“They just don’t have it, so we shouldn’t trouble them about it because they’re not physically equipped with it.”
This was the general sentiment about a woman’s sense of humor, back in 1903. And according to author and comedy enthusiast Sheila Moeschen, that sensibility continues to fuel the improbably persistent question: “are women funny?” But Moeschen’s new book, The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy, makes it clear in stunningly illustrated full color that women have—and continue to—influence the art form in countless ways.
“Those women were just doing it, they weren’t thinking about it being a legacy,” Moeschen mused as we tried to brainstorm common characteristics among the selected women. “I wonder if that is more of a characteristic for women creatives because they haven’t been given that straight white male privilege card; you have to be that much more innovative to figure it out. Until we have more institutional legacy of women creating in humor, it’s not obvious.”
Moeschen started in the literature and mindsets of 1903 to inform a project that fleshed out the objections to including women in the world of comedy. But over time, her objective changed. “As we shaped the project, it became clear that it would be much more beneficial and exciting to highlight the women and the voices looking historically – and looking broadly – at areas of comedy.” A cast of likely inclusions assembled itself: Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tina Fey were no-brainers. However, Moeschen wanted to ensure that a wide range of trailblazers appeared on the pages. “That’s why there’s writers (like Nora Ephron and Emmy winning comedy writer Lena Waithe) as well as performers in the book, trying to highlight the contributions that women have made consistently. Even if they’ve not been as visible as they should be, and also getting at the ways they’ve bumped up against challenges and barriers to moving forward.”
And speaking of visible, these beautifully written comprehensive histories of these women appear alongside stunning art from the illustrator Anne Bentley. While Bentley’s connection to the subject matter was less passion-driven than Moeschen’s, her work nonetheless brings these women to life in evocative and fun ways. “I feel like she captures the look of the women, in different ways, but also their essence comes through in the portraits,” said Moeschen of Bentley’s paintings. The pictures themselves are vibrant and spirited, even if the roads to success for their subjects weren’t always so bright.
In story after story, these women bumped up against gatekeepers determined to question or temper their impact: directors, producers, theater owners, and critics abounded. And yet, a consistent thread of self-determination, confidence, and savvy emerges in the voices of comics as new as Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, and going as far back as Fanny Brice and Marie Dressler, who challenged the norms and expectations of vaudeville and silent film. It was important to Moeschen that the project drew a clear line that united these women in their plight, hopefully empowering women who want to make their own mark on the industry in the process:
To know that you can work through those [barriers], that you don’t have to wait for permission…it’s been interesting to trace that as far back as vaudeville to now, putting your web series online and stuff like that. It is awesome, and it really empowers and inspires women who are coming up alongside them or through the ranks or whatever. There’s this sense that you don’t have to wait. You don’t need permission. And you can really find audiences for whatever your niche is.
When it came to assembling a full book of groundbreaking women, there’s a real danger of equating fandom with impact: “[I thought] ‘I want to be careful, not just including people I fangirl over.’ I really wanted to think about women who were doing things that were somewhat groundbreaking in some way, and they did happen to fit the bill.” That’s how women like Rachel Bloom, Jessica Williams, and Mindy Kaling came to sit alongside pioneers like Moms Mabley, Mabel Normand, and Elaine May. From where I sit, these seem like impossible choices, and yet Moeschen was pretty methodical as she added and subtracted, included and pruned away:
I had to think more critically than my comedy fan heart wanted to think. I also wanted to have the conversation of [how] humor serves so many different functions and bleeds into our lives in so many different ways. I wanted that to come through as well in some of the people that I picked.
Another notion Moeschen wants to ensure? That this isn’t a definitive list, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, brief lists at the start of each section offer “Extra Extraordinaires,” a list of additional comics to look up and enjoy if the stories in the main section appeal to you. And in a moment of welcome empowerment, the last name on the “Extra Extraordinaires” in the book’s final section reads “You.” She qualifies that charge in the afterword:
If there is anything I hope you take away from this book, it’s that funny is a superpower that we all have – even you. At one point or another, all the women in this book were just like the rest of us: regular people with a passion or geek-level love for comedy and humor in all of its forms. The only difference being that each of the women in this book turned that passion for comedy into action, daring to follow the funny to see where it might take them. Maybe after reading their stories you feel compelled to do the same. Brave up and go for it!
Moeschen confirmed that charge as we spoke, further noting that the more women who are taking this route to share their funny with the world, the easier it would become for newer female comedians to share their skills. “Women are doing so many extraordinary things. There really are not many limits,” she said. “And the more women we have in positions of power, who have gatekeeping or executive privilege, the wider that becomes—that lift as you climb [mentality].” And with a far wider view of the history than most, the narrative looks like it’s on its way to a brighter ending for Moeschen. Looking at the stories of younger women in the book, who can clearly trace their success to other women in the book, it’s clear that as gates fall and women pull one another through, doors are opening. As she noted with a detectable note of hope in her voice, “Change happens slow, but it happens.”