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

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.

Marlo Thomas, Phyllis Diller, Maya Rudolph, and Kathy Griffin. Photo Credit.

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.

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26 comments

  1. The bias against women in comedy is so bizarre. I suppose true wit requires intelligence, and keeping an audience captivated is a form of power, both of which are things men tend to find threatening in a woman. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s cool there’s a book out there celebrating how far funny women have already come! 😊

  2. I have been listening to back episodes of one of my favourite radio programmes (The Unbelievable Truth) – it’s still running but started in around 2007. Comparing the early episodes to the ones that air now, I am extremely impressed with how many more women are now on, and how they no longer have to make jokes about being women – they can be funny about the actual topics being discussed. I know there is still a lot of progress that’s needed, but it encouraged me to compare them.

    (Also, now that they select from a wider pool of comics, the episodes are much funnier).

    • Yes! That was something the women in this book mentioned: the desire to make jokes about something other than being a woman. No jokes about husbands, cramps, domestic chores, etc. I was surprised by how few jokes are IN the book, but when some are included, they are HILARIOUS.

  3. Sounds fascinating, if infuriating at times. How on earth does it take anything away from a male comic for a woman to also be funny? What does he benefit from refusing to perform work written by a woman? Ugh.

    • I think men are threatened that women can replace them (we can) and they will have to work harder to keep up. When I was teaching composition in 2009, there was an article we read that discussed how women in recent years (at that time) were getting more college degrees than men. It’s a sign.

      • There were definitely more women than men when I was at university. The thing that is so infuriating is when men see women as “replacing” them but they don’t view other men as the same kind of threat. I guess it’s a similar fear as when people worry that immigrants are stealing our jobs.

    • I love stand-up comedy, but in recent years I’ve discovered it takes a lot for a comedian to make me laugh. I think part of the problem is comics are basically saying exactly what’s happening in the White House. Stand-up comics used to either riff on politicians or tell jokes about their own lives. The other day I watched Wanda Sykes, whom I love, and she basically kept saying things Trump has done and claiming “This isn’t normal. I know Wanda; what’s funny these days?? I love Christopher Titus’s style of stand-up (storytelling). I think Aparna Nancherla is great, too. I loved Mitch Hedberg’s style of joke after joke without segues. Katherine Ryan does this amazing thing where she’s beautiful and privileged and makes fun of that by being unapologetic about it and calling out the absurdity of her life.

  4. This sounds very interesting and well done, and the author obviously does a good job of keeping you knowing who everyone is and also highlighting all the areas. I think you’re right and an update would be a great idea. I haven’t heard of quite a few of these people so it probably wouldn’t translate here, but we have a lot of American TV here of course so it would work for other people.

  5. Great review! This truly sounds like a fascinating read. While I’m not a fan of stand up comedy – I find the humor too forced and I’m always that person in the audience with a stern face not laughing…, this sounds really interesting – especially about how the male comedians treated the female ones. You also make an excellent point about how women make it hard for other women to succeed. I think this is true in all different walks of life and happened in the past and happens now. I’ve always heard that it’s hard for women in comedy, but never really knew where I got that snippet of info and sounds like this is a book not to be missed!

    • The parts about special nights or rooms for women only got me thinking about the on-going conversation about how the Women’s Prize for Fiction is sexist. Do women need their own prize? Are we saying women can’t shine next to a man, or that the world is so biased we need to create places for women? There were female comedians who loved women-only nights or special stages because they made so many connections and friends, but other women refused to get on that stage.

  6. This sounds like a really great book. I don’t know much about female comedians, although I do enjoy going to stand-up shows-who doesn’t like laughing? Comedy always seemed like a hard industry to break into as a woman, so the darker sides this book shows doesn’t surprise me one bit…

  7. I absolutely love Carol Brunett. We watched her show all the time. That’s one of the shows I actually miss.
    I don’t know much about who’s who in comedy, but I do love Ellen whenever I see her.
    This book sounds entertaining!

  8. An important book about an important topic – what we laugh about says a lot about who we are. There are or have been interesting differences between Australian and US women comics. I don’t see enough television to be authoritative but it seemed to me even strong women like Roseanne were more inclined to eventually defer to their husbands than Australian women in the same situation – eg. Kath & Kim.

    • I’m not sure, actually. Most female comics I see are either single or newly married. Amy Schumer just got married, and Ali Wong, who now has two stand-up specials she recorded while very pregnant, is married.

  9. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention!! I love so many of the women featured in this book… Roseanne and Lily Tomlin in particular… I am going to give the audiobook a go I think!

    You may like Amy Poehler’s book, Yes, Please!

    • Weirdly, I’ve never clicked with Amy Poehler. I watched part of the first season of Park and Rec and didn’t get into (and everyone now tells me you’re supposed to skip the first season). I did like her as the voice of Joy in the animated movie Inside Out. I’m more of a Kristen Wiig kind of person. She’s fantastic in both comedy and drama.

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