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  • In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedyby Shawn Levy
  • Samantha Silver (bio)
In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy. By Shawn Levy. New York: Doubleday, 2022. 396pp.

The all-too-familiar questions “Are women funny?” and “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?” have generated a plethora of works in humor studies about women in comedy. The collection Hysterical! Women in American Comedycontributes several brilliant essays on the topic. Shawn Levy’s In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedyserves [End Page 310]as a popular press version of this turn toward highlighting women in the history of comedy. It also supplements a body of well-crafted journalistic work on the history of stand-up comedy, which includes Kliph Nesteroff ’s The Comedians, Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, and Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America. These histories, while useful, tend to underestimate the gendered and racialized dynamics of the form. Shawn Levy’s In on the Jokefits on the bookshelf next to Nesteroff ’s and Nachman’s work in relaying the history of American stand-up comedy through the “original queens” who pioneered the form. Each chapter follows the lives and careers of different queens of comedy: Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Minnie Pearl, Belle Barth, Rusty Warren, Phyllis Diller, Elaine May, Totie Fields, and Joan Rivers. The collection of anecdotes and biographies that anchor Levy’s study ultimately constitutes an important platform for funny women and a much-needed history of show business. However, the book’s account of “womanhood” is not as complicated as it could be, as it overlooks the role of race and queerness in American comedy.

One major problem with the framework of “women in comedy” is its retrograde understanding of the term “women” and its inability to grapple with discrimination across gender variation. Though Levy offers a chapter on each individual woman, implicitly making the argument that women have been fundamental to the history and the institution of stand-up comedy, he relies on a presumption that many of these comedians had to alter or hide their womanhood in order to succeed in a male-dominated field. The book opens with an anecdote about Phyllis Diller dressing in men’s clothes to attend the Friars Club roast incognito, since women were not allowed to attend. Levy uses this anecdote to showcase the exclusion of women like Diller, but he fails to fully reckon with her relationship to drag and the queer community—a relationship that she herself claims in Yael Kohen’s We Killed, which Levy cites. There is, then, a phantom queerness that haunts this book, beginning with a subtitle that exploits a queer idiom, the opening anecdote of Diller in drag, and stories like that of Rusty Warren attending a drag show with Diller to watch drag queens imitate them both. Frankly, I expected more about the influence of drag performance on stand-up comedy as a form, never mind about the complexities of gender expression that shape a gendered history of comedy. In yet another example, Levy point out that Moms Mabley dressed in suits and [End Page 311]reportedly had dalliances with chorus girls. But queerness remains a kind of absent presence. More research needs to be done to think through the relationship between “women in comedy” and gender identity and forms of queer performance. This is even more imperative now given the current wave of antitrans and antidrag legislation and the related struggle to codify or authorize an inclusion of the “original queens of stand-up comedy” in a complicated history of American humor.

When it comes to racial representation, Mabley is presented as the exemplar. Levy calls her by Aristotle’s nickname, “the philosopher.” Although the chapter offers a good overview of Mabley’s career, it also reveals that more scholarship is needed about this era and the role of Black comedians in the trajectory of stand-up comedy. This is the only chapter on the contribution of Black women to...