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Review: ‘In on the Joke’ showcases trailblazing women comics

April 6, 2022 GMT
This cover image released by Doubleday shows "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy" by Shawn Levy. (Doubleday via AP)
This cover image released by Doubleday shows "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy" by Shawn Levy. (Doubleday via AP)
This cover image released by Doubleday shows "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy" by Shawn Levy. (Doubleday via AP)
This cover image released by Doubleday shows "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy" by Shawn Levy. (Doubleday via AP)
This cover image released by Doubleday shows "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy" by Shawn Levy. (Doubleday via AP)

“In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy” by Shawn Levy (Doubleday)

The first women stand-up comics broke down barriers and paved the way for a multitude of women who followed them. But it wasn’t an easy path. Not only did they have to defy the conventional wisdom that women shouldn’t work at all and just be homemakers and mothers, they also had to face almost certain rejection from the gatekeepers of comedy, from agents to TV hosts and bookers, who resisted the notion that women can be as funny as men.

And yet, a few women defied the odds and broke through. Shawn Levy’s “In on the Joke” offers a breezy tour through some of the biggest names, from Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a Black comedian who headlined at the Apollo theater and created a wizened old lady persona onstage, to Phyllis Diller, who broke through with a wacky persona and poked fun at her husband and family, and Joan Rivers, the acerbic stand-up comic, who Levy says combines the strands of many of the women comedians before her.

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Spanning roughly the decades from the 1930s through the 1980s, Levy touches on the general comedy trends intertwined with several of the women’s careers, such as the debut of the “party record” — raunchy albums of the ’50s and ’60s — and rise of the so-called “sick comedians” like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl who eschewed the one-liners of comedians like Bob Hope for more observational comedy.

But he keeps his focus on the women’s individual stories, dividing the book into eight chapters that serve as mini profiles of each comedian. Some, like Elaine May and Joan Rivers, are still well known today. But “In on the Joke” also profiles comedians including Moms Mabley, Belle Barth, Jean Carroll and Totie Fields, pioneers who were once big names but have since faded into relative obscurity.

Levy doesn’t delve too deeply into any individual story. But the overview serves as a useful starting point for comedy buffs wanting to learn more about each of these trailblazing comedians.