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Gag girl anniversary marks growth of funny women

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Tina Fey pictured as her character from "30 Rock," Liz Lemon. (Photo by Mary Ellen Mathews, courtesy of NBC Universal, Inc.)

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This 1928 item from "Variety" announces the employment of Beth Brown, Hollywood's first female gag writer. (Photo courtesy of Variety)

It seems fitting that Beth Brown made history, such as it was, on a Leap Day. On Feb. 29, 1928, under the headline “First ‘Gag’ Woman,” the show-business tabloid Variety noted that director William DeMille (older brother of famed director Cecil B. DeMille) had hired Brown as a gag woman for his film, “Tenth Avenue.”

“Miss Brown is the first woman to be engaged solely for suggesting gags and comedy for a picture while in the making,” the two-paragraph item on page 10 said.

Eighty years later, Brown is cited as the first female comedy writer in Hollywood on History.com and by the humor section of About.com. Though Brown’s significance may be overstated, the item in Variety marks a point when female involvement in the entertainment industry made news. The argument that women aren’t involved enough in writing for movies and television continues today.

Last May, for instance, a report on the Hollywood writing industry issued by the Writers Guild of America found that in 2005 women held only 27 percent of writing jobs in television and only 19 percent in film. While the report noted that women in TV tended to earn about as much as men did, male film writers had a significant advantage. The median income for a male film writer in 2005 was $90,000. A woman writing that year earned significantly less: $50,000.

While Brown’s employment may have been newsworthy at the time, her celebrity didn’t have much of a shelf life. Her name doesn’t appear in several books about women screenwriters. If she had a career in film writing after “Tenth Avenue,” it was done out of the limelight. The Internet Movie Database credits Beth Brown as the writer of the novel “Applause,” which was the basis for a 1929 film, and as a co-writer of the 1951 film “Insurance Investigator.” It does not list her in the credits for “Tenth Avenue.”

“I know zilch about her,” said Anne Beatts, a former writer with “Saturday Night Live” and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

Neither does Patricia King Hanson, executive editor for the American Film Institute's catalogue of American films in Los Angeles. “I’ve never heard of this woman, to be honest,” King Hanson said.

Brown’s role as a gag writer, King Hanson said, was probably to punch up specific scenes of “Tenth Avenue” and add humor to the dramatic film. People like Carrie Fisher are often called on to do the same for current films. “She’s worked on a lot of films that she doesn't get credit for,” King Hanson said of Fisher. “That’s just the way of filmmaking. It’s just a collaborative process."

Whatever some historical records may note, at least one woman, Anita Loos, was writing comedy in Hollywood a decade before Brown’s name appeared in Variety. Loos, who wrote the novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” also worked on several comedy scripts, King Hanson said

Other notable women writers include humorist Dorothy Parker, who received two Oscar nominations during the ’30s and ’40s, and Madeline Pugh, a writer and co-creator of “I Love Lucy.” More recently, Marta Kauffman helped create the sitcom “Friends,” and Tina Fey was head writer for “Saturday Night Live” from 1999 until she left to start “30 Rock” in 2006. In its first season, “30 Rock” won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Fey, 38, recently picketed with her fellow writers on strike in New York outside of ABC’s studios on West 66th Street. She expressed gratitude for the advancements of female writers in the 20th century. “It’s not difficult any more,” she said. “A lot of women worked really hard in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s to make things easier for us today.”

For Fey, male domination of the writing industry is no longer a hurdle for women's success, especially since a woman's perspective is essential to include in most television shows, she said. “People are always looking to hire good female writers now,” Fey said.

Some other women in television disagree with Fey’s opinion on the opportunities for women. Maggie Bandur, 34, who worked on the writing staff of the Fox network’s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” said that while most male producers know many funny women who work in comedy, “I think they tend to hire men that are like them.”

For Emmy Award winner Beatts, 61, getting women writers into comedy is not the only battle. Getting men to accept the work of these women is another. Once, when Beatts was writing for “Saturday Night Live” years ago, John Belushi burst into the office of executive producer Lorne Michaels and demanded that the show's female writers be fired--all two of them.

Beatts, who was the first female editor of “National Lampoon,” jokingly speculates that men’s insecurity about their anatomy makes them fearful of working with the opposite sex. “Men just fear that they’ll be the butt of women’s jokes,” she said. “They just want women to laugh at their jokes.”

Like Beatts, Bandur has encountered male skepticism. “I had a meeting once where I walked in, and the guy, his first words out of his mouth were ‘Women ain’t funny,’” she said. “I guess I was supposed to perform and disprove that.”

On the CW network’s family drama “Life is Wild,” where Bandur now works, Bandur's boss has relied on her experience in comedy writing. “Because I had a background in comedy,” she said, “he’d have me specifically punch up scenes. You know, hand me the script and say, ‘Can you put some jokes in here?’”

Sounds exactly like what DeMille might have asked Beth Brown to do 80 years ago.

E-mail: ajs2170@columbia.edu