Oral history fascinates me. Whether they are the classic Studs Terkel books or modern day accounts, I find them addictive and entertaining. Entertainment oral history books are particular favorites: Tom Shales's Live From New York (about the first 25 years of Saturday Night Live--time for an update!) and Those Guys Have All the Fun (about ESPN) and Craig Marks's I Want My MTV (about the history of MTV) are highly recommended. So, it was no surprise to me that I tore into We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen like nobody's business. Beginning with early pioneers such as Phyllis Diller,Elaine May, and Joan Rivers, Kohen explores the many battles and upheavals female comedians have faced in order to gain acceptance, recognition, and respect. Not only do we hear from prominent comedians such as Lily Tomlin, Roseanne, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ellen DeGeneres, but we also hear from many television writers involved in their successes, as well as young comedians. I would have really enjoyed hearing more from female Saturday Night Live cast members--Jane Curtin (although she's discussed quite a bit, and you can read more about her in Shales's book), Julia Sweeney, and especially the women that became prominent after the publication of Shales's book, such as Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler, but female cast members and writers of SNL could be an entire book in itself (that I would love to read!).
With a project such as this, it's impractical and impossible to reach everyone that probably should be included (several big names, such as Tina Fey, declined to be interviewed). On the other hand, I really appreciated the fact that Kohen focused a lot of attention on women whose very significant contributions to comedy are largely not in front of the camera, namely Paula Pell (long-time SNL writer), Carol Leifer (stand-up comedian, Seinfeld writer, and the inspiration for the Elaine character on that show), and Merrill Markoe (co-creator and original head writer for Late Night with David Letterman and now an essayist/novelist).
If you're a fan of comedians, you might also be interested in the following. All these women were either discussed in or interviewed for Kohen's book (Mary Tyler Moore and Tina Fey were not personally interviewed).
After All/Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, And Oh Yeah, Diabetes
Let's start with one of my favorite comedians on this list. I love, love, love The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was in middle school, I think, when Nickelodeon started their "Nick at Nite" programming block of shows from the 1950s-70s, and MTM became an instant favorite. I knew nothing of its historical importance in television; I just found it engaging and funny. Mary Tyler Moore has written two very candid and moving memoirs; the first, After All, is a traditional memoir covering her life up to the mid 1990s, while Growing Up Again primarily deals with her struggle with diabetes, along with instances that have happened since the publication of her first memoir.
The post-Saturday Night Live careers of SNL performers range from enormous successes to disappointing struggles. Tina Fey is one of the more fortunate SNL graduates, having critical success with 30 Rock and a handful of movies. Her memoir is an engaging, although somewhat reticent, account of her childhood (including the attack which scarred her face, which she rarely discusses), her early years in the Chicago improv/sketch comedy scene, her SNL career and creation of 30 Rock, and her family.
Cool, Calm, and Contentious
Merrill Markoe started her writing career in television (she was the original co-creator and head writer for Late Night With David Letterman and was the creator of many classic bits from the show, including Stupid Pet Tricks), but her impressive and diverse post-Late Night career has been mainly focused on personal essay collections and novels. She is a very candid, honest, funny, and intelligent author.
Girl Walks Into a Bar
I blogged about Rachel Dratch's memoir in late April. It's a funny and endearing look at her early years in comedy, her SNL career, her post-SNL career struggles, and her surprise pregnancy at the age of 45.
It's Always Something
Classic Saturday Night Live episodes were constantly shown on either (or both) Comedy Central or VH-1 when I was a kid; this was where I first encountered Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and the late, great Gilda Radner. Radner's comedy is timeless; I always crack up whenever I see her "Roseanne Rosanna Danna," her Halloween "Land Shark" sketch, or her nerdy girlfriend sketches with Bill Murray. Radner wrote about her struggle with ovarian cancer with great humor and humanity. You can find more about Radner in the Shales SNL book and in Gene Wilder's memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger.
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection
I've only caught a handful of episodes from Carol Burnett's variety shows (attention, Netflix! This is one to add for instant viewing!); luckily, I've seen the famous "West With the Wind" and "As the Stomach Turns" sketches, including the one with a young Bernadette Peters. Burnett's humor and warmth shine in this honest and revealing memoir.