In the mid-1960s, ABC was eager to find a starring vehicle for young Marlo Thomas. As the comic actress recounts in “We Killed,” Yael Kohen’s well-crafted and entertaining oral history of women in comedy, the scripts she was sent all seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.
The female leads were all in supporting roles: “the daughter of or the wife of or the secretary of,’’ she told the network’s head of programming. “Have you ever considered the girl to be the somebody?”
Thomas soon became “the somebody” in her groundbreaking sitcom, “That Girl.” She would be followed by plenty more, including Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tina Fey, to name a few.
In “We Killed,’’ Kohen tracks the slow but steady gains of funny ladies from Phyllis Diller (who died in August at age 95) and Joan Rivers (once considered the heir apparent to Johnny Carson), to the improvisational genius of Elaine May and Lily Tomlin, the lovably nutty women of “Saturday Night Live” (such as Gilda Radner, Cheri Oteri, and Amy Poehler), and contemporary stars such as Sarah Silverman.
She begins by claiming the need for a book like hers, noting that successes by women comedians and comic actresses are still met with some surprise.
Carson, the comedy kingmaker, was famously averse to female comics, Kohen notes. Jerry Lewis made headlines when he told a 2000 festival audience that women are better suited “as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.” And the late provocateur Christopher Hitchens surely anticipated the reaction when he wrote his 2007 Vanity Fair essay titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”
Kohen guides readers through critical turning points, such as the 1970s, when women writers began to appear in television studios and shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ emerged. She draws a direct line from there to the rise of women in key writing roles on shows like “SNL,’’ which in turn fostered new generations of women running and starring in shows.
Though Diller and Rivers are rightly credited as the primary pathfinders for women on the stand-up stage, it might have been instructive to take a quick look at a few of the performers who preceded them — Fanny Brice, Moms Mabley, Minnie Pearl. Beyond that, however, Kohen doesn’t miss much, from the comedy-club boom of the 1980s to the “alternative” showcases that arose in the ’90s and the mixed blessings of YouTube and the recent debate about whether pretty women can be funny.
As any oral history should, the book particularly shines in its details and anecdotes. One contributor recalls a cash-strapped Elayne Boosler writing dozens of jokes on a legal pad each day to sell to Dial-a-Joke. Lois Bromfield, who wrote for the smash sitcom “Roseanne,” captures the absurdity of having privileged Harvard graduates on the writing staff of the blue-collar show when she remembers having to explain to one of them what “lunch meat” is. (“ ‘Is it like sliced steak?’ ‘No, no, no. Bologna.’ ”)
Boston arises repeatedly as a talent incubator. Sudbury native Paula Poundstone describes the do-it-yourself charm of the “funky little Chinese restaurant-slash-nightclub” the Ding Ho, and Janeane Garofalo, who moved to Boston after attending Providence College, has fond recollections of the old Play It Again Sam’s on Commonwealth Avenue. Maya Rudolph says what she loves about “SNL” pal Poehler is “the combination of the fact that she is a teeny tiny person and she’s really tough. I mean, she’s from Boston.”
When the National Lampoon’s founding editor told future “SNL” writer Anne Beatts he believed “chicks just aren’t funny,” she felt like “punch[ing] him right in the nose.” But she was so upset, she recalls, she dropped a contact lens in her soup. Battling such ridiculous assertions, the women gathered here have always killed in their own way.James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin.” He can be reached at jamesgsullivan@