In her first book-length study, Marie Claire contributing editor Yael Kohen takes a serious look at women in the funny business. Carol Burnett descended the stair draped with a curtain rod, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers lamented the throes of living with Fang and Edgar, Mary Tyler Moore tossed her beret into the Minneapolis sky, Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine set the switchboard alight, Roseanne Barr revealed the plight of the working-class ‘Domestic Goddess,’ Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. And yet, in 2007, Vanity Fair published the late Christopher Hitchens’ now infamous article, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Kohen uses that incendiary piece as a springboard for We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, providing a riveting oral history told by the over 200 comics, writers and producers she interviewed.
Check out other funny reads by female authors in today's list.
Here, she takes a moment with Kirkus to offer her own thoughts on the challenges facing America’s leading funny women.
Where do you think this ‘are women funny’ debate comes from?
My guess is there are fewer women who go out for comedy, and within that you’re going to have a certain proportion that just isn’t going to be funny, which could make the lack of funny women seem more exaggerated. Another reason a lot of comics and bookers mention is, because so few women have what it takes, they get booked to certain shows before they’re really ready. Comedy, particularly standup, is a skill that’s developed over time. And part of the debate probably comes from stereotypes. With the Christopher Hitchens piece, he says he’s talking about everyday women, not comedians—although you can go back and forth on that—but I always got the sense it was the sort of women he was attracted to. If you read the piece, I think it said a lot more about who he wanted to date than anything it said about women. The man has passed, and I feel bad saying it, but I think this comes from cultural stereotypes. There are a lot of men who don’t say this. Richard Belzer from Law & Order for instance; he made a number of women’s careers.
The other thing a lot of women talk about is how people will say, Oh, you’re funny for a girl. One of the things I hope you come away with from the book is how all these women, who are supposedly the exception to the rule, happen to be a lot of people—it’s not like two comics! I don’t know why this idea is out there and why we’re talking about it now, but it’s not like it hasn’t come up before. At a certain point, you hope we’re going to stop talking about it, but you wonder if it’s going to happen. It makes a good headline, you know.
Something that occurred to me is perhaps it comes from the old Emily Post-type dictum that it’s impolite for women to laugh.
Absolutely. And even today it’s considered unattractive to be funny, so a lot of women don’t want to go out and make cracks in front of other people. It probably does come from that. What I also find to be an issue is if women are talking about men’s things, then men will think they’re funny. But if women are talking about women’s things to women, people are like, Oh, buhbuhbuh, she’s not funny. Sometimes the way women talk to women is very different than how they talk to men. Like the idea that women aren’t raunchy: a woman probably isn’t going to talk about what happened to her on the toilet the other day at a table with a bunch of guys; it’s very different than sitting around with your girlfriends. I know this is true because I’ve had these conversations with girlfriends, where they’re sharing these hysterical, embarrassing things that happened. But what you’re telling each other, you’re not going to tell guys because you don’t want them to look at you that way.
But it is as you say; it’s definitely not considered attractive to be funny. I think that’s changing, though. If you look at some of the comics today, they’re incredibly attractive; it’s one of the big shifts in standup. Personally, I think it’s a positive. However, if they’re only looking for good-looking comics, then you’ve basically taken another entertainment field and made it exclusively for good-looking women. But what’s good about it is we can now hear jokes from these good-looking women. You’re not just saying a pretty face is just a pretty face but someone who can make us laugh. I think it’s probably changing the polite aspect of being funny.
Many comics you speak to refer to “the truth.” What role do you think authenticity plays in their acts?
What makes comedy good and what resonates is the truth behind it. I think that’s what audiences like about it, but I don’t think everybody does it well. Sometimes you can sense that somebody is saying something where you’re going, Yeah, right. When that happens, you have a harder time succeeding. Some of the people I talked to said the younger comics today say what they think is funny, not what is true to them, and it doesn’t work. I’ve been told that a lot of women are going for sexy potty mouth, which isn’t necessarily true to who they are and isn’t successful. In that way it’s not true, but it’s also about point of view; that’s the other thing people talk about that makes one comic stand out from another. Like Tina Fey has a point of view about something, and that’s what comes through in her jokes. You see it in sitcom, too; I think people like their comedy, whatever its form, to be relatable.