We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy

A book like this definitely needed to be written, if only to serve as inspiration and comfort and education for people like me. I’ve only recently begun to read more about sexism, particularly with respect to the industry I’m interested in, which is comedy. Never before had I considered just how male-dominated this world is, and how many strides women have made to break that cycle.

I hate that the “women aren’t funny” issue came up a few years ago when Bridesmaids came out. It literally did not occur to me that Bridesmaids was “groundbreaking.” I didn’t notice that the main cast was female–really, I did not–and instead just enjoyed it as a movie. And then the internet went insane, commending ladies for finally breaking the glass ceiling and all that. It’s bullshit, though, because, um, what about Sex and the City? Jesus, that show was funny. (Remember this?) And its main cast had only XX chromosomes. I think Bridesmaids is hilarious because Kristin Wiig is so multifaceted and Jon Hamm completely debases himself in it and Chris O’Dowd is so lovable and Melissa McCarthy completely kills it as whatever that character was but, let’s be honest, most people laughed because Maya Rudolph took a shit in the street. It’s still frustrating that we even have to be talking about the movie in terms of its female parts.

Back to the main event. We Killed isn’t a manifesto or anything. In fact, it had its frustrating parts, too. Like Live From New York (which it actually drew upon for some research), it was an oral history, with quotes from ladies and gentlemen of comedy placed in chronological, sometimes completely contradictory order. There were many times when I found myself reading about one breakthrough comedian, only to find in the next chapter that she was considered hack, and that the “next big thing” was the real breakthrough. Lizz Winstead brought up a good point about female “hack” comedians: “It seems that people like to make this stereotype, but how can they keep saying that’s what women comedians do all the time when a bunch of successful ones don’t?” (p. 170). Essentially, comedy by women has behaved in cycles (har har har!); there have been times to be androgynous and asexual (Ellen, Roseanne) and times to be beautiful and appealing (Sarah Silverman, Natasha Leggero) and times to be wifely and doting (Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers). If you, the audience member, hones your comedy taste in one cycle, the other is going to seem foreign and cheap to you. And that’s why, when reading this book, I never really felt like I was able to trust anyone talking about comedy who came up before the 1990’s, because all I truly know about comedy I learned starting at that time. I’m not discounting anything before that; I’m just saying it feels more unfamiliar to me, and consequently, today’s scene feels unfamiliar to them. I just can’t imagine a time when women were though of as lesser, unfunnier performers, and I’m damn proud of it.

I found that women were less hard on each other over the years than men were. Maybe that’s a good thing. But as a result, it was hard to tell who was actually “bad” besides, well, Kathy Griffin. It appeared, from this oral history, that no one ever really liked her. Ouch. But the rest of ’em were just “not my style” or “unconventional” or some other Band-Aided term for “not good, but not willing to admit it.” Or maybe not! It was so hard to tell! Where was the filter? Was any woman really willing to admit that some women actually weren’t funny?

I’m ranting, I know. But I should also say that the book had a lot of high points. For example, the description of Mary Tyler Moore (starting on p. 68), made me want to watch MTM more than I’ve ever wanted to watch a show. I still have never seen an episode, and the reverence with which people speak about it is so intoxicating. Speaking of intoxicating, I was intrigued by the stories of Elayne Boozler (p. 119) and Laura Kightlinger (p. 236), two comics who got famous in comedy but never became stars. I still don’t fully understand why.

We’re in a golden age of comedy now, what with podcasts and YouTube and alt rooms and $5 shows at the UCB and more dudes than ever defending our right to be on that stage for just as long and with just as many dick/vag jokes. A sweet anecdote by the otherwise unbearable Victoria Jackson, about how on The Tonight Show, “Carson would interview me while arranging everything to make me look funny, not himself. He would let me get the laughs and tap his pencil to get an extra laugh” (p. 144), that diplomacy was once rare but is now commonplace, at least among the good ones. The bad ones are still out there, throwing the double standard back at pretty female comics (p. 282) and insisting that explicit sexual content in a routine is just there for shock value, but the good ones jump right on board with Kightlinger, who mused, “I’m an awkward person, who, for some reason needs to forge a connection with strangers by sharing true, intimagte, humiliating events from my own life” (p. 223). If that’s not a comedic truth, I don’t know what is.