It’s crazy to read a book like Yael Kohen‘s We Killed and know that people still make statements like “Women aren’t funny.” The newly released oral history of women in comedy over the last 50 years is a reminder that not only are women hilarious, but they are smart, persistent and unwilling to back down when faced with the sexism and adversity they’ve been dealt whether it’s been in comedy clubs, writing rooms or late night TV shows.
Comedy is not just entertainment: It has the power to enlighten and educate, no matter how subtle it might be presented. What you’ll get from We Killed is a sense of how progressive women have proven to be, from the pioneers like Phyllis Diller and Elaine May to the alternative comics of the ’90s like Janeane Garofalo up through today’s boundary-smashing Sarah Silverman, for whom no topic is untouchable. But what’s also evident is how many gay women have been influential in comedy and how it is connected to how the country has changed in the last few decades.
The book is formatted chronologically, which means the first out woman introduced is the legendary Lily Tomlin. Chapter 2, “Lily of the Underground,” details Lily’s stand-up career in 1960s New York that “favorited material that focused on the working class and the poor.” This was starkly different from the other women comics at the time, like Diller and Joan Rivers, and she also created characters instead of telling self-deprecating jokes about her looks and housewife skills. Based on her taking some classes to become a mime early on, Lily impressed crowds were her improv skills, but bookers for The Tonight Show just didn’t get it. At the time, that’s where you had to be seen in order to become successful. For Lily it just took some more time before she got a gig on NBC’s variety series Laugh-In, which was where she became a household name alongside her famous characters like Ernestine and Edith Ann. In the book, she talks about objecting to what writers would try to have her characters say:
I’d say “George, I can’t say this, I don’t want to say this” — it’d be something sexist or homophobic or something.” And he’d say, “Babe, you don’t have to say this!”
The creative control she had only strengthened when she met writer Jane Wagner in 1971. They started a romance that has continued all these years, and they are still partners today. Together they worked on Lily’s 1973 CBS special which led to a handful more.
The chapter also praises Lily for her humor being subversive, and touched on her friendship with Richard Pryor. As Lily continued to work on TV, though, her ideas were shut down by networks who found her political sketches too scandalous and some of her ideas just too ahead of her time. While the shows didn’t earn the ratings networks hoped for, Lily and Jane picked up several Emmys and other awards for their work.
In the chapter called “I am Woman,” out writer /comic Carol Leifer details how she was inspired by Elayne Boosler, who she said “had a lot of material that didn’t have anything to do with sex or sexuality — they were just funny, funny jokes.” Sandra Bernhard discusses beginning her career in Los Angeles at The Comedy Store’s Belly Room, aka an oft-women only space for stand-ups. Despite the fact that the booker (Mitzi Shore) was a woman, the main stage was reserved for men, and women were sent upstairs. The plus, Sandra said:
You wanted to get up every night and hone your craft, so it was better than nothing. … Women could be more themselves and they weren’t under pressure of following a man who was doing really tacky, sexist, racist humor.
The chapter continues by discussing how Sandra was a hit at the Belly Room, and how she would fuse music into her act. Sandra said she was inspired by Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, and her friend Paul Mooney talked about what made her so special:
Sandra didn’t make fun of herself. She didn’t put herself down. She was honest about her sexuality. That’s what fascinated me about her.
Sandra became a hit with all kinds of crowds and started to get cast in movies, like The King of Comedy in 1983. After that she was able to make a living touring with her stand-up act.
In “The Boom Years,” Ellen DeGeneres is introduced. Zane Buzby put her on an HBO special called Women of the Night in the ’80s, and said, “She was just, like, America’s sweetheart. She was totally likeable, great-looking and she had a couple of unique bits where she spoke to God on the telephone — that was the big one — and she didn’t do much personal material.”
Fellow comedian Chris Albrecht said of her:
Ellen had that rhythm about her that became part and parcel of her humor — she wrote to the rhythm. … there was a certain kind of humility to Ellen that was very endearing and made you laugh at the same time.
Ellen herself details how she began emceeing at a brand new comedy club in her hometown of New Orleans called Clyde’s Comedy Club. After it closed, she entered a contest for Showtime’s Funniest Person in America and she won, which prompted a move to San Francisco. She said having the title backfired on her, though:
When I bombed, the emcee would walk back onstage and go, “That was the Funniest Person in America, everybody! She’s the Funniest Person in America!” I got a lot of shit for being called that.
Comedian Iliza Shlesinger mused that Ellen was successful without being sexual, like other female comics dared to be in their acts in the ’90s.
Paula Poundstone and people like Ellen, their comedy was never about sex. And maybe it’s because they’re lesbians — well I’m pretty sure Paula [is a lesbian]; it would be weird if she wasn’t a lesbian. But their comedy was never about being a girl, it was about being a person and everyday things.
Which introduced the idea of how being gay could affect the comedy of women like Ellen or Lily Tomlin. Louise Lasser remembers a time in 1976 when Lily was talking to her publicity agent about coming out as gay.
Pat kept saying “You can’t do it; you’re going to ruin your career.” … And then, after that, we had to go outside to the car, which was in front of the theater. There was a huge audience, and when we got in the car, her fans were rocking the car back and forth. And the idea that somebody’s career could actually be ruined and that their lives could get ruined was astonishing. To go from that to “You can’t let out that you’re gay or they’ll hate you” struck me
Lily says that she was encouraged to drive separately from Jane to work, but she refused. In 1975, she says she was offered the cover of Time magazine if she would come out. She doesn’t say why she said no, but it likely had to do with her publicist and network’s advice.
Ellen said she thought people didn’t know she was gay when she was early in her career, mostly because she never talked about it and she had longer hair at the time. Whoopi Goldberg, meanwhile, says people would come up to her and just ask “Are you gay?” “The interesting thing about me is, no one ever felt like they needed to be careful about what they said to me,” Whoopi said. “You would never think someone would have the cojones to walk up and just blatantly ask you.”
Margaret Cho said that she had a hard time being taken seriously as a queer woman because lesbians didn’t “count” her unless she was “completely gay.”
Friends writer Marta Kauffman said NBC could be a little stiff when it came to certain issues, including their concern over the lesbian wedding episodes. She notes that they had extra staff on hand to take any angry phone calls that night, but they only received four.
Ellen has an entire chapter dedicated to her and the sitcom in which she starred that led to her pivotal coming out moment on network television. It was 20 years after Lily Tomlin had been asked to come out on Time Magazine, but it was Ellen on the cover instead.
With her appearance on Johnny Carson, Ellen was the first female comic ever invited to sit on the couch after her performance. “It changed everything,” Ellen said, because she was able to get paid $5000 a night in bigger venues to bigger crowds. And she got network TV executives’ attention, although they didn’t know what to do with her.
She had a few bit parts on shows like Open House and Laurie Hill, and eventually a show was created around her and her friends, called These Friends of Mine, which turned into Ellen.
In 1995, The San Francisco Examiner penned a piece about Ellen Morgan’s penchant for androgynous looks and disinterest in men. People began to wonder about Ellen on-screen and off, and Ellen says in the book that everyone in her life knew already, so she wasn’t concerned about coming out publicly — until she had a dream that she was living in a cage.
“It was a beautiful cage,” she said, “but I was living in a cage. But, absolutely, [the network] did not want me to come out.”
The entire chapter details the meetings that went on to discuss how they could handle such a bold move on primetime TV, something Ellen calls “a nightmare.” She felt like no one stood behind her: advertisers, the network, the studio. And after the coming out episode, which had great ratings, the show faltered and was given the axe. Network exec Stu Bloomberg defended ABC’s decision, saying he was hurt by Ellen’s accusations that it was based on homophobia, citing poor ratings as the ultimate reason Ellen went off air.
We all know that Ellen fell on hard times after the show was cancelled, but things picked back up for her after her 2000 HBO special The Beginning. And since she just accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it’s safe to say she came out on top.
In a chapter dedicated to the Boys Club of Saturday Night Live, out SNL writer Paula Pell discusses Tina Fey‘s rise to fame from the writer’s room to the Weekend Update desk, as well as the talent of Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri.
Besides these famous funny women, there are many more that we love to laugh at, and many of them are covered in the book, up through Chelsea Handler, Amy Poehler and Ellie Kemper. But as queer women, we have a lot of others who have been mainstays at our events, from cruises to Pride events to performing at the Dinah. Rosie O’Donnell isn’t in We Killed, nor are Kate Clinton or Judy Gold or SNL‘s newest gay sensation Kate McKinnon. And the reason why is that there are just too many amazing female comedic talents to put into one book. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose, especially considering the amount of intel you get from trailblazers like Lily, Sandra and Ellen.
And, of course, the whole book is filled with insight on what happened when Roseanne went up against the writers of her show, or how Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner had to get more air time on SNL. Or maybe you want the salacious details of who was sleeping together in the alterna-comedy scene in the ’90s. The story behind The Mary Tyler Moore show is good, too. It’s all good and the book is one huge piece of history that needed to be put together so we don’t lose it once our legends pass away. (RIP Gilda, Phyllis, etc.)
Some of the best work in American culture has been done by the women in front of and behind the camera and the curtain. We Killed lets you know just how much work it was to get there.