A Q&A with Yael Kohen, Author of 'We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy'

For MAKERS: Women in Comedy, director Heidi Ewing interviewed Yael Kohen, the author of "We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy." Kohen's book pieces together the revolution that happened to (and by) women in American comedy. She interviewed 150 people to create the ultimate oral history of funny women. Hear more of Yael's perspective in MAKERS: Women in Comedy, premiering on Tuesday, September 30 on PBS at 9/8c. 

Heidi Ewing: Tell me about yourself and what inspired your book ? (“We Killed, The Rise of Women in American Comedy")

Yael Kohen: I am a writer and an editor, and I write about women in pop culture.  I think that what got me interested in the topic of women in comedy was really all of the discussions in 2007 around the time that Christopher Hitchens wrote that piece, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”  I wanted to explore what it’s like to be a women in comedy.  

HE: Historically, why has telling jokes been so often affiliated with men?

YK: I would say that telling jokes is masculine because it’s considered aggressive. You’re getting on stage, you’re making fun of yourself. You’re making fun of people. You’re on stage by yourself. You have no props, you don’t really have anything there other than have people laugh. You have to have an aggressive personality to do it. Aggression is not considered a feminine trait. It’s considered a masculine trait.  

HE: Why was Joan Rivers a game changer when she came on the scene in the 60s?    

YK: Joan Rivers was part of the new wave of these truth-telling comedians. It wasn’t just as much rapid fire jokes like Phyllis Diller, but much more story oriented.  Sort of, “I’m telling you about my life.”  It was considered very personal. Joan Rivers was really the first female "confessional comic." The person who is going to get onstage and say, “My mother wants me to get married and I can’t meet a guy. I’m such a loser.” She dealt with self-deprecating but in a much more realistic way.

HE: Joan made waves. But at the time was it in some way a stigma to be funny?

YK: One of the biggest turns over time of women performing comedy has been  “Is funny attractive?” You see that particularly in the 1970s. Lily Tomlin told me a story where she was backstage at some show. There was a beautiful woman who she usually played the ingenue and she did something that was very funny.  Lily Tomlin said "Oh that’s so funny," and the woman got totally upset and buttoned her coat and left the room. She did not consider it a compliment. Louise Lasser tells a very similar story, when, married to Woody Allen back in the day, he said to her, “Louise you are very funny. You should do comedy.” And she was like, “How could you say that to me?” She was genuinely insulted that he thought she was funny. You really had that tension for women because it was not considered an attractive quality.   

HE: How did the sitcoms in the 80s begin reflecting women in the real world?

YK: In the 1980s women were joining the workforce, you know they were coming in power suits with these big shoulder pads. Things were really changing for women. Life balance issues were coming up as major issues for women and Roseanne kind of reflected that.   What you get with Roseanne is not just working class--which was a big change from what you are seeing at that time--but you’re seeing a woman, she goes to work, she comes home, the house is a mess, the furniture is kind of ugly, there are dishes in the sink...it was not a pretty picture.  That was kind of ground breaking about Roseanne, you were not getting a pretty picture of women joining the workforce at that particular point. A lot of women could relate, and a lot of women found it a relief. 

HE: So today, have we changed our views on what we're comfortable seeing and hearing from funny women?

YK: I would say the culture in general has become raunchier. You certainly see it in men’s comedy but you also see it in women’s comedy. Network executives aren’t as concerned that they’re not going to be able to sell their programs if women are gross in them. Now, you still have a difference between what is a allowed on cable and what is allowed on network. I think network executives are probably a little more conservative when it comes to women and raunchiness, but certainly when you look at the cable networks, Comedy Central in particular there, there's certainly a degree of raunchy women on there. Like on Girls, or the Amy Schumer show or now Broad City on Comedy Central, I mean women are doing these kind of gross things and they’re allowed to do it--and they’re getting great programs out of it.

Follow Yael on Twitter @YaelKohen and hear more of her thoughts in Women in Comedy on Tuesday, September 30 at 9/8c on PBS. Tweet your thoughts with #MAKERSfilms!