"Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?"
Yael Kohen’s new book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, has many revealing tales about how change happens. But one stands out for me: in 1966, the actress Marlo Thomas approached the head of ABC-TV programming with a novel idea. She wanted “to play the person with the problem, not the person who assisted the person with the problem.” She recalled:
I didn’t want to be the wife of somebody, or the secretary of somebody, or the daughter of somebody…”Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?” And he said, “Would anybody watch a show like that?” I said, “I think they would.” And so I gave him a copy of The Feminine Mystique, and he read it and kind of became convinced.
The result was “That Girl,” which ran for five years. One reversal of conventional thinking, one conversation, one book—that’s what it took to make change.
It happens over and over again in We Killed, a self-styled “very oral history” that compiles interviews with over 200 funny women including stand-up comics, writers, directors, and producers. These are largely behind-the-scenes stories told by those who were present when characters were developed, new formats discovered, and battles fought—and sometimes won. They show the rise of women in comedy from 1950s standup performers like Joan Rivers to multimedia comedians Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman.
It’s a fascinating and colorful journey. The longer excerpts from Lily Tomlin, Mary Tyler Moore, and Paula Poundstone are particularly revealing of the process of developing comedy, of how a comic creates a memorable and revealing persona line-by-line. The book reads like an engaging dinner party as it dissects each skirmish, setback, and triumph.
What’s missing is an equally engaging narrative voice to carry the reader through the individual stories. The book lacks a “big picture” historical perspective as well as the more intimate personal voice that would make the personalities three-dimensional. The punch lines come as rapidly as they do in a Phyllis Diller routine, but one looks in vain for themes that bind individuals to each other and fully reveal their humanity.
I might not appreciate the difference that can make if I hadn’t recently treated myself to a repeat viewing of Making Trouble, the film produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive about three generations of funny Jewish women. There we actually see the luminosity of Molly Picon in Yidl Mit’n Fidl, feel the physical humor of Fanny Brice, hear the brassy innuendo of Sophie Tucker in performance. We understand and empathize with the personal struggles of Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, and Wendy Wasserstein, but we also get the perspectives of historians and biographers who put these personal battles in the context of their times and relate one comedian to another. We Killed would also have benefited from the perspectives of working comedians like Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney, and Jessica Kirson who help narrate Making Trouble.
We Killed and Making Trouble come to the same conclusion. The adage common in the entertainment industry that “women aren’t funny” couldn’t be more wrong. As Kohen writes,
Women have always been funny. It’s just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule… The coups of the previous era are washed away under the set of new challenges a younger group of women inevitably face.
Fortunately, there are plenty of brave young women who, undaunted by those challenges, use comedy to “make trouble” and “kill.”
We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen is available in bookstores and online.