In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy

Doubleday. Apr. 2022. 400p. ISBN 9780385545785. $30. ARTS
Film critic and biographer Levy (Paul Newman: A Life) deftly describes the evolving culture that has come to accept that women can be funny without denying their very womanhood. Levy focuses on the success of brash women characters developed by early comedians: Jackie Mabley’s “Moms” persona, an older, cantankerous Black woman unafraid to discuss race relations and politics; Jean Carroll’s “Dumb Dora” shtick; and Sarah Colley’s beloved chipper, folksy Minnie Pearl. He also discusses the “bawdy” entertainers (Sophie Tucker, Pearl Williams, Rusty Warren) who waged fights against censorship. Levy directly addresses the uncomfortable reality of his book—that a man is writing about women who struggled to make it in male-dominated stand-up comedy; he stresses his overwhelming respect for the women in question and his desire to see a more equitable future for comedians working today. Levy notes that these women paved the way for the remarkable success of the likes of self-deprecating Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Elaine May, and Joan Rivers. The book is insightful, moving, and well researched, with humorous anecdotes and fond memories of a group of women Levy clearly admires.
VERDICT Levy gives these trailblazers their due, and fans of comedy will adore the snippets of classic banter and long-lost one-liners.
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