*We Killed*: Elayne Boosler driven crazy by bullshit

I read a lot of We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy (by Yael Kohen) the other day; it’s an oral history and I started reading it in the 1970s or so, skipped the earlier parts of the history about Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, et al (I may go back to read that).

One figure I found fascinating in this narrative was a stand-up named Elayne Boosler, who grew up as the child of a Russian acrobat and a Rumanian ballerina in Brooklyn.  I’d never heard of her, although she was quite prominent in the 70s and into the 1980s.  She dated Andy Kaufman and achieved a fair amount of success; she even did a Dry Idea anti-perspirant commercial in what looks to me like 1982 or so:

There are three “nevers” in comedy.  Never follow a better comedian.  Never give a heckler the last word.  And no matter how badly a joke bombs — although it’s never happened to me personally — never let them see you sweat.

She is viewed as a pretty important figure by many of the commentators and she emerges as a slightly tragic or melancholy one in the sense that her career seems emblematic of female comics of this generation: she was super-talented, she did well, but she hit what seems to have been a kind of glass ceiling.  Richard Lewis comments that he always thought of her as “Jackie Robinson of stand-up in my class… There was like, a guy, a guy, a guy, a guy, and ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Elayne Boosler!’ And she would come on and rip up the joint, and I just found it astounding, because she had to overcome so many obstacles.”

As the author explains, one of the most problematic blocks to the advance of female comics in this era was The Tonight Show.  Appearing on the show was one of the crucial routes towards stardom and Johnny Carson admitted outright that he found most female comics “a little aggressive for my taste”; as Kohen comments, “the women who suited Carson’s taste were, for the most part, blond, buxom, and willing to play dumb.”

Someone else (Joanne Astrow) comments, “There are always complex stories.  There’s another side to it.  Elayne Boosler has what I would honestly call anger management problems.  And Elayne has an obsessive craziness about material being stolen from her.”  Then someone (Claudia Lonow) chimes in, “Did she have a chip on her shoulder or was she a creative person who was being driven crazy by bullshit?  That’s what I think.  She was systematically being driven crazy.”

I find this convincing partly because she was obviously so good and there seems no good reason why she would not have broken out in a bigger way (as many of her male peers did) were it not for the endemic structural sexism of the comedy scene of the era.

Check out this hilarious clip about the awkwardness of one-night stands:

And this clip of Boosler appearing on some kind of strange Andy Kaufman special, in which he sits high above her at a giant desk as they bicker about their breakup, is amazing:

Boosler now seems to have become a progressive activist of sorts (writes for the Huffington Post sometimes) and an animal rescue advocate.  I’m sure she’s doing fine but my sense is that she never got her due.

Following a victory lap about Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, the book concludes somewhat depressingly with the recent emergence of a new ideal of model-level hotness for female comedians; notwithstanding occasional exceptions that prove the rule like Melissa McCarthy, it’s pretty clear that nowadays if you don’t look like Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings or Natasha Leggero you are likely to get shunted away from performance towards the writers’ room.

3 thoughts on “*We Killed*: Elayne Boosler driven crazy by bullshit”

  1. Ivan, that interview clip is wild! Will certainly look for the book now.
    What the heck’s with that desk?! — Julia

  2. Elayne is a genius. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s knows her name. She was selling out shows
    50 weeks a year for YEARS and HBO and SHOWTIME wouldn’t give her an hour long comedy special because she’s female. So she funded and produced her own special PARTY OF ONE and still HBO nor SHOWTIME would license it out, until a year later when younger, hipper executives licensed it and the show was an overnight sensation.

    She’s incredibly smart. She writes all het material– her specials from the 1980s are as relevant now as ever, that’s why her new box set is called TIMELESS. My father loved comedy–i grew ho with Carlin (although we weren’t supposed to listen to Class Clown, as soon as my parents went out my older brothers would pop the 8-track into the stereo). I worked with Carlin when I was a photographer. Loved him. Even HE ripped off Elayne’s doggie act.

    Elayne produced all her shows, hence she owns the rights. Her new box set contains four of her stand up specials and her new 50/50 set from 2016.

    She dated Andie Kaufman for three years. And Robin Williams for one year. She paid her dues more than any man ever would have to. Did she have a chip on her shoulder? No. She wouldn’t have succeeded if she did. She just kept working and making things happen. Watch any interview– she’s always smiling and laughing. And when asked about others ripping off her material she always makes a joke about it. Back then and even today. (HBO wouldn’t give her the comedy special, but once Showtime had a hit with Boosler’s PARTY OF ONE, HBO started a women’s only comedy hour called WOMEN OF THE NIGHT– it had the SAME SET as Elayne’s PARTY OF ONE! I’m grateful Boosler finally got HBO to allow women comics to do standup every Friday night (four comics in a one hour show called WOMEN OF THE NIGHT), because that’s where I first discovered Ellen DeGeneres. I still have that VHS recording from the ’80s.

    Wanda Sykes has blatantly lifted material from Elayne. I think Wanda is funny and one of the funny comics around today (she doesn’t rely on being filthy to get a laugh), but she did bite off Elayne’s humor. How could anyone not? Elayne covered so much ground.
    The Marvelous Mrs Maisel wouldn’t exist without Elayne’s BROADWAY BABY and TOP TOMATA skits paving the way.

    ANY fan of comedy who goes back and revisits Elayne’s comedy specials from the ’80s and early ’90s, plus her work with Comic Relief… you will immediately say, “Hey, so- and- so riffed on this skit 15 years later!” It’s impossible not to see the blatant rip-offs, but even more so, the flattery I find quite lovely in the inspiration other comedians got from Elayne’s comedy stylings.
    Everytime someone new comes along, especially someone as ingenius and adept at performing comedy as Elayne is, they’re going to inspire generations to come. You see this in every genre of the arts.

    Im going to be 50 years old in six months and I still have Elayne’s doggie skit(s) , women giving birth in water skit (LOL), singing the National Anthem with ther echo in the stadium skit, etc etc., engrained in my brain from high school.

    I would highly recommend buying her TIMELESS box set. She’s HYSTERICAL. I mean she gets you laughing– you think you’ve heard the punchline and then Bam, she hits you with an even more extraordinary observation/ punchline. She doesn’t tell jokes. She makes observations, and she’s so quick. Each special is non stop laughter.

    Her and Carlin are the be all end all for me. I have MANY favorites, but these two are my favorites.

    Don’t let a little book make up your mind. Watch her specials. You could swear she’s talking about today’s world even though the specials are 30 years old. So funny.

    I hope you laugh as much as I have been since she released the specials.

    (A portion of the proceeds of her box set go to her Tails of Joy non- profit.)

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