Is Olivia Munn too sexy for "The Daily Show"?

The Comedy Central show's latest hire is drawing the ire of feminists -- but it's time for people to back off

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 25, 2010 3:26PM (EDT)

Want to be a woman in comedy? Be funny but not too funny. Be beautiful. Or don't be beautiful, you sellout, you. Are you writing this down?

That nagging discomfort we lefty, abortion-loving angry feminists feel toward a show we otherwise adore only intensified this month when "The Daily Show" brought in its first new female correspondent in seven years -- and the plum, only occasional anyway position went to smoking hot Olivia Munn. In addition to recently co-hosting G4's "Attack of the Show!," the 29-year-old also happens to have been a Playboy cover girl and fills out a pink bikini for a Maxim pictorial better than Lewis Black ever could. Dander inevitably went up, notably in a thoughtful, widely circulated post in Jezebel about "The Daily Show's" well-documented "woman problem"  and TrueSlant's list of five competent, non-bikini-wearing female comics who'd fit in fine on "TDS."

Speaking to Salon's Margaret Eby earlier this month, "TDS" correspondent Samantha Bee explained the lack of women on the show as largely due to a lack of eager candidates: "There's something that's intimidating to women about the process," she said. "I just know so many female writers who never submit, and I'm not sure why." And back in January, Lynn Harris wrote on the secret resentment toward female comedy writers and women's self-imposed challenges in getting themselves into "the room."

The problem -- one of them, anyway -- for women in comedy is that the qualities that make for devastating humor -- the aggressiveness, the sheer power of disarming an audience -- aren't particularly encouraged or appreciated as much coming from a female. Women frequently find themselves with the option of going all self-deprecating lady humor or finding that the raunchier and harder hitting they are, the more criticism they get. And because women are supposed to be not just competent at their jobs but sexually desirable at all times, female comics can either be regular-looking and struggle to get on TV, or Chelsea Handler-level babe-alicious and accused of getting by on their looks. In other words, you can't win.

Add to all of that the other major stumbling block with a format like "The Daily Show" -- that it needs not just people who can be funny, but people whose skill set is being funny in a topical, little bit of a stick up the ass, fake news show way. We may not lack for female sketch or stand-up comics, but we do seem to lack for female John Olivers. That's why Kristen Schaal, so perfectly loopy on "Flight of the Conchords," has never been a good fit for "TDS" -- she's believable as a comic but no one would ever buy her as a journalist. The show needs satirists who can be "Weekend Update"-era Tina Fey or Current's much-missed Sarah Haskins.

Which brings us to Munn. Though she herself so far hadn't had much opportunity to prove her "TDS" mettle, her comments Thursday to indicate a healthy attitude toward her new role as late night comedic representative for our entire gender. "When I go into this situation, I don’t think, ‘Oh, great. I’m a woman. This is awesome,'" she said. "I think, 'Fuck yeah, I worked my ass off and somebody recognized it. This is great!'"

Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that said ass is so fine. As a female comic who's auditioned for the show told Jezebel this week, "Looking back, it was ridiculous of me to even prepare! Should I have gone to the gym more? Done Playboy? It's such a joke." But what's a woman who's pretty and funny -- and Munn is funny -- to do? She's telegenic, she has a huge built-in fan base, and as the show's new "Asian correspondent," she lends diversity to the cast. She's there to be amusing, not to single-handedly fight the power. And yeah, she's good-looking. So, in case you hadn't noticed, is Jon Stewart.

Does "TDS" -- and late night in general -- have "a woman problem"? Hell yeah. Even if women aren't pursuing jobs on their staffs with the same vigor as their male counterparts, it still doesn't explain their blatant inability to book them as guests. Yo, we still make movies and write bestsellers and become governors. Get some more freaking women in the chair already. Munn is a perfectly great choice as a correspondent, but don't make the mistake of thinking the quota is full. It's not by a long shot. And that means we women have to do our part -- to keep knocking on the writer's room doors and making our own damn shows, and being ruthlessly fearless about being funny. Because as Munn says, "You're always going up against anybody who's better than you. We're all just trying to fucking make it."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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