by turns, to be a raging booze hound, a woman scorned, a trod-upon employee, a social degenerate, a cunt, a child, and a loyal friend. Deandra is expected by "Always Sunny"'s writers to swing wildly between the least flattering female comedic stereotypes---the conniving whore, the ditz, the vengeful shrew---and Olson does so seamlessly. She's not working with a real character which makes her ability to make Dee seem relatable all the more remarkable. Dee is merely a foil for the three guys on the show; she's around when the writers have a bit that calls for someone with ovaries. Olson's character never gets her own storyline, she's rarely in an episode's climactic scene, and she never comes out on top. No comedy on television asks more of its female lead than "Always Sunny," and no actress carries more of her show's weight (can YOU think of another female lead who gets waterboarded?). It's inconceivable that such a physically attractive woman would hang out with such losers as Dennis, Charlie, and Mac (to say nothing of Frank), but Olson plays Dee as such a social misfit that it starts to make sense, helping "Always Sunny" avoid the cliched "Why is this hot girl hanging out with these losers?" trap that its writers had set for her. "Always Sunny" would grind to a halt if Olson weren't playing Dee, and the character wouldn't be nearly as funny with anyone else.

GWS sincerely hopes to see more of Olson in the future. Her ascendancy to Amy Poehler's old spot at the zenith of female comedic actresses also means that Rob McElhenney is elevated to Will Arnett's position as luckiest S.O.B. in Hollywood.

1 comment:

Indoor said...

No Kristen Wiig? Granted she doesn't have as good material to work with as the others, but she's the only reason to watch SNL these days.