An oral history is only as good as its talking heads. Luckily, author Yael Kohen has scored some fantastic names in her new book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. Whoopi Goldberg laments her prowess, Ellen DeGeneres shares skeevy condos while working the road, and much more. It’s an exhaustive, exciting book covering more than six decades of laughs.
The year is 1957. In a comedy scene dominated by men, two funny women usher in a sea of change. At New York clubs such as Blue Angel, Copacabana and Bon Soir, Phyllis Diller drops one-liners about her domestic life with machine-gun delivery. Across town, former Compass Player Elaine May makes waves with scene partner Mike Nichols as a variety of improvised, fully formed characters. Diller and May, according to Kohen, set the stage for a rising tide of hilarious women.
Particularly vivid and engaging are recollections of these early years from pioneering comedians David Steinberg, Shelley Berman and Joan Rivers; the latter remembers getting booked for The Tonight Show at the insistence of Bill Cosby.
The ’60s led to the second wave of feminism in the ’70s and the rise of women on prime time: The Carol Burnett Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Marlo Thomas in That Girl and, of course, SNL. Here Kohen shines light on pioneering writers such as Treva Silverman and Rosie Shuster, who penned from female points of view at a time when the writer’s room was controlled by men.
The stand-up boom of the ’80s gives way to a Gen X sensibility in the ’90s. Anecdotes reveal nasty club owners, a boys’-club mentality and the urge for women to self-deprecate and/or compete with one another.
Plenty of the book’s commentary comes from men, but we never hear from the alleged sexists.
It would have been interesting to hear from Eddie Brill, the Late Show booker who was fired for making a wisecrack about female comedians, or to have a SNL writer saying on record: Yeah, I was a misogynist back in the day.
As to the age-old question ‘Are women funny?’ the responses from comedians such as Chelsea Peretti and Iliza Shlesinger indicate they’re ready to have the issue put to rest. This book finally does that.
From Dhs60 at www.amazon.com.