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.