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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Obviously, despite this prejudice, there have been scores of funny women. “It’s just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule,” Kohen writes. Kohen notes that several comedians declined her interview requests, but she (disappointingly) declines to name them. At first glance, most readers likely won’t notice their absence, because Kohen did nab a bounty of big names. The late Phyllis Diller is here, and Joan Rivers, and Lily Tomlin, as well as Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres and many stars of “Saturday Night Live,” including Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. Elaine May, the brilliant sketch artist, and Tina Fey, who first made history by becoming the lead writer of “Saturday Night Live,” aren’t interviewed, but their contributions are detailed by admirers. Among their male colleagues, Robin Williams and Richard Lewis speak out; Lorne Michaels, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are missing-in-action.

Kohen’s subjects are often astonishingly candid, shedding light on familiar controversies. Barr, for instance, talks about fights over the writing of her groundbreaking, eponymous sitcom, which chronicled the travails of a loud-mouthed working-class mother. “I was a strong woman writer with an idea and a whole act. I wasn’t the character — I was the writer. So I knew what I wanted, and I just held out for it,” she says.

Some of her conflicts with the predominantly male (and Harvard-educated) writers’ room, Barr says, had to do with gender. “There was sexist and offensive and stupid stuff in the script all the time,” she says. But others involved with the show saw the situation differently. “This is not a gender thing. This is personality,” says Marcy Carsey, whose Carsey-Werner Company produced “Roseanne.” “That show worked… as long as we could keep her showing up and kind of being professional.” Some bitterness evidently persists.

Thanks to the depth of Kohen’s reporting and her skillful arrangement of interview segments, certain titans of the comedy scene emerge as complicated, fleshed-out figures, alternately helpful and hateful. One example is Mitzi Shore, the powerful owner of Los Angeles’s Comedy Store, a proving ground in the 1970s for comedians who hoped to be discovered and make the leap to “The Tonight Show” and to eventual sitcom fame.

Stand-up comic Argus Hamilton, who was close to her, describes Shore as “a Midwestern Jewish Scarlett O’Hara” — a tough, attractive woman with an acute business sense. JoAnne Astrow, another stand-up and Comedy Store regular, says Shore was “a formidable dictator,” with “courtiers, jester, lovers, and an entourage that surrounded her.”

Shore (whom Kohen did not interview) created an upstairs room at the club, called the Belly Room, for women to work out their acts — a controversial move. Boosler disdained the space as a ghetto and refused to perform there, and Merrill Markoe, at one point both David Letterman’s girlfriend and head writer, describes it as “a pretty awful place.”

“We Killed” moves back and forth between the club scene and television, and shows how the transformation of “Saturday Night Live” from boys’ club to virtual girls’ club helped foster important careers. The book ends with a chapter, “Comic Rising,” that features newer talents such as Chelsea Handler, whose success has helped neutralize yet another shibboleth: that pretty women can’t be funny,

Still, Kohen points out, women haven’t yet claimed comedy equality. With, for instance, just 16 women among 145 writers working for 10 late-night shows, the statistics suggest that some prejudice and obstacles remain. “We Killed” is a lovely tribute to those who managed to overcome.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.


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