WE KILLED: The Rise of Women in American Comedy By Yael Kohen

New York Times
WE KILLED: The Rise of Women in American Comedy
Published: November 30, 2012

The good news and bad news in writing about women fighting their way into mostly male professions is that we know the drill: Women pushed like hell for a break; men were clueless and obstructionist; women forced their way into the boys’ club and brought something fresh to the table. It’s good news because it’s true. It’s bad news because it’s no longer surprising and can now sound (cue Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” awful even back in 1972) cloyingly self-righteous.

So anyone working this genre had best find a counterintuive angle and a careful frame. (And yes, since I too write on this subject, I’m also warning myself.) Yael Kohen – a New York-based journalist who plucked an underanalyzed field, comedy, to explore – shaped her 152 interviewees into an oral history. Whether she chose this format in order to solve the aforementioned problem or because it was, well, easier (you don’t have to write much more than interstitial narration), it pretty much works. The rush of voices, male and female, dilutes the storming-the-barricades brio that peppers but does not overpower the book’s 300-plus pages. Comics of all levels of celebrity and vintage, as well as club owners, producers, writers, agents and network executives, carry the story. Sometimes they repeat one another and go on at ­patience-trying length (Kohen seems to follow the hagiographic school of talking-heads TV documentary, rather than accept that even genial spielers must advance a narrative). Still, there’s a bracing dose of shoptalk that puts you right inside their wheelhouse. “The joke is like a little play,” one person says. “Wrong!” another rebuts. “A joke has two parts: setup, payoff.”

Kohen makes clear where she believes modern female comedy began – with the two polar templates of Elaine May’s sketch comedy and Phyllis Diller’s stand-up. (By the way, who knew Diller was a WASPy Bay Area housewife with five kids?) Kohen’s jettisoning of our sentimental favorites – Lucille Ball (barely touched on in the book) and the (completely unmentioned) screwball comedy heroines adored by insomniacs and Aaron Sorkin – is impressively jolting. We thus proceed, trusting her bold curation and her speakers’ memories. If you give the book the time it merits, there’s a satisfying sweep, both in its chronology – from the crazed, self-deprecating ’60s housewife to the current reign of Fey, Poehler & Wiig – and in its big-tent embrace of all degrees of commercial appeal. Kohen evinces no artistic snobbery. “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Maude” are given the same respect as the Compass Players in Chicago and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Voices from recent yesteryear – Gail Parent, Anne Beatts, Treva Silverman, Alan Zweibel, Jo Anne Worley and many more – happily turn up in these pages.

Favorites seem played, but perhaps justifiably. Janeane Garofalo – “the poster child for a new generation of comics, disdainful of the predictable setup punch line style” – is granted a significance the casual fan may not know was warranted. The mostly forgotten Elayne Boosler is venerated as a gold standard of comic purity – “the Jackie Robinson of stand-up in my class,” says Richard Lewis. Still, few of Boosler’s jokes are shared; we must take on faith that her talent, as well as her prickly integrity, was exceptional.

Fleeting archetypes are recalled: “The kooky girl” – Jane Fonda’s “Barefoot in the Park” character – thankfully contrasted with the pesky housewives of the “Mad Men” era. Apt comparisons abound: like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres proffers “clean observations about our everyday lives.” Lily Tomlin is oversold as a harbinger of the counterculture. (Note to young’uns: Hippiedom had no sense of irony and thus little humor; no one under 25 watched TV; and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” on which Tomlin starred, was for parents in the suburbs.)

Sexism in comedy is shown as both oppressive and elusive – now you see it, now you don’t. One comic recalls that Johnny Carson considered women “broads” and another says that Carson refused to hire female writers; still, Bette Midler and Joan Rivers profited enormously from his support. Mitzi Shore (“a Midwestern Jewish Scarlett O’Hara”) turned her Comedy Store into Hollywood’s honey pot for funny bees, yet she insisted that most women perform on its smaller stage, the Belly Room. (Boosler refused.) Comedy is portrayed as a craft purveyed by ambitious professionals rather than a temperament moored in angst; the tears of a clown stay in Smokey Robinson’s song instead of dampening these pages. The juiciest anecdote about the beloved Gilda Radner has her briskly refusing to be two-timed by a boyfriend. Roseanne Barr’s tempestuous fights with her 27 writers are recalled, and she’s passionate about her role in society as a “feminist,” “left-wing” and “radical” working-class truth-teller. John Belushi is described as the pig we always suspected he was, as well as a casual anti-Semite. The frankest self-assessment, which speaks volumes about women in all fields when feminism was still more of an idea than a sensibility, belongs to Merrill Markoe, who turned over her talent, energy and career chits to the man she wrote for and singularly understood: her then not-so-famous boyfriend, David Letterman.

The book isn’t deep but it’s broad, and what sticks with me is the end. Two women are the capstones – Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman. They’re both tough, edgy babes, of course. They’re both pretty. (Stand-up comedy is the one human endeavor where being thin and very attractive was not, until recently, all that helpful.) Handler is a “dry, just-rolled-out-of-bed” humorist, a boozer who posed for Playboy. But she’s also a massively successful brand as a TV talk-show host, best-selling author, magazine cover girl, BFF to cute movie stars, girlfriend of A-list bachelors, and garnerer of You Go Girl-type awards. Sarah Silverman hasn’t quite squeezed inside mainstream celebrity culture. She takes her menacingly ­super-sweet voice and smile (she’s all about “the mislead”) and sadistically produces jokes that are very politically incorrect, dirty, mean – and gasp-­inducingly funny. She is gratuitously vulgar, repeatedly pointing the microphone at her rear end in her comedy special “Jesus Is Magic.” I’ve been very discomfited by her, but I can’t shake her off. I’ve heard myself say, “She’s the new Lenny Bruce,” hardly an original opinion. Isn’t that comedy’s holy grail – to be disturbing?

Yet, curiously, Kohen breaks with her bring-it-on enthusiasm when speaking of Silverman. She says that Silverman’s impact has been “unfortunate,” inspiring mark-­missing imitators who are “a turnoff,” adds a female comic, and “crude and dirty . . . just not funny,” a male comic consultant grumbles. No other woman in the book gets this worried, even scolding, treatment for being bold. Why the fit of criticism, right when things are getting interesting? Be careful what you wish for, maybe?

A good comic leaves us laughing; a good book leaves us unsettled. I thought “We Killed” was decent, but the unexpected squeamishness over Silverman makes me think that Kohen’s long tour of the relationship – and perhaps, ultimately, the clash – of humor with “appropriate” female behavior is even more revealing and thought-provoking than she intended it to be.

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