Feminine and Funny

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) is an entertaining and comprehensive look at its subject.

Sub-subtitled “A Very Oral History,” this book reads like a documentary film. It is made up primarily of candid quotations from a wide range of comics (including Joan Rivers, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeaneane Garofolo, and Lisa Lampanelli) as well as male and female television writers, producers, bookers, and performers. The text also contains comedic scripts and media references, like the 1968 review of Lily Tomlin’s prophetic monologue about computer matchmaking. Kohen’s voice is apparent in her scattered introductions and in her organizational scheme: she weaves in a massive amount of material from Phyllis Dyler Diller, Bea Arthur, Mary Tyler Moore, Margaret Cho, Chelsea Handler, and online sensations.

Kohen tackles the tiresome and yet still pertinent questions — Are women funny? Will men ever accept women as their comedic equals— not in a theoretical capacity, but empirically? The book traces gender themes, considering the roles of femininity, (a)sexuality, beauty, weight, “fuckability factor,” toughness and self-deprecation on stage and backstage, and how they shifted from era to era. (Note the span from Roseanne’s “A lot of people say I’m not feminine. Well, they can suck my dick” to Sarah Silverman’s sex appeal.) She also points out women’s roles at work; for example, that there has been no late-night female head writer since Letterman’s Merill Markoe in 1988. Beyond that, the book notably relays the pivotal role that women have played in all of American humor, influencing the development of improv, Saturday Night Live and the alternative storytelling scene, and (via Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store) the rise of late-night scouting in LA. Comments about rejection and struggle abound, and Kohen’s characters are inspiring and vulnerable. This is not entirely a celebratory tale.

Much of the material is not directly about gender, and concerns the comedy industry, personalities, craft, and culture. We read behind-the-scenes tales of cocaine, bulimia, and paranoia. The work traces elements of American comedy history: the rise of clubs in New York, shifts in sitcom, daytime and late-night audiences and geographical disparities (improv developed in Chicago and was frequented by academics and psychoanalysts; storytelling has Irish Boston roots). We learn how Gilda Radner wrote sketches, how Ellen’s success hurt her, how Suzanne Somers rose to fame through her poetry, how SNL was the first comedy-variety show made by people who grew up watching TV, and how a 1970s CBS rep said that “There are four things that American television audiences won’t accept: men with mustaches, people who live in New York, Jews, and divorce.”

Three hundred pages of quotation is a lot, but the inclusion of frank “backstage chat” — by people who make a living writing funny dialogue — make this a consistently lively read. We Killed is a necessary project that brings together many generations of jokers to probe the role of comediennes in American culture.

Judy Batalion’s work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post and the Jerusalem Post, among many other publications. She edited The Laughing Stalk: Live Comedy and Its Audiences.