We Killed by Yael Kohen
I was disappointed with Bridesmaids. When I finally watched after hearing all the hype about how this was the film that proved female comedies could work, I was underwhelmed. It’s still an important milestone in that it proved to both studios and a wide audience that women could carry a Judd Apatow comedy, but I wished it had been proven with a earthshakingly hilarious film instead of this. But perhaps I should be more disappointed in a culture that had to have it proved that women could be funny (and in a way anointed by Apatow). I mean, I’m part of an all-lady MST3K-style comedy troupe that brings me to tears every Thursday night. As Yael Kohen says in the introduction to this book, “Women have always been funny. It’s just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule” (5).
We Killed is an oral history of “the rise of women in American comedy”, per the book’s subtitle. Female comedians in all the comedic arts—stand-up, improv, sketch comedy, and television shows—are more visible now than ever, but that doesn’t mean these women don’t struggle with sexism, the ever-changing nature of comedy, and their own demons. More than 150 people contribute their own stories and perspectives to the story of the American comedienne, covering the sixty years from the 1950s to the 2010s.
I adore oral histories. (In fact, my school is offering a class on oral histories… after I graduate. Cue ennui.) I had a moment of utter delight in the chapter on Saturday Night Live. We hear writer Paula Pell talk about how Lorne Michaels was a little squeamish about the Kotex Classic sketch, in much the same way Tina Fey discusses it in Bossypants. The books are talking to each other—okay, they’re covering the same history, but still. The great strength of We Killed is the fact that the majority of the people it interviews are either snarky, witty comedians or are so associated with the industry that they’ve picked up some of it. I often wonder, while reading an oral history, how wearying it would be to produce an audiobook version with everybody, but I rarely did here, because their voices are so incredibly strong. You hear them in your head as you read, even if you don’t know what they sound like. I mean, you’ve got Ellen DeGeneres, Lily Tomlin, and Carol Burnett going on for pages about their careers, and it’s absolutely riveting. (Burnett’s section ends with an amazing story about Lucille Ball learning to negotiate her writers after divorcing Desi, who normally handled them.) Stand-up Argus Hamilton describes hanging out with Paul Mooney thusly: “You’re around Paul Mooney for ten minutes and everybody’s in Paris in the 1920s” (140). Genius.
Of course, this also means that you can hear who’s missing: the notoriously reclusive Elaine May is discussed in great detail, but doesn’t contribute her own voice, Tina Fey presumably declined so she could cover the same material in Bossypants, and a few high-profile Saturday Night Live alumnae. Kohen does work around it—I enjoyed her use of contemporaneous articles, allowing us to see these women in their context—but I bet she wonders what the book would have been like with their stories included from their own perspective.
Through the book, we watch women grow from self-deprecating humor to more theatrical performances (some weren’t even meant to be comedy, just pieces) influenced by second-wave feminism to female-led television shows to women in stand-up to women in sketch comedy and television shows. It might seem quite diverse, but it all does build on each other—could women like Chelsea Handler ply their trade on television if it wasn’t for the comedic stylings of Elayne Boosler? And could women in comedy workshops be as confident about trying to workshop truly disgusting material if Sarah Silverman hadn’t blazed that path before? Role models, as Starz CEO Chris Albrecht points out, are required to blaze trails here.
And it also helps, obviously, to have a supportive environment. The first chapter on Saturday Night Live covers John Belushi’s legendary misogyny, but, later on, a contributor recalls Denis Leary’s ferocious protection of Janeane Garofalo and her unique brand of humor. Equally charming is Greg Behrendt’s obvious admiration and respect for Garofalo. (We can live in harmony, people!) The story of women in American comedy also covers about the same span as modern feminism, and we see female writers being asked to get coffee (Sybil Adelman: “Don’t you think I’m being paid a lot [for that]?”), try to have their voices heard in writers’ room, and struggle with a world that tries to define them first and foremost by their looks. (I can’t find the quote, but one woman wryly points out that a woman doing something—and also being conventionally attractive at the same time—is not an inherently funny premise.)
And in that context, the fact that this history ends on what Yael Kohen calls “the stand-up bombshell” (think Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings) is a little troubling. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a lovely femme doing comedy (you bet I’d swoon around Vanessa Bayer), but… let me quote Jen Kirkman: “Sometimes I worry that comedy is going to a place where you will have to be a hot chick for people to be interested in you” (296). She does go on to create a kind of binary between “conventionally attractive women” and “funny women”, sadly, but her point still stands. And thus the conundrum: how to prove that conventionally attractive women are perfectly capable of being funny without having their attractiveness feel like their patriarchy-stamped pass to be funny? It’s a difficult and frustrating question to end the book on, and one that I feel Kohen doesn’t engage.
Compounding that frustration is the fact that some of these women can’t seem to fathom a different world of comedy open to everyone. Saturday Night Live writer Emily Spivey’s insists on characterizing character-based humor as feminine and concept-based humor as masculine even though she complains about the fact that they’re gendered. (Perhaps… don’t gender them yourself? I think this might be a helpful tactic.) It’s very important to have different viewpoints represented in an oral history, but it’s still saddening. In fact, the book even ends on Chelsea Peretti stating that all of this isn’t “some civil rights issue, really” (306). That’s legislatively correct, but it’s a disappointing note, as if we’re being asked to ignore what came before. I wonder why Kohen ends on this note, instead of a more triumphant note of the American comedienne creating and continuing to create a world where it’s not female humor—it’s feminist humor. What’s the difference? Well, to quote from Andi Zeisler’s “Laugh Riot”, as collected in Bitchfest:
I don’t know what I wanted from Pamela Anderson. But her very presence up on that dais was a succinct illustration of what Gloria Kaufman, in her introduction to Pulling Our Own Strings, posited as the difference between female humor and feminist humor. The former “may ridicule a person or a system from an accepting point of view (‘that’s life’),” while the latter demands a “nonacceptance of oppression.” (152)
Bottom line: An eminently readable and, of course, funny oral history of the rise of women in American comedy from the 1950s to now. The voices are vivid and charming, and the history is both fascinating and fascinatingly entwined with modern feminism. However, Kohen’s choice to end it on a particularly hesitant note is frustrating.
I rented this book from the public library.