Yael Kohen is a New York City based editor and reporter. As a contributing editor at Marie Claire, she writes extensively on pop culture and issues pertaining to professional women. Kohen has written for New York Magazine, Salon, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, and the New York Sun. Her first book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, traces the recent history of women in comedy to prove that yes, women are funny. The Eye sat down with Kohen to discuss why she wrote the book, the intersection between feminism and comedy, and interviewing some of the comedy’s biggest names.
How did you get the idea for your book We Killed?
The book started as an article for Marie Claire Magazine, around the time when Christopher Hitchens wrote his article about why women aren’t funny. And I’d read that and I was like, “What?” I just didn’t get it. I wanted to know more because it was so interesting. So I was talking to my editor at the time [at Marie Claire], our executive editor, Lucy Kaylin, and we were throwing around ideas and talking about the issue of how women aren’t funny and how ridiculous that was. So she was like, "Why don’t you just call up some of these women and ask them." You are limited in a magazine; there is only so much room for certain kinds of information. I finished the piece—I had a lot that I wasn’t able to use, and a lot that was left on the cutting room floor. I felt I should do something with it. There was a bigger story there, a richer, fuller history there that wasn’t being told in the way that we were discussing women in comedy. I wanted to go back and speak to their male colleagues because I don’t think you can talk about women in comedy without speaking to the men.
Surprisingly, there have been no real books about women in comedy. There have been a few bios of various women, but there are no books that explore what happened as a collective group. I think the idea was not just to focus on any single comic; it was about the experience of women in comedy in general.
At the heart of We Killed is getting rid of this myth that “women aren’t funny,” which does not seem to go away. How do you think feminism and women’s movements have changed our views on comedy?
The statement has been around a long time; around as long as women have been doing comedy. Part of it comes from the fact that there are fewer women doing comedy, part of it comes from perceptions of women. One of the things that I was trying to do in the book was move past the idea that women aren’t funny. How did the times inform what they were doing? How did what they were doing inform the times?
But the fact of the matter is that we had this kind of stuff at least since the 70s. Even longer than that, Lucille Ball dates to the 50s. But to the extent that we have had a lot of women going into it as female writers, female stand-up comedians, female sketch comics, it’s really been consistent since the 70s. And for some reason we keep coming back to the question and, to a certain degree, we are tired of talking about it. You are always going to have some putz come out and say women aren’t funny and people are going to respond to it. To a large extent the women who perform the comedy are tired of talking about it. I think a lot of them just see themselves as comedians.
How many interviews did you do for the book and who was your favorite interview?
In the end, over 200 interviews. I think in the book I did maybe a little over 150. Some people were cut for various reasons. It’s hard to say who was my favorite. There were people who I enjoyed speaking to: Kathy Griffin is fun because she will shit talk anybody. Merrill Markoe, who basically co-created The Letterman Show and had dated Letterman at the time—she was great because she had great descriptions, and she is very smart, and she had a great analysis for why people are funny. Ellen [DeGeneres] was great. With Ellen, I felt like she was very candid about the fact that her career was nearly destroyed from her coming out. Susie Essman was great because she really laid it out, how it worked and what clubs you went to. Comedy clubs were very political and she laid it out—how it works.
Was there anything that was surprising in any of the interviews?
I think I am still surprised by the story that Whoopi Goldberg told about how she was in the director’s office and he told her that she had no “fuckability” factor. I think about that sometimes and I’m like, “God, I can’t believe someone actually said that out loud.” But in general people always talk about the boys' clubs in comedy, and the men shut them out, and they were having a hard time in comedy. And I think what I was surprised about was that it was really a lot more complicated than that. There really were a lot of men who supported these women and helped them achieve success. For some reason Richard Belzer’s name always comes up as this guy who was helping these women. Several woman, even Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard, would say “were it not for Richard Belzer ... ”
What made you decide to do the book in a conversational, oral history format?
It would be more interesting to hear directly from the comedians. These are people who speak for a living. I think that telling it through their voices, the people who actually experienced it, versus telling it from a more analytical perspective that I would have done—it wouldn’t have been as lively, or as fun. I think that you get in their quotes, a little more of the complexity. They talk about it in different ways than critics write about it. And the other thing to say about oral history: it’s actually difficult format to write in because you have to get people to say it. You can’t just fill in gaps, you need to make sure you get enough interviews, you need to find the people who are going to provide some of the material that you need that you can’t just find in a book somewhere.