We Killed is described as “a very oral history,” riffing on the nature of stand-up comedy and the way the book is constructed. What started as an article for Marie Clare became a book. Yael Kohen took interviews with comedians, club owners, writers, TV executives, actors, managers, etc. and stitched them together to give the history around people and TV shows a narrative shape and focus. Also, the We Killed is broken into sections that mark transitions in TV/stand-up/performative comedy. Kohen starts with the likes of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. The first big transition shift was away from jokes to Lily Tomlin and her characters (with which I am not familiar). Then, Kohen covers TV performers like Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett. Going back to stand-up and women no one knew what to do with, we hear about Whoopi Goldberg and Elayne Boosler.
Finally, I got to a time period I remember: Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paula Poundstone doing stand up! This was a time of joke telling, but soon transitioned to comedians telling stories about who they are as individuals with Janeane Garofalo at the helm. We Killed wraps up with “the girls’ club” at Saturday Night Live (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph) and what Kohen suggests are the feminine/sexy comedians like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler.
My first concerns was whether I would remember who’s who in each chapter. When a person is first introduced, he/she gets some brief credentials (a longer list of why the interviewee is important is contained at the front of the book). After, the person’s name alone is used. However, thanks to Kohen’s impressive weaving of interviews to create a narrative, I never felt confused. And with the exception of a few paragraphs Kohen writes to provide transitions, the whole book comes straight from interviews, giving it authenticity and an conversational style.
While the early names were somewhat lost on me (I conflated Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers in my mind), Kohen made it easy to follow why each writer and performer was important in the context of the time period. If a comedian is still alive, I may place her one way now and see her in a new light after reading about her origins. Joan Rivers comes to mind, yelling at celebrities with her daughter on the red carpet, but was described as a trailblazer with improv roots in the 1960s. Lily Tomlin’s pivotal work I didn’t know about, but love her as the co-star of Grace and Frankie on Netflix.
And I learned about what it was like to be woman in a certain time period based on the treatment and desires of female comics on prime-time TV. Marlo Thomas, whom I know from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital commercials (which her father founded), taught me about “a woman’s place” as a comedic actor on a TV show:
I could see very clearly that I didn’t want to be the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody, or the daughter of somebody. I wanted to carry the story as opposed to just being an appendage of the story, which is what women were on television.
Yael Kohen includes mini chapters titled “In the Spot” in which she looks at either a mover-shaker or small group. The one that made me furious was a look at the “boys’ club” days of Saturday Night Live, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd. According to Anne Beatts, who was a writer for SNL from 1975-1980, Belushi constantly demanded the female employees be fired and refused to be in any sketches women wrote. Though I loved Chevy Chase in his family vacation films, I can’t stand him in any other movies. Always, Chase ends up with a naked woman (Caddyshack) or grabbing a female actor’s breast (Spies Like Us)– moments in the script that have zero logic to any female viewer and were obviously written by men to appease his desires.
At one point, Chase read a bit by SNL writer Cindy Caponera that got lots of laughs, which angered him. He told her, “Why don’t you give me a handjob.” Not a petulant response (in the tone of “why don’t you kiss my ass?!”), but a statement. Then, Chase refused to go on stage and do the bit. Kohen’s interviews confirm suspicions that I’ve had about a whole genre of male comedians from “classic” films I’ve hated, like Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House.
Another suspicion I’ve long held without evidence is that women make it hard for other women in comedy. One of the most important club owners on the west coast, Mitzi Shore (mother of Pauly Shore) played favorites. Sandra Bernhard, stand-up comedian and actor on Roseanne, remembers:
I don’t think Mitzi ever really liked a lot of women. She might have had a couple of favorites, but she liked to be like the queen bee. So there was always like a lot of young male comics who she liked and kind of took under her wing and had little flings with.
Lisa Lampanelli fails to surprise. She’s a walking example of “the cool girl.” The insult comic has always made me cringe, and in her own words she states that she won’t hang out with female comics other than Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin (and herself, she says) because they all “yap, yap, freakin’ yap” and whine and believe there are barriers for women in comedy. I appreciated that Kohen captured even the ugly parts of comedy because it made me more passionate about the history of women in comedy.
Published in 2012, Yael Kohen ends with comedians like Anjelah Johnson, Whitney Cummings, and Chelsea Handler, people Kohen asserts made sexy female comedians acceptable (in the past, women in comedy were more androgynous). I’d love a follow-up article in Marie Clare about comedians like Ali Wong, Katherine Ryan, Aparna Nancherla, Nicole Byer, Nikki Glaser, and Amy Schumer. A highly recommended read that I enjoyed each time I picked it up, like I stepped into some kind of reality TV confession room with a serious, not petty, focus.