What Funny Women Teach One Another (and Robin Williams)

Eight great moments in comedians mentoring comedians from We Killed: The Rise of Women in Comedy

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In 1993, comedians Sarah Silverman and Melanie Hutsell were both fired from Saturday Night Live. At the end of their last day, Hutsell was ready to go home and crawl in bed, defeated. But Silverman insisted otherwise: It was time to party.

"We went out that night," Hutsell recalls in the pages of Yael Kohen's new book We Killed: The Rise of Women in Comedy. "[Sarah] had just found out that she wasn't picked up for the next year, and she got up and did her stand-up." Hutsell remembers watching Silverman onstage, awed: "I was like, 'That girl right there, she's going to go all the way.'"

We Killed, released this week, may tell the story of the integration of women into the mainstream comedy scene—from Phyllis Diller and Elaine May through Tina Fey and the Bridesmaids phenomenon—but don't be fooled by the title. Kohen's impressively assembled oral history illustrates that that the titular "rise" of women in comedy wasn't really a direct upward climb at all. Instead, as the Silverman anecdote suggests, it was a frustrating, decades-long, fits-and-starts process.

The second half of the 20th century saw such rapid, radical changes in the role of women in society that comedy's rules seemed to be changing all the time. Sometimes "funny like a guy" was a good thing; other times it wasn't. Sometimes funny women could be sexy; other times they couldn't. And sometimes, women were declared funny once and for all—then other times, exasperatingly, the revelation would reverse itself. (To this day, every so often another prominent, skeptical voice—Jerry Lewis, John Belushi, and Johnny Carson, to name a few—asks the question, "Are women funny?" as if it's surfacing for the first time. As recently as 2007, Christopher Hitchens addressed the question in his famously inflammatory Vanity Fair essay.)

It often happened that by the time a new crop of comediennes arrived, their predecessors and would-be role models were already quaint relics of an ideology that had already gone out of fashion. Like travelers equipped with out-of-date maps, female comedians in every era were forced to simply assess their surroundings and make a plan from there.

They did, however, have one another to compare notes (and commiserate) with in the meantime. While not every encounter between comedy contemporaries was warm or sisterly or uplifting (far from it, in fact), many comediennes mentored and inspired one another along the way.

In her childhood years, sketch comedian Nora Dunn watched Lily Tomlin on Laugh-In. Dunn would grow up and appear on Saturday Night Live from 1985 to 1990, but it was Tomlin who first taught her that comedy was, indeed, for grown-ups too. "As a kid, I did characters," Dunn recalls in the book. "So did my sister; my brother Brian had several. We'd ask each other questions in these characters; I didn't realize that adults did that too. So when I saw Lily Tomlin doing Edith Ann I was like, 'Oh my God.' ... It was like seeing a baseball pitcher and going 'Oh, I can be a pitcher too. I can be in the majors.'"

Valerie Harper, who played the brash Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Rhoda, never forgot a poignant moment she witnessed while watching Emmy-winning screenwriter Treva Silverman negotiate the politics of a joke with her male co-writers. "There was a joke where the boys, [creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns], had said something like 'I have a date, I better look under 'B' for blonde, 'BR' for brunette, and 'R' for redhead," she says. "It was a joke, and everyone laughed. [But] Mary is standing there. And Treva said, 'Guys, guys, you can't leave it at that. Take Mary out of the shot, but Mary can't hear that and not comment or have a rejoinder.' And so she did. And it was funny, so there was a double laugh. They were making a consciousness moment for everybody."

Comedy writer and stand-up Carol Leifer watched a late-night appearance by Elayne Boosler in the 1970s and saw the first tiny sparks of a movement ignite. "I remember she went on the Tonight Show with a guest host, Helen Reddy, who said to her, 'You are really an inspiration to so many women out there. It's great to have a young female comic on.' And Elayne said something like, 'Well, I hope I'm just an inspiration to all comics.'"

Mr. Show alum Karen Kilgariff saw something she'd never seen before in Janeane Garofalo—and afterward, she went home and changed her entire act. "The first time I saw Janeane, I was like, oh my God. She was wearing her black tights with her cutoff denim shorts over them and her Doc Marten boots. And she walked out and then starts doing all this brilliant, amazing observational comedy. I had just started to do comedy three weeks before, and after I watched her, I realized that I was speaking in a really high register onstage, almost in a baby voice, like 'Be nice to me, I'm the girl!' After I saw Janeane do stand-up, I immediately talked much lower and did much more of a pulled back too-cool-for-school character. [...] Up until that point, the only people I ever saw were like, I'm Rita Rudner, I'm the sexy ditsy mom, or I'm wearing a pantsuit."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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