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Women talking comedy: an evening with Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Elayne Boosler and more

May 18, 2011 |  6:00 am

Panel 1

Comedian Elayne Boosler is way thinner than she appears in this, or any, blog post. “The Internet adds 30 pounds!” she joked to a packed house at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Monday night.

The evening, “A Conversation With Ladies Who Make Us Laugh,” brought together several seminal female comics, including Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Carol Leifer, Caroline Rhea and Bonnie Hunt, to riff on their personal journeys through an ever-changing comedy culture.  It was moderated by Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known for her role on “24,” but a prolific stand-up comic as well. 

The panel represented a prism of comedic sensibilities, spanning generations and genres --  from Tomlin’s wacky, late '60s, character-driven “Laugh-In” bits to Leifer’s '80s "Seinfeld"-esque observational absurdities, to Cho’s late '90s signature imitation of her Korean mother. And the domino effect –- how many of these women's styles have, over the years, directly influenced one another’s humor -- was not overlooked.

“When I looked to be a stand-up comic, there was just one woman doing it…and that’s Elayne Boosler,” said Leifer.  “She really started the whole new movement of [women in] stand-up comedy.”   

“I was so in love with what you were doing,” Cho told Boosler. “It really saved my life. I had a really hard childhood, really bullied, no friends...”

“It’s funny because your mom was so nice to me!” joked Boosler, whose "Party of One" on Showtime was the first female comedy special on cable.

On a more serious note, Boosler added: “Everyone here is so accomplished in their own way. We all followed the next one, and followed the next one, and branched out and opened it for more and more people.” 

Panel 2The event was patterned after “The View,” with Rajskub playing the role of Whoopi Goldberg/moderator, said the academy’s Rocci Chatfield, a former TV writer who organized the evening. But what was meant to be issues-oriented played out more as a back-patting lovefest between the women. The admiration was palpable. “Lily ... she’s her own category. There’s all of us funny girls, and then there’s Lily,” Boosler said.

Still, there was some rigor to the conversation, which traversed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as well as ageism and sexism in comedy.  “At home we call [Comedy Central] ‘18-year-old boy central,' "  Boosler said. “Comedy used to be age-proof.” 

" 'Laugh-In' [was] sexist, homophobic, everything --  because those jokes were acceptable to some degree," added Tomlin. “Sexism was just a done deal. And you almost sort of had to jockey around it as a human female.”

Panel 3“It’s an interesting phenomenon how many successful women in comedy are gay," said Cho, whose fifth film, "Cho Dependent," will show in L.A. during Outfest in July. “I think that’s why there aren’t as many women in comedy, because women care what guys think.”

Offering some contrast, Leifer pointed out that while "Seinfeld" was a tough writers room in general, it was at least equally so.  “It wasn’t a sexist place. The guys really used women writers the way they should. … 'Seinfeld' was really all about the ideas.”

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was the just released hit movie from a team that included Judd Apatow and Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids.”

“This past weekend was a real milestone for women in comedy with the success of how well “Bridesmaids” did,” Leifer said. “This is a pivotal time.”

To which the panel -– and the audience –- erupted in hoots and applause.

--Deborah Vankin

Photos: (Top) The "Ladies Who Make Us Laugh" panel, from left, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Carol Leifer, Carolyn Rhea, Margaret Cho, Bonnie Hunt, Lily Tomlin & Elayne Boosler.  (Middle) Hunt and Tomlin. (Bottom) Cho.  Credits:  Mark Davis / PictureGroup