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(New York Times) ‘Girls’ Who Broke the Laugh Ceiling


The oral history is a dicey format, especially when it comes to comedy. Performers famed for their hilarious writing or delivery may not sound the least bit funny when talking about the creation myths behind their own careers.

And when the conversation centers on an unanswerable query, as it does in Yael Kohen’s “We Killed,” a book filled with the voices of female comics and their colleagues, it’s apt to raise more questions than it answers. Ms. Kohen’s book begins by asking whether women are funny. That Christopher Hitchens wrote an apparently serious essay entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” in 2007 does not make this stupid question any smarter. And after 308 pages and lots of interviews, Ms. Kohen confirms what we knew from the beginning. She thinks women are funny, or she wouldn’t be writing about them.

Yet she used this specious debate as the hook for an omnibus survey of how comic style has evolved over a half-century. It begins with two very different 1960s innovators, Phyllis Diller and Elaine May, and ends with the sexual explicitness of Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler and assorted newcomers. Among the nominally big thoughts on offer: Ms. Silverman and Ms. Handler prove that female comics can be both raunchy and beautiful.


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