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Women in American Comedy

Ideal for classroom use, this anthology of original essays by the leading authorities on women’s comedy surveys the disorderly, subversive, and unruly performances of women comics from silent film to contemporary multimedia

December 2017
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472 pages | 6 x 9 | 66 b&w photos |

Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Mindy Kaling, Melissa McCarthy, Tig Notaro, Leslie Jones, and a host of hilarious peers are killing it nightly on American stages and screens large and small, smashing the tired stereotype that women aren’t funny. But today’s funny women aren’t a new phenomenon—they have generations of hysterically funny foremothers. Fay Tincher’s daredevil stunts, Mae West’s linebacker walk, Lucille Ball’s manic slapstick, Carol Burnett’s athletic pratfalls, Ellen DeGeneres’s tomboy pranks, Whoopi Goldberg’s sly twinkle, and Tina Fey’s acerbic wit all paved the way for contemporary unruly women, whose comedy upends the norms and ideals of women’s bodies and behaviors.

Hysterical! Women in American Comedy delivers a lively survey of women comics from the stars of the silent cinema up through the multimedia presences of Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. This anthology of original essays includes contributions by the field’s leading authorities, introducing a new framework for women’s comedy that analyzes the implications of hysterical laughter and hysterically funny performances. Expanding on previous studies of comedians such as Mae West, Moms Mabley, and Margaret Cho, and offering the first scholarly work on comedy pioneers Mabel Normand, Fay Tincher, and Carol Burnett, the contributors explore such topics as racial/ethnic/sexual identity, celebrity, stardom, censorship, auteurism, cuteness, and postfeminism across multiple media. Situated within the main currents of gender and queer studies, as well as American studies and feminist media scholarship, Hysterical! masterfully demonstrates that hysteria—women acting out and acting up—is a provocative, empowering model for women’s comedy.


Winner of the 2017 Susan Koppelman Award for the Best Anthology, Multi-Authored, or Edited Book in Feminist Studies in Popular and American Culture from the Popular Culture Association

  • Foreword (Kathleen Rowe Karlyn)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Linda Mizejewski and Victoria Sturtevant)
  • 1. Mabel Normand: New Woman in the Flapper Age (Kristine Brunovska Karnick )
  • 2. Fay Tincher: Female Rowdiness and Social Change (Joanna E. Rapf )
  • 3. Mae West: The Constant Sinner (Kristen Hatch)
  • 4. Fanny Brice’s New Nose: Beauty, Ethnicity, and Liminality (Kristen Anderson Wagner)
  • 5. Lucille Ball and the Lucy Character: Familiarity, Female Friendship, and the Anxiety of Competence (Lori Landay)
  • 6. Carol Burnett: Home, Horror, and Hilarity on The Carol Burnett Show (Linda Mizejewski)
  • 7. Lily Tomlin: Queer Sensibilities, Funny Feminism, and Multimedia Stardom (Suzanne Leonard)
  • 8. Moms Mabley and Wanda Sykes: “I’ma Be Me” (Bambi Haggins)
  • 9. Roseanne Barr: Remembering Roseanne (Rosie White )
  • 10. Whoopi Goldberg in Hollywood: Queering Comic Genre Genealogies (Rebecca Wanzo)
  • 11. Margaret Cho’s Army: “We Are the Baddest Motherfuckers on the Block” (Rebecca Krefting)
  • 12. Ellen DeGeneres’s Incorporate Body: The Politics of Authenticity (Brenda R. Weber and Joselyn K. Leimbach)
  • 13. Sarah Silverman: Cuteness as Subversion (Anthony P. McIntyre )
  • 14. Tina Fey: “Quality” Comedy and the Body of the Female Comedy Author (Julia Havas)
  • 15. Lena Dunham: Cringe Comedy and Body Politics (Maria Sulimma )
  • Works Cited
  • Contributors
  • Index


Columbus, Ohio

Mizejewski is a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the Ohio State University. Her most recent book is Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics.

Norman, Oklahoma

Sturtevant is an associate professor of film and media studies and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of A Great Big Girl Like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler.


“Here to meet all your funny female deep-read needs . . . a juicy read for those who love the many ways female comics use their art to question the patriarchy.”

Hysterical! is and will be of benefit to any scholar studying women and humour and especially for star studies scholars that focus on funny women.”

Hysterical! is wide-ranging, well-researched, and clearly written, making it accessible to both academic and general audiences…an invaluable collection and a great read."”
Journal of Popular Culture

“Together, Mizejewski and Sturtevant create a collection which thoroughly explores aspects of the body, gender, and sexuality in American women’s comedy, shedding light on the fact that, to appear funny to men, women often find themselves making fun of their own bodies and sexual experiences in a way most male comics do not...Hysterical! is a thorough collection of essays on the works of women in American comedy, focusing on themes relating to the body, sexuality, and expectations of women in society.”
Popular Culture Studies Journal

“This stunning collection of original essays on American women comedians is a welcome treasure. It will no doubt earn pride of place with now canonical collections, and, in like manner, usher in a new generation of scholarship on the subject. Of equal importance, this book is a fun read, an experience at once intellectually festive and inspiring. It calls out to be adopted for classroom use and will also, I believe, encourage instructors to develop courses organized around it.”
Jennifer M. Bean, University of Washington, coeditor of A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema

“A milestone. Spanning generations of performers and scholars, Hysterical! testifies to the power of comedy to stimulate incisive conversations and build connections across the boundaries of time.”
Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, from the foreword

Hysterical! offers a history of entertainment, a social history of women, and a history of feminist thought, as well as a history of funny women.”
Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Texas at Austin, author of The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca