We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen – a review

Women and comedy is still a touchy subject, surprisingly, with the success of funny ladies like Kathy Griffin, Whitney Cummings or Chelsea Handler. Male comics will still like to drudge up that old question of whether women comics are funny. Yael Kohen’s book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, takes a chronological look at the ascent of female comics, particularly standup comics.

Taking her cue from Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s excellent Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests as well as Mike Thomas’ The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater, Kohen eschews a lot of her own voice, and instead presents the testimony of the various comediennes verbatim, grouping them under different themes, which include specific shows (Saturday Night Live or Mary Tyler Moore, for example), comedy institutions (the Groundlings, alternative comedy), even people (Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres). This style of focusing more on the words instead of writerly prose gives the book a documentary-feel.

When tackling a subject like this, one often notices what’s missing versus what’s included – and Kohen does an admirable job in covering female comics, but does come up short – specifically, because she focuses primarily on standup comediennes. Because she does give a passing nod at TV sitcoms like Mary Tyler Moore or Maude, her exclusion of other important female-driven shows like CybillMurphy Brown or Sex and the City comes off as pretty glaring. Also, any look at female comedy owes a look at Lucille Ball, who is surprisingly absent in this tome. Because Kohen seems more interested in standup comics, she ignores screen comediennes like Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Holliday, Billie Burke, among others. Even more contemporary funny ladies like Diane Keaton or Bette Midler get shortchanged.

Instead, the bulk of the book centers on the women who carved out iconic careers through Saturday Night Live up to the current crop of female comics. What’s most interesting are the passages that detail women’s role in the comic boom of the 1980s to 1990s – this is when women standups were able to break into the mainstream, and many became household names. Far from being a hagiography, the backstage tales of these women aren’t always rosy or scrubbed up for consumer consumption – Elayne Boosler, for example, is singled out for being a pill, at times, which may have kept her from achieving superstardom on the level of Barr or DeGeneres; Kathy Griffin, while praised by her peers, is also described by more than one account as defensive; even DeGeneres talks about the lull in her career with disarming frankness.

Some interesting things pop up when reading We Killed – most notably is the problem female comics see in the rise of smutty comedy – specifically when delivered by a bikini-hot comedienne. Comic Sarah Silverman built her career on shocking audiences by delivering some of the most foul, vile material – littered with jokes about rape, AIDS, the Holocaust, racism, anti-Semitism – but she delivers the material with an impish smirk, as if she were a child that gets away with cursing; that comic persona, coupled with her beauty, gave her a niche that is now being co-opted by many other female comics, much to the chagrin of established comediennes.

As fascinating as the younger voices are, it’s the veterans that will hold the reader’s attention – specifically Lily Tomlin, whose career ran the gamut fromTV’s Laugh-In, to working with fellow comic genius Richard Pryor, to TV specials, and to Oscar-nominated film roles. Tomlin’s insight, her commitment to subversive social critique, and her homosexuality make her passages all the more interesting as she came of age during a time when a mainstream comic like Carol Burnett ruled. Along with Tomlin, passages by Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldber, and Joan Rivers also give some serious heft to this book – these ladies had to do some serious struggling to get their work and points of view across.

A few years ago, British comic Dawn French produced and hosted a series of interviews called Girls Who Do Comedy (a companion series for male comics came later). This show accomplished what We Killed couldn’t – capturing the voices of these funny ladies. While reading their words make for entertaining reading, actually hearing it, brings the writing to another level (if you don’t believe me, try this: first read a transcript of Wanda Sykes’ standup, then actually listen to it – trust me, there’s a difference). Also French’s show not only addressed American comediennes (Silverman, Sandra Bernhard, Rivers, Diller, Goldberg, even Miss Piggy all took part), but she also interviewed some brilliant British comediennes like her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders, or the late Linda Smith. I understand that the subtitle of the book is The Rise of Women in American Comedy, but the impact of British acts like French, Saunders, or Tracey Ullman is definitely felt here, and their contribution would’ve only enhanced the book. Also a deeper look into how sexuality and race play into the work of a comedienne is given a quick glance, but rarely explored, which is a disappointment.

Despite its shortcomings, We Killed does achieve its goal of presenting an oral history of female comedy. For now, Kohen’s work will have to suffice, but hopefully another book will come out that will give some historical context to women and humor. Until then, We Killed is still more than adequate, and proves to be a fun, breezy read.

Click here to buy We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen on amazon.com.

15 Comments

Filed under Book, Celeb, Comedy, Humor Essay Collection, Nonfiction, Sitcom

15 responses to “We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen – a review

  1. Pingback: We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen – a review « Vivacious Vixens

  2. I just watched the 2005 documentary “The Comedians of Comedy” profiling four comedians that comics themselves follow. The comedians features are Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Zach Galifinakis and Maria Bamford. Maria Bamford’s presence in the documentary added a whole new layer to the dynamic of the group. Her female stage persona has a knowing innocence that resonates with your comparison of Sarah Silverman to a cursing child. Maria Bamford’s material is much less “foul” or “vile” than Sarah’s but, despite the innocence, there’s nothing naive about it. She strikes deeply satirical notes relevant to urban culture and first-world society. I honestly think she deserves some credit on the list of great female comedians. Even comedians who hate pop comedy dig her. That says a lot.

  3. To follow up my comment, here are a few links to pages about the documentary and the Comedy Central standup series that was created at the same time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Comedians_of_Comedy

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0451021/

    Here are links to my WordPress site. I’m a brand new member, so tips or general advice from your experience will be appreciated if you’ve got time. I support your pro-female approach, and I’m happy to endorse any future posts you write about similar topical books.

    http://lindseytorma.wordpress.com/

    • @lindseytorma – thanks for the links and thanks for the response…I’ve seen Maria Bamford a few times on television (and I sometimes see her albums in record stores) – I’ll give her a closer look..
      If you have a chance, you should check out Dawn French’s “Girls Who Do Comedy” – for now, you’ll only be able to find it on YouTube in sections, but it’s very interesting – French interviews comediennes on various subjects and it’s a huge range of artists that are profiled….

  4. Women do laugh, and can be funny, but I wonder, ,,,, do they actually have a sense of humor.

    If they did have a sense of humor, then womans’ magazines would have capitalized on it by having cartoons in their magazines.

    But they don’t publish cartoons in their mags. Why ? The Mags will do anything to improve profits.

    The only conclusion I can come to is, the Editors don’t think there’s any value in cartoons because they don’t think women have a sense of humor.

    Food for though, but in the meantime, ask the Editor of your favorite womans Mag to run cartoons (but only IF you have a sense of humor).

    https://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/women-laugh-yes-they-do/

    Cheers

    Mick

    • @cartoonmick – I read your article – very insightful question – I added my hypothesis of why “women’s mags” don’t feature comic strips….
      I do agree with you – I think editors of women’s mags probably think women don’t like comic strips – but there’s more going on w/women’s mags in terms of consumerism and misogyny as well, that probably have a bearing on what kind of material finds its way into women’s mags…
      Thanks for the response!

  5. I look forward to reading Yael Kohen’s latest book! I do think however that Tina Fey is one of the best comics!

    • @segmation Tina Fey is awesome – her book BOSSYPANTS is one of my favs – and I love 30 ROCK. If you like Tina Fey, I suggest you read Mindy Kaling’s IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT BUT ME – very good, as well.

  6. here in the UK we have some very unfunny (in my opinion) female comedians so I can see where the stereotype comes from!

    • @Hannah Burke – thanks for your reply – yeah there are funny/unfunny folks of all genders, races, etc. But I’m an anglophile and love all things British including lots of your comediennes – I mean, I still laugh like mad at French & Saunders or Mollie Sugden…Thanks for reading and your comment…

  7. @Mick – perhaps that is why the popularity of fashion magazines declines as the age of the female reader goes up. This is really ridiculous to discount an entire gender in respect to a genre. I guess no one thought women were interested in adventure either since for so long superheroes, action adventure heroes and the like were male dominated roles for so long.
    Really, wt-?

    • @bizcommunicator – thanks for commment. I think mick is sympathetic to women’s readers, and is criticizing women mag editors who underestimate and “miss the mark” when trying to figure out what women readers like to read.
      It’s interesting that you mentioned the adventure genre, because there’s still a paucity of female-driven action films/franchises – and the few that made it (with some exceptions) haven’t been as successful as male-driven works, so there are still male-dominated genres of art that need to be opened up to women – like editorial cartoons/comics, a highly male-dominated industry at the moment…

    • Everyone needs a little humor. It’s much better for you than photos of models you can never look like.

  8. I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

  9. I appreciate this post since it’s something I haven’t quite noticed. I do admit I haven’t had a tv for the last 2 yrs. But good point. Maybe the female comediennes who aren’t overly cussing in their skits aren’t the ones who reach the limelight. I think audiences these days have even shorter attention span but still why can’t we have intellectually average comedy at least without being overly vile or shocking?

    Nowadays a woman does have to tread a fine line of what to joke about without sounding too housewifey, matronly vs. rebel girl cussing her head off but also cater a broad range of women and men as an audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s