cover image In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy

In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy

Shawn Levy. Doubleday, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-54578-5

“The women in these pages are heroes,” writes film critic Levy (King of Comedy) in this riveting cultural history of women’s stand-up comedy between WWII and the 1970s. Revisiting a dispiriting time when “a funny woman who wanted to tell jokes was faced with a brick wall,” Levy spotlights the women who made it their mission to dismantle those barriers. He covers the era’s trailblazers, including Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a Black vaudeville entertainer who, in the face of “racism, misogyny... and doubt,” broke nearly every comedic convention, using humor on stage as a way to discuss social and race relations. In the 1960s, Elaine May, alongside her costar Mike Nichols, introduced sketch comedy to mainstream audiences, and Phyllis Diller “became a household name across America” by embracing “garish stagewear” and a manic demeanor to parody femininity and critique the cultural limitations around it. While in the 1970s, Joan Rivers’s choice to play “a thinly disguised version of herself—a neurotic who could never get the man, the job, the spotlight” cemented her worldwide fame. Written with a vibrance that excellently captures the larger-than-life personalities of Levy’s subjects, these stories coalesce to reveal the resilience and chutzpah that went into shaping stand-up as it’s known today. Comedy fans would do well to snatch this one up. (Apr.)