Shawn Levy is the author of the new book In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-up Comedy. His other books include The Castle on Sunset, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Q: In your author’s note, you say that you were encouraged by the women in your life to focus on a woman in one of your books. Why did you decide to focus on stand-up comedians, and how would you define these women as a group?
A: I was trying for years to convince my editors to let me write about Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve—they hit the sweet spot of the era I write about. But I had never gotten the right reaction from my publishers.
I had written a proposal on the history of politics in comedy, and there was going to be a chapter about women breaking into standup comedy and how that was political. My editor asked, Is there a book in this chapter? This was in 2019, and [The Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel [a show featuring a female comic in the late 1950s and early 1960s] was on the air.
I knew about Joan Rivers and Elaine May. I didn’t know if Moms Mabley or Minnie Pearl would fit, and I didn’t know who Jean Carroll was at all. Then I realized I had a collection of real boss women, groundbreakers, who didn’t depend on one another. I’ve written about groups, like the Rat Pack—these were more individuals.
I focused on standup—it’s such a specific art. Lily Tomlin is a genius, but she’s not a standup comic. She inhabits roles. Tina Fey is not a standup comic. Lucille Ball—you can’t picture her with a microphone banging out one-liners and dealing with hecklers.
Q: You begin with Moms Mabley. Why did you choose to start the book with her?
A: In the chronology, she was the first. It’s hard to know if she or Jean Carroll was doing standup first, but I put them in chronological order of their birth, their appearance on the scene.
There were so many things about her that were unique to the book—her race, the factors she had to deal with, like performing in blackface.
It was nearly a rags-to-riches story—a Black woman born in the 1890s in North Carolina, and she becomes a homeowner in Westchester County.
Q: The last chapter on your book focuses on Joan Rivers, and you say, “In Joan Rivers, all the streams that women comedians had been working in previously came together in one quicksilver, five-foot-two-inch package of nerves, angles, jabs, and jokes.” Can you say more about that?
A: She’s got a rat-a-tat thing we associate with male comedians and with Jean Carroll and Phyllis Diller. Also, there’s the modern thing—a deeper psychological humor that’s not just one-liners about your mother-in-law. It’s about neuroses.
She’s also got the bawdiness. Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller were never dirty comics. Joan Rivers would talk about her marriage—she joked about her husband’s suicide.
To me, she was like the Beatles. There were other groups before the Beatles, and the Beatles absorbed all of that. One night on TV was all they needed. It was like Joan Rivers on the Tonight show.
Q: Did any of the women especially fascinate you?
A: Moms’ story is amazing. I wasn’t sure she’d fit the narrative. I remember at 6 years old seeing her as an old lady on TV.
But the more I learned about her—she performed with Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong on Broadway. She was openly queer, or at least, backstage. She performed in blackface. At the end of her career, she was onstage with Kris Kristofferson. She performed with the Jackson Five. A biography of Moms Mabley would uncover more.
I feel the same way about Elaine May. I was totally prepared when this book was done to say I’m going to do an Elaine May book, but now someone’s doing it. It’s a really important book to write. They gave her the PEN Lifetime Award and it’s called the Mike Nichols Award [named for her comedy partner]. She’s a bona fide genius, but a footnote to a man’s life.
Q: What do you see as the legacy of these women today, and who is carrying on their traditions?
A: We live in a golden age of women’s comedy, except that it’s still growing, so the [peak] could be another five or 10 years down the line.
You could make a line between Moms and Whoopi Goldberg, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes. Black women in their 40s and older doing comedy before it truly crossed over.
With Joan Rivers, there’s some DNA with Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. With Elaine May, who writes as well, there’s Tina Fey.
Some of it was unreachable until these women cut through the forest to get there. They were trailblazers. Many didn’t know about the others. Phyllis Diller likely didn’t know about Moms Mabley. They were on their own.
When one became established, they might give a hand to one who was coming up. Phyllis was considered one of the truly nicest people, and was happy to give a hand to anyone. In comedy, that’s not necessarily a given.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have two projects in the works that are almost completely the opposite to this. There’s a podcast about Lew Wasserman and Ronald Reagan, called Glitter and Might, about the relationship between Hollywood and politics, and I’m researching a biography of Clint Eastwood.
Q: Anything else we should know about In on the Joke?
A: Something I learned was reflected on every page. It was a joy to be able to dive in, speak to people, hear and see their comedy routines. Most of the book was researched and written during Covid; I could look forward to sitting down to work. The women are so delightful and inspired. That’s not the case with every project!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Shawn Levy.