Year in review: Funny women rule

Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy among stars of 2011

By Henry Hanks CNN
POSTED: 09:58 AM EST Dec 26, 2011    UPDATED: 12:18 PM EST Dec 26, 2011 
Kristen Wiig
(CNN) -

Beyonce's hit song "Run the World (Girls)" could very well have been the theme music for the world of comedy in 2011.

One month after the song's April release, "Bridesmaids" -- a movie seen as a risky box office proposition when it first came out -- landed in theaters, drawing in audiences (of both genders) in droves.

Some $169 million later, having quickly surpassed the records for highest grossing female-driven comedy and highest grossing Judd Apatow-produced comedy, it has also helped transform Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the cast into major stars while also racking up Golden Globe and Screen Actors' Guild nominations.

So, looking back, why was it seen as so risky? Quite simply, as "Bridesmaids" co-star Ellie Kemper put it to CNN earlier this year, "There aren't a lot of huge studio films with huge female ensembles."

Kona Gallagher writes for CliqueClack.com and pointed out that, "We still have a long way to go in the way women are portrayed, especially in movies. For every 'Bridesmaids,' there are three depressing rom-coms in which a woman derives her self-worth from the success of her relationship."

Time will tell if that changes.

There were also some changes on the small screen this year.

As "Bridesmaids" surprised just about everyone in the movie business, the major television networks (otherwise known as "SNL's" Wiig, "Mike and Molly's" McCarthy and "The Office's" Kemper's day job employers), picked up a number of comedy series with female protagonists, all of which have since been successful enough to get a full season order.

In fact, the only sitcom with a lead male character to get picked up for the remainder of the season is Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing" on ABC, as opposed to quickly canceled male-centric shows like "Man Up" and "How to Be a Gentleman."

If there is one big star to come out of this TV season, it is Zooey Deschanel, whose show "New Girl" has beaten lead-in "Glee" in the ratings on several occasions.

"Zooey Deschanel is a genuine breakout star," said TV critic Ed Bark of the site UncleBarky's Bytes. "Without her, maybe that show wouldn't work. She really makes the show. I instantly liked it, because she brought something very distinctive and appealing."

Deschanel's quirky (or "adorkable," if you will) character is based in large part on "New Girl's" creator, first-time show runner Liz Meriwether.

"I think probably (after) 'Bridesmaids,' there's just sort of a feeling of more trust from the people in charge that women actually want to see shows and movies that are written and created by women as opposed to sort of shows created by men that women are just supposed to like," Meriwether told reporters in November. "I feel like that trust just from a business sense is really important for empowering more women (who create) shows."

One such creator has not one, but two series that were given full seasons early on in the fall.

Stand-up comic Whitney Cummings is the creator and star of the NBC sitcom "Whitney," and the co-creator, with "Sex and the City's" Michael Patrick King, of "2 Broke Girls." The CBS series, about a street smart food server (Kat Dennings) who has to teach a former rich girl (Beth Behrs) how to get by, has been regularly appearing among the 10 shows with the highest ratings each week.

"It's very telling to the times -- our dealing with being broke and being in that time where it's hard to get a job, and I think people can relate to it," Behrs said. "With 'New Girl,' the way they play with that relationship with her and the guys, it's very relevant to the times. I think that's one reason they're all so successful. And seeing women pushing boundaries, like on our show."

Indeed, one thing that sets "2 Broke Girls" apart is the bawdy dialogue between the two stars.

"Girls our age do talk like that a lot of the time," said Behrs. "It's shocking, but a lot of what we say and do is very realistic to that, in our generation."

"I remember growing up on 'I Love Lucy' reruns and I was always a big Carol Burnett fan," said Behrs. "Women in comedy have been something I've followed my whole life. I don't think it's like, 'Look, we're letting women be funny.' Women have always been funny, it's just more recognizable, and there's just so much at once. It's not just one TV show, there's this influx of it -- and I'm definitely glad to be a part of that. I'm proud to be in the company of all these funny women."

Indeed, one only needs to say the two words "Tina Fey" (or "Amy Poehler", for that matter), to realize this moment has been a long time coming.

"What's really interesting to me about the surge of women in television and film comedies is that a large part of it is really driven by 'Saturday Night Live,'" said Gallagher. "Lorne Michaels is directly responsible for Tina Fey being able to do '30 Rock,' which really kicked off the whole movement by showing that women can be the driving force of comedy on a show, instead of just the beleaguered wife reacting to her husband's jokes. Michaels also produces 'Up All Night,' which does a great job of letting both Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph shine, even in a more traditional sitcom setting."

"Up All Night" stars Applegate and Will Arnett as a couple adjusting to a new baby, and in a change of pace for TV, even in 2011, Applegate works as a producer for a talk show host, played by Rudolph, while Arnett's character stays home with their daughter.

Rudolph, who also starred in "Bridesmaids," was asked about the movie having positive implications for women in comedy, shortly after "Up All Night" (created by her writing partner, Emily Spivey) premiered on NBC. "Having people say that out loud certainly doesn't hurt. It's just kind of surprising to me because if I knew people felt that way I think I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago," she said.

"I'm just going to keep my head down and keep doing what I'm doing, because it shouldn't matter, because that's not what I'm doing it for. But if it allows people like me and my friends more work and more jobs, it's great. But I'm not going to lie. It's surprising to hear that people are really that behind the times."

Rudolph isn't the only former "SNL" female cast member joining prime time with Fey and Poehler. Ana Gasteyer, is a regular presence on ABC's new hit, "Suburgatory," which focuses on a teenage girl's move from New York City to the suburbs.

"We always looked at the fictitious suburban town, Chatswin, as being the land of the moms. The idea was this family without a mom moves into a town that is dominated and run by moms," said Emily Kapnek, creator of the show, who like Behrs was also a big Carol Burnett fan growing up. "Creating an ensemble of these women who -- parenting is their full time job, not just parenting these children but other people's children. We found the best and brightest we could think of to populate this world."

Those moms include Cheryl Hines of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in the scene-stealing role of Dallas Royce.

"I think you're getting roles for women that are written by women that come at it differently and feel in some ways more authentic," said Kapnek.

"I was a single mom when I had my older son, and everyone wanted a single mom show and I was always so surprised at the way they wanted to develop those shows. 'Why does she have to be perfect? Why isn't she a mess, why doesn't she fall down on her face?' I think right now, we have so many female show runners, you have a more undiluted feed to what their point of view is and I think people are identifying with that and it feels different."

Bark said that women being behind the camera more and more will be the most important thing.

"This season, (that development) is welcome and it should continue and if these shows work, it will continue." (On that note, already on tap for 2012: NBC's "Are You There, Chelsea?" and ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.")

As for right now, "New Girl's" Meriwether said that it's great to see the diversity of shows by and about women being produced.

"I personally think that they are all really funny, so I'm just really happy to be sort of a part of this, whatever it is ... new moment, I guess."