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In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy

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From bestselling author Shawn Levy, a hilarious and moving account of the trailblazing women who broke down walls so they could stand before the mic. Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a fem From bestselling author Shawn Levy, a hilarious and moving account of the trailblazing women who broke down walls so they could stand before the mic. Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a female comedian seemed, to most of America, like a punch line. And it took a special sort of woman--indeed, a parade of them--to break and remake the mold. In on the Joke is the story of a group of unforgettable women who knocked down the doors of stand-up comedy so other women could get a shot. It spans decades, from Moms Mabley's rise in Black vaudeville between the world wars, to the roadhouse ribaldry of Belle Barth and Rusty Warren in the 1950s and '60s, to Elaine May's co-invention of improv comedy, to Joan Rivers's and Phyllis Diller's ferocious ascent to mainstream stardom. These women refused to be defined by type and tradition, facing down indifference, puzzlement, nay-saying, and unvarnished hostility. They were discouraged by agents, managers, audiences, critics, fellow performers--even their families. And yet they persevered against the tired notion that women couldn't be funny, making space not only for themselves, but for the women who followed them. Meticulously researched and irresistibly drawn, Shawn Levy's group portrait forms a new pantheon of comedy excellence. In on the Joke shows how women broke into the boys' club, offered new ideas of womanhood, and had some laughs along the way.


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From bestselling author Shawn Levy, a hilarious and moving account of the trailblazing women who broke down walls so they could stand before the mic. Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a fem From bestselling author Shawn Levy, a hilarious and moving account of the trailblazing women who broke down walls so they could stand before the mic. Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a female comedian seemed, to most of America, like a punch line. And it took a special sort of woman--indeed, a parade of them--to break and remake the mold. In on the Joke is the story of a group of unforgettable women who knocked down the doors of stand-up comedy so other women could get a shot. It spans decades, from Moms Mabley's rise in Black vaudeville between the world wars, to the roadhouse ribaldry of Belle Barth and Rusty Warren in the 1950s and '60s, to Elaine May's co-invention of improv comedy, to Joan Rivers's and Phyllis Diller's ferocious ascent to mainstream stardom. These women refused to be defined by type and tradition, facing down indifference, puzzlement, nay-saying, and unvarnished hostility. They were discouraged by agents, managers, audiences, critics, fellow performers--even their families. And yet they persevered against the tired notion that women couldn't be funny, making space not only for themselves, but for the women who followed them. Meticulously researched and irresistibly drawn, Shawn Levy's group portrait forms a new pantheon of comedy excellence. In on the Joke shows how women broke into the boys' club, offered new ideas of womanhood, and had some laughs along the way.

30 review for In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy by Shawn Levy is a 2022 Doubleday publication. Talk about a male dominated field! Not that women aren't still faced with challenges today, but at one time the very idea of a woman, standing alone on a stage, behind a microphone, telling jokes just didn’t sit right. You will be shocked by some of the comments made about female comedians- and by who made those comments, which is very disappointing, to say the least. Female comedians were fine- t In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy by Shawn Levy is a 2022 Doubleday publication. Talk about a male dominated field! Not that women aren't still faced with challenges today, but at one time the very idea of a woman, standing alone on a stage, behind a microphone, telling jokes just didn’t sit right. You will be shocked by some of the comments made about female comedians- and by who made those comments, which is very disappointing, to say the least. Female comedians were fine- there were many fine comedic actresses on stages, movie theaters and on television, but the idea of a woman being a standup comedian... Well, that was a man's job. For a woman, it was undignified. Despite the attitude towards women in this role, there were a few very brave and groundbreaking, pioneers who paved the way for the dazzling array female standup artists and comedians we enjoy today. The women profiled in this book were definitely ahead of their time. Women were to expected to project a certain image, and standup comedians broke that mold. It took special skill to get past those hurdles, to get the audience to warm up to the idea and enjoy the entertainment. I had a few belly laughs while reading this book. Some jokes never go out of style, I suppose. On the other hand, there are some brands of humor, I have never found appealing, and those are represented here as well. Of the eight women profiled, I only recognized three of them. The author gives a mini bio of each person profiled, and a few examples of their work. This isn’t your run of the mill Wikipedia stuff, either. Levy not only did a little digging, but also worked to show a variety of talents and various approaches to comedy. None of these women had a similar act, and each had a different set of circumstances and faced different obstacles -but were all successful to varying degrees. All the women featured in this book were talented, and all were comedy pioneers, each contributing to the standup routines and comedy improvisations as we know it today. I had a great time getting to know these women, or in some cases reacquainted with them. I’m so glad the author humbly took the time to give these comedians some long overdue credit, and was brave enough to tackle the daunting prospect of being a white guy writing about female comedians. Levy did a good job, though, and I had a lot of fun checking out a few YouTube videos of these funny ladies. It was nice to have a good hearty laugh, while learning some interesting history, and getting a little education in the process. These types of books are fun and interesting no matter what your usual book choices might be, because who doesn’t like a good laugh? But, for those who like pop culture, biographies, and history, this one will have special appeal. 4 stars

  2. 4 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    Four stars plus. Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that em Four stars plus. Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now. There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work. Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here. My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists. As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers. If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others. Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    I really enjoyed one of Levy's other books, so I grabbed this. And was glad I did. Levy says right up front that he is aware of being a white man writing about women, in particular, non-white women, but the paucity of work out there covering these women inspired him to take it on. Then he squarely into the background as he presents the facts, quoting each woman plentifully in order to let her speak for herself. I got little sense of "mansplaining" as he outlined the life of Moms Mabley in particu I really enjoyed one of Levy's other books, so I grabbed this. And was glad I did. Levy says right up front that he is aware of being a white man writing about women, in particular, non-white women, but the paucity of work out there covering these women inspired him to take it on. Then he squarely into the background as he presents the facts, quoting each woman plentifully in order to let her speak for herself. I got little sense of "mansplaining" as he outlined the life of Moms Mabley in particular, who was a real groundbreaker, moving from the rough world of Vaudeville to mainstream in spite of being Black. Solid research, an enjoyable style, and excellent choices of women who paved the way for women in standup, made this an excellent read. Copy provided by NetGalley

  4. 5 out of 5

    Richard Propes

    With "In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy," bestselling author Shawn Levy meticulously explores the careers of women who paved the way for today's female standup comics and comedy performers. We're talking the truly early days when comedy was considered the domain of men and even the presence of a woman was considered more than a little jarring. Names like Moms Mabley, Rusty Warren, Belle Barth, Elaine May, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers pack the packages of "In on the Joke," With "In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy," bestselling author Shawn Levy meticulously explores the careers of women who paved the way for today's female standup comics and comedy performers. We're talking the truly early days when comedy was considered the domain of men and even the presence of a woman was considered more than a little jarring. Names like Moms Mabley, Rusty Warren, Belle Barth, Elaine May, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers pack the packages of "In on the Joke," a 400-page book that is remarkable in its research and detail and vivid, almost connect-the-dots, journey through the careers of these women as they fought their naysayers to stand at the mic and make it clear standup comedy was never meant to be a boys' club. While not everyone in "In on the Joke" is a household name, Levy beautifully brings to life each woman's importance in the growth of women on the comedy circuit and paints a powerful portrait of the adversities they faced from the likes of family to friends to peers to managers to critics and many more. Levy is at his strongest with his most emotionally resonant accounts such as with Jean Carroll and a book-ending Joan Rivers. Other times, "In on the Joke" starts to feel a bit like an "And then..." book, the kind of book that reads more like play-by-play and engages on a lesser scale. It's in these times that I found myself more than a little exhausted reading "In on the Joke," less immersed in the stories and more needing to take regular breaks from them. Yet, there is no denying that I was always anxious to return to "In on the Joke," a book that benefits from Levy's obvious knowledge and curiosity and a book that is so comprehensively researched that each and every chapter gives you a deeper appreciation for the women represented. Levy delves deeply in "In on the Joke," each chapter almost surprising in its length and detail and the ways in which Levy refuses to create literary sound bytes. While most authors would be content to create a few pages for each comedy queen and to only skim the surface of their remarkable stories, Levy infuses "In on the Joke" with a remarkable depth of meaning that individualizes each woman and their journey. These stories are intelligent, passionate, inspiring, and occasionally quite touching. Levy himself speaks early in the film of the extra burden of being a male writing about female comics and that acknowledgement lays a solid foundation for a book that avoids mansplaining (in fact, quite often calling it out) in favor of writing from a place of respect, admiration, and truth-telling. While there were moments I disconnected from "In on the Joke," mostly those where I struggled to sync with Levy's literary rhythms, "In on the Joke" gave me a deep appreciation for these women and their powerful influence on the world of comedy and the journey for female entertainers. Shawn Levy's In on the Joke" gives us the inside scoop on the women who entertained us and how hard those women fought for that right. Filled with rich detail and a stunning amount of resources, "In on the Joke" is a must-read from one of America's most gifted entertainment writers.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dawn Michelle

    This book was just not for me. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this and as the book went on, I found myself bored and being reluctant to pick it up to read it. There were only two stories that I loved [Minnie Pearl and Phyllis Diller] and the rest just didn't work for me. Thank you to NetGalley, Shawn Levy, and Doubleday Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This book was just not for me. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this and as the book went on, I found myself bored and being reluctant to pick it up to read it. There were only two stories that I loved [Minnie Pearl and Phyllis Diller] and the rest just didn't work for me. Thank you to NetGalley, Shawn Levy, and Doubleday Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  6. 4 out of 5

    April

    Thank you to DoubleDay Books and to NetGalley for an advance reader copy to enjoy! Oh my goodness... Shawn Levy is right. These ladies are the QUEENS of Standup and I just had to read this book. I appreciated Levy's take on these women and blatantly saying that he realizes he is a white man writing about these women who of course are in their own realm. He does a wonderful job of writing a factual piece about each icon, but also inserting comedy here and there with dashes of their colorful person Thank you to DoubleDay Books and to NetGalley for an advance reader copy to enjoy! Oh my goodness... Shawn Levy is right. These ladies are the QUEENS of Standup and I just had to read this book. I appreciated Levy's take on these women and blatantly saying that he realizes he is a white man writing about these women who of course are in their own realm. He does a wonderful job of writing a factual piece about each icon, but also inserting comedy here and there with dashes of their colorful personality that made us all fall in love with the comediennes in the first place. Each chapter built on the next and wove an amazing tale of the glass ceiling breaking with these amazingly funny ladies and what they've done within the comedy realm. I laughed with these ladies and with Mr Levy and found myself loving this book!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Tammy Buchli

    I love this type of bio - a collection of short biographies following some sort of theme. The theme in this case was pioneering female comedians and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of the subjects were familiar to me from seeing them on TV during my late 60s - early 70s childhood, but I knew very little about their histories or personal lives. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Minnie Pearl (my father was a huge fan of Hee Haw) and Totie Fields (a frequent flier on the Merv Griffin and Mike Do I love this type of bio - a collection of short biographies following some sort of theme. The theme in this case was pioneering female comedians and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of the subjects were familiar to me from seeing them on TV during my late 60s - early 70s childhood, but I knew very little about their histories or personal lives. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Minnie Pearl (my father was a huge fan of Hee Haw) and Totie Fields (a frequent flier on the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows which were also staples of my childhood television). In all cases, though, the stories were interestingly and respectfully told. Thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC copy for my review.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cameron

    Meet me at the Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken Restaurant and let’s talk about how these funny women who had to get twice the laughs for half the respect. I recommend!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Interesting mini-biographies of female comedian pioneers of the 1930s through 1970s, including Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, Elaine May, and Joan Rivers. Would have been better if there was more of a focus on their actual stand-up routines instead of listing everywhere they performed and how much money they made.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Erica

    Women in comedy did not begin and end with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey! As annoying as it is that even now, people are asking “can women be funny?” Shawn Levy’s “In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy” provides ample proof that not only ARE women funny, they have been for quite some time! A thoroughly researched history of the lives and careers of funny women such as Moms Mabley, Rusty Warren, Belle Barth, Elaine May, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers, each chapter of “In on the Joke” Women in comedy did not begin and end with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey! As annoying as it is that even now, people are asking “can women be funny?” Shawn Levy’s “In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy” provides ample proof that not only ARE women funny, they have been for quite some time! A thoroughly researched history of the lives and careers of funny women such as Moms Mabley, Rusty Warren, Belle Barth, Elaine May, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers, each chapter of “In on the Joke” builds on the next, showing how the highlighted woman broke in, found success, and paved the way for the next. Even for the women that I knew about before reading this book (Joan Rivers, Elaine Mays) the author goes into deep details that I’d never heard of before, that shine a light on their unique situations and points of view. If you are a comedy nerd, history buff, or just a fan of awesome women, I’d recommend this book. While I received an ARC of “In on the Joke” from NetGalley for free, this had no bearing on my rating and review. Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Scott Martin

    (audiobook) This work is a survey of the lives of some of the top women comedians from World War II to the early 2000s. It covers some of the top names from Moms Mabley to Phyllis Diller to Joan Collins. It noted how each started life and how they came to be comedians. Some started in vaudeville, some in singing, some in writing. They had to face sexism, and for some, racism. Yet they all made their mark on the profession. While the author tries to have a good mix, some of the bios were more fles (audiobook) This work is a survey of the lives of some of the top women comedians from World War II to the early 2000s. It covers some of the top names from Moms Mabley to Phyllis Diller to Joan Collins. It noted how each started life and how they came to be comedians. Some started in vaudeville, some in singing, some in writing. They had to face sexism, and for some, racism. Yet they all made their mark on the profession. While the author tries to have a good mix, some of the bios were more fleshed out than others. Some of that could be lack of material to reference, especially the older comedians. However, it seemed like the biggest struggles were with Joan Rivers, who really struggled for 10+ years, or so the account went. Could have been that she had better accounting if her source material, but pretty sure all of them bombed just as bad a Joan. Granted, they may not have achieved the heights that she did, but it did make the book a little uneven. Still, worth a read and then some research on the interwebs to see the ladies in action. They still face challenges, but it is slightly better for them…if they can make you laugh, that is the main thing…or should be.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Martin Maenza

    Author Shawn Levy's deep dive into these trailblazing women will be out everywhere on April 5, 2022. The publisher Doubleday Books allowed me to review an early galley for an honest review. Growing up in the 1970's, I got the opportunity to experience several of the featured funny ladies in this book via television appearances. To me, they were very much part of what I considered mainstream. I never once thought about how they had to fight for their seat on the couch on the afternoon and evening Author Shawn Levy's deep dive into these trailblazing women will be out everywhere on April 5, 2022. The publisher Doubleday Books allowed me to review an early galley for an honest review. Growing up in the 1970's, I got the opportunity to experience several of the featured funny ladies in this book via television appearances. To me, they were very much part of what I considered mainstream. I never once thought about how they had to fight for their seat on the couch on the afternoon and evening talk shows. They just were always there. Levy's book, however, gave me a much deeper education in how hard each and every one of them worked to blaze a trail in a field that was dominated by men for so long. His research is thorough and delivered in a manner that kept me engaged, moving from one chapter and one story to the next. I always appreciate when authors do their homework to give the readers all the pertinent details as was done here. I also learned about several performers who very much deserved to have a spotlight shone upon them. Very much recommended for anyone who has a fascination with the history of comedy and entertainment.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    Short Bios of the Women Who Made Their Mark in Comedy The author is a man, but he does an excellent job of highlighting the lives and struggles of the women who made their names in comedy. It wasn’t easy for any of them. From vaudeville to television, these women had to fight hard to compete in a male dominated area. Many of the women were familiar. I loved Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. My father’s favorite was Minnie Pearl. I can still remember her with her hats. Besides a trip down memory lane Short Bios of the Women Who Made Their Mark in Comedy The author is a man, but he does an excellent job of highlighting the lives and struggles of the women who made their names in comedy. It wasn’t easy for any of them. From vaudeville to television, these women had to fight hard to compete in a male dominated area. Many of the women were familiar. I loved Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. My father’s favorite was Minnie Pearl. I can still remember her with her hats. Besides a trip down memory lane, these short bios highlighted how committed the women were and had to be to succeed. The women had to fight for recognition not only from audiences but from agents, directors, male comedians, and often their own families. Each chapter is an in depth biography. I thought the author did an excellent job of bringing each woman to life with her successes and failures alike. I enjoyed the book. It’s a good addition to the history of women’s success in the professions that were once closed to them. I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.

  14. 4 out of 5

    pianogal

    I really enjoyed this one. A friend told me that she thought it was too academic -that a book about comedians should be funny. But I disagree. This is a history book, not a comedy book. It grabbed my attention and kept it. I knew some of this -especially the section about Joan Rivers, but some of it was new to me. I would recommend this to anyone who likes histories.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rhonda Lomazow

    Shawn Levy bring these queens of comedy the founding members alive.He shares with us their struggles pioneers in the world of comedy.Joan Rivers who bravely made me laugh Phyllis Diller and more.I really enjoyed this well written informative book,

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Miller

    This book examines some of the early pioneers of female comedy, touching on their talents and flaws as well as the barriers placed in their way by the forces of structural and personal sexism in the entertainment industry.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    Levy brings readers through a variety of female standup comics - their struggles and triumphs. Some of the chapters dealved a bit too far in minutiae for my taste but I enjoyed learning more about these women.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Doug Chase

    Shawn Levy does it again, this time bringing his impeccable research, engaging story-telling, and expansive taste to the telling of the early queens of standup comedy, the women who broke barriers and opened doors for those that followed.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    Couldn't get into it right now. Will try again another time. Couldn't get into it right now. Will try again another time.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Mcbroom

    Evolution of female comics.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Elbrackeen Brackeen

    What a well done history on the early women comics.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jonas Schwartz-Owen

    Found it to be thorough but also often like a Wikipedia page, listing one thing after another.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sara Goldenberg

    I liked it but I didn't know many of the people she talks about. I liked it but I didn't know many of the people she talks about.

  24. 5 out of 5

    SARA

  25. 4 out of 5

    Juli

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  27. 5 out of 5

    John Dimoia

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Gibbons

  29. 5 out of 5

    Justin

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kristal

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