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Book Excerpt We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy: A Very Oral History

Book Excerpt We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy: A Very Oral History

The first time I ever heard the statement “women aren’t funny” was while reading it in a Christopher Hitchens’s column in the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair. At the time, I was more confused by it than anything. As a kid, I’d remembered seeing a lot of funny women in the movies and TV shows that I loved. I also knew a lot of funny women. So I put the piece down and moved on.

It wasn’t until the following year, when Vanity Fair ran a follow up story rebutting the claim that I decided I wanted to know even more. I did not set out to disprove the idea that women aren’t funny. What I wanted to know was what it took for women to rise up in the male dominated field of comedy. The result was an article that appeared in the April 2009 issue of Marie Claire. While reporting that article, I had the idea that this topic was more than just a few thousand words in a magazine. There were a few interviews in particular that piqued my interest. One was a statement from Richard Belzer that Joan Rivers used to be known as a female Woody Allen. For the most part, I knew Joan Rivers as the celebrity insult comic who made the rounds on the red carpet—Joan Rivers and Woody Allen did not seem to operate within the same sphere of comedy, and I was interested in unpacking that. Another was an interview with Margaret Cho who spoke so glowingly about Janeane Garofalo and her influence on her and on alternative comedy as a whole. (Kathy Griffin had a similar experience.) I was a teenager when Garofalo became a star but I was less aware of her influence on comedy and other comedians. I wanted to explore her impact even further. What I decided then was that I wanted to explore where our most beloved comedians fit into the history of American comedy as a whole—what the barriers were, who and what these women were influenced by and who they, in turn, influenced. The result is We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

You’ve heard the statement before: Women aren’t funny. The opinion has been appearing and reappearing in various guises for decades. John Belushi said it to Gilda Radner; Johnny Carson said it to Rolling Stone; the National Lampoon‘s founding editors, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, said it to his magazine’s first female editor Anne Beatts; Del Close, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade guru, listed it as number thirteen on the list of comedy rules he circulated back when he was at Second City; and Jerry Lewis told an audience at the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival that “a woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit . .  I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.” Behind the scenes, the comment has been made by comedy club owners, bookers, fellow comedians—male and female—and television executives. Then, in 2007, to incendiary effect, Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Vanity Fair about it. But few assertions are easier to disprove than this one. It’s as simple as saying that women make us laugh. And right now, at the start of the second de cade of the twenty- first century, there are plenty of women capable of making us laugh.

Evidence from the past ten years alone is abundant. Tina Fey emerged as a major comic icon, with a shelf full of Emmys and the honor of being the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Mark Twain Award for American Humor. Chelsea Handler had three best-selling books and a highly rated late-night talk show anchoring the E! network. The cofounder of the now-ubiquitous Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Amy Poehler, was anchoring one of the most respected sitcoms on television, Parks and Recreation. Joan Rivers reignited her career by upstaging Donald Trump on his own show, The Apprentice, and then starred in a riveting documentary about her life as a standup. Sarah Silverman unleashed YouTube videos with millions of hits and garnered an Emmy for her video “I’m Fucking Matt Damon.” Kathy Griffin’s hit reality show earned her two Emmys. Ellen DeGeneres, with her own hit daytime talk show, was dubbed the new Oprah. Wanda Sykes spent 2009 with a reputation for being the most controversial comic of the year after a provocative performance at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. And three out of The View’s hosts are stand-up comedians: Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sherri Shepherd. Funny up-and-coming ladies can be all seen all over prime-time, daytime, and late- night TV ; they come in a variety of shapes, ages, sizes, and colors; pretty and plain; lesbian and straight.

Then, in May 2011, the success of these women seemed to culminate when Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig did what, despite all these successes, was still considered the impossible: lead an all-female cast to blockbuster success.Bridesmaids, the bawdy raunch comedy that Wiig co-wrote (with a female co-writer) and starred in hauled in $26 million its opening weekend, just behind the action-extravaganza Thor. By its fifth week the movie had surpassed the ticket sales of another benchmark comedy, Knocked Up. It didn’t just make bank: the movie was hailed by critics as groundbreaking—it proved that women could pull off a good, er, fart joke as well as the next guy, and was nominated for two Golden Globes and, amazingly, two Oscars. By the fall of 2011, the four major networks had given the green light to 9 female-driven comedies, and the networks continue to bet on women to fill their lineups. The success of Bridesmaids, it seemed, was a watershed moment, a film we could all point to as final proof that Christopher Hitchens’s infamous 2007 diatribe on “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was history.

And yet, annoyingly, it remains unlikely that all these successes will be the last word on the are- women- funny debate. For one thing, funny women continue to face challenges in the comedy arena. Out of one hundred and forty- five writers working across ten late- night shows, sixteen writers are women (five them for Chelsea Lately); out of twenty-four writers on Saturday Night Live, six are women and out of fourteen performers, four are female; female stand- ups continue to be left off of major stand- up lineups; and Comedy Central, which has a womanas president, targets male audiences eighteen to thirty-four years old. Perhaps even more important, though, it seems no matter how many times women buck the conventional wisdom, the debate continues to rage. The question “are women funny?” is older than Phyllis Diller, and has been nagging at women on and off—mostly off—for the past sixty years.

Didn’t Tina Fey drive the final nail in that coffin when she skewered vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin back in 2008? Or how about when Poehler joined Fey as co-anchor on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update desk in 2004? Or when Whoopi Goldberg donned a nun’s habit in the box office successSister Actin 1992? Or in 1988 when Roseanne took the first season of her self- titled sitcom to the number one spot in the ratings over The Cosby Show? Or the time Joan Rivers became the first permanent guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny C arson in 1983? Or when Private Benjamin, a movie starring Goldie Hawn and written by Nancy Meyer, was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1980? Or, in the Bible, when the matriarch Sarah cracked the first sarcastic quip to, of all beings, God? Or . . . you get the picture.

Women have always been funny. It’s just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule. And as each generation develops their own style of comedy, the coups of the previous era are washed away under the set of new challenges a younger group of women inevitably face. The result is always the same: they kill.

Excerpted from We Killed: The Rise of Women in Comedy by Yael Kohen, published in October 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Yael Kohen. All rights reserved.

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