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 Cybill, Murphy 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.