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How Female Comedians Went from Self-Hating to the Self-Help Shelf

Amy Poehler's new book is the latest in a boomlet of you-go-girl guides

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment

A funny thing happened on the way to the advice and self-help section at Barnes & Noble: women comedians.

This week marks the publication of Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, a memoir and essay collection jammed with jokes and stories about Poehler’s Boston youth, her career in comedy, her friendships and her family. In it, the comedian traffics in lots of frank, gender-inflected, stop-beating-yourself-up-ladies advice that became the hallmark of her years on “Saturday Night Live” (“Ladies … You need hair down there! ... There was a time when a lady garden was as big as a slice of New York pizza!”) and as the ambitious, Rodham-Clintonian public servant Leslie Knope on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”

Poehler’s tips are mostly aimed at women—about sex (“Don’t let your kids sleep in your bed”); getting over divorce (“Someday you will wake up feeling 51 percent happy and slowly, molecule by molecule, you will feel like yourself again”) and aging (“You know those exercise pools where the water comes at you strong and you have to swim against it to build up your strength? That’s what the social pressure of staying young feels like”), with occasional female-friendly bits of wisdom directed at men (“If you don’t eat pussy, keep walking”).

Yes Please is not a great book, but it is a funny, likeable entry in a peculiarly sweet, generous micro-genre: books by brash female comedians anxious to share the stories of their own set-backs and self-doubts while imparting wisdom about strength, independence, and what they’ve learned to other women. Tina Fey’s Bossypants sits atop this heap, which also includes Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter and Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks into a Bar. These are books that are funny and self-deprecating and often outrageous, but also earnest, upfront, and almost transparent in their mission to speak directly and helpfully to their presumably younger, presumably female readers. 

Comedy often involves an exploitation of quirks and personal weakness, the exposure of flaws in exchange for laughs. But the crucial second half of the dynamic is that these women, all with massive public platforms they have built in a profession long defined by men, are also eager to put their moxie to work assuring those who see themselves as underdogs to continue to fight, to “take up space” (as Poehler puts it in Yes, Please), to ask for what they want in life and in work and in relationships.

We might be witnessing a boom in this kind of comedic literature, but nothing in the history of comedy has prepared us for it. For years, viciousness was the key to survival for women in comedy—as it was for women in many other male-dominated worlds: Be hard on women, including yourselves, lest you be mistaken for one. It’s this punishing history that makes today’s performers/memoirists, and their impulse to be gentle with themselves and openly encouraging toward other women, so striking.

Yeah, yeah, yeah: Obviously, contra Hitchens and Jerry Lewis, there have always been funny women, and many of them have been particularly funny on the subject of women.

Jane Austen, for instance, was scathingly hilarious on the topic of gender relations, power and social mores. Her social dissections were based on her own experiences of trying to survive in a world wholly shaped by gender and class inequality. She also gave great advice, albeit privately, some of it in the vein of Poehler and Fey’s insistence that women treat themselves better than society sets them up to be treated.1 

A century later, Dorothy Parker’s 1919 note about her then-bosses at Vanity Fair—that “They never fail to find exceptional talents/In any feminine artist under twenty-five”—similarly presages Fey’s observation, from Bossypants, that “women, at least in comedy, are labeled ‘crazy’ after a certain age … even if you would never sleep with or even flirt with anyone to get ahead, you are being sexually adjudicated.”

But Austen and Parker were female exceptions to the male rule of written humor until comparatively recently. And in performed comedy, the kind that began to flourish on Vaudeville and then as stand-up in the twentieth century, women were extremely rare, and actually, encouraged to be the opposite of sexually appealing if they were going to have a prayer of succeeding. 

The Borscht Belt, which would produce Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, and the DNA for an American comedic tradition, popularized a “Take my wife … please” brand of humor that took as its basis an agreed-upon (if affectionate) denigration of women. The only broads who could comfortably fit into that world were those willing to de-sex themselves: by presenting themselves as sexually un-appealing or as infantilized.

Fanny Brice became famous, first on Vaudeville, then in radio, playing “Baby Snooks.” Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the biggest star of the Chitlin’ Circuit and the first black woman to appear at the Apollo, was a beautiful woman who once said that she left her North Carolina hometown because “I was pretty and didn’t want to become a prostitute.” But as a comedian, her trademark self-presentation was designed entirely to obscure her good looks. Even in her twenties, Mabley performed as a disheveled, toothless elderly woman.

Perhaps the only woman in early twentieth century comedy who was allowed to be vivacious and flirtatious was Gracie Allen, George Burns’ wife and partner, who was supposed to play the straight woman to Burns, but who was so funny that they reversed roles. But Allen and Burns managed to wrap her potentially threatening appeal in a comfortably daffy, hyper-feminized persona. As Burns famously said of his wife’s insistence on being heard: “All I had to do was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother? And she talked for 38 years. Sometimes I didn’t even have to say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’”

The next—tiny—generation of breakthrough female comedians had it even rougher, and found success only by engaging in almost-painfully self-lacerating humor. Phyllis Diller, a woman so hell-bent on infiltrating comedy’s men’s club that in 1983 she dressed in drag to sneak into the all-male Friars Club, managed to insinuate herself into her profession by making her looks the subject of her biting, harsh sets. Shoe stores, according to Diller, were “the only place where a man tells me that I’m a 10”; on her honeymoon, went another bit, “I put on a peekaboo blouse. My husband peeked and booed.” 

Phyllis Diller
Dan Callister/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Diller’s contemporary, Joan Rivers, was a more complicated case, but her style was rooted in the same school of brutal self-deprecation. Her great routine, "The Last Single Girl in Larchmont," which she performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, included send-ups of the same sexist double-standards that Poehler and Fey now make hay of—“A girl, you’re thirty years old, you’re not married, you’re an old maid; a man, he’s 90 years old, he’s not married, he’s a catch!” But running beneath it was the sense that Rivers had fully absorbed the powerfully punishing messages sent to non-conforming women of her day. Despite the fact that her career ascended concurrentlywith the rise of second-wave feminism Rivers took women as her mark, ripping them to shreds over their looks, their weight, their flaws.

Things slowly improved for women in comedy in the late 1970s and ’80s, with the premiere of “Saturday Night Live” and its crew of hilarious women, including Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin, and a new crop of female comedians in Hollywood, like the great Lily Tomlin and Teri Garr. These ladies were talented, but often sidelined into wacky character parts; they didn’t enjoy the giant careers of Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin.

But it was Roseanne Barr’s destabilizingly raunchy, unapologetic realism—and insistence on telling unvarnished truths about female experience—that helped create room for today’s performers and their openly feminist sensibilities. Barr brought what Barbara Ehrenreich would call a “special brand of proletarian feminism” into comedy, creating both a popular stand-up act and hit eponymous sitcom that channeled her anger about domestic, professional and economic inequities for women into brazen, side-splitting material.

From Barr it was not too circuitous a route to Sarah Silverman, whose breathtakingly dirty act obliterated Friars Club president Jean Pierre Tebet’s 1983 claim that women should be kept out of the club because “the language gets kind of graphic.” One of Silverman’s most famous jokes is about getting raped by a doctor, which she calls “bittersweet for a Jewish girl; a 2007 episode of her Comedy Central series included a nostalgic abortion montage of Silverman entering the same clinic during the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations while Green Day’s “I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life” played gently in the background.2

It’s Silverman who is perhaps most directly responsible for the fact that a whole table of your local bookstore is filled up with these comic lady memoirs. (Though she owes a debt to Margaret Cho, a comedian who once joked that “Laura Bush is so uptight, I bet her pussy tastes like Lysol” but also penned a bracing memoir about her struggles with weight, drugs and being an Asian woman who didn’t fit into a white male world).

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s super-confident brand of humor provided her with a solid platform from which to comically expose her fears and weaknesses—and make an effort to connect with others—without being cruelly self-flagellating. The outrageousness of Silverman’s act made her 2010 memoir The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee, especially touching. In it, she chronicled not only her childhood and teenaged struggle with wetting the bed, but also her crippling bouts of depression. Silverman didn’t allow her self-doubts to overwhelm a larger, seemingly very sincere message of encouragement to other struggling young women.

Of course, self-revealing, self-reflective writing by women is not news. But there is a specific kind of unexpected earnestness about the work of writers like Poehler, Fey, Silverman, Cho, and Kaling. Where writers including Nora Ephron and Joan Didion, Roxane Gay and Meghan Daum, are funny and frank, their writing is also more stylish and literary. These comedians, by contrast, seem to be aiming straighter at self-help, reassurance, and direct communication with their readers. But their professionally comedic voices help them maintain a crucial edge, keep even the heavy subjects irreverent. It’s a flourish that’s useful within public feminist discourse—not always known for its light touch or raucous sense of humor. Bringing comedy to feminism, and feminism to comedy, has been a long road. But it has the potential to take women somewhere new.

As Gloria Steinem—who herself once worked as a comedy writer for television—told me in an interview some years ago, ruminating on the complicated, combustible relationship between feminism and humor, “The power to make people laugh is a really big power. [And] when you can make people laugh not out of hostility but out of revelation, because you make people recognize something, is great. The laughter of recognition is really, big-time important.”

So here’s the recognition these memoirists seem to be aiming for: that women—the ones who write books and the ones who buy books—can be simultaneously funny and female, ambitious and appealing, that they can be self-conscious and self-assured and that they don’t have to apologize or rip each other apart. These seem like simple, trite lessons. But for women in comedy, they have been generations in the making. 

  1. She wrote once to her niece Fanny, urging her about a suitor’s proposal “not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” This seems a sage and not-so distant cousin to Poehler’s tip, “Don’t have sex with people you don’t want to have sex with.”

  2. Another of Silverman’s famously raunchy jokes is about how a couple of nights ago, “I was licking jelly off my boyfriend’s penis and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m turning into my mother.'”