Though the media seems to "discover" women in comedy once every few years, the truth is that they've been there from the beginning. From early stand-ups like Phyllis Diller and improv pioneers like Elaine May to today's breakout television stars like Mindy Kaling, women have played a crucial part in every era of modern American comedy.
Yael Kohen's comprehensive oral history We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (which comes out in paperback this October, with a new introduction by Kohen) follows a vast and varied cast of over 150 comedians, writers, actors, directors, and others, who together provide a definitive look at the lives, careers, successes, and struggles of female comedians in America.
I spoke to Kohen about the cyclical nature of the entertainment industry, some of the more enduring myths about women in comedy, and the great feminist TV of the early 90s.
GABRIELLE MOSS: Why did you decide to write this book? Why was now the time to tell the full story of women and comedy in America?
YAEL KOHEN: I was looking at pop culture and the various conversations we've been having about women and comedy over the past five years—pretty much since Christopher Hitchens wrote that piece on women and comedy in Vanity Fair in 2007—and saw that there'd been a lot of discussion about it, and a lot of recent change.
I think when you look at the history of it, it tends to be cyclical—sometimes there are a lot of women in comedy in the public eye; then you don't see that many, and then the cycle repeats.
As a kid, I'd grown up watching a lot of women on TV—"Roseanne," "The Golden Girls," "Designing Women," "Murphy Brown"— and Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rosie O'Donnell at the movies. There were so many of them, and then all of a sudden, it seemed like there were so few women in comedy. And the discussion turned to, why are there so few women? And then suddenly, there was this boom period again.
It's a cycle partly driven by executives in Hollywood—they put a lot of one particular thing out there, and when the market gets saturated, they stop. And funny women are still considered that kind of novelty in Hollywood.
But when I looked around, there just wasn't that much written about it—there were biographies, and there were books about women in comedy that were still essentially biographies, but there was no story of how female comedians impacted the culture, impacted each other, impacted men, and impacted everything else.
Issues like gender parity in comedy seem to be have become more important feminist issues recently than they were in the past. Do you have any ideas about why that has become a more prominent topic of late?
I don't know that it's actually a more popular concern now. When you look back at articles from different eras, like the 1970s and the 1980s, you inevitably read these stories about people thinking women aren't funny. I think it's the same conversation we keep having over and over again.
I think it seems like we have a lot more conversations about this just because of the way that we consume media now--there's so much more of it, there are so many blogs, and you have people who will continue the conversation. But I don't know that the conversation itself is actually new.
I remember reading an article in my research—I think it was from the 1960s, and it was like "Look, hey! Not all funny women are ugly any more!" It was the same kind of article you see today, and the same conversation that we're having today.
Not to say there hasn't been an evolution, by the way, in the way that this conversation has developed. But when you call that an evolution, you have to look at stand-up and sketch as different art forms. The barriers women have faced in each one have been kind of different, and have developed in different ways.
In this recent era, a lot of female comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have taken a very public stance about being feminists. Did you see as much of that with the older comedians you talked to?
Of course! Lily Tomlin was very adamantly a feminist. I mean, when you talk to Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, what they were doing was certainly ground-breaking. I don't know that they would have come out and said they were feminists, because I don't know if that would have played with their audiences. But when Lily Tomlin came out, she was very overtly a feminist, Elayne Boozler was very overtly a feminist, Roseanne was very overtly a feminist—they did use that word, and they were not afraid to align themselves with that kind of thinking. It's not new.
Having seen the way this topic of "women aren't funny" comes up again and again over time in your research, do you feel like the next time it becomes a hot topic in the media, is there a better way for us—for comedy fans, for the media itself—to handle the issue?
You know, my feeling is, every time somebody makes a statement—like when Adam Carolla made his statement recently that women aren't funny—you'll inevitably have the pile-on, where everyone will jump on him, and attack him. And it's fine. That keeps the conversation out there, it keeps people aware that this is still a struggle.
But no matter the amount of discussion, there are still people behind the scenes who make these statements all the time, and they just know better than to say it in public.
Is it a debate worth having? It's hard for me to say. I know that comedians are very tired of talking about it, they're tired of answering the questions—it comes up all the time and they're forced to deal with it, and they really just want to go about doing their work.
And it doesn't necessarily seem like the conversation changes things.
I do think it brought it to the forefront initially, but this latest cycle has been going on for 6 years. So at this point, how much more is there left to say? The best way to combat the stereotype is to watch the women.