'I Never Heard a Jewish Man Say That Women Aren't Funny'

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Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK - “The superior funniness of men” was how the late journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens put it in a 2007 article in Vanity Fair. He based his controversial assertion largely on an experiment conducted at Stanford University, which compared the neurological reactions of 10 male and 10 female subjects to 70 jokes that were told to them.

The findings were surprising: Even though all the subjects laughed at the jokes, the women needed more time than the men to get the punch line and laugh. The fact that the experiment tested only 10 women, and that its conclusion said nothing about women’s ability to make men laugh, did not deter Hitchens from uttering sexist generalizations.

“Male humor,” he wrote, “prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with and often a joke in extremely poor taste ... whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.”

Hitchens’ article, which bore the provocative title “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” went viral on the web. Among its millions of readers was American journalist Yael Kohen, 32, who writes for the women’s magazine Marie Claire and has just published her first book, “We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.” In an interview with Haaretz, Kohen relates how the fury and frustration she felt upon reading Hitchens’ article were translated into a magazine piece, and afterward a book that tells the story of female American comedians and stand-up artists from the 1950s up to the present day.

“My initial reaction when I read the piece was that it said a lot about the kind of women Hitchens was interested in dating,” she says with a smile. “Sure, it might be true for some women, but not for all of them. He argued that women are children-making machines, and their only purpose is to bring children into this world. And because women know they have a higher calling, there is nothing inherently funny in their experience.

“I don’t even know how to deal with that comment,” she continues, “because being pregnant is such a strange and funny experience. I gave birth to my first-born daughter a few months ago. It is a strange experience: your body starts doing all these things and there is a lot of humor that can be based on these sudden changes. That said, it could be the kind of thing men don’t want to hear about. Maybe they are not aware of the humor of it because they normally think of women as sexual subjects. That might also explain why sketches about breast-feeding are often controversial.”

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Lily TomlinCredit: All photos by Reuters and AP
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Yael KohenCredit: All photos by Reuters and AP
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Roseanne BarrCredit: All photos by Reuters and AP

According to Kohen, “The biggest problem women in comedy have today is convincing men that what they have to say, and the subjects they find interesting, are actually universal. There is no reason why men can’t be interested in certain experiences that women face. This is also part of the point Tig Notaro was trying to make in her recent comedy stand-up about her breast cancer. The way she talked about her fear of dying of cancer was definitely universal. Anyone can relate to those emotions.”

Barbra Streisand as warm-up

Hitchens’ tirade prompted Marie Claire to devote an issue to women’s humor. Kohen, who was a writer and editor with the magazine, was sent to interview female comics in an attempt to understand why there are still people, in the 21st century, who think that the only people women can make laugh are other women. Says Kohen: “After I read Hitchens’ article, I felt I wanted to know more about the experience of being a female comedian, My editor and I exchanged ideas about what could be done with it, until we came up with the idea of an oral history of female humor.”

The assignment went to Kohen because of her keen interest in popular culture. Her specific interest in stand-up comedy dates from a young age, she says.

“My father is an Israeli from Tel Aviv and my mother is a Jewish American from Seattle. They met at a nightclub in the Village, which is now the site of the thriving stand-up club Comedy Cellar. Back then, it was a club frequented by many young people, mostly Jews, and my mother had just moved from Seattle to New York.”

Despite her Israeli connection and the fact that she has relatives in Israel, Kohen – who lives in Brooklyn and is married to an American lawyer – does not speak Hebrew and has only a sketchy knowledge of the Israeli cultural scene.

As part of her assignment, Kohen met with Phyllis Diller, a pioneer of standup in the United States, and with Joan Rivers, a comedian as well as an actress. She soon realized she had the makings of a book.

She went on to interview more than 200 comics ‏(both male and female‏), talk-show writers and others in the entertainment industry in an effort to uncover the story of female humor in America. When she embarked on the project, she says, she intended to talk only to female comics. But very quickly she realized that to get a complete picture of their history, she would also have to interview the men in their milieu.

“I had a sense at the time that I wanted to have a ‘then’ and ‘now’ aspect to this book,” she explains. “When I eventually started writing, I remember reaching out to managers and club owners, the men these women work with, because I felt that in order to get a fuller and richer story, you do have to talk to the people in positions of power. Also, a lot of the women tend to talk about the men who helped them, because it is such a male-dominated field.”

The result is a detailed, riveting rebuttal to Hitchens. showing definitively that the American entertainment industry is rife with examples of women’s ability to make diverse audiences laugh.

Yet in practice, these achievements are forgotten almost instantly, or register with the public as “exceptions that prove the rule.”

For example, managers in the industry refused to acknowledge the latent potential in female comedians even after “Roseanne” a sitcom written by and starring Roseanne Barr dislodged the hugely popular “Cosby Show” from the top of the ratings charts in 1988.

Another example was provided by the late night talk-show host Johnny Carson, who said in interviews that women were not funny, even after Joan Rivers became the most popular guest emcee on his program.

Kohen’s impressive investigation work made the book an almost instant success. The actor Cameron Diaz told Amazon it was the best book she had read in 2012 and that “you’ll learn as much as you laugh” from it. Kohen herself has been interviewed in leading media outlets, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. The latter praised “Yael Kohen’s well-crafted and entertaining oral history of women in comedy.”

One of Kohen’s most impressive achievements is her interview with Phyllis Diller, who paved the way for female stand-up comedy in the 1950s. Diller died in August at the age of 95. “I interviewed her just a few months before her death, and she was still a diva,” Kohen says. “Every time she laughed, her whole body shook with emotion.”

In the first chapter of “We Killed,” devoted to the rise of female stand-up comedy in New York up to 1957, Diller recounts how she started to shatter the glass ceiling in an era in which the only roles for women in nightclubs were as dancers or singers. “There was a group of what we used to call ‘discovery clubs,’ and they all had a gay bar, but you weren’t anybody till you worked at the Copa,” Diller recalled. “In those days the Copa was for the big boys: Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis. No female comic had ever played the Copa until this agency booked me for $3,000. You played for $3,000, then you’d get $5,000 the next time you played, and then $7,000. That’s a three-play deal. I played the $3,000 and told them what they could do with five and seven.”

Diller explained: “I went back to the Blue Angel for $2,000. ’Cause the audiences at the Copa were that bad! They were rag people: rag salesmen. They needed titties and boobs, and dancing girls. The gay guys, they were chic. That crowd, that Copa crowd, was unchic. They didn’t care for smart material. If you want to be successful, you better stay with the gay crowd. Joan Rivers, to this day, just tells you that right out.”

Kohen say she was surprised by the close connection between the emergence of a visible gay crowd in the United States and the success of female comics. “When we look at the followings of a lot of female comics, they have a very large gay audience,” Kohen notes. “On the one hand, it seems obvious if we think about Kathy Griffin or Chelsea Handler, but I guess I never unpacked just how important the gay audience was in establishing women in this field. Phyllis Diller’s first manager, Lloyd Clark, was gay, and he was crucial to her success.

“One of the biggest barriers facing women comics was that men look at women as sexual objects, at least to some degree,” Kohen continues. “They want them to be beautiful, and they want them to create a fantasy for them. And in that sense they are not supposed to go onstage and talk about something like their period, even if it’s funny. Gay men do not have that barrier. A lot of women talked about a shared experience they have with gays in dealing with a straight society that judges and stifles them.”

The gay community embraced Diller and allowed her to create a stage persona as a bored, embittered housewife who laughs at her gloomy fate and at her fictitious husband, a man named Fang. Comedian Richard Lewis told Kohen, “[Diller’s] jokes really were an extension of many of the horrors in her real life. She had an unbelievably dark past, particularly with men. The reason she did a whole thing about Fang was because that character represented the horrors she had gone through as a woman.”

Bette Midler told Kohen that Diller “was like someone who had been chained to an ironing board for years and just said, ‘You know what I’m too smart for this let me out!’” Speaking of housewives, Diller was the first who dared expose the American hypocrisy surrounding child rearing, with brutal jabs such as, “How do you know the kids are growing up Well, the bite marks are higher ... How do you go about looking younger Rent younger children.” She rounded off her gig with romantic advice for a perfect life: “Never go to bed angry. Stay up and fight.”

Diller gained unprecedented success as a stand-up comic and became a television and film star, collaborating for many years with Bob Hope. The two costarred in two movies and no fewer than 23 television specials, including one in 1966 aimed at boosting American morale during the dark days of the Vietnam War.

Diller’s huge success is all the more remarkable given the fact that when she launched her career, she was the economically distressed mother of five children and wanted no more than to help her husband provide for the family. Within a few months of meeting her agent, she was already appearing in some of New York’s top nightclubs. Lesser lights, such as an unknown but promising young woman named Barbra Streisand, appeared as her warm-up acts.

Androgynous or asexual

Seeking to explain the secret of her success, Diller told Kohen, “There’ve always been comic actresses in the movies but most of them couldn’t possibly, ever, do stand-up. Lucille Ball was mainly a comic actress. Carol Channing is a perfect example of a comedienne ‏(because she could sing and dance‏). But stand-up is the ultra-final funny. You don’t sing, you don’t dance, you talk. It’s just brain to brain.”

Though Diller was a brilliant comedian, she had to make her way at a time when cabaret ruled nightlife and women were gauged mainly by their external appearance.

She told Kohen candidly how hard she worked to obscure her perfect figure and “uglify” herself. “It helps a stand-up comic to have something wrong,” she explained. “Like, for instance, a guy comes out and he weighs 500 pounds, and he says, ‘I haven’t eaten in 10 minutes,’ something like that. To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience. And the reason I developed things like wearing a bag dress was because I had such a great figure. So I had to convince them that underneath whatever I was wearing was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton - and that’s what I wanted.”

According to Kohen, women in standup always had to cope with the prejudicial notion that “beauty and humor don’t go together.” For example, “Whoopi Goldberg told me how one of her agents once said to her that she could play comic roles because no one would ever imagine sleeping with her. She said her agent used the phrase ‘fuckability factor,’ referring to the idea that funny women had to be either androgynous or asexual in some way.

“For years, women tried to figure out how to stand on the stage and tell jokes without possessing a threatening presence. There was always the cliche of the ‘dumb blonde’ the woman whom it’s fun to laugh at, not with and a lot of female comedians tried to extricate themselves from that place. In the first decades I describe in the book, the view was that you could not be both good-looking and funny. Happily, that changed at the beginning of the 1990s. Chelsea Handler, who now is a whole industry of books and products, is tall and blonde, and Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey are very good-looking women.”

Regrettably, the desire to look ugly, so that women in the audience will not feel threatened and men in the audience will agree to listen to the jokes and laugh at them, gave way over time to constant pressure to look like a Hollywood star. Kohen’s book is full of melancholy tales about successful female comedians who suffered from eating disorders or depression.

“When you look at successful comics, you see many cases of addictions and drug use,” she notes, adding, “But Amy Poehler once said that women don’t do drugs - on the other hand, they have eating disorders.

“It’s important to remember that most successful female comedians have a very strong personality and highly developed self-discipline. Lisa Kudrow, from ‘Friends,’ spoke to me about the unrelenting pressure that female actors on television face to preserve a certain figure. They always have the feeling that you have to be or can be thinner, even if you are not told so explicitly. Joan Rivers, who underwent plastic surgery, told me that nowadays no one wants to be the ugly funny girl. Until the 1980s, the most successful female comics were not necessarily good-looking. Many were androgynous in one way or another. But that changed at the beginning of the 1990s.”

One of the first female comedians able to fuse beauty with talent was Elaine May. In contrast to Diller, who rattled off joke after joke onstage, May – who also started to build up a large fan base in the 1950s – preferred to improvise instead of using prepared jokes. As such, Kohen describes her as “the mother of sketch comedy.” Together with her stage partner, Mike Nichols ‏(who afterward became an acclaimed film director‏), the 26-year-old May fashioned a show that was based on improvisations and a series of invented characters. In January 1958, just three months after Nichols and May left Chicago for New York, they began to star on the television program “Omnibus,” which paved their way to the heart of the American audience.

In the period in which Diller and May started to hang out the dirty laundry and laugh at themselves and the world, a promising young comedian named Woody Allen was also taking his first steps in the world of New York stand-up. In Diller’s view, Nichols and May engaged in “Jewish humor,” including plenty of references to the “Jewish mother” who is always complaining that her children are not paying enough attention to her. For example, Kohen quotes the full text of a sketch which to the Israeli reader might seem too familiar ‏(even cliche-ridden‏), in which Nichols plays a Jewish scientist working for NASA and May is his Jewish mother, who calls him immediately after a historic rocket launch:

“Hello, Arthur This is your mother. Do you remember me”
“Mom, I was just going to call you. Isn’t that a funny thing...”
“You were supposed to call me last Friday.”
“Mother, I was sending up a rocket! I didn’t have a second.”
“Well, it’s always something, isn’t it? I read in the paper that you’re still losing them [rockets]. I nearly went out of my mind. I thought, ‘What if they’re taking it out of his pay?’”

Kohen, with her Israeli lineage, nods affirmatively when I ask her if there is such a thing as “Jewish humor.”

“I never heard a Jewish man say that women aren’t funny,” Kohen says. “I know that my father and my husband never say it. And when you look at a lot of successful comedians, you’ll find many Jewish women. Whoopi Goldberg chose the name Goldberg for a reason. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a shift away from ‘white’ humor to a kind of humor that was more ethnic, and you had Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand emerging at that time, as well as comedians like Nichols and May. They were talking about Jewish mothers, and other things that look like a cliche now, but back then they weren’t cliches.

“One argument I found intriguing in Hitchens’ piece from 2007 was that the only funny female comedians are either lesbians or Jewish, or a combination of both,” Kohen adds. “Certainly there is this stereotype, and, if we look at some of the most successful comedians, that seems to be true. But there are many other examples as well. I do think there are a disproportionate number of Jews in this business, and today female comedians like Sarah Silverman definitely use their Jewishness as part of their onstage persona.”

Joan Rivers, whom Kohen also interviewed, was adept at using her identity as a “Jewish princess from a good home” to forge her stage persona. Rivers recently did a very funny guest appearance in the second season of the comedy series “Louie” ‏(in which the comedian Louis C.K., who is decades younger than Rivers, tries to sleep with her‏). She launched her stand-up career at the Duplex Club in the Village, where standup comics such as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby were also appearing at the time. “I was talking about having an affair with a married professor, and that wasn’t a thing a nice Jewish girl talks about,” Rivers told Kohen. “And I was talking about my gay friend Mr. Phyllis, and you just didn’t talk about that. It sounds so tame and silly now, but my act spoke to women who weren’t able to talk about such things.”

Even though Rivers is considered a breakthrough artist, she belonged to the first wave of female stand-up comedians, who at the time talked mainly about the private realm: how hard it is to find a husband, how hard it is to raise children, how hard it is to grow old. The civil rights and feminist revolutions of the 1960s unleashed the second wave, in which comedians such as Lily Tomlin had the audacity to hurl trenchant social criticism and refer to American racism and discrimination.

Even as the Afro-American comic Richard Pryor was starting to provide a provocative alternative to the easily digestible humor of Bill Cosby, Tomlin tried to break away from the need to talk about life as a housewife. With her roots lying in lower-class Detroit, she developed sensitivity and commitment to manifestations of racism and discrimination attacking them via humor through a series of invented characters who were not afraid to go for the jugular of the American public with comments like, “The road to success is always under construction.”

Tomlin told Kohen that one of her most successful characters was “Suzy Sorority of the Silent Majority,” a kind of wacky old Republican who would now probably join the Tea Party movement, according to Tomlin. Tomlin, a lesbian whose managers refused to let her come out of the closet ‏(see box‏), played a series of comic characters on the television series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which aired on NBC in 1967 and was considered especially provocative amid the wasteland of American television at the time, with its endless family sitcoms and bland talk shows. The success of “Laugh-In” paved the way for “Saturday Night Live.”

According to Kohen, in the 1970s more and more women began to work in the American television industry as comic actors. For the first time, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and others like it, presented single women who lived on their own. But the real breakthrough of women into prime time can be attributed to “Saturday Night Live,” which first aired in 1975. In dozens of pages she devotes to the legendary late-night show, Kohen takes issue with the widespread view that it started as a “boys’ club.” Through interviews with actors and writers who worked on the program, she demonstrates that “Saturday Night Live” was the first successful show that allowed women to work as writers and not only as stars or emcees.

“American television underwent a major transformation in the 1970s,” Kohen says. “At first I didn’t really want to focus on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ But in short order I realized that it holds a singular place in the development of female comedy in the United States. The program was considered revolutionary and contributed significantly to the possibility that women can write comic sketches. That change reflected social transformations: women were increasingly working outside the home and developing professional careers.

“Even though ‘Saturday Night Live’ was controlled mainly by men until the late 1990s,” she continues, “its best years in terms of ratings came when there was a distinctly female representation on its team. At present, after Tina Fey and Amy Poehler left, the program has been significantly weakened. They are trying to recover with two marvelous female comics, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon.”

Despite the relative openness, the female writers and stars of “Saturday Night Live” were subjected to chauvinistic remarks by their colleagues. The actor John Belushi would wander around backstage calling for the women to be fired because they could not make people laugh.

Sexist atmosphere

Anne Beatts, one of the show’s first writers, told Kohen, “I did that piece called ‘Angora Bouquet’ with Jane Curtin and Bill Murray during the second or third year of the show, and it was about a soap that washes your brain. ‘Hi, I’m stupid but beautiful and I found a soap that helps me stay that way.’ No one thought it was funny. It was like, ‘Ugh! Not funny.’ And then finally it played in the studio and people laughed, and then it was like, ‘Oh, okay.’”

The sexist atmosphere and the constant pressure to excel and be brilliant exacted a steep price from the women as well as the men on “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda Radner, one of its first stars, suffered for years from anorexia. Another example of the price talented women had to pay for their status in the sexist entertainment industry is the comic writer Merrill Markoe. She helped make “The David Letterman Show” one of the most popular in the United States, but had to leave as head writer after her affair with Letterman ended.

Still, in the optimistic narrative Kohen weaves, the possibilities of feminine self-expression gradually expanded, culminating in the “big bang of stand-up” the opening of dozens of comedy clubs across the United States in the 1980s which in turn produced the “big bang of sitcoms” on television in the 1990s. Comedians such as Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Bernhard, Ellen DeGeneres and others prepared the ground for the current generation of successful female comics: Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig ‏(who cowrote and starred in the 2011 hit “Bridesmaids”‏).

While Roseanne Barr followed in the footsteps of Phyllis Diller and used her television series to attack the desolation of life in the American suburbs ‏(“Here’s birth control that really works: every night before we go to bed we spend an hour with our kids”‏), Sarah Silverman could allow herself to talk about political issues and gleefully slaughter sacred cows: “I have a ton of Holocaust stuff, and some of it is really hard core.”

Even though winds of change continue to blow, Kohen notes in her book’s introduction that, even now, in the early decades of the 21st century, women are still the minority in America’s entertainment industry. Of 145 staff writers who worked in 2011 on the 11 late-night shows in the United States, only 16 were women. ‏(For example, the “Saturday Night Live” writing team last year consisted of 19 men and 6 women.‏) And even though the successful TV channel Comedy Central is managed largely by women, its official target audience is “men of 18-34.”

Asked whether women continue to be judged by their gender and not their talent, Kohen replies, “In general, we are living in a world in which there is no full equality between women and men. Although the television networks and the clubs are making an effort to find good female comics – because it’s recognized that they have economic potential no less than men – there is still a long way to go. You will find hardly any women on popular humor websites like Funny or Die and on most of the late-night shows.

“Many of the interviewees for the book complained that they are always described as ‘female comics’ instead of just as ‘comics.’ “I think that Louis C.K. is a good example of how men can laugh even at things that women will hesitate to get into. He can call his little daughter ‘a cunt,’ but it’s hard for me to think of a female comic who will describe her daughter like that. Even though he talks mainly about his wife and children, no one will claim that this is feminine humor, as was said about Diller when she talked about her private life. For some reason, to be a father is still considered a universal life experience, whereas motherhood is a condition that can speak to only 50 percent of the population.”

Lesbians suffer more

One of the reasons Kohen devotes extensive space to Lily Tomlin would appear to be that Tomlin, now 73, is one of the first female comedians who had relationships with other women. She told Kohen that, in 1975, Time Magazine offered her a cover story, on condition that she come out. She said she refused because she felt “they just needed a gay person,” irrespective of her talent. ‏(Tomlin officially came out in 2001 and has been active the past decade in raising consciousness for the rights of gays and lesbians.‏)

Subsequently she wrote a sketch in which an ardent fan interviews a movie star and asks her, parodying similar questions in public-relations dialogues, “I want to talk to you about your frank film heterosexuality. Did it seem strange to you, seeing yourself make love to a man on the big screen”

Though the American public is becoming increasingly liberal, and lesbians have started to come out successfully, it is taking the programs’ executives time to get used to the new reality. Marta Kauffman, the cocreator of the hugely popular sitcom “Friends,” told Kohen, “When we did the lesbian wedding episode, they were very concerned. They didn’t ask us not to do it, but they were very concerned and they put on, like, 40 operators that night – because they thought they were going to get phone calls and the affiliates weren’t going to air it! They got four phone calls that night, that’s it.”

One of Kohen’s conclusions after researching and writing the book is that the attitude toward lesbian comics has changed radically. “What is interesting about lesbian comics is that in the past this was considered a type of curse or affront, as though a woman is funny only because she is attracted to men and therefore is actually a type of man. Lily Tomlin was a feminist and was therefore also considered a ‘man hater’ in the 1960s, but her managers still barred her from coming out. They thought it would destroy her career.

“In contrast, Ellen DeGeneres came out and her career has thrived since then. The popular comic Margaret Cho is declaredly bisexual and talks about it on the stage and in interviews. If I am not mistaken, Kate McKinnon is the first self-declared lesbian on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ where she also impersonated Ellen DeGeneres in the past.”

The funny girls.Credit: Haaretz