Publishing Talk: Hey, Did Somebody Write My Book?

I've never regarded myself as an idea hoarder. You know what I mean -- one of those people who say: "I don't want to reveal too much about my work, because I'm worried about people taking the premise/title/idea for themselves."

To act territorial and possessive was pathetically unattractive and nerdy. And that wasn't me. Not until recently.

An idea hoarder? Me? The literary version of Hoarding: Buried Alive goes something like this: You had a terrific concept for your book but, like the thousand china unicorns the poor souls on Hoarding keep in shoeboxes and the 906 Dunkin' Donuts travel mugs in the bathtub, ideas can squat in the minds of writers. That's when we start tripping over ourselves.

So when it comes to ideas, we should use them, donate them, share them, or toss them, right? Right. Sharing is best.

Ideas and subjects are not commodities. They don't have patents and are not subject to copyright. They are not the babies at Solomon's Court demanding division; they are not subject to custody hearings or custodial visits. Even Judge Judy wouldn't touch those cases.

But our subjects do become part of our imaginations and identities as writers.

And so, as someone who has been writing about women and comedy forever, starting with They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor (1991; 19 printings; being re-issued with a new introduction in 2013 as a "classic" by UPNE) I am a hive of conflicting and buzzing feelings about a new book on the subject being published this week.

That's why I am afraid of looking into We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy despite the fact that it's a book I welcome since, let's face it, everything and anything about women and humor is of course A Good Thing.

Please understand that I have it. It is sitting next to me as I write. The book is very handsome. But I have not opened it. I am too nervous to open it. And I'm not the kind who scares easy.

Of course Yael Kohen's book sounds great because -- according to the reviews and press -- it's based on a wide range of interviews with working comics as well as producers, agents, and various media and performance "insiders." Having access to that kind of up-close information is rare and valuable. That's why I bought Kohen's book. Full price yet. It will be a terrific resource for my graduate students and colleagues who are searching for first-person accounts of women who make their living writing and performing humor.

Plus I know Kohen must be respected by the people she's interviewed because she has a book-warming at the Friar's Club, an august group into which I am being inducted myself this very week. So what worries me?

I feel like a monster saying it, but let's be honest here: I'm afraid she won't mention the work of others who have already written on women and comedy. Oh, phooey -- let's be real: I'm afraid she doesn't mention me.

Maybe she does. Maybe there's a footnote. I like footnotes; I'm a professor. Footnotes are part of my livelihood. I get a commission every time somebody uses one.

But I worry that the "history of women in comedy" is being seen as a newly-discovered entity rather than as something with a rich history already examined, albeit much earlier, in books such as Spare Ribs: Women in the Humor Biz -- a book of interviews with female comics and writers of comedy -- by Denise Collier and Kathleen Beckett or Women In Comedy: The Funny Ladies from the Turn of the Century to the Present, a comprehensive and biographical/interview-based book chronicling the significance of women's comic performance and women comic's place in the show business, by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave.

And, not to leave my own pathologically narcissistic personality out of it, in Snow White I discuss women's comic portrayal in television, talking about Mary Tyler Moore (alongside discussions of Diller, Rivers, Boosler, and Leifer's important performances in non-scripted venues); I argue that while it will surprise very few women to hear that women have a sense of humor, and probably will no longer come as a shock to most men, yet "to see the way wit functions is to see a map of our culture, to focus on things we've seen but not necessarily processed or analyzed, to explain what we've sensed but not yet bothered to define."

And that's why I asked:

When did women's comedy begin to change? Was it with the women on Laugh In? The progress of women's comedy is most in the change of Mary Tyler Moore from the dancer-turned-housewife Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show to a single woman living alone in her own program. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a breakthrough because of the debunking of two important myths: that women who are alone are chronically unhappy and that women cannot create humor out of a non-sexual situation. The interaction of the female characters, especially Mary and Rhoda, created the platform for other programs dealing with women.

Plus ça change, etc., as we said in Sheepshead Bay.

So this new book sits at my elbow, the pink cover with faces of women comics in happy bubbles, inviting me to flip open the pages, or at least look at the index to search for my name (if the book has a index; I don't know. I'm serious about not having opened it). At this point, my fingers and toes are crossed for a footnote just so that I don't have to accept the "hoarding" label.

After all, this much I know from writing about women's humor in performance and in real life: There are plenty enough laughs to go around.