Remembering Things How They Want to Remember Them: A Conversation with Yael Kohen about Comedy

Yael Kohen’s dad, a sixty-something Israeli guy who watched Rita Rudner with his kids, probably is to blame for how unaware Kohen was of the time-worn trope of women not being funny. Recently he pointed to a magazine she had in her house and asked, “Who’s that?” It was Chelsea Handler. “Oh! I love her,” he said. “She’s the only one that I’ll watch. Letterman? I hate him! She’s the only one who’s funny.”

“First of all,” Kohen recalls thinking, “I’m shocked that you turn on E! at that hour, but, second of all, you’re watching Chelsea Handler? Really?” His reason: “I feel like when I watch her, that’s exactly who she is.” That closeness is something Kohen unpacks in We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. With this oral history of women working in comedy, spanning an enormous cast of characters, she wanted to track how they grew on stage and changed how they related to their audiences. Not only did she want to lay out the vast variety of comedic styles and resist clumping these women together—itself a big feat—but she also wanted to chart how comedians like Roseanne Barr or Ellen DeGeneres made the jump from obscurity to ubiquity. We talked about how difficult oral histories are as a format, how tricky people’s memories are, and how badly she now wishes she had talked to Tig Notaro.

When did you decide to start pursuing this project?
I started in 2009. The Christopher Hitchens article came out in 2007. I was more confused than angry about it. I was not familiar with the idea that women weren’t funny. I didn’t know that that was a thing! Then Vanity Fair came out with their response, which had that great photo shoot and the essay, but I still wanted to know a little bit more. I was talking to my editor at the time, Lucy Kaylin, and we were like, why don’t we call up these women and ask them what it was like? So I wrote the article [in Marie Claire], but I left a lot on the cutting room floor. I thought there was a lot more that was richer than what you can get into with a magazine piece.

What made you decide to do an oral history instead of a narrative of your own?
I think, when you’re talking to comedians, there are clear differences. The barriers are different, the personalities are different, and that comes out in the way they tell their stories. You kind of want to hear what they have to say about women in comedy versus what I have to say about women in comedy. And when they talk, a lot of their stories overlap. Sometimes they don’t agree with each other, but they’re still experiencing the same stuff. They still speak about it through the same language, which sounds pretentious, but whatever.

I also think that the way that comedians talk about comedy is very different from the way that writers write about comedy. You capture them more with an oral history, which is a hard format to write in. It’s not easy, because you spend time having to find people. You can’t just go into a book and fill in the gaps. You actually have to find someone to tell you.

I really liked the interspersed, old Variety items or the old New York Times articles, because that gives a context you can’t really get from people just reminiscing.
And sometimes people remember things the way we talk about it now, but they don’t remember how it was at the time. So sometimes those clips did help put it into context a little bit more.

Was there any period where you knew you had to get more information, but it just wasn’t coming because people weren’t remembering properly? I was wondering if those older generations were difficult for you to dive into. Or maybe it was actually the easiest part, and maybe now is a little bit messier.
I think…people remember things how they want to remember them. With Phyllis Diller it was hard. She spent time evolving into what she became. Joan Rivers spent time evolving into what she became. And I think people remember them for what they became and not where they started. Joan Rivers, when you watch old clips, there were jokes, but it was a little more neurotic and talky than people remembered. With Phyllis Diller, people always remember her talking about Fang, but she slowly brought that into her work. With some of the people, it was hard to know if they weren’t paying attention because these were women, or if they don’t remember because it’s been so many years.

Were there any people you wanted to talk to but couldn’t get because they were too big or too busy?
I would have loved to have Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Sarah Silverman. I would have loved to have Elayne Boosler and Elaine May. You get a sense especially from the bigger names that they’re a little tired of talking about women in comedy. I mean, I wasn’t on a mission to prove women are funny. I wanted to understand the context of these women. The way that Janeane Garofalo was self-deprecating is on a whole different plane from how Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers were self-deprecating. With Janeane you always got the feeling that the world was so fucked up, and there were all these crazy images of women, and she didn’t fit into it. In that way, there was a self-loathing aspect to it that was generational. It was a 90s thing, it wasn’t just her. But Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, it was them making fun of themselves so that you would accept them on stage. They didn’t approach it like there was something wrong with the world because they didn’t fit into it. They were like, the world is great, and I’m this idiot who can’t cook, can’t clean, and my husband doesn’t want to sleep with me anymore.

I felt like there was a lot about Mary Tyler Moore.
There was a lot, because Alan Burns, who was one of the co-creators, talked a lot about Mary Tyler Moore. It was an interesting show. A lot of it was interesting because of what was onscreen, but a lot of it was interesting because of what was happening behind the scenes. Whenever you were talking to women who were writers in the 1970s, somehow the trail always led back to Mary Tyler Moore. Even if they started on other shows, their first shot was on Mary Tyler Moore. I watched a lot of those old shows, but when you watch that show, it’s still funny. It’s not like it’s…I don’t know if I was just in that era, but I think a lot of it is still relevant, still funny, still classic. It’s timeless. Well, maybe it won’t be timeless in a hundred years, but you know.

I can’t remember who said it, but someone on the staff says that Roseanne Barr couldn’t write a script. She needed that staff. Did you get a sense of hierarchies within the different mediums, like one type of comedy is the best?
That definitely exists with standups and sketch comics. I don’t think that I necessarily think that standup is better than the sitcom writer, but it’s a different skill. For example, with Whitney Cummings’ show, early on, maybe she would have been better if she had a sitcom writer helping her show, because it’s one thing to write a routine but it’s different to write for other characters and capture other people’s voices. To a degree you have to have a collaboration. Roseanne did have that, and Seinfeld had that. It’s different coming up with a plot and a beginning, middle, and an end. You know, I wrote a book about comedy, but I don’t know that I could write a novel. It’s a whole fricking different thing! First I have to think of a story, then I have to think about the different characters that are in the story and actually make them realistic, and then I have to think about what happens in the story.

But do I think the form is necessarily better? You could possibly be a great writer, but it doesn’t mean that when you say the lines of the character you’re writing that they’re going to be any good. Half of what was great about Elaine as a character on Seinfeld, who is my all-time favorite female character on TV, was Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Do the comedians themselves feel like, No, mine is the best way?
I think the standups definitely have an attitude that what they do is harder. Part of it is because they’re getting up on a stage alone without anything. The funny thing is the sketch comics don’t have that attitude so much. They always make the statement, “Oh, standup, I could never do that.” Either their personalities are different, and they don’t want to say their form is better, or they genuinely think it’s harder. I think standup is harder. That would be my personal view. Getting up on stage by yourself and not having anyone to save you is rough. As a woman, if you say something unlikeable about yourself, you’re basically saying it as yourself. With sketch, you could just play the person who does something awful. My guess is that it’s harder for women, because there’s less range for what we consider to be likeable in women. Chelsea Handler, whether you’re a fan of her work or not, you get the sense that she doesn’t give a shit what you think, and there’s something very likeable about it.

Did you ever feel like there was someone you were missing? It was interesting to see the comedians you chose to talk to. You chose Whitney Cummings…
…who I interviewed before she got those shows. She really came to me because I was talking to club owners in LA, and they were like, There are three women everyone is looking at, and that was how I got to Whitney Cummings.

So you were talking to club owners instead of going by your own taste?
I wasn’t really approaching this as a critic so much. I’m not a critic. I was approaching the book by looking at the trends, who’s hot right now, where it’s going, who’s getting the buzz and the attention. Part of what I’m trying to unpack is how you go from being a comedian to being an entertainer that everyone knows. To a certain degree, that’s how we measure success. So I was looking for people who had had success, or who were on the cusp of success, more than I was looking for the underground comic who I think is hilarious. The book isn’t about any single comic. It’s more about the women as a group.

Right, it’s not an “art of comedy” book. It’s a book about women in this profession.
Right, exactly. I approached it more that way. I would be a fan of someone, and I wouldn’t necessarily speak to them. Like, now I’m going through my moment of regret for not talking to Tig Notaro, who I did actually reach out to, but maybe I wasn’t persistent enough…this is what I’m going through in my mind.

Right, there was that amazing set [at the Largo]…
And I knew who she was before the amazing set! This is why I’m kicking myself.

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