Ellory Smith ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Yael Kohen’s We Killed: The Rise Of Women in American Comedy, published in October 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, reads like a transcript of a writer’s room. The vibe is fast-paced, flippant, and resembles reading a good documentary film. Beginning at the start of the Catskill comedy scene in 1950, Koehn interviews 150 women and men about the likes of Phyliss Diller, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres, and about their own careers in stand-up comedy and television. Kohen acts as a careful archivist, pulling together and conducting interviews to shape an important book about a social history surrounding a single question: are women funny?
We Killed succeeds in its simplicity and range of interviewees. The biggest and smallest names in show business espouse advice for the would-be comedienne; Lorne Michaels of SNL along with stand-up comedians who do circuits on Carnival cruise ships. While the book offers practical advice like “nobody is good at first, develop thick skin,” it also discusses the progression of comedy.
Beginning in the 1950s where funny women ridiculed or desexualized themselves, the 70s wave of television and sketch comedy, the 80s boom of stand-up comedy, and up to the last group of female sketch comediennes in the early 2000s. Throughout all of this, there is an overbearing theme present in all the interviews, mentioned at least once in the three sections: women are either “fuckable” or funny. They are not often both. Tina Fey was not plucked from behind the scenes at SNL until after she famously lost 30 pounds. A director of Whoopi Goldberg’s told her she never had an onscreen love interest because she had “no fuckability factor. No one wants to fuck [her]” (Kohen, 183). This more often than not is brought up as a problem for the women trying to transition from stage to screen. If they are pretty no one pays attention to them. If they are not pretty, no one wants to see them on TV.
The format is at first awkward, as it is all dialogue. It feels stiff for the first few pages, but soon opens up to a world where now famous writers sleep on couches and do three open mic’s a night. The reader sees a young, Boston native Paula Poundstone test out her comedy chops at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. Readers also see Lily Tomlin try on characters that are eventually so good, they later become the groundwork that builds SNL.
There is no narrative storyline running through this book, but there are scenes that paint pictures for its readers all the same. This book is certainly for a specific breed of people, actors, and writers. People grew up fat and because of that were forced to learn comedic timing. This book teaches and reflects on a social history, successfully. It coincidentally is entertaining and inspiring.