Women in Comedy: A Subversive History

Grace Overbeke / Columbia College Chicago

The Women of Stand-Up Comedy

Stand-up comedy has been a celebrated form of American performance since the mid-twentieth century. Superstars like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor loom large in the history of stand-up, and in discussions of its radical potential to speak truth to power. But stand-up’s rich (and colorful) history is often told without some of the major characters: the women comics who have been standing up and cracking wise since before ‘stand-up’ had a name.

The History of Women in Comedy

Intertwining comedy and history from throughout the twentieth century, Professor Grace Kessler Overbeke takes a deeper look at the supposedly ‘male dominated’ tradition of stand-up comedy, unearthing the remarkable women pioneers. Going from the “comedic character monologues” of Cornelia Otis Skinner in the 1930s and the raunchy quips of Moms Mabley in the 1940s, to the domestic banter of Jean Carroll in the 1950s, the double-standard-illuminating Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers in the 1960s, and beyond, this lecture looks at the hilarious—and often subversive—history of women in comedy.

Learn More About Women in Comedy

Grace Kessler Overbeke is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Columbia College with a focus on the Comedy Writing and Performance major. Previously, she served as the Perilman Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Duke University. Her most recent scholarship appears in such publications as The New England Theatre JournalTheatre AnnualStudies in American Humor and The Jewish Forward. As a dramaturg, she has worked with theatres including Adventure Stage Chicago, The Kennedy Center for Young Audiences, The Studio Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse.