Nonfiction

The joke’s on the naysayers

 

Female comedians’ fight to gain their shot on the stage.

Why do we need a book like We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy? Women all but rule comedy in 2012, right? Kristen Wiig? Tina Fey? Amy Poehler? Ellen DeGeneres?

Ask Adam Carolla, whose Adam Carolla Show is considered, at more than 60 million downloads the world’s most popular podcast. He told The New York Post this summer to forget 30 Rock, Bridesmaids and Parks and Recreation: Women just aren’t funny. “The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks,” he told The Post.

As author Yael Kohen points out, comedy legends from Johnny Carson to John Belushi to Jerry Lewis all made the same pronouncement. Kohen’s new book, “a very oral history” of women in comedy, sets out to show they’re wrong.

While it could use more funny itself, We Killed clearly depicts how the entertainment-industrial complex has made it hard for women to show they are as funny as men. Women had to fight to get male club owners, TV producers and agents to give them a shot on stage, Kohen writes. Joan Rivers, probably the most successful female comic of the 1960s, recalls how she auditioned for The Tonight Show eight times before getting a shot — and only then because Bill Cosby recommended her.

The stories recounted have a sameness after a while — unfortunately, because women trying to make their way in comedy have faced the same sexism. Opportunities increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when women who went mainstream helped other women. Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore helped foster the careers of female comedy writers on their TV shows and boosted the roles of actresses they worked with. Moore, show creator Allan Burns recalls, gave her co-stars some of the best jokes because “it seemed to work for the good of the show.” Expanding the role of Sue Ann Nivens, played by Betty White, was Moore’s idea.

Saturday Night Live writers Rosie Shuster and Marilyn Suzanne Miller recall fighting to get good material for the women on the show, because the male writers weren’t interested in writing for them. Today, Chelsea Handler creates venues on her weeknight snarkfest for up-and-coming female comics like Whitney Cummings, who has two prime-time sitcoms, one in which she stars.

As a history, We Killed is erratic, in part because of the voices that aren’t in it. Elayne Boosler, who was for awhile the only well-known female stand-up comic of the 1970s, isn’t heard from. Comedians of color don’t get a lot of attention, although modern-day performers including Whoopi Goldberg and Mo’Nique touch on the issues they’ve faced. But We Killed does fill in gaps and yields surprising perspectives on comedy of the past half-century. And it shows that, yes, women are funny, even if they have to keep proving it.

Chris Foran reviewed this book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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