We Killed: The Rise of Women in Comedy

I originally published this review here on Travalanche ten years ago (2012). At some point, I moved most of my book reviews over to Goodreads. A couple of days ago a bunch of people noticed it there and reminded me that it existed, and I realized that it’s a crime not to retain it here, given its show business subject. And today being the first day of Women’s History Month seems the perfect day to re-post it.

There are plenty of things about Yael Kohen’s new book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy that seem almost calculated to bug me.

One is a prejudice against old school vaudeville and burlesque comedy. This is an industry-wide attitude, an idiotic one I encounter frequently. I once met with a tv writer from one of America’s top comedy shows a few years back who wanted to write a musical about a major vaudeville act. “But I have to solve the comedy problem,” he said, “You can’t do that kind of comedy any more. How do you show the audience that you’re smarter than that?” And I as much as told him, “Screw you, jack! My entire life is about reviving that sort of comedy.” Modern (realistic, non-joke-based, whatever you want to call it) comedy bores the frig out of me. This is 2012, not the 1970s. Why is anyone still worried about appearing too much like Alan King? And by the way, if the original worry is that joke-based vaudeville comedy was too ossified, at least it was diverse. Kohen talks about Mitzi Shore’s 1970s pioneering of the comedy club, a specialized venue that only presents stand-up comics, as though it were a good thing. Frankly, I think it’s horrible. I hate comedy clubs. 95% of the comedians stink, they have no material and no originality, and you have to watch 8 of them in a row? I say, flush this phenomenon down the toilet. So: defining “American comedy” as the sort of comedy that has only been around a half century or so seems selective at best, to put it mildly. Calculated to raise my hackles.

But more importantly, if your issue is gender equity, then it’s simply not fair not to acknowledge the inroads made in the first part of the twentieth century. Women (singing comediennes) were the biggest stars in vaudeville: they were the most powerful, the highest paid, and the most famous. Show business was among the first realms in American life about which this can be said. If you had asserted a century ago that these women somehow “weren’t funny” or “weren’t comedians”, people would merely have been nonplussed.  I’m talking about the likes of Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Eva Tanguay, Nora Bayes, Elsie Janis, etc.  Kohen dismisses this earlier era, because back then women “were expected to sing and dance.” But, guess what? So were the men. Back then that is what defined a top entertainer: they sang, danced, and told jokes. The male equivalent of those women I mentioned is Eddie Cantor. Or to use Kohen’s own example of “old school”, we can use Bob Hope. What is he associated with in addition to telling jokes? A song: “Thanks for the Memories”. He sings in every Hope and Crosby picture, and indeed was a star of Broadway musicals before going to Hollywood. All of the emcees at the Palace, America’s top show biz venue prior to the night club era, sang, dance, and told jokes, just like the musical comedy stars they also became.

Were there some comedy professionals who only did comedy monologues prior to the stand-up era? Yes, they were known as monologists. They were often well loved, but they were not the top stars, and you can gauge that by the unsexy name for their specialty. Any of the top singing comediennes would have dwarfed any monologist in power, influence and take-home pay. It’s only in the night-club era, a few years into the Cold War, that you get guys who are stand-up comics, that is, who only come out and talk, becoming popular. And THIS is the realm in which women did not dominate, although the first pioneers (the examples Kohen gives are Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and Elaine May) came along pretty soon thereafter. The distinction is important because when you claim that Phyllis Diller is the first woman in American comedy, you are kind of shitting on not only all the singing comediennes but also Mae West, Beatrice Lillie, Gracie Allen, Imogene Coca, Penny Singleton, Mabel Normand, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Zasu Pitts, Ginger Rogers, Gertrude Berg, Selma Diamond, writers like Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker, and — hardly irrelevant, the first woman to be President of her own television studio — Lucille Ball. The distinction is supposed to be that these earlier performers were too ladylike, they’re not aggressive enough (“like a man”) and so they somehow don’t count. Uh, they count to me. I remember watching this show Colin Quinn had in the 90s where he and a bunch of his thug friends would sit around and kibitz, and one time they started talking trash about Rita Rudner (I’m certain the topic was one that is a central — valid — theme of Kohen’s book, the well-known male canard that “women aren’t funny.”) At any rate: here’s what you should know, ladies. My instant reaction to Quinn’s comment was “Rita Rudner (who is actually witty and has a sharply honed comic persona) is worth a thousand of you imbecilic knuckle draggers.” I have no interest in dick humor, or the dicks who are preoccupied with their dicks and apparently can’t stop talking about theirs and other people’s dicks. Surely, I’m not alone.

The problem is: when people like Johnny Carson and Lorne Michaels and most of the men in the industry seem to share Quinn’s attitude, it makes it tough and nasty for women. The environment sounds a lot like a locker room, a dirty, nasty cul-de-sac of human activity, from which, somehow, the industry once produced tv stars. It was a gauntlet manifestly not hospitable to the faint-hearted, but women eventually got the door open. And (now that we’ve got my historical objections out of the way), I can say that the book does an amazing job of chronicling that process…how we went from the occasional token woman in the writers room or on the Carson show to Mary Tyler Moore, Rosanne, Ellen Degeneres, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. And it’s all accomplished in interviews: scores and scores of them — and important ones, interviews with the key players and some of the most important people in show business. This story gets told. And for a show biz buff, reading these behind-the-scenes reminiscences is like eating popcorn. It’s just full of rich detail about a fascinating time. It’s extremely illuminating about the evolution of the old cabaret scene into the comedy club scene, for example. And the fact that it’s full of grievances makes it an even better read. There’s a lot of passion here, and a lot of hurt. One feels that this is an important story to be told, and it’s been a long time in coming.

At times, though, it feels like there is too much of it. The book could have used some editing. There’s a lot of redundancy and overlap, and some of the contributions by some of the more marginal people could easily be excised.  On the plus side, EVERYBODY is in this book. Every female figure in the comedy business you can think of , from the last half century. The problem, is everybody and her sister are in here, without much discrimination. After a while it seems like there are 150 people in the book about whom it is said “No one had ever seen anything like that before!” The cumulative effect is that every day someone does something on a comedy stage that no one has ever seen before. It’s quite true. It’s also quite unremarkable. Better to have kept it down to just the true benchmarks. After awhile the sheer weight of narcissism and self-importance can be overwhelming — not because they are women, but because they are comedians.

Also there is a substantial amount of digression into areas unrelated to the book’s theme of women struggling in the comedy business. And the book is inconsistent. At first (and for the most part) the yardstick for inclusion seems to be “the cutting edge”: women who made inroads not just professionally but in terms of the content of their material, i.e., having some feminist significance or import. But then, if this is true, and if we are ignoring Gertrude Berg and Lucille Ball, why talk (and at some length) about Carol Burnett and Betty White?

Speaking of narcisssism and self-importance, the coolest part for me was reading that Janeane Garafolo was doing stand-up at Periwinkles in Providence in 1985. Because I was doing stand-up at Periwinkles in 1985! We may well have done that open mic on the same night, although at that point who knew her from Eve? (Nearly 15 years later we were on the same bill at Caroline’s, although I was only appearing as a musician). PLUS there is an entire chapter on the alternative comedy scene I sprang out of in the mid ’90s, including shout-outs to our old haunts Surf Reality, Collective: Unconscious and Luna Lounge.

Thus my message to the reader is the same one these long-suffering female comedians were forced to listen to all their lives: good things come to those who wait.

*** Addendum, 2022: And good things did come (since the book’s release in 2012): Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Broad City, Julie Klausner’s Difficult People, Tig Notaro and One Mississippi, Hannah Gadsby, Mrs. Maisel, Hacks, Full Frontal, Ali Wong etc etc etc. Was this explosion due to social media? The rise of streaming video? The #MeToo Movement? All of the above? For this reason and others laid out in the review, someone should write another book!