Return of the funny woman

17 March 2010

A few posts ago, I lamented a movie/TV world in which (again, to quote The Onion) women can be “sexy and tough. Sexy and smart. Sexy and professional.”  Sexy and enough of a right-on sheila to make a totally guy movie and win the Academy Award for Best Director.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I want to celebrate the return of the funny woman on TV — specifically in the form of Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family.” Let’s face it, folks: we don’t usually let our women be sexy and funny. This makes Vergara ever more of a delight, as she uses her crazy curvaceousness to be even funnier. Contrary to The Rules from way back in the 90s, which instructed women never to be funny lest they fail to snag a man, Vergara is terrific.

I’m not going to say she steals the show, which is a true ensemble cast of funny people (Eric Stonestreet deserves a paean of his own for his portrayal of Cameron); nor am I going to make too much of the show overall, which is distractingly entertaining yet light in the same manner as “30 Rock.” Rather, Vergara is perfect as the hot young trophy wife — who, once she establishes her part, doesn’t let the trophyness take over — of the aging Ed O’Neill character. She’s best when she’s sparring with him. “You’re too funny,” she tells him stone-faced when they’re fighting. “I’m going to share that one with my next husband when we’re spending all your money.” Then she slits her eyes, purses her lips, and looks to the camera for confirmation from the viewer — employing a physical humor that most gorgeous women won’t/can’t muster onscreen. Vergara is naturally funny.

Okay, invariably the writers draw heavily on two stereotypes: the Hot Latina and the Spanish-English disconnect. A lot of her lines are variants of the malapropism. When she sternly instructs her husband to be supportive of their son, she quotes the saying, “‘You be the wind in his back, not the spit in his face.'” She pauses, reconsiders the wording in English, and adds, “It’s gorgeous in Spanish.” If the show didn’t muster a whole array of cultural stereotypes (the prissy gay man, the exasperated housewife, the too-smart and slightly malicious middle child), I might feel the need to be offended. But in general the show takes no prisoners in the same manner that “The Simpsons” or “South Park” allowed stereotypes to set the stage rather than delimit their characters and scenarios.

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey, and I think Vergara follows in her footsteps. But “30 Rock” worked at cross-purposes in its early seasons: it got a lot of its humor from Liz Lemon’s attraction to meatball subs and Cheesy Blasters (which contained so many hormones that she got a false positive from a home pregnancy test), yet it kept putting Liz into gorgeous evening gowns, reminding us that Fey is really sexy despite her funniness, self-deprecation, and dietary weaknesses. What were they doing, trying to reassure us that “30 Rock” wasn’t just a “woman’s show”? (It’s a relief to see that more recently the show has abandoned that tendency, allowing Lemon to play up the physical humor with terrible haircuts, etc.)

In contrast, we take for granted Vergara’s character’s hotness — and then we let it go because she does funny things from there on out.  She’s a pleasure.

3 Responses to “Return of the funny woman”

  1. smintheus Says:

    In a way, Vergara’s hotness is kind of a deadpan joke. Nobody really reacts to her character the way they would in reality. The other characters, including her husband (mostly), just shrug off her stunning beauty and deal with her as they would anybody else with her particular foibles. I think she’s the touchstone for the show, actually. Apart from the culture shock humor, what defines her character is that she’s usually a lot more sensible, insightful, and reasonable than the others. The other adults live mostly in their own fantasy worlds, but she’s the one who you know has got a clue.

    The things I like most about Vergara’s comic finesse are the little pointed gestures, shrugs, and glances she uses especially when she’s addressing the camera. She also has brilliant command of intonation. One of the funniest comics I’ve ever seen.

    • didion Says:

      I would agree with you wholeheartedly except for Cameron, my other favorite person on the show. (Actually, I also like Phil. Maybe the message is that the in-laws are the best!) But you’re so right that Vergara is partly so great because she looks like such a preposterous wife for Ed O’Neill, but they’ve actually worked out a pretty healthy relationship. I think it’s because although she looks like a supermodel (and was a supermodel, come to think of it), she’s secretly kind of a geek like all the rest of them.

      • didion Says:

        Oh, and I forgot to tell you, Smintheus, that I’m so glad to see you blogging again at — I’d missed your posts.

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