“Why are women … not funny?” Culture critic and provocateur the late Christopher Hitchens asked in a now infamous January 2007 Vanity Fair essay.
“This is not to say that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians,” he allowed. It’s just that “those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous.”
Hitch clearly never met Polly Frost. The humorist, playwright and journalist who grew up in Santa Barbara has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times, tackling topics from blogaholism to sex addiction and gamers. Her work has been included in two “best of” New Yorker anthologies, and her collected humor, With One Eye Open, was published in 2010. Deep Inside, her collection of erotic horror stories, was released in 2007.
Now she’s delving into live performance with a one-woman show called “How to Survive Your Adult Relationship With Your Family.” It plays March 10 at the Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio (formerly Theater 150).
Frost’s work isn’t stand-up —“I’d rather sit down, for one thing” — but she does tackle, with humor and pathos, the ways in which families shift with age. Frost, who had a “perfectly great” childhood, comes from a family where, she has said, the average number of divorces per person is three. Her grandparents split in their 80s, ending what was a second marriage for one and a third for the other. She has learned to navigate “toxic” types, including manipulators, liars and “wedgers.”
“When people you love marry people you can’t stand,” Frost says, “that changes the dynamics.
This person can separate you so totally from someone you love.”
One serious thread Frost touches on late in the show is the loss of her brother from Parkinson’s in 2009. A cancer surgeon diagnosed when he was in his 30s, he always kept his sense of humor. Processing her brother’s death with an autobiographical show made perfect sense to Frost — a woman her husband, Ray Sawhill, calls “51 percent writer, 49 percent performer.”
In transferring her life from the page to the stage, Frost looked to her friend Andre Gregory for guidance. The actor and director wrote and co-starred in the film My Dinner With Andre, a meandering, philosophical conversation between two friends apparently portraying themselves.
“I had always gone into character in my writing,” Frost says. “But you can’t just be totally who and what you are. You have to pick out those parts of yourself. The show is sort of a distilled essence of my experience.”
Not all performers could lay their personal experiences on the line so easily. But Frost, who stands a statuesque 6 feet tall and bears a passing resemblance to actress Patricia Clarkson, learned defenses from an early age. Back in seventh grade, “when I hadn’t quite gotten my height together,” she was the tallest girl in class, an easy target for zingers.
“You kind of feel like, ‘I can take my stuff out into the world, because what’s the worst that can happen? Someone else is going to laugh at me?’ You turn it around and make humor your ally.”
Through a UCLA workshop with Michael Silverblatt, host of NPR’s “Bookworm,” Frost discovered a talent for writing satire. She soon made her way to New York City, where she was befriended by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
Never mind the male stand-up comedians who said they’d never date Frost because she was too tall and too funny. Kael encouraged her to submit her work to magazines, and helped kickstart her career. Kael eventually introduced Frost to Sawhill, a writer who “loves funny women and tall women.” The pair now collaborates on various projects, including a recent raunchy comic play series called Sex Scenes.
“Wit is the unfailing symptom of intelligence,” Hitchens wrote in 2007. For that reason, “It could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.”
But Hitchens was writing pre-Bridesmaids, the women’s comedy that broke box office records with its crossover appeal to men. Could it be that we’re past all that? After all, comics such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler now headline their own TV shows.
Watch out, gentlemen. With Frost and her sisters around, the ladies are smarter than ever.
Polly Frost: “How to Survive Your Adult Relationship With Your Family,” Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m. at the Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, 316 E. Matilija Ave. 646-4300 or www.ojaiyes.org. For information on Polly Frost, visit www.pollyfrost.com.