by: Yael Kohen
I was browsing through the signed books at the Texas Book Fair and happened upon this one. I was intrigued by the premise, glanced through the first few pages and decided to buy it.
The first few pages are nothing like the rest of the book. Kohen uses the first chapter to identify and discuss the prejudices against women in comedy and thus to set up why this book is necessary. The rest of the book is 95% quotes from various comedians and people in the comedy industry, taken from Kohen’s interviews with them, and 5% background information as necessary. (Apparently the “A Very Oral History” on the front is to be taken quite literally.)
The first time I tried to read the book I was really surprised and turned off by the format, so I put it down for a couple of months. The second time, I knew what I was getting into, and I ended up thinking it was really good. It’s more like a written documentary than any common literature style, focusing on comdiennes from the 1950s or so to about 2011.
There’s not any analysis by the author within the book, which I was expecting when I picked it up. . Certainly there’s enough information in there for the reader to do some extensive thinking and conclusion-reaching of their own. (In fact, you could probably use this book as a basis for some pretty interesting papers.)
It’s loosely arranged in chronological order, by decade rather year. The focus is around star comediennes of each decade; their rise and career path, how others felt about them or women of that decade, their style of comedy and if they had any obstacles either related to gender or from being in comedy. She interviewed a wide range of people – Whoopi Goldberg, Lisa Kudrow, Roseanne, and Robin Williams are the ones that I remember. She didn’t have very many interviews with current comedic superstars, like Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, but she does interview many people who have worked closely with them and are fairly famous in their own rights. A good number of Saturday Night Live staff – former and current – show up, for instance.
Most of the quotes are insightful and natural-sounding. A few are outright funny, but the people are more focused on thoughtfulness than comedy, which is appropriate for the book. Because of the lack of narrative or analysis, and despite its appearance, this doesn’t read like a feminist text. Though she doesn’t include anyone with the opinion that women aren’t funny, she does include a variety of views on the challenges facing women in comedy (ranging from “there are no challenges” to “women have it much harder than men”.)
Some of the opinions and stories told are really interesting – there are some really striking stories about comedians who were difficult to work with or, conversely, those went out of their way to support newcomers. Letting the people speak for themselves, rather than trying to marshal quotes to support a conclusion, lends the book an unusual honesty and leaves the interpretation of the book solely to the reader. Though the author bias was present in order and selection of quotes, it was refreshing to draw my own conclusions without undue influences or trying to follow and critically analyze the arguments of the author.
In short, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in comedy or famous comedians (male or female!), social history, feminism (though, again, it’s not a feminist text), or entertainment in general. If you like your history to come with lots of analysis, if you don’t like interviews or documentaries, or if you’re not big on non-traditional book formats, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.