Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Sisterhood Is Hilarious

A new book chronicles how women broke through the comedy world's glass ceiling.

Heather Havrilesky


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Marlo Thomas, star of the sitcom That Girl, which aired from 1966 to 1971.

Women aren’t any less funny than men, but they are more sensitive to environmental cues. Where funny men might share an impressive ability to complete that imitation of a dog in heat or an anesthesia-free bowel resection whether they’re greeted with weak smiles, nervous titters, or visible agitation, funny women are less likely to press the point. This attunement to psychosocial feedback, usually interpreted as a lack of conviction or commitment (or, if you prefer, cojones), might better be greeted as a sign of robust mental health. Still, this perceptual gap in what counts as truly laugh-worthy—which itself tends to track a pretty stark gender divide—might explain why men who don’t think women are funny tend not to meet very many funny women. As former Saturday Night Live writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller explains in Yael Kohen’s We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27), it’s not always that easy to get your ideas noticed in “a room full of Danny Aykroyds”: “You’re pitching stuff and then there are these guys imitating chain saws.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Kohen’s oral history of female comedians in American culture over the past fifty-odd years sometimes feels like an attempt to refute a room full of guys imitating chain saws. Instead of waving off a thesis (women aren’t funny) that’s too sophomoric to warrant further attention, Kohen’s pastiche of first-person accounts from comedians, agents, club promoters, and network executives draws a ragged line from the stand-up of Joan Rivers to the improv of Elaine May to the anecdotal comedy of Janeane Garofalo to the popularity of last year’s blockbuster gross-out comedy Bridesmaids. As a result, Kohen winds up presenting a sort of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of female comedy, one that inadvertently advances the notion that sorting comics based on a pair of chromosomes makes more sense than, say, tossing them into one of two groups: Funny and Not That Funny.

From the hot-pink cover to the emotional high five of a title, Kohen’s book has that whiff of feminist rallying that renders so much of the for-women, about-women universe faintly uncomfortable. Like the “Women Writers” or “Women in Film” panels that circle back to the same gender issues so often that they’d likely leave even Adrienne Rich falling asleep in Sharon Olds’s lap, Kohen’s book takes a great subject (comedy) and a great issue (women are underrepresented and openly discriminated against in the comedy world) and attempts to herd a disparate collection of comedy professionals in the same general direction—toward a shared narrative of past injustices and current redemption.

The past injustices certainly aren’t difficult to evoke. The comedy world erected daunting barriers in the path of all women aspirants, and Kohen’s older subjects enthusiastically delineate this state of gender apartheid in hilarious yet depressing detail. Unlike today’s comediennes, who seem to have been born with a microphone in their hands, Phyllis Diller was a housewife looking to make some extra money. Bette Midler says of Diller, “It really was like someone who had been chained to an ironing board for years just said, You know what? I’m too smart for this—let me out.” Diller and Rivers and the female comics who came in their wake discovered that men weren’t quite prepared to listen to women cracking jokes onstage. “In those days, a female, unless she was a real feminist or a lesbian, they were mostly child-bearers; they rolled the joints,” says Lily Tomlin, recalling her experiences in the early-’60s New York mime scene. Diller contained the cultural resistance by hiding her more strictly visual assets. “I had such a great figure,” she says. “So I had to dress so that they couldn’t see any figure because I wanted to make jokes.”

Even after women established themselves as part of the comedy scene, it took persistence to get thoughtful women in front of mass audiences. Marlo Thomas—the star of the groundbreaking (for prime time, anyway) sitcom That Girl—describes a call she made to ABC’s head of programming to let him know that the network’s shows were outdated. “These [shows] are really old-fashioned, where the girl is the daughter of or the wife of or the secretary of,” said Thomas. “Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?” Many TV executives believed that audiences wouldn’t like stories about independent women, and they found test audiences to back these suspicions. According to Mary Tyler Moore Show cocreator Allan Burns, executives informed the show’s producers that test audiences felt that “Mary—because she was thirty and unmarried—was a loser. . . . That Valerie was too Jewish and too abrasive. That Phyllis was just a pain in the ass and we should rewrite accordingly. All these women who didn’t have men, except Phyllis who was in an unhappy marriage, were depressing to people.” The Mary Tyler Moore Show proved to be a hit, of course. But the idea that single women are inherently depressing must still be common, considering the you-go-girl cheer that renders most female-centric network comedies nearly unwatchable.

Like any entertainment tome worth its salt, We Killed includes its share of gossip, both expected (John Belushi reportedly claimed that women weren’t funny) and unexpected (so did Al Franken). Rivers had “poor taste,” according to talent agent Irvin Arthur. And Kathy Griffin is described as something of a troublemaker. “Kathy more than those other women is nuts,” reports David Cross.

The best segments of the book, though, go beyond the disheartening conditions and the madness of the individual players to address how these performers pushed back against hostile forces, from club promoters who wanted only one female comic per lineup to male hecklers in the audience. “The heckler gets as much room as you do,” says Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer. “But they want to see that gladiator kind of atmosphere. So I had to learn to let the heckler have his day—and then squash him.” This toughness is echoed in Susie Essman’s take on male comedians who routinely disparaged their female colleagues. “There would always be some mediocre guy emceeing or something, who would come off and say to me, something like, ‘You know what? You might not want to go on, they’re really rough,’” says Essman. “And that would just give me so much motivation. ‘Oh, really? Watch me.’” Roseanne Barr backs Essman’s assessment that it’s always the mediocre talents who are the most discouraging. “It wasn’t the comics in Denver who were supportive,” she says. “It was the ones passing through, the good ones.”

From the rise of improv in Chicago in the ’70s to Boston’s comedy-club scene in the ’80s to the behind-the-scenes power dynamics of SNL over the past two decades, We Killed paints a vivid portrait of a few of comedy’s notable microclimates. That said, some of the most popular comedic wellsprings are left out of the mix entirely. The website Funny or Die is arguably the modern version of the Comedy Store or Catch a Rising Star and features a handful of truly original comediennes, like Maria Bamford and Amy Schumer. Since many would argue that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have supplanted SNL as the defining voice of modern comedy, the absence of any substantive discussion of those shows, or significant input from Daily Show cocreator Lizz Winstead or correspondent Samantha Bee, seems a little odd. As a follow-up to so much discussion of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it would probably make sense to speak with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham about their experiences creating some of the most compelling female comedy roles on TV in years (as opposed to, say, giving a lot of airtime to Whitney Cummings, whose shows Whitney and 2 Broke Girls are cut from more of a regressive, does-this-sitcom-make-my-butt-look-fat cloth). Finally, omitting Wanda Sykes from a roundup of great female comics is a little bit like leaving Louis C.K. or Chris Rock out of a male-comics playbook.

And like a bad comedy routine, the best material in We Killed is often bogged down by repetitive My First Big Break stories. Such tales are typically steeped in the self-congratulatory assumption that raw talent, tenacity, and chutzpah reigned over dumb luck most of the time. After wading through page after page of such anecdotes (“Now, let me tell you this story. She had a manager by the name of Roy Silver . . .”), the whole thing starts to feel like extreme inside baseball, the sort that goes into extra innings, with half the crowd clearing out of the park before the game is over.

Likewise, it’s tough not to bristle at the persistent message (as a few of the comedians in the book seem to) that every woman who’s made it in comedy is good for all women in comedy. This spirit of camaraderie, so necessary to pro-choice fund-raisers and policy discussions on women’s labor issues, feels awkward here, as it means willfully sidestepping any qualitative distinction between, say, Gilda Radner and a wisecracking panelist on Chelsea Lately. In the ultrahypothetical universe where someone might publish a book called We Killed: Men in Comedy and try to draw a line from George Carlin to Dane Cook, the tacit appeal to gender-based uniformity of skill would be laughed off the stage. Women don’t support other women by pretending not to know the difference between brilliant comedic performers like Lily Tomlin and Carol Burnett and Maya Rudolph and someone who tosses back cans of Red Bull and calls Angelina Jolie a bitch.

Does the existence of more female comics mean we’ve made incredible progress over the past fifty years? Not if most comedy clubs still limit one or at most two women to a five-performer lineup. Not if network TV still predominantly casts its female-centric sitcoms with catalogue models who look about as natural and comfortable mouthing funny lines as a dog that’s been propped up to look like it’s playing poker. And finally—and most important—not if female writers stoop to addressing an asinine question (Are women funny?) with an even more asinine answer (Look at this giant list of women who range from hilarious to deeply unamusing!). We’re not chained to the mediocre pap, mouthed by sitcom spokesmodels, that the chain-saw imitators in suits keep feeding us. We’re too smart for this.

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