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We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedyby Yael Kohen
Synopses & Reviews
More than fifty years of iconic comediennes, unmediated and unfiltered
In January 2007, Vanity Fair published an essay by Christopher Hitchens called “Why Women Aren't Funny.” It was incendiary, much-discussed, and — as proven by Yael Kohen's fascinating oral history — totally wrongheaded.
In We Killed, Kohen assembles America's most prominent comediennes (and the writers, producers, nightclub owners, and colleagues who revolved around them) to piece together the revolution that happened to (and by) women in American comedy. We start in the 1950s, when comic success meant ridiculing and desexualizing yourself. Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller emerged as Americas favorite frustrated ladies; the joke was always on them. The Sixties saw the appearance of smart, edgy comediennes (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 get to where we finally are: in a world where women (like Tina Fey, or, whether you like them or not, Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler) can be smart, attractive, sexually confident — and most of all, flat-out funny.
Like all revolutions, its suffered false starts and backslides. But it's been a remarkable trip, as the more than one hundred people interviewed for this riveting oral history make clear. With a chorus of creative voices and often hilarious storytelling, We Killed is essential cultural and social history.
"Kohen, a contributing editor to Marie Claire, has assembled an engaging oral history of the evolution of women performing in comedy clubs and on television. The book is structured with italicized intros to excerpts from interviews with more than 140 standup comedians, writers, directors, producers, agents, club owners, and network executives. These interviews have been sliced and placed into chronological chapters. The book instead begins with Phyllis Diller ('the first female standup to garner mass, mainstream appeal') and the 'outré new voice' of Elaine May: 'She was whip-smart and sexy; her sense of humor tended toward verboten aspects of modern life.' 1960s audiences saw Joan Rivers ('I was talking about things that were really true') and the working-class characters of Lily Tomlin. Writer Merrill Markoe observed, 'Women's standup tended to be very self-deprecating,' noting that changed in the 1970s with the arrival of Elayne Boosler. While it's disappointing to find only two brief quotes from Kristen Wiig, this is nevertheless an exhaustive, entertaining comedy chronicle." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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. Its 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 Americas 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.
About the Author
Yael Kohen is a reporter and editor in New York City. A contributing editor at Marie Claire, she covers books, pop culture, and issues important to working women. She has written for New York magazine, Salon, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, and The New York Sun.
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