Marie Claire contributing editor Kohen uses Christopher Hitchens’ infamous 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny” as her pivot point for exploring the obstacles faced by women in the male-dominated comedy business.
The author traces the path of female comedians beginning in the 1950s with Phyllis Diller, “the prototypical female stand-up,” and “the mother of sketch comedy,” Elaine May, through the current lineup of popular female comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, Aubrey Plaza and Emily Spivey. Kohen successfully weaves the stories into an entertaining timeline illustrating women’s increasing presence in American comedy. Writers, talent agents, club managers and comedians discuss a range of subjects, including the evolution of comedy styles, the role of TV, especially Saturday Night Live, and the different types of venues (including YouTube) and individuals who have helped or hindered women’s rise in the business. Kohen notes that during the 1970s, the hiring of female TV writers led to lively female characters, such as the women of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This shift fostered a period of mentoring of women writers by “the powerful men who spent the decade transforming the sitcom,” including Norman Lear, Garry Marshall and Carl Reiner. Taken together, the interviews provide an inside look into the sometimes-turbulent relationships among the stand-up and sketch comedians, club owners, writers, producers and TV executives. Kohen intersperses illuminating bits of narrative among the oral history accounts, adding context and depth to her subject. “Stand-up is arguably the hardest form of comedy,” she writes. “There are no props, magic tricks, partners or music to fall back on. It’s just the comic, alone in front of the microphone under the spotlight. When they fail, they ‘die,’ when they succeed, they ‘kill.’ ”—as does this book.
A fresh topic explored in a unique, satisfying manner.