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We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen

One of the "bright spots" in Yael Kohen's oral history is the "sheer abundance and variety of voices.”

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)

Yael Kohen likes to focus on other women’s shortcomings, said Rachel Shukert in Salon.com. “That’s not to say there’s not some great stuff” in her new oral history of women’s role in American comedy since about 1960. But because Kohen frames her story with the wrong question, some “extraordinary, brilliant women” come across largely as disappointments. Ever since Christopher Hitchens wrote a 2007 Vanity Fair essay asserting that women aren’t funny, the issue of whether they can make people laugh has been treated as if it’s “one of the great unanswerables of the universe,” and it’s that question that Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, and many other interviewees must measure their careers against. Did they confront bias? Of course they did. But can’t we move on to the funny stuff?

We can at least move on to the book’s bright spots, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “The sheer abundance and variety of voices” here ensure that we get some interesting history. Kohen and her interviewees are clear about why Gilda Radner is still so revered, why beauty can be both a blessing and a curse for a comedian, and what “behind-the-scenes skills” have been required of women trying to climb the comedy ladder. And at least there’s this scrap of wisdom about the challenges related to gender, from sitcom writer Chelsea Peretti: “At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. It’s not some civil rights issue, really.” 

Still, I wish I’d read this book before a memorable confrontation I had with a heckler almost two years ago, said stand-up comedian Gaby Dunn in Slate.com. This guy was a misogynist, and his insults threw me off my game until I realized what “the amazing women” in this book already knew. In comedy “a divide does still exist,” but women in the business can’t allow themselves to care about that. “The more women are encouraged to think they are merely a subset of comedy” and that they are forever potential victims of bias, the less chance they have of doing what’s needed: killing.

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