Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a female comedian seemed, to most of America, like a punch line. And it took a special sort of woman—indeed, a parade of them—to break and remake the mold.
In on the Joke is the story of a group of unforgettable women who knocked down the doors of stand-up comedy so other women could get a shot. It spans decades, from Moms Mabley’s rise in Black vaudeville between the world wars, to the roadhouse ribaldry of Belle Barth and Rusty Warren in the 1950s and '60s, to Elaine May's co-invention of improv comedy, to Joan Rivers's and Phyllis Diller’s ferocious ascent to mainstream stardom. These women refused to be defined by type and tradition, facing down indifference, puzzlement, nay-saying, and unvarnished hostility. They were discouraged by agents, managers, audiences, critics, fellow performers—even their families. And yet they persevered against the tired notion that women couldn’t be funny, making space not only for themselves, but for the women who followed them.
Author Shawn Levy's deep dive into these trailblazing women will be out everywhere on April 5, 2022. The publisher Doubleday Books allowed me to review an early galley for an honest review.
Growing up in the 1970's, I got the opportunity to experience several of the featured funny ladies in this book via television appearances. To me, they were very much part of what I considered mainstream. I never once thought about how they had to fight for their seat on the couch on the afternoon and evening talk shows. They just were always there.
Levy's book, however, gave me a much deeper education in how hard each and every one of them worked to blaze a trail in a field that was dominated by men for so long. His research is thorough and delivered in a manner that kept me engaged, moving from one chapter and one story to the next. I always appreciate when authors do their homework to give the readers all the pertinent details as was done here. I also learned about several performers who very much deserved to have a spotlight shone upon them.
Very much recommended for anyone who has a fascination with the history of comedy and entertainment.