2012 and 2013 were banner years for funny women: New memoirs from way-pavers including Joan Rivers and first-time authors such as Mindy Kaling rocked the bestseller lists. We remembered Nora Ephron, who forged a path into writing and directing for scores of women; we’re also endlessly excited by the new crop of young, funny ladies, from Saturday Night Live‘s Kate McKinnon and newest cast member Sasheer Zamata to Girls creator Lena Dunham. (The latter memorialized Ephron in the New Yorker and signed a mega-deal for her forthcoming memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.) Let’s not forget Tina Fey, whose frank advice and hilarious stories in Bossypants keep us in stitches whether we’re experiencing her book for the first time or on a second reread.
Each of these women practices her own unique brand of humor, but here we break them down into three key comic categories: The truth tellers, the trash-talkers, and the cheerleaders. All have books that will make you laugh until you cry—or the other way around.
The Truth Tellers: Tina Fey, Nora Ephron, Mindy Kaling, Jenny Lawson, Aisha Tyler
Tina Fey is a wholly modern heroine: Not just a comedy star in her own right (she made her name doing Weekend Update alongside Jimmy Fallonfor Saturday Night Live), Fey is the creator and head writer of her own award-winning show, 30 Rock (which, sadly, bowed in 2013). In her memoir Bossypants, Fey hilariously recounts her rise to the top, which was not without its bumps. Even—or especially—in the world of entertainment, a subtle bias often works to keep women down.
Her book is full of frank advice to striving and successful women who may someday be wearing the “bossypants”: “This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.” And poignant observations: “[T]he definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*ck her anymore.”
Before there was Tina, there was Nora: After Nora Ephron found out that her second husband, Carl Bernstein (who, with Bob Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal) was having an affair, she turned it into her hit 1983 novel Heartburn. It could have been a sign that the book was adapted into a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep—Ephron would ultimately make her name writing and directing for the big screen, reinventing the romantic comedy with When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.
After a uniquely successful career as a reporter, columnist, playwright, screenwriter, director and novelist, Ephron became a voice for womankind with her bestselling collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, which became a No. 1 bestseller. Among hilarious disquisitions on aging, serial monogamy and her experiences with JFK, Ephron dispenses advice in a chapter called “What I Wish I’d Known”:
Never let them know.
If only one-third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.
If friends ask you to be their child’s guardian in case they die in a plane crash, you can say no.
There are no secrets.”
Mindy Kaling is the Y-Generation’s answer to Fey and Ephron. (She even titled her shopping blog Mindy Ephron.) At 24, Kaling joined The Office as the only woman on a writing staff of eight (the show’s writing crew later expanded, bringing on many more women) and as an actress, playing Kelly Kapoor. Now at 34, she’s the creator and star of The Mindy Project, about an OB/GYN with an erratic dating life.
Kaling has told Bookish about her reading habits, and in her memoir of linked, autobiographical essays in the Ephron tradition, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Kaling dispenses advice suited to a new generation: “There are basically two ways to get where I am: (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) convince your parents to move to Orlando and homeschool you until you get cast on a kids’ show, or do what I did, which is (3) stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallﬂower, and go to an accredited non-online university.”
Another fearless truth teller, Jenny Lawson has built her career not on the small or big screens, but rather on the computer screen. Based in Texas, Lawson takes “mommy blogging” to another level, with her wise, weary and foul-mouthed persona, The Bloggess. She also writes for The Houston Chronicle‘s Good Mom/Bad Mom blog, a sex column for Eden Fantasys, a parenting blog on Cafe Mom, and, of course, her own tweets.
Her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and she is the rare parenting advice columnist who advises against parenting. For example: “An open letter to very young teenagers wanting babies: No. Just… no. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you? Have you ever even met a baby? Because most of them are assholes and they’re the only variety of people even more moody and cranky than teenagers.”
We admire the women who can laugh at their screw-ups, but the ones who share every gory detail of their humiliation, and blame no one but themselves? Are our heroes. Former Talk Soup host (and current Archerstar) Aisha Tyler spares herself no punches in Self-Inflicted Wounds, a memoir wherein she details such gaffes as throwing up on a crush, sleeping through the SATs, and going into massive debt for undergrad only to throw away her degree to become a comedian. And yet, it all seems to be going splendidly for her!
Consider this anecdote, in which she describes how we all not-so-secretly think we can be pop stars despite lacking the skill to do so:
“Of all the professions people fantasize about, pop star is the only one people assume they could do right away if given the opportunity, without experience, training, divine gift, or dumb luck. People may armchair-quarterback their favorite football team, but no one thinks that if the coach reached out through the flat screen and tapped them on the shoulder, they could suddenly shake the D-line and make a mad scramble for second down. And while we may complain about, criticize, or abhor politicians, very few have the stomach to stand bare before the nation while people dig through every filthy detail of their pasts, poring over offhanded comments and questionable investments, parsing letters to ex-girlfriends and drunken photographic tweets. We all talk a good game, but most of us know when we’re outclassed.
That is, in every discipline but pop performer.”
Extra points for her use of footnotes!
The Trash Talkers: Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman
Comedy wasn’t always safe for women, as Joan Rivers would be happy to remind you. Her big break came in 1965, when she appeared on The Tonight Show with its then-new host, Johnny Carson. Carson would be a friend and supporter of Rivers until she became so successful that she had her own show—which was placed the same time slot as Carson’s, after which he never spoke to her again.
Rivers has faced down the challenges in her life at full volume, ready to push any button that asks be pushed. Always sharp about men and women, she’s honed her razor tongue over the years. Her latest memoir, I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me, is full of gems, including “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes she’s a tramp.”
The surge in popularity of memoirs by female comedians may have started with Kathy Griffin, whose book Official Book Club Selection became a bestseller (and fulfilled the promise of its title several times over). Among the books that came in its wake, Selection may have the most memorable opening lines, for better or for worse: “Have you ever looked at the online photos of Britney’s peesh? I probably shouldn’t start my book with that question, but I just I can’t get enough of those photos.”
Griffin began her career with the L.A. comedy improv group The Groundlings. Her biggest breakthrough came 20 years later, when she starred in her own reality TV show, Kathy Griffin, My Life on the D-List. She also hosted the Comedy Central roast of Joan Rivers, who reacted with the slap heard ’round the Internet. Later, Rivers would say, “I was in shock at what they said. They called me evil, mean and [a] plastic surgery whore and disgusting. I kept saying to myself, ‘How do they know so much about me?'”
Chelsea Handler has “gone there” as a comic from the beginning, from her stand-up show Chelsea Lately (one of last year’s episodes featured a naked shower slap-down with Sandra Bullock) to her hit memoirs My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, and Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. She’s been such a success that her publisher has made her a publisher in her own right, with her own imprint, Borderline Amazing/A Chelsea Handler Book.
Like Rivers, Handler has appealed to booze as a higher power in life and comedy: “I went out with a guy who once told me I didn’t need to drink to make myself more fun to be around. I told him, I’m drinking so that you’re more fun to be around.”
Sarah Silverman created her own brand of off-color stand-up that deflated racism by taking it beyond the point of ridiculousness. She starred in her own Comedy Central show, The Sarah Silverman Program, and even got involved in politics with The Great Schlep, in which she encouraged young Jews to withhold future visits to their grandparents in Florida if they didn’t vote for Obama.
Silverman can be just as foul-mouthed as Rivers and Griffin, but the pearls are more gently delivered. In her memoir The Bedwetter, she explains the origins of her crassness: “Like most children, I learned to swear from a parent. But most children learn to swear by mimicking moments when a parent loses self-control. That is typically followed by the parent stressing that such words are bad and shouldn’t be repeated outside the home. When I was three years old, I learned to swear from my father, but he taught me with every intention to do so. It was like he was teaching a ‘cursing as a second language’ course for one…. So I guess I’m saying that I’m, in most ways, my father’s fault. He filled my mother’s vagina with the filthy semen that consisted of me, then filled my head with even more filth.”
The Cheerleaders: Ellen Degeneres, Diane Keaton, Jane Lynch
Ellen DeGeneres takes a non-abrasive, less in-your-face approach to comedy, and her inclusiveness may be part of why she’s so popular. As a talk show host, she’s had three incarnations that seem to grow by the syllable: Ellen, The Ellen Show, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. (And then there was the time that she took another famous name—Oscar—and successfully hosted the 2013 Academy Awards by bringing her fellow celebrities down to earth with pizza deliveries and the selfie that broke Twitter.)
She’s also the author of three books … all with ellipses in the title: My Point… And I Do Have One, The Funny Thing Is…, and Seriously… I’m Kidding. DeGeneres is more the type to ration out helpful and inspirational (and funny) advice in a generous spirit—though she has been known to torment the guests on her show with the cuteness of baby sloths.
11. Then Again
Since Annie Hall hit the big screen in 1977, it has been a classic of the romantic comedy genre. Diane Keaton‘s leading role in the film was based on a distillation of her personality as Woody Allen saw it. (The title of the film is taken from a nickname of Keaton’s.) With her signature class and dignity, the beloved actress’s memoir, Then Again, tells the story of her upbringing and her acting career as well as that of her influential mother, Dorothy Hall.
12. Happy Accidents
Before her star turn as a cheerleading coach in Glee, Jane Lynch first broke onto the scene as a lesbian dog handler in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about dog obsession, Best in Show. Like DeGeneres, Lynch is happily married to a woman, though she’s a bit more upfront about her sexuality in her memoir, Happy Accidents: “Jill and Michelle Stevenson were in my class at school, and every year during spring break they went with their parents to South Florida. They told me about a weird thing they’d seen there. ‘Sometimes,’ Jill said, ‘you’ll see boys holding hands with each other on the beach instead of girls. It’s because they’re gay.’ Oh my God, I thought, that’s what I have. I’m the girl version of that.”