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The gal pal gamble

Sure, women can run for president, but can they carry a comedy? Amy Poehler and Tina Fey put female cred to the test in 'Baby Mama.'

April 20, 2008|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The unwritten rule of Hollywood comedies is like that classic admonition given boxers the night before a fight: Women weaken legs.

Here the legs are a movie's potential at the box office. Which is why it seems unusual -- if not illegal -- for two females, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, to have the leads in a buddy comedy, "Baby Mama," opening Friday.

In the film, Fey -- the first female head writer on "Saturday Night Live" and now creator and star of NBC's "30 Rock" -- is Kate, aching to have a baby in her yawning 30s but saddled with what her gynecologist laments is a "T-shaped uterus." Enter Angie (Poehler, "SNL's" current sketch star, face-locked in a tight perma-smile to convey Hillary Rodham Clinton's dismay at the media's love affair with Barack Obama).

Poehler's Angie is a gum-chomping, working-class girl whom Kate enlists as the surrogate "baby mama" to carry her child to term. It's an "Odd Couple" set-up -- a slob forced into cohabitation with a yuppie striver who swears by the ethos of organic foods and worries that Angie's fast-food consumption will hurt her fetus' chances of getting into an Ivy League school.

Sounds hilarious, right? "Saturday Night Live" impresario Lorne Michaels, an executive producer of the film, sums up why marketing this comedy is different from most: "Normally it's about a guy who gets dumped by a pretty girl and ends up with a prettier girl. This is not that."

It can be difficult to determine where we are currently in the whole can-women-be-funny? debate other than to say there have been a spate of essays on the topic. The Times' movie critic Carina Chocano recently noted how "the girl" and "the hot girl" have merged into one abject role for women in studio comedies. Last year, Vanity Fair published agent provocateur Christopher Hitchens' essay "Why Women Aren't Funny," though the April magazine featured an essay by New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley going the other way, highlighting the bumper crop of women writing as well as performing their comedy, mostly on TV.

There, on the Vanity Fair cover, were Fey, Poehler and the scary-sexy-funny Sarah Silverman, whose recent music video parody about her "affair" with Matt Damon made instant noise in the way comedy is increasingly disseminated -- as viral video.

A disconnect, however, remains at the movies. "She's the new Greer Garson," as Michaels joked of Poehler, is not a comparison that will send 14-year-old boys running for the ticket lines. And those boys -- and their 30- and 40-year-old equivalents -- are whom Hollywood sees as its movie comedy sweet spot.

This no doubt explains why Universal has papered the town with billboards for "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," a more traditional, guy-ends-up-with-prettier-girl comedy from moving-making kingpin Judd Apatow, while "Baby Mama" has been much easier to miss.

Apatow has the hottest hand in comedy, thanks to the run of "40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." Writing about the revolution "Knocked Up" has brought to the classic, battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy, New Yorker magazine critic David Denby said of Katherine Heigl's role as the slacker's girl: "She isn't given an idea or a snappy remark or even a sharp perception. All the movies in this genre have been written and directed by men, and it's as if the filmmakers were saying, 'Yes, young men are children now, and women bring home the bacon, but men bring home the soul.' "

"Baby Mama" begs to differ. It's almost like an experiment in comedy science class: What if these roles went to funny women who've earned their shot at big-screen success?

Fey and Poehler met in the early '90s in Chicago, as newbie sketch artists working under the tutelage of the famed Second City guru Del Close, and then again, a decade later, as fellow cast members on "Saturday Night Live," where Fey had risen to head writer (Poehler had been a member of the sketch group the Upright Citizens Brigade). In 2004, they both appeared in "Mean Girls," a satire of vicious girl-on-girl, high-school peer pressure written by Fey.

On a recent Friday morning they were together again -- for breakfast at the St. Regis in midtown Manhattan. For Fey, it was the morning after the wrap party for the writers-strike-truncated season of "30 Rock." Poehler, after the interview, would head over to the actual 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a 12-hour day of "SNL" rehearsals.

Fey, 37, and Poehler, 36, have made cultural history before; in 2004, Michaels seated them together on the "Weekend Update" set, the first time two women had co-anchored "Update." Both are married to men with whom they work, though the husbands' show business profiles are somewhat lower -- Fey's husband is Jeff Richmond, a composer and music producer on "30 Rock" and "Baby Mama," while Poehler is married to comedic actor Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"), with whom she teamed as a conniving brother-sister skating team in the Will Ferrell comedy "Blades of Glory."

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