Fans of 30 Rock noted a milestone last week. The vaunted sitcom finally did an episode directly addressing one of the most ever-present and ludicrous debates in comedy: Are women funny? While Tina Fey certainly handled the subject with reason and good humour, many fans thought it was sad that the episode was necessary in the first place. Magazine writer Yael Kohen addresses this topic head-on with her new book, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, a far-reaching oral history that examines the complex story of funny ladies and their search for respect.
How did this project start?
It started with the Christopher Hitchens article in 2007 (Why Women Aren’t Funny, Vanity Fair.) I wasn’t angry at the time, I was just kind of confused. I didn’t even realize that argument was happening.
One thing I found surprising about your book it that the progression of women in comedy hasn’t been linear. It’s not like ‘women weren’t allowed on stage, and now they are.’ It’s more complicated than that.
The conversation we have about comedy is cyclical. You go through periods with lots of women in comedy, and then not so much. I saw this clip in the New York Times from the ’70s that said ‘women don’t have to be ugly any more to be comedians,’ and that still comes up. But things have certainly gotten better. There has been a larger cultural change.
There’s this image of comedy institutions as sexist, especially in places like Saturday Night Live in the late-’70s. But your book argues that’s not the whole story.
We talk a lot about boys clubs when we talk about comedy, but what was surprising to me is how men didn’t necessarily hurt women, and women didn’t necessarily help each other. Everybody I spoke to was saying, ‘If it weren’t for Richard Belzer, I wouldn’t be a comic.’ Apparently he was a force for good for women. And on the flip side, in the ’70s, women were very competitive. Part of that was created by the comedy-club atmosphere. They were pitted against each other. If you’re fighting for one spot in a lineup that was otherwise full of men, you’re going to be competitive. One female comic said another tried to get her banned from a club. There’s been a shift, though, and today there’s this effort by powerful women in comedy to help each other. You see that with Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler helping younger comics.
But there are lots of things that haven’t changed. There’s still this societal issue about women being raunchy or immodest.
To this day, women comics talk about whether to wear a dress on stage. It’s still discussed. When you look at the ’80s comics, they had shoulder pads and big suits, there was something masculine about their presentation. They might be feminine in private, but there was an attempt to look less so on stage. When you’re a standup comic, your persona is supposedly who you are in real life. So when you’re a woman and you’re talking about stuff that’s unflattering, it can be difficult.
A lot of people say that Bridesmaids changed things. Is that actually true?
Bridesmaids certainly spurred network executives to try out the new generation of sitcoms that we’re seeing, like The Mindy Project and New Girl. But this is not the first time you’ve had female-driven comedies. In the late ’80s, you had Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, TheGolden Girls, lots of others. Who’s the Boss? was originally titled She’s the Boss, but when they signed Tony Danza, he was a big star, and they had to accommodate him.
How do you respond to people who don’t think women are funny?
The book isn’t trying to prove that women are funny. If you don’t think women are funny, you don’t think it. You can’t convince people who believe that crazy idea. Adam Carolla said it earlier this year, but I think he said it to sell books. He probably sort of believes it, it’s not as though he decided to put aside his feminist leanings, but I think he said it to get attention. Why are we even talking about him? It’s because he made that comment.