The Tube: Vulgar, female-driven comedy challenges stereotypes of ‘ladylike’ behavior

The Tube
Illustration by Lev Cantoral

Boner and boob jokes are now mainstays across numerous guy-centered, raunchy television comedies: Workaholics, Two and a Half Men, Blue Mountain State, Manswers, The Kroll Show, Suits, Franklin & Bash, The League and so on. While this kind of humor primarily permeates masculinized texts, we are starting to see more female-centered raunch comedy in both film and television, including Bad Teacher (women swear, too!), Bridesmaids (women shit their pants, too!) and the character of Dee on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (women smoke crack and have cannibalistic tendencies, too!).

The Sarah Silverman Program is one of the best examples of raunchy female-driven comedy on television; in one episode Silverman accidently poops during a farting match and has a one-night-stand with God. But since its conclusion in 2010, there’s been a comedic void that is just now being filled by Comedy Central’s Broad City, which premiered in January and features Upright Citizens Brigade alums Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.

The lack of female-driven raunch comedy is likely due to a lingering, broader hesitancy over associating vulgarity with certain ideas of womanhood. For some reason it’s “okay” if women are objectified as part of masculinized raunch comedy, but there is often discomfort when women embrace vulgarity on their own terms. For example, Variety critic Brian Lowery panned Silverman’s HBO special, We Are Miracles, arguing that she “limited herself by appearing determined to prove she can be as dirty and disastrous as the boys.” Hilariously “dirty” topics ranged from smelly vaginas and female facial hair to gang bang humor mixed with cleverly crude non-segues: “Speaking of a bunch of men cumming on lady’s face, my Mom’s been sick.” Lowery’s critique reinforces long-standing essentialized sex roles that position women as being and having to be more pure, proper and virtuous than their male counterparts, making Silverman’s humor seem like a constructed attempt, while male raunch comedy is naturalized. The fact that few people would condemn male comedians for being ‘too dirty’ demonstrates how anachronistic gender distinctions persist.


Broad City may not discuss (as Silverman does) the virtue of adopting only terminally ill babies to avoid ever caring for 10-year-olds, but the show’s references to defecating in shoes, peeing out a condom or hiding marijuana in one’s genitals is similarly scatological.

If you’re unfamiliar with Broad City, the show is about Abbi and Ilana, two BFFs navigating minimum wage jobs, dealing with obnoxious roommates masturbating in common areas and crushing on cute neighbors. Sex is, of course, a major theme of the show. Ilana even carries a second burner phone for her dick pics and other “sex media” because she’s still on a family plan and can’t risk dicks floating around in the cloud and making a surprise appearance on one of her parent’s phones. The show not only revels both in having unshaven pubic hair and the joys of women receiving oral sex from their casual sexual partners, but it also frequently references sexual desire between female friends. Ilana proposes “parallel play,” becomes jealous when she finds out Abbi made out with another friend and fantasizes about experiencing cunnalignus at the same time (with their partners butt-to-butt forming a kind of “Arc de Triomphe”).

This non-apologetic embrace and celebration of female sexuality—and all of the awkwardness and often unsexiness that goes along with it—are incredibly rare on television. Sex and The City went there sometimes in its recognition of the powerful bonds of female friendship and open discussions of sex, but the show’s major dramatic moments always revolved around their relationships with the men in their lives.

Broad City stands out because it resists other conventional tropes of femininity or traditionally televised notions of what it means to be a woman. Abbi and Ilana exhibit an unruliness, or an excess, that refuses to be quiet, clean or “small.” Instead of shrinking into themselves, they take up space through sight gags, such as Abbi literally rolling away to avoid answering an awkward question about how many children she has in a waiting room of a children’s dentist (answer: zero), or Ilana dancing topless in Central Park during a cell phone recovery mission (only to be outdone by another woman hula-hooping topless for several hours).

In the episode “Working Girls,” Illana violates personal space by falling asleep on fellow subway passengers. On “Stolen Phone,” Abbi embodies the idea that women should be both seen and heard. In this episode, she stands on a bar stool and commands her fellow patrons to find her phone so she won’t miss a call from a dude she wants to sleep with.

Both girls are both regularly shown sitting on toilets, sleeping on toilets, defecating in toilets, plunging toilets and rubbing their faces with “fancy” toilet paper. Simply put, they fully embrace being two “dirty” and “morally loose” broads, further evidenced by Ilana saying to Abbi in “The Last Supper,” “So what you’re a nasty bitch. Who cares? … Let’s go get high.”

Speaking of two nasty bitches getting high, it should be noted that this kind of raunchtastic humor is also present on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, but that show is ultimately a comedic trainwreck. It has similar, albeit innuendo-laden, “unladylike” dick jokes, but without any of the social or political bite troubling traditional ideas of gender performance and comedy. But perhaps the fact that vagina, porn and tampon talk appear on America’s most geriatric broadcast network—in addition to Broad City—is a sign that there’s more unruly, transgressive and hilarious female comedy to come. I sure hope so.

Melissa Zimdars recently added owning an elliptical, hanging out with pugs at a pug farm and doing heroin under the Aurora Borealis to her bucket list.