Lewis doesn't think women can be comedians? Ty Burr begs to disagree

By Ty Burr
Updated February 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Ten females who are funnier than Jerry Lewis

Good old Jerry Lewis: In five decades, he’s progressed from sticking chopsticks up his nose to jamming both feet in his mouth. If you missed the item that ran earlier this week, Lewis was the guest at a career retrospective that took place at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. A thousand people were there to pay the funnyman honor, including such luminaries/disciples as Steve Martin and host Martin Short.

It was a golden moment that should have given Lewis great, deep satisfaction — Hey, lady, all those French intellectuals were right! — so maybe the guy could have been forgiven for feeling superior. But not for what he said when an audience member asked him what female comedians he admired.

”I don’t like any female comedians,” Jerry replied. Short diplomatically jumped in, saying that Lewis must have liked Lucille Ball, for instance. ”No,” came the flat answer. ”A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me, but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.”

In the ghastly, slack-jawed silence that has yet to be broken, allow me to suggest 10 women who are funnier than Jerry Lewis. Feel free to nominate your own below (and, yeah, go ahead and add Lucille Ball, even though I actually agree with the Nutty Professor on that one).

1 Mae West — Still one of the few women in American culture to make the case for sexual pleasure without being pigeonholed as a slut or a bimbo. Hell, she was thrown in jail in an effort to keep her drag-queen comedy off Broadway — in 1927. Was she funny? Get beyond the hidebound Mae-isms, and she was hilarious, using her cartoon sensuality to pull the rug out from just about every aspect of society.

2 Gracie Allen — Edward Lear reincarnated in the body of a 20th-century woman, she spun beautiful webs of nonsense around nonplussed husband George Burns. ”When Willy was a little baby my father took him riding in his carriage, and two hours later my father came back with a different baby and a different carriage. My mother didn’t say anything, because it was a better carriage, and the little baby my father brought home was a little French baby, so my mother took up French so she could understand the baby when the baby started to talk.” Of course, she was normal in real life — it’s called ACTING.

3 Carole Lombard — Imagine if Michelle Pfeiffer was a genius of physical and verbal comedy. Voila: Carole Lombard. Doubt it? Rent ”Twentieth Century” or ”Nothing Sacred.” Now.

4 Elaine May — Forget ”Ishtar.” Back in the early ’60s, there was no hipper comedy team than (Mike) Nichols and (Elaine) May, and no sexier, smarter character comic than the female half of the equation. Go buy a CD of 1960’s ”An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May”. Listen to the ”Telephone” sketch, with May playing three different phone company bureaucrats tormenting poor Nichols, who only wants his dime back. Laugh your ass off.

5 Lily Tomlin — Interestingly, Tomlin also got her start playing a Ma Bell employee (Ernestine on ”Laugh-In”). But it’s her later TV work — the specials she did with Richard Pryor — and her one-woman shows that prove her to be one of the gut-funniest philosophical humanists around. ”If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in a library?”

6 Catherine O’Hara — You can keep all the beleaguered women comics that have tottered through the boys’ club that is ”Saturday Night Live” (even Gilda Radner). I’ll scoot over to ”SCTV,” where this scarily brilliant farceur held court during the ’70s and ’80s, skewering B-list Hollywood starlets in the guise of Lola Heatherton. If you only know her as Macaulay Culkin’s mom in ”Home Alone,” poor you.

7 Mary Fleener — You’ve never heard of her, but she’s an underground comix artist from the 1980s/early ’90s who did these long, funky narratives about the screwed-up adventures of her youth, drawn in an inky, witty visual style and full of the kind of belly laughs that come from recognizing your own demented foibles.

8 Julie Kavner — Two words: Marge Simpson.

9 Janeane Garofalo — She’s still funnier as a presence — on talk shows, for instance — than as a stand-up or even in movies. But that presence is so amusingly acerbic, so capable of puncturing showbiz homilies with a verbal twist of the knife, that it’s a little scary imagining what could happen if she ever lives up to her potential.

10 Roz Chast — The New Yorker cartoonist, she of the wobbly-lined, cat-eye-glasses-wearing hausfraus who read magazines like Bad Housekeeping: The Magazine for Women Who Couldn’t Care Less. The most witty visual proponent of entropy working today.