11:34 am Oct. 16, 20122
“There was the piece in 2007 that Christopher Hitchens wrote about women not being funny," Kohen told me when I reached her on the telephone at her Brooklyn home recently. "I'd never heard it before. I thought it was a weird piece, an idea I was not familiar with.”
Not that Hitchens had been the first to make the claim that women aren't funny. John Belushi said it to his "Saturday Night Live" costar Gilda Radner; Johnny Carson said it in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone; and of course just this year Adam Carolla said it when he appeared on an episode of "The Talk."
So Kohen set about writing a response to this persistent claim in Marie Claire, interviewing the women of American comedy.
But in magazines, you’re limited to a few thousand words, and Kohen thought there was much more to say on the subject.
“There was a lot of interesting material left on the cutting-room floor," she said. "It was a much richer, fuller story than people realize.”
She wanted to talk to women from a variety of eras about what being a female comic had been like, what sort of peer groups they had, where their support came from, and how hard they had to work for recognition.
As for the women-being-funny question, after all of those interviews, Kohen's book does not provide a pat response.
“I don’t know that I answer the question so much as acknowledge that the question is there," she told me. "It’s a provocative question. People will continue to ask it.”
One problem, she says, is short memories. Every few years there seems to be a large influx of women in comedy.
“We’ve had a lot in the past few years, but we had a lot in the 1980’s, too,” she said. She thinks the sheer number if women in comedy really should settle the issue.
The book is full of juicy anecdotes: how at stand-up shows Elayne Boosler would take the spot after Richard Pryor that no one else wanted (“Who would want to go on stage after Richard Pryor?” Kohen asked, laughing.); the time Gilda Radner punched Woody Allen in the stomach; Ellen DeGeneres’ story of coming out and how difficult it was; the '90s Los Angeles comedy scene that revolved around Janeane Garofalo.
Even though the book is packed with famous names—from Mary Tyler Moore to Margaret Cho—persuading them to participate wasn’t always an easy task.
“I get the sense that a lot of women comedians are tired of speaking about it—they were scared I was going to ask if women were funny,” said Kohen. But instead she chose to delve into their comedy and place it in a historical context. And luckily many of them agreed to be interviewed.
Kohen was interested in focusing on women who were already successful in their careers, who were more established, the sort of people who had “something in their comedy that resonates.”
And she even lucked out with some rising stars.
“I interviewed Whitney Cummings long before she was on the radar, like three years ago," Kohen said. "She's since blown up.”
And so will many others still under the radar as Kohen's book hits the shelves, which will probably serve as much to deflect the perennial question as the 300 pages of proof you'll find in We Killed.
Yael Cohen appears Oct. 17 at PowerHouse Arena to discuss the evolution of women and comedy with Lizz Winstead, Julieanne Smolinski, Emily Heller, and Jesse David Fox.
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