Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller get respect in 'We Killed'

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"We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy -- A Very Oral History" by Yael Kohen (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, Oct. 2012) Photo Credit: Handout

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WE KILLED:The Rise of Women in American Comedy -- A Very Oral History, by Yael Kohen. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 308 pp., $27.

In a way, it's hard to understand why we'd need a book like "We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy." Women all but rule comedy in 2012, right? Kristen Wiig? Tina Fey? Amy Poehler? Ellen DeGeneres?

Ask Adam Carolla, whose podcast, with more than 60 million downloads, is considered the world's most popular. This summer, he told the New York Post, "The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks."

As "We Killed" author Yael Kohen points out, Carolla is not alone. Comedy legends from Johnny Carson to John Belushi to Jerry Lewis have all made the pronouncement.

From the first, "We Killed" shows, women had to fight to get male club owners, TV producers and agents to give them a shot onstage.

Joan Rivers recalls how she auditioned for "The Tonight Show" eight times before getting a shot -- and only then because Bill Cosby recommended her. (A "Tonight Show" talent coordinator swears Rivers' story isn't completely true, but it sure sounds likely.) The Rivers anecdote is one of the few he-said-she-said moments in "We Killed"; if anything, the stories recounted by women comics (and the men who appreciate them) have a sameness -- women trying to make their way in comedy have faced the same sexism decade after decade.

Opportunities only started increasing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when women who got a chance to go mainstream gave a hand to other women. Mary Tyler Moore, show creator Allan Burns recalls, gave her co-stars some of the show's best jokes, not out of sisterhood but because "it seemed to work for the good of the show." It was Moore's idea to expand the role of Sue Ann Nivens, played by Betty White -- clearing the way for second and third acts in White's already long career.

As a history of women in comedy, "We Killed" is erratic, in part because of the voices that aren't in it. Elayne Boosler, who several comics point to as the most important female stand-up comic of the 1970s, isn't heard from; likewise Marsha Warfield, whose spot-on stand-up led her to a long stint on the sitcom "Night Court." And there are gaps. After talking about Phyllis Diller's pioneering stand-up, Kohen glosses over a swath of performers, from bawdy Rusty Warren to black-comedy icon Moms Mabley. Comedians of color, in general, don't get a lot of attention, although Whoopi Goldberg and Mo'Nique touch on the issues they've faced.

But "We Killed" does fill in some gaps and yields some surprising perspectives on comedy of the past half-century. And it shows that, yes, women are funny -- even if they have to keep proving it over and over again.

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