Feminism Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

Yael Kohen Profiles Women Who Changed Funny Biz

Phyllis Diller With actress Elaine Dupont
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Phyllis Diller With actress Elaine Dupont

By Julia M. Klein

Published November 21, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy
By Yael Kohen
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
336 pages, $27

In the early 1980s, while I was reporting a story on female stand-ups for Ms. magazine, Adrianne Tolsch, the host at New York City’s Catch a Rising Star, agreed to arrange a special night of women comics at the club. There was one caveat: She told me that she would be obliged to intersperse a male act between each two women. The clear implication was that no audience could be expected to tolerate a women-only night.

Even so, the occasion was a rare enough feminist landmark that virtually the entire editorial staff of Ms., including Gloria Steinem, turned up for the show. In an absurdist footnote, Rodney “I don’t get no respect” Dangerfield happened to wander in, too, to test-run some new material.

It was impossible not to recall these events while reading Yael Kohen’s excellent oral history, “We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.” Many of the women I interviewed two decades ago — Tolsch, Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner, Carol Leifer — appear in Kohen’s account, which gracefully contextualizes their achievements. Kohen, too, started out writing a magazine article — in her case, for the April 2009 issue of Marie Claire. But she rightly realized that the topic was worthy of a book. She conducted more than 200 interviews, not just with female stand-ups and comedy stars, but also with their male colleagues and managers and with the true power brokers of comedy: club owners and network executives. The result is an often subtle, intimate and revealing account of how funny women have pushed through barriers to make their mark on popular culture.

While many of the women in this history are Jewish, Kohen neither singles them out nor discusses how their Jewishness may have shaped their comedy or their careers. This is history through a feminist lens, buttressed by the complexity of its portraiture of individual figures and of the comedy scene in general.

Kohen begins by mentioning the persistence of the shibboleth — repeated as recently as 2007 by Christopher Hitchens in his controversial Vanity Fair essay — that “women aren’t funny.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard more than once, often from men influenced by the misogynistic culture of The Harvard Lampoon. “Aren’t I funny?” I once asked a college boyfriend. “Only intrinsically,” he quipped.


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