We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy
By Yael Kohen (Sarah Crichton Books, 336 pages, $27)
In a way, it’s hard to understand why we’d need a book like We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. Women all but rule comedy in 2012, right? Kristen Wiig? Tina Fey? Amy Poehler? Ellen DeGeneres?
Ask Adam Carolla, who told the New York Post this summer: “The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks.”
As We Killed author Yael Kohen points out, comedy legends from Johnny Carson to John Belushi to Jerry Lewis all made similar pronouncements. Kohen’s book, “a very oral history” of women in comedy, sets out to show they’re wrong.
While it could use more funny itself, We Killed does clearly depict how the entertainment industry has made it hard for women. From the first, women had to fight male club owners, TV producers and agents to give them a shot on stage.
Joan Rivers recalls how she auditioned for The Tonight Show eight times before getting a shot — and only then because Bill Cosby recommended her. (A Tonight Show talent coordinator swears Rivers’ story isn’t completely true, but it sure sounds likely.)
That anecdote is one of the few he-said-she-said moments in We Killed; if anything, the stories have a sameness after a while, because women in comedy have faced the same sexism decade after decade.
Opportunities started increasing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when women who got a chance gave a hand to others. Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore helped foster not only the careers of female comedy writers, but also boosted the roles of actresses they worked with.
Moore, show creator Allan Burns recalls, gave her co-stars some of the best jokes, not out of sisterhood but “it seemed to work for the good of the show.” It was Moore’s idea to expand the role of Sue Ann Nivens, played by Betty White — clearing the way for her long career.
That pattern of women creating opportunities for women continued from the 1970s — Saturday Night Live’s writers Rosie Shuster and Marilyn Suzanne Miller remember fighting for material for the women, because the male writers weren’t interested in them — through today, with Chelsea Handler creating venues on her weeknight snarkfest for up-and-coming female comics.
As a history of women in comedy, We Killed is erratic, in part because of voices that aren’t in it. Elayne Boosler isn’t heard from; likewise Marsha Warfield.
And there are gaps. After talking about Phyllis Diller’s pioneering stand-up, Kohen glosses over a swath of performers, from bawdy Rusty Warren to black-comedy icon Moms Mabley. Comedians of color, in general, don’t get a lot of attention, although Whoopi Goldberg and Mo’Nique touch on the issues they’ve faced.
But We Killed does fill in some gaps and yields some surprising perspectives. And it shows that, yes, women are funny — even if they have to keep proving it over and over again.