Stand-up comedy’s pioneering women get their due in Portland author’s new book – OregonLive

Stand-up comedy’s pioneering women get their due in Portland author’s new book – OregonLive

Portland author Shawn Levy says the existence of the show "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" made his new book possible: "People realized that there was this proto-history of women in comedy."Author photo by Vincent Levy
Doing standup comedy isn’t for the timid.
As Portland author Shawn Levy puts it: “When we go see music, we’re not like, ‘Yeah, make me tap my feet, why don’t ya? And if you don’t, I feel entitled to yell back at you.’ But comedy has that element of danger.”
“I also admire the way comedians are like surfers,” Levy says. “They paddle out into the conditions and, big wave, little wave, they gotta find something to connect with and something to ride on.”
“It’s a very interesting and exciting form of expression.”
Succeeding in standup was even more challenging for women who took the mic prior to today’s crop of comics. Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who began performing in the 1920s, appeared almost exclusively before Black audiences for decades. Jean Carroll, who started out in the 1940s, was so far ahead of her time, Levy writes, that she was ready to retire from show business when something like her time finally arrived. Minnie Pearl, despite her fame and popularity, was seen by the entertainment media as a mere sideshow because of her country music roots.
Levy tells the stories of Mabley, Carroll, Pearl and other pioneering women comedians, such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, in his latest book, “In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy.” It’s a fun, fascinating read, with Levy’s trademark attention to revealing anecdotes and rigorously researched details. (Levy was The Oregonian’s film critic for 15 years, from 1997 to 2012.)
Levy will present the book in a May 18 appearance at Broadway Books. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with him. You can hear more in this week’s episode of our Beat Check with The Oregonian podcast.
Q: Who were some of the stand-up comedians that you imprinted on?
A: I grew up in a house that was very showbiz aware, so I would have seen many of the women who are in my book watching variety shows with my parents, on my own, the “Saturday Night Live” era of standup comedians. So the titanic figures just before SNL: George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
There was a nightclub in New York, the Comic Strip, that did not check IDs. And the drinking age in New York was 18. And when my friends and I were in high school, we could get into this place and we saw Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Carol Leifer.
Q: How did this book come to be?
A: I was working with my agent and my editor at Doubleday on a follow-up to my Chateau Marmont book from 2019 (“The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont”). And one of the ideas I had was a book called “Wise Ass Nation,” which was about the rise of politics in comedy.
One of the proposed chapters was the rise of women on the standup stage. And that was what Doubleday picked up on.
When my agent told me that that was what they were interested in, it was one of those times where I, I could see the book sort of flower in my head right away.
Q: How did you select the women you profiled in this book?
A: I knew I wanted the book to end with Joan Rivers. She strikes me as sort of like The Beatles. She combines so many threads of what came before her, and her appearance on the scene marked sort of a tipping point after which women would still have a very hard time in the comedy world, but the idea of them succeeding as standups was no longer completely unimaginable.
I was also clear in my head that they would have to be standup comedians – in the parlance of showbiz, “working in one” — that they wouldn’t be sketch comedians, they wouldn’t be comic actresses.
So this eliminated people like Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Imogene Coca, very, very funny women. Mary Tyler Moore, who relied mainly on scripted material or on partnerships. The exception was Elaine May because she was such a crucial figure in the creation of improv comedy.
Q: What did you learn in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
A: I feel like there is something or three things I learned on every page of it.
With Moms Mabley, I was vaguely aware that Black actors would have appeared in blackface in the teens and ‘20s, and Moms, in early reviews of her work, they say she performed “under cork” or “corked” because the stagecraft was to use burnt cork and apply a little Vaseline and you could use it to blacken your face. And this was a tradition in that day.
I learned about the party records of the 1950s, these underground LPs that sold in dirty magazine stores and sold millions of copies and the women who recorded them were often persecuted and arrested and ripped off.
And then Joan Rivers. I did not know that she wrote and starred in two Broadway plays. I did not know that she had a syndicated talk show in the ‘60s that went on for hundreds of episodes.
Q: Your book does a fantastic job of laying out all the roadblocks and obstacles and little and large indignities these women all faced.
A: Yeah. Constant. They didn’t have the term microaggressions. But, you know, when Ed Sullivan scolds Jean Carroll for making fun of her husband, and she says, ‘Well, who should I make fun of, Alan King’s wife?’ You realize Sullivan doesn’t get the joke. But the joke is you would never say that to a man.
And yet you’d say that to a woman, ‘Oh, it’s unladylike to make fun of your husband,’ but this guy gets up and talks about his wife’s lack of libido or poor housekeeping, and no one’s going to question him.
Q: If you were hoping for one takeaway from your book, what would it be?
A: When you remember how far it has come from Moms Mabley and Minnie Pearl and Jean Carroll, those three working in the ‘40s in complete isolation, as novelty acts practically, that’s the lesson: that these women existed, that they laid down a path, but the path is now more like a road. And a well-traveled road, in fact, a highway. And it may not be ideal, but it’s better than it’s ever been, and these are the women who first marked it.
Shawn Levy discusses “In On the Joke” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18, at Broadway Books, 1714 N.E. Broadway, Portland.
awang@oregonian.com; Twitter: @ORAmyW
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