As a feminism and comedy blog, we are obligated to inform you of the newest book on women in comedy: "We Killed: Women in American Comedy," by Yael Kohen.
I haven't read it yet, but I can summarize its reviews for you:
New York Times:
Janet Maslin writes for the NYT that We Killed is filled with stories from people in the industry and is "...apt to raise more questions than answers." Maslin slights the book a few times, for not being as good of an account of Saturday Night Live as another book which focuses entirely on Saturday Night Live and not coming to any solid conclusions about women in comedy. (This article initially screwed up and credited a different author for the book. Whoops.)
NPR's Linda Holmes calls it "sprawling" with "some sections are substantially more interesting that others." She ends with:
...Some of what's here is well covered territory; Ellen DeGeneres doesn't say much about her coming-out experience that's different from what she's said before, and the treatments of Mary Tyler Moore and other comic actresses are too brief to be satisfying. But it does touch on a wide variety of challenges that really are specific to funny women — how vulgar to be, how cute to be, how sexy to be, how self-deprecating to be (the term comes up over and over), and, crucially, to separate the challenges in your career that have everything to do with being a woman from the ones that have nothing or only something to do with it.
What makes a story like this a little poignant, of course, is that to the degree there's a history of it being hard for women to break into comedy, the ones that would be most interesting to know about aren't the ones who made it anyway, whose names you know. They're the ones who didn't make it, who couldn't figure out how to navigate around the obstacles. And if they're out there, it's hard to say how you'd find them.
So Teen Vogue is decidedly more positive, calling it "as entertaining as it is informative." This might be attributed to the fact that they scored an interview. They also ask dumb questions like, "You quote Chelsea Handler saying that female comedians don't always support each other. Do you find this to be true?" (That's it. I'm cancelling my Teen Vogue subscription.)
In the first question Kohen says she wasn't familiar with the WAF (Women Aren't Funny) thing before Christopher Hitchens. Ugh. I can't help but suspect that someone who was that far removed from the dialogue has just jumped in, interviewed a few folks (okay, over 150 people) and re-hashed other people's analysis.
Here we go- Kohen may have summarized her book for us right here:
When you speak to a lot of people, you realize that there are trends and similarities in what they're saying, which is how I organized the book. All these women are storytellers—that's what they do for a living—so why not let them tell their stories? It's more interesting than hearing what I have to say about comedy!
*Emphasis very much my own
Okay, I cannot read past the intro paragraph. Oh God! I forced myself. This is by far the dumbest review yet and makes me have no interest in reading the book:
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.Did this person actually read the book? And if they did, is the message that women, categorically, are good at comedy? I don't know if it would be worse that they assumed this is what the book says or if this is what the book actually says.
Rachel Shukert's Salon review title says it all: "'We Killed': were women not funny until 1960?"
She responds to WAF in the first paragraph:
Since this question was first answered in the negative in the pages of Vanity Fair by the late, redoubtable Christopher Hitchens, it seems to have been designated by the chattering classes as one of the great unanswerables of the universe, destined to be dredged up every time someone’s looking for page hits by pissing off the wrong person at some heavily trafficked and influential ladyblog...
Women are human beings (no matter what some Republican members of Congress might believe); some human beings are endowed with an innate talent to make others laugh; ergo, some women are funny. The end.
(Shukert, come to Minneapolis so we can drink beer together and be best friends.)
“We Killed” is a well-meaning effort, at times even a noble one...Oh, I like Shukert even more. She ends with more analysis than Kohen's book appears to muster up, regarding the threat of women comedians:
Humor is power. We kill, and something inside them dies.
I wish Shukert would write this book. I really don't mean to be snarky. Maybe I'm just upset that Nancy A. Walker is still dead. Not to be confused with comedian Nancy Walker, who is also dead. (Did I ever mention that I found N.A.W.s obituary when I was looking for a way to contact her to thank her for writing A Very Serious Thing? It was so sad.)
From the sounds of the reviews and her own interview, it doesn't sound like folks who are looking for writing to further the dialogue of gender and comedy will get much out of it, aside from the stories from particular people about particular times and places. Some of these reviews say the book starts in the 1950's, some say the 1960's. Either way, I wish it went back further, because it's not too hard to find stories since the 50's. Although everyone who is alive to tell the story from further back is... actually dead by now.
Is it a good thing that dialogue about women in comedy might be sparked? Heck yes. Maybe if you've never thought about women and comedy, you'll like this book. But the fact that you have found this post probably excludes you from that category. If you're a comedy writer/performer/superfan then you're already familiar with the institutional sexism in the Comedy Industrial Complex.The reviews don't give any indication that this book will provide more than some nuggets of women in comedy trivia like this:
- Pauly Shore's mother Mitzi was incredibly influential in 1980's stand up.
- Roseanne once had a Harvard-educated head writer ask her what lunch meat was.