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Are women allowed to be funny?

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Thursday night, "The Sarah Silverman Program" debuted on Comedy Central. If it had aired on regular broadcast TV many punch lines and entire story lines would probably have been "bleeped" or cut. The comedian who has been called a "delightful potty mouth" certainly has a devoted fan base who has followed her from stand-up to the silver screen and now, to the home screen.

Cable television has long pioneered new frontiers in what's funny, allowing comedians to tackle taboo subjects with reckless abandon. That is, if they were male. The fact that Ms. Sliverman – considered one of comedy's rising stars with her engaging smile and bawdy humor – has been given room to run proves just how far women have come on the stand-up stage.

Yet, for every step forward, say many comics and cultural observers, when it comes to being funny, women still face many societal prejudices. Nice girls just don't act like that, says comedy veteran Rusty Warren, who recalls male audience members storming out of her shows. Not much has changed today, say observers who suggest that many people, men and women, find attractive, aggressively funny women like Silverman threatening.

Witness the recent column in Vanity Fair which declared "Women Aren't Funny" (written by Christopher Hitchens). And despite the fact that his ABC comedy employed numerous funny women, comic Drew Carey says the prejudices are real. It's not so much that women aren't funny, he explains, as that men don't want them to be funny. "Comedy is about aggression and confrontation and power," says the stand-up comic. "As a culture we just don't allow women to do all that stuff."

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