Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen
"No matter how many times female comedians buck the conventional wisdom, people continue to ask: “Are women funny?” The question has been nagging at women off and on (mostly on) for the past sixty years. It’s incendiary, much discussed, and, as proven in Yael Kohen’s fascinating oral history, totally wrongheaded.

In We Killed, Kohen pieces together the revolution that happened to (and by) women in American comedy, gathering the country’s most prominent comediennes and the writers, producers, nightclub owners, and colleagues who revolved around them. She starts in the 1950s, when comic success meant ridiculing and desexualizing yourself; when Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller emerged as America’s favorite frustrated ladies; when the joke was always on them. Kohen brings us into the sixties and seventies, when the appearance of smart, edgy comedians (Elaine May, Lily Tomlin) and the women’s movement brought a new wave of radicals: the women of SNL, tough-ass stand-ups, and a more independent breed on TV (Mary Tyler Moore and her sisters). There were battles to fight and preconceptions to shake before we could arrive in a world in which women like Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Tina Fey can be smart, attractive, sexually confident—and, most of all, flat-out funny.

As the more than 150 people interviewed for this riveting oral history make clear, women have always been funny. It’s just that every success has been called an exception and every failure an example of the rule. And as each generation of women has developed its own style of comedy, the coups of the previous era are washed away and a new set of challenges arises. But the result is the same: They kill. A chorus of creative voices and hilarious storytelling, We Killed is essential cultural and social history, and—as it should be!—great entertainment."- summary from Amazon

You would not believe how excited I was for this book when I first saw the cover for it at BEA. I was waiting in line for the Katherine Applegate/Michael Grant signing and spent about 20 minutes before it started standing in the same place. That place gave me the view of one of the Macmillan pillars, which was covered in book covers of all kinds. We Killed drew my attention because, first off, it's hot pink (the book itself under the dust jacket is black and Very Serious) and then I noticed all my favorite comedians (seriously, about 95% of my favorites are women) and I was like "WHAT IS THIS BOOK?" I also happened to be right in front of the podium where publicists were sitting at. I asked about the book and was told there were no ARCs (and now I know why- in the introduction, Kohen mentions still interviewing people in mid-2012). But I kept the book title tucked away in my brain for later use.

Fast forward to September when I start thinking about the book again. I realized that with the mid-October release date looming, I needed to act fast. I emailed FSG's publicity department and made my case. I basically said that I've been lusting after this book since June, have reviewed non-fiction before (Kathy Griffin's memoir), and would promote the hell out of this book. No reply, but a book showed up in the mail about a week later. I did squeal and jump around, and tweeted about it immediately. I was in the middle of like 4 other books at the time, so I made an attempt at holding off on it. I couldn't help myself though and brought it with me to work that night, but then I was responsible and finished the other books before really diving into We Killed.

This is such a fascinating book. I know a lot of the female comedians featured, including ones from long ago, like Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, the vast majority of the SNL women, Lily Tomlin, etc. so it was interesting to read about their experiences starting out in comedy. Kohen creates the backdrop with the occasional set-up and aside, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to hearing from these women as well as behind-the-scenes people, both men and women. It's a perfect balance that Kohen gives her readers, letting the interviewees tell their story rather than writing it herself.

I will admit that while the first chapters were interesting and contained many stories and comedians I'd never known of, I did get more and more excited as the book went on, giving me more of the women I knew more about. By the time I got to the first SNL chapter, I was in my zone.

There are three individual spotlights scattered throughout the book (separate from the chapters), focusing on women who were really influential and ground-breaking- Carol Burnett, Merrill Markoe, and Ellen Degeneres. I'd never heard of Merrill before, though she was a writer on Late Night with David Letterman from the beginning and came up with a lot of the recurring segments. But a lot of comedians have their own spotlight in the various chapters, with Kohen patching together interview pieces about a particular comic over the course of a few pages.

Reading the backstories of these comedians and the trials they faced really puts a lot of things in perspective of how far we've come since the 1950's (where the book starts its history). It's also just interesting hearing about how these women were marginalized- there's a story in there about the Friends pilot, how difficult it was to sell Ellen's talk show, etc. It's absolutely crazy.

Honestly, I think I could go on and on about this book and how great it is. But if you're looking for an amazing look into the world of female comedy or want to learn more about your favorite female comedians, this is the book to get. I don't care if you buy it or if you get it from the library, just read this book. It's simply fascinating.

FTC: Received hardcover from publisher. Link above is an Amazon Associate link; any profit goes toward funding contests.

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