October 17, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Yael Kohen traces the evolution of women in comedy over the last 50 years in her book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy a thoroughly researched oral history that spans the careers of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey.
When I started writing We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy in 2009, the statement "women aren't funny" and stories about boys clubs were ubiquitous, but very little had been written about where female comics fit into American comedy as whole. I decided that it was time to trace the evolution of women in comedy over the past half century to get a real sense of how female comics developed, what they had to go through to get to the top, and how their sensibilities shifted from one generation to the next. I also thought it would be best to hear from the female comics directly, and so the book was written as an oral history. It is based on more than 200 interviews, including the voices of female comics—from Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to Ellen DeGeneres, Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho to Chelsea Handler and Aubrey Plaza—as well as the writers, managers, producers, club owners and television executives that worked with them.
Among the discoveries I made in the course of writing this book, is the intersection between comedy and music. Before comedy clubs came into being in the mid-1970s and 80s, most clubs paired music and comedy together. Barbra Streisand opened for Phyllis Diller at the Bon Soir; Joan Rivers used to wait alongside Cass Elliott and Carly Simon for a spot at the Bitter End; Elayne Boosler started as a singer and Pat Benatar got her start in a club famous for its comedy, Catch a Rising Star. The relationship between comedy and music seemed to dissipate in the 1980s comedy club boom, only to be resurrected by the likes of Janeane Garofalo and the alternative comedy movement she inspired. I've selected a group of songs that I think would serve as an appropriate backdrop to the work these comedians did.
At the time the Carol Burnett emerged as a comedienne, most funny ladies combined song and dance to their acts. This 1957 spoof song gave Carol Burnett her first big break. Burnett was parodying the way young women swooned over rock stars like Elvis, by singing a ballad about the "dull" John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State. She performed it first at the Blue Angel nightclub, at the time one of the hottest cabaret clubs in New York, and then made a splash on the Tonight Show starring Jack Paar and then on Ed Sullivan.
Streisand performed this ditty at another popular Sixties-era New York cabaret, the Bon Soir, where she made her debut. Comedian Phyllis Diller was also a regular performer at the Bon Soir—she recorded a live album at the venue—and it was there that Streisand opened for Diller early on in her career.
In the early 1960s, folk clubs were gaining in popularity and the new comedians of the era—Woody Allen, Joan Rivers—were doing their sets between music performers. According to former Bitter End founder Fred Weintraub, Joan Rivers used to wait alongside Carly Simon and Cass Elliott (eventually of the Mamas and the Papas) for a spot on the lineup. But Weintraub, it should be noted, did not believe that Rivers had what it took to make it as a solo act.
Before Lily Tomlin became a star on the NBC comedy variety series Laugh-In, she was co-host on the failed ABC show The Music Scene, which featured Rock and Roll stars like Joplin (who sang Maybe on the program) and was a ratings bomb when it debuted. At the time, Tomlin was a little known underground comic artist who preferred the countercultural sensibility of the Music Scene to the more mainstream network style of Laugh-In. But Music Scene was canceled after 16 weeks.
Okay, I don't actually like this song, but I mention it for two reasons: the first is that Reddy's "I Am Woman" is considered the anthem to 1970s women's lib movement, which was beginning to permeate the standup circuit in the mid-70s with comics like Elayne Boosler and Sandra Bernhard; the second is because when Reddy guest-hosted Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, she invited Elayne Boosler to be her guest on the show. By the way, "I Am Woman" did hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1972. And if you listen to it enough times, it's catchy.
When Rolling Stone called Carly Simon the "epitome of what some people like to think of as the New Woman," in 1971, new women were coming out in comedy, too. In sitcoms Mary Tyler Moore had just debuted on CBS a year before, Maude (about a thrice-divorced middle-aged housewife who embodied the feminist spirit) shortly followed and then later there was the MTM spin-off Rhoda. Elayne Boosler was the freshest voice in standup. And Saturday Night Live, in the meantime, featured three female cast members and three female writers—giving it a bigger female presence than any successful variety show before it. It debuted in 1975 and during that first season, during an episode that was hosted by Madeline Kahn, Simon was invited to appear as the musical guest on the program. (Her notorious stage fright forced her to pre-tape the performance.)
The link between the music and comedy seemed to come apart in the 1980s—comics were telling jokes exclusively, and instead of having musicians between comedy acts, club bookers were lining up comics back to back. The number of funny women descending on comedy clubs exploded, and with increasing television opportunities for these funny ladies, "Express Yourself" is probably the best song to describe the coming out.
In the 1990s, Janeane Garofalo was the poster girl for alternative indie culture, when bands like Nirvana and Weezer were hitting the top of the charts. "I remember one time Weezer did some photo shoot for some big magazine," Margaret Cho recalled in an interview for the book, "and I think it was Matt who wore a shirt that said ‘I Love Janeane Garofalo.' It was such a big deal."
When Janeane Garofalo was a rising star in the comedy world, girl bands like Hole, the Breeders, Veruca Salt and singers like Sarah McLachlan and Juliana Hatfield were also putting their stamp on indie culture. Comedian Greg Behrendt (best known as the author of He's Just Not That Into You) was dating Garofalo at the time and remembers listening to old Juliana Hatfield records at the Los Angeles house that Garofalo lived in with comedian Jeff Garlin.
Comedians seem to love this classic lite FM tune from 1990. Harold and Kumar sing along to it in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the ladies of SNL seem to be obsessed with it: Not only did it cap off the Kristen Wiig comedy blockbuster Bridesmaids, it was also featured in Spring Breakdown, a low-budget film co-written by Rachel Dratch and co-starring Dratch, Amy Poehler and Parker Posey.
Sarah Silverman is a generation removed from Janeane Garofalo but her comedy is infused with an alternative sensibility, including a penchant for singing in her act. Her 2005 comedy tour, "Jesus Is Magic" includes a number of funny songs, but it's really this Emmy-award winning Youtube sensation that she released four years ago, that never gets old. It makes me laugh, every time.
Yael Kohen and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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