Talking to Yael Kohen, Author of ‘We Killed’, About Women in Comedy
There are, obviously, a lot of women in comedy, and some of them are doing quite well for themselves. But as baffling as it seems, some people would still dispute the fundamental funniness of ladies. Even within comedy circles, discussions persist about women in comedy, such as whether the relative rarity of lady comics is a help or hindrance for women. These discussions have been going on for generations, as seen in We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, a new oral history documenting the last 50-odd years of funny women. Recently, I caught up with the book’s author, Yael Kohen, to talk about Christopher Hitchens, comediennes, and fitting into Hollywood stereotypes.
First, can you tell me about a bit about what made you want to write this book?
Yeah. So, that Christopher Hitchens piece came out in 2007 [Vanity Fair’s “Why Women Aren’t Funny”]. When I read it, I just hadn’t heard that before. I wasn’t in comedy circles; I [didn’t] know “women aren’t funny” is something that people say. But that wasn’t actually what led me to write the book. What led me to write the original article [for Marie Claire] was the piece that came out a year later, which was in response [Alessandra Stanely’s “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”]. They had that fabulous cover shoot, and when I finished reading the piece I was like, oh, I want to know a little bit more about it.
I was talking to an editor at the time about [how] it would be fun to call up some of these women and ask them what was it like to be a women in comedy. And at the time, Parks and Recreation was just coming on the air, 30 Rock was winning all those Emmys, so I think, for me, it was just wanting to understand a little more of the historical context behind the women of the comedy movements. And then, when I was reporting the piece, I felt like could be unpacked a little bit more.
One thing that Richard Belzer said was that Joan Rivers was considered a female Woody Allen. I was kind of like, huh. You know, when I grew up, Joan Rivers was doing red carpet and Fashion Police on E! That was how I knew Joan Rivers. So that was something I felt I wanted to explore a little bit more. And then, the world surrounding Janeane Garofalo, because Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin were talking about her influence on alternative comedy and her influence on them. I was a teenager in the 90s, so I remember watching Janeane Garofalo, but I don’t think I was aware of her influence.
So you’re not trying to prove that women are funny?
No, no. I mean, look, if you don’t think women are funny, you don’t think women are funny. I don’t know how you prove something to someone who has that point of view. And when I read the Christopher Hitchen’s article, I was confused by it. I really felt it said a lot more about the kind of women he’s attracted to, and the kind of women he would maybe want to date. It felt a lot more about what he wanted to hear, how he approached women in general versus any sort of insight into like what women think about or know about. I mean, it really was a ridiculous piece, so I wasn’t trying to respond to that. I was trying to understand the context.
Comedy changes. It evolves, it shifts. One generation makes a shift away from what the previous generation was doing, and I was interested in looking at the women of those generations and what their work was like within the worlds that they were coming up in as comics. Also, generationally, comics respond to what happened before, and they’ll rebel against it. But really, when you become a comedian, you’re responding to the people around you, to the movement around you. It’s not like you’re walking out there and saying, “I don’t want to be Joan Rivers,” and then crafting your entire persona in response to that. Elayne Boosler didn’t want to be Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, but she didn’t craft her whole persona as a protest against it, it just wasn’t who she was. And it was because of what the people around her were doing. So I wanted to explore where they fit into the context of comedy. Because the truth is, when you read a lot, when you watch documentaries of people in comedy, they talk about the movements, but they usually talk about it through the lens of men. They don’t talk about it as much through the lens of women. I wanted to do that a little bit. So, no I was not trying to prove it. It’s unprovable.
Speaking of, what did you think of the recent 30 Rock episode about that?
I thought that episode was great. It really captured the ambivalence a lot of female comics have about discussing the issue. At first she doesn’t want to engage with Tracy because she feels it’s stupid and insulting. The truth is, you can’t prove to someone that women are funny. It’s not like there isn’t ample evidence out there. But eventually she can’t take it anymore and finally decides to “prove” him wrong by mounting a sketch that Tracy does think is funny, but for the wrong reason. It made him the butt of the joke. There were a lot of great moments in that episode.
I really enjoyed the discussion of Mitzi Shore [owner of The Comedy Store in LA], because I feel like you don’t hear as much about the behind the scenes women in comedy.
I think when you look at comedy, it seems like there are a lot of influential female players who are making decisions. My sense is Comedy Central is full of female producers. When you look at the homepage and they’re listing off Comedy Central executives, it’s almost half and half the number of men to women. It’s an interesting dynamic.
You know, Mitzi Shore was obviously very influential in terms of who was gonna get spots at the right time to be seen by the right people. So obviously she had her finger on what was popular and what she could sell. And with Mitzi, what was so interesting was, people were really split on whether she liked women or didn’t like women. I was kind of fascinated by the idea that you had this woman in power, who didn’t necessarily see her job as propping up other women. She saw her job as finding what she thought was funny, or what she thought would work for the shows, which didn’t necessarily help women.
I think particularly in the 70s and the 80s, you hear a lot more about fighting among the women. But then, when you get to the 90s, there was a shift. The women kind of banded together a little bit more. They centered themselves around Janeane Garofalo. It was the tone that the women talked about the other women was also different.
I also noticed that early on in the book, you use the term comedienne, which is a term a lot of female comedians dislike.
I dropped it. I used it, and at some point Phyllis Diller says that a comedienne is actually something different. A comedienne is like a Carol Channing or Carol Burnett. It’s not stand-up and it’s not a sketch comic. It’s more like a Broadway star. They’re funny women, but they also sing. It’s a different form. And early in the book, Phyllis Diller does make the distinction, and then after that, I also went with comedian. Phyllis Diller was adamant that she was not a comedienne, and she didn’t have a chip on her shoulder about being a women or anything like that. But she was like, look, a comedienne is just different. It’s a different thing, and when you listen to her explain and you pay attention, it kind of does make sense.
There’s also a lot of talk about how, earlier on, a lot of female comics really hit first with gay male audiences. Why do you think that is?
One of the things that comes up again and again when you’re talking about women in stand-up is that men find it threatening. To see a woman on stage telling jokes, it’s like a threatening act. Men want to see them as attractive and pretty, they don’t want to see them necessarily being biting. I think with gay men, because they’re not interested in women in that way, that they don’t have that barrier when they’re watching it, so they can kind of just absorb what the women are saying without having to worry about all that other, you know, stuff. But the presence of gay men in these clubs was very important to the rise of women, especially early on.
Do you think there are female comedians that women, in particular, like?
I think women love Chelsea Handler. I think that one of the remarkable things about Chelsea Handler is that she doesn’t care that her base is women. She doesn’t think that makes her less of a comic. Obviously in every profession, you want to be accepted by the men too. You want to be accepted by a broad swath of the population. I think what’s remarkable about Chelsea Handler is you don’t get the sense that she gives a shit about that. And she’s laughing her way to the bank.
For a long time, there’s been an idea that in audiences, comedy is something that men are interested in, and when you go to a comedy club and the audience is laughing, that the men are the ones who are laughing and the women are laughing because their boyfriends are laughing. Like people said that, people think that and it’s crazy.
I think what you see is women who are interested in having comics who speak to them, who speak about the female experience, and who they want to watch. One of the things that’s great about Chelsea is that she doesn’t seem to give a shit who her audience is. I mean she cares about her audience, but she doesn’t care if her audience is a lot of women.
There’s also a long discussion in the book about the importance of attractiveness for women in comedy, and how much it helps or hurts a woman to be pretty.
First of all, when you talk about the attractiveness issue, and it does come up in the book, you have to kind of split up stand-up and sketch. Because I think the barriers are a little different, in terms of your looks department. I think stand-up is considered a more masculine profession. You’re getting up there and you’re telling jokes, there is something aggressive about it. And there have always been women who have looked different who have done stand-up. Phyllis Diller did cut herself down because she wanted to make herself unattractive. Women get slammed a little bit more for being self-deprecating and than men, even though men talk about their physical flaws all the time. But I think what you saw in the 80s was that the women who were getting famous were kind of brassier, they were bigger, they were maybe a little bit more androgynous. Part of that had to do with the way the powers that be were perceiving the women and what was acceptable.
I think that starts to break down in the 90s, with the emergence of Janeane Garofalo and these kind of regular women who start to get attention and start to break through, until you kind of evolve past it, where now you have like Whitney Cummings, who’s like kind of hot from a traditional standpoint. But I think what you were seeing a lot, and Rita Rudner talks about this in the book, is that, if you were, a certain kind of standup, you were more likely to get a show. When you think, there was Rosie O’Donnell, there was Whoopi Goldberg, there was Ellen. And it’s not to take away from their talent, because they’re clearly very talented and deserve everything that they got, but then, if you had someone who was more like a regular woman, like a Rita Rudner, pitching a sitcom, they would rather cast Brooke Shields or a comic actress in that role.
I think Margaret Cho talked about when you go on stage as a stand-up, and you’re a good-looking woman, people are put off by it. It’s not to say you can’t get through it, and that people won’t ultimately find you funny, but people have a reaction to it when they initially go on. In sketch, I think it’s a little different, because when you look at Elaine May, the original women on SNL, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, they were attractive women. They’re playing characters, they’re not playing themselves. They’re dealing with a different set of rules than stand-ups, who seem to have to fight through the notion that a woman shouldn’t be up there talking about what she’s talking about. I think it’s clearly changed. Sarah Silverman’s very good looking, Chelsea Handler’s very good looking. But I think it took a long time. It took years. It was a gradual shift.
I see your point, and yet I find the whole discussion so unpleasant, to talk about women like that.
That’s true across the board, we talk about women that way. We dissect and analyze women more, but it’s not like men don’t use it to their advantage. The way you look does play into your persona, which is true for men too. I just think that, we dissect women in general differently than we dissect men. So, you know, It’s annoying to talk about, but I think to the people who are making decisions, it’s something that they look at, and that’s why people talk about it.
Towards the end of the book, a lot of people talk about Sarah Silverman’s influence, and how so many young female comics have adopted her “cute but dirty” thing, without the underlying substance that she brings to it. I know what they mean, but it also started to feel like that old saying that “female comics only talk about their periods” that people said in the 80s.
It’s interesting, because clearly not all women do that. I mean, Emily Heller certainly doesn’t do that, and neither does Phoebe Robinson. But I’ve also seen women who do that. In one night, I went to a bunch of shows and I saw a lot of women do that. But you know, I also saw a lot of shitty male comics. I think in general there are a lot of bad comics out there who are trying to be comedians. I mean [SNL writer] Paula Pell was someone who complained about it. Lisa Sundstedt, who runs a class [Pretty Funny Women in LA] says she sees it a lot .So people say they’re seeing it.
Do I think that that’s like the new thing? I don’t know. I heard it from a lot of women. It wasn’t like I heard it from guys complaining. Probably, there’s probably an element to that, because as I said, there are plenty of women who don’t do it.
You ended the book with an interesting Chelsea Peretti quote, about discussing women in comedy. [“I don’t feel like it does any good to shine a light on it…All it does is alienate you from other people and set you further aside to talk about it all the time.”] Why did you decide to end with that?
It’s a really good question. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to end on that, because, like, does it undermine the whole thing? At the end of the day, I felt like that particular quote captured the ambivalence that, in general, the women comics had about talking about their profession. On the one hand, they think it’s worth talking about, but on the other hand, what’s the point in talking about it? Should we stop, should we continue? Is change coming? My general feeling is, it’s worth talking about as much as any discrimination in the workplace. I think right now in general, we’re seeing like a massive shift between gender dynamics and comedy is one area where you’re seeing that play out. So I don’t know that exploring that is the wrong. But they still have the feeling of, do I sound like I’m whining? Do people resent me for it? And the truth of the matter is, I think they still talk about it because, despite all the successes, there’s still barriers on the ground.
And also, as a woman, you’re coming at comedy. It’s hard to divorce yourself from the fact that you’re a woman. You have a point of view, and not everyone’s gonna like you as a comic. It’s just the reality of what it is. And I think they know that too, and they’re like, I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing, and then continue to get more work. But you know the stereotypes matter, because I think that decisions are made up above based on stereotypes. Hollywood loves a good stereotype.