Pretty in the Past: Madeline Kahn

For at least a decade, she was the funniest woman on any movie screen. So funny, she made you forget that she was also a gorgeous sight to behold.

Oct 10, 2012 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

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Thanks to an off-hand mini-rant in her “live-snarking” of the recent Emmy ceremony, Deadline columnist Nikki Finke caused a minor Internet stink with her insistence that beautiful women are inherently incapable of being funny.

“Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or standups,” she wrote, “Because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you.” In the name of gender equality she then added, “This also applies to handsome men, by the way,” in a move that must have surely brought a tear to Jon Hamm’s eye.

It’s an argument you hear a lot in comedy circles. While all but the most brazenly Neanderthal of cultural throwbacks (ie. Jerry Lewis, Adam Carolla, the late Christopher Hitchens) will still publically insist that women aren’t capable of being as funny as men, many folks are willing to support the attitude Finke expressed in her column—that comedic ability is born out of a specific kind of pain attractive humans never get to experience.

One problem with this argument is that it’s based on the kind of inane high school logic that many cultural commentators never seem to shake—that the lives of the popular kids they abhorred in the ninth grade were a glorious fantasia of happiness and privilege. Actual adults understand that life is far more complicated than this and that even someone as beautiful as Julie Bowen (the actress whose Emmy win spurred Finke’s rant) might have experienced a moment of pain or two during the brief moments when they weren’t torturing fugly peons. It also hurts her argument that the actress in question JUST WON A MAJOR AWARD FOR A COMEDIC PERFORMANCE IN AN EXTREMELY SUCCESSFUL COMEDY PROGRAM!!! Clearly someone outside the Republic of Finkelandia disagrees with her assessment.

But the biggest flaw in the old “Beautiful Women Aren’t Funny” canard is that it is so easily disproved by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of popular culture. Since the dawn of cinema, people have found themselves being entertained by funny women who weren’t that hard to look at. The fact that so many of them weren’t considered comedians says less about their abilities than society’s insistence on defining them solely by how they looked, rather than by how talented they were.

Interestingly, though, I believe the opposite happened in the case of today’s subject, Madeline Kahn. Her gifts as a comedian were so obvious and apparent that she received Oscar nominations for both her 2nd and 3rd film roles (in Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles)—work that earned her a deserved reputation as one of the pre-eminent comic actors of the 1970s. So much so that in 2012, 13 years after her tragically early death from ovarian cancer in 1999, many people seem to forget that she also happened to be really, really beautiful. How beautiful? Enough that even Grover felt compelled to comment on it when he performed a famous musical duet with her on Sesame Street:

I believe this disconnect is easily explained by the essential quality that made Madeline’s performances so appealing—her utter lack of vanity. Madeline was never afraid to risk ridiculousness in pursuit of a potential laugh, yet managed to maintain that pursuit without also abandoning her dignity. Despite being cast as overtly glamorous characters in films like Saddles, Young Frankenstein, At Long Last Love, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother and High Anxiety, she never allowed herself to become mere window dressing and always created fully dimensional comic characters who stood on equal footing with her male co-stars.

Unfortunately for her, even if the “Beautiful Women Aren’t Funny” cliché isn’t true, the “Hollywood Doesn’t Know What To Do With Funny Women” one is. Filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich and Gene Wilder understood how to exploit her tremendous gifts for their benefit, but too many others threw her into the “wacky dame” corner and left her there to flounder in a sea of bad material.

As the 70s turned into the 80s, good roles dried up (with her career reaching its nadir with Slapstick (Of Another Kind), a film based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel that will go down in history as the most singularly inept literary adaptation ever made) and her career floundered at the moment when she should have experienced her biggest success (although the vocal fans of the cult classic Clue will argue there was at least one major highlight during this otherwise fallow period).

Despite the fact that she was currently appearing on Cosby (Bill Cosby’s high-profile return to television after the iconic The Cosby Show) at the time of her death, the news of her passing was remarkably subdued. The articles that followed were short and perfunctory, with many of them written as if the reporters felt obligated to remind readers who she was. Madeline deserved better than that. For at least a decade, she was the funniest woman on any movie screen. So funny, she made you forget that she was also a gorgeous sight to behold.

The truth is that there is no connection between physical attractiveness and comic ability. The universe has no interest in that kind of karmic justice. Beautiful people can be funny, ugly people can be boring and dull. Life isn’t fair. If it were, Madeline Kahn would have had the career her talents deserved. She didn’t.

Picture Credit: Rex Features