How a 1976 anthology of female comedians inspired a starry new update
On the Shelf
Notes From the Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-Grade Panic From 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy
Edited by Amy Solomon
Harper Design: 256 pages, $30
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Amy Solomon, a film and TV producer whose credits include “Silicon Valley” and “Barry,” grew up in Chicago, ingesting Second City vibes along with her school lunches. And then, one “very fateful Hanukkah,” a relative gave her a boxed set of DVDs from the early years of “Saturday Night Live.”
“I was introduced to the genius who is Gilda Radner,” Solomon says over a video chat from her sunny, art-filled Silver Lake apartment. “I was convinced our spirits were linked. She was just my queen.” After researching “everything and anything” Radner did, Solomon found a 1976 artifact called “Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women.” Saucy and very of-its-time (right down to its punny title and bosomy cover), the book is a mixed-media compilation of work by Radner, Candice Bergen, Phyllis Diller, Laraine Newman, Fran Lebowitz, Erma Bombeck, Anne Meara and many others.
“It’s essays, it’s comics, it’s sheet music, fake magazine covers, even needlepoint,” Solomon says. It was also, so far as she knows, the last anthology of its kind. “Selfishly I wanted another, because that’s my favorite thing in the world.”
Having gotten to know a whole bunch of funny women herself, Solomon is out with her own collection, which has its own on-the-nose subtitle: “Notes From the Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-Grade Panic From 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy.”
“When Harper bought the book, I just started expanding this evil web of all my favorite women,” Solomon says. “I’d ask one woman, ‘Who are your friends?’ Then I’d ask those women. Then I’d ask who their favorite women were. There’s nothing better to me than women recommending other women.”
The producer was inspired by “Titters’” “time-capsule quality” and wanted to compile something similar — a curated grab bag of 2021. The result is a chunky, retro-styled hardback with more heft and weight than its softcover predecessor.
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Organized under topical sections such as “Socializing,” “Nostalgia” and “Family,” “Notes” features lists, charts, emails, satirical ads, collage, essays, cartoons, letters, self-portraits — and even some sheet music composed by cabaret comedian Catherine Cohen. There are also annotated scripts, speeches, advice articles, maps, a horoscope: comic art of all kinds thrown into a blender with a soupy base of truth, as lived by a woman in 21st century America.
“Just letting [them] write what was on their minds felt like a revolution,” Solomon says. “When ‘Titters’ came out, comedy was still a boys’ club. I grew up a tomboy, and when I read that collection, I thought, ‘That’s great that they dealt with that, ‘cause I’m not going to have to. They figured it out for me.’”
Well, not quite. Solomon identifies “above all as a feminist,” and she recognizes that women and other marginalized groups still face great challenges. “So there are pieces that particularly encapsulate what the book as a whole is trying to do. One of those is Beth Stelling’s ‘What’s in My Bag,’ illustrated by Kendl Ferencz. It’s a satire on those glossy magazine pieces” — only this bag also has bedazzled pepper spray and a “designer stun gun!” Everything the modern lady requires.
Figuring out how to break up the chapters, Solomon thought of an ingenious interstitial device. “My mom has said things to me about who I should date, things that I can’t stop thinking about,” she says. “And so one day I gathered my brain trust of friends and we just made this huge list of the things we can’t stop thinking about.”
Dozens of writers addressed prompts, including “A lie you’ve told to get out of plans” (Chelsea Peretti: “I last minute have to do a runway show in Milan”) and “Slang that you made up that will never catch on but it should” (Maria Bamford: “‘Minding my grinding’ [Having awareness of how I’m posting on social media]”). Asked what her exes have in common, Cecily Strong gives a good sense of what’s in store: “The most important exes could maybe be cult leaders because I LOVE a megalomaniac. Confidence is hot as hell, right ladies?...”
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The collection took three years to edit. “Honestly, things are so slow in Hollywood, it didn’t surprise me,” Solomon says. “But it also kind of went really quickly. My proposal had 20 or so women attached to it, then I sent around a document of prompts. Some didn’t need them, some were paralyzed and glad to have them.” The most important thing for Solomon was that this wouldn’t be yet another anthology of humorous personal essays. “I asked for comics and graphics and sketches, whatever worked.”
Some submissions exactly matched Solomon’s best ideas, like screenwriter Anna Greenfield’s “Bangs + Breasts = Fast: My Childhood Diary, Annotated.” Others flew in out of left field, like Rebecca Shaw’s “It Happened to Me: My Goop Vaginal Egg Hatched Into a Tiny White Woman Who I Now Have to Care for as My Own.” Solomon laughs as she recounts the audiobook version, in which Shaw endows the Tiny White Woman with her own distinctive voice.
The editor confesses she’s talking to me from her bedroom because her living room is strewn with copies she’ll send to contributors, for which she is writing 120 individualized thank-you notes. She believes in gratitude and giving credit where it is due. “My boyfriend and my dad and my mom were so sweet and helpful through this whole process,” she adds, “and my dad’s reactions to the content — he read every piece that came in — convinced me that this was a book for everyone. I mean, if a 60-year-old freelance consultant white, straight guy loves it, that’s the dream.”
One voice absent from the book, aside from her breezy and energetic introduction, is Solomon’s. So I gave her one of her own prompts: Amy, what’s your bad habit that you can’t give up?
“I can’t have food in the house because I will just eat it,” she says. “I procrastinate by baking, and it’s a horrible habit. I baked a cake the other night and had to walk it over to my boyfriend’s apartment. Thankfully, he lives only a few blocks away. I had to leave … otherwise, I will just eat it until it’s gone.”
As we move on to the relative merits of Instagram cooks versus food bloggers, I can’t help imagining that we’re just two women in the bathroom line, or as near as it gets in 2021.
With a new memoir, “You’re Leaving When?,” the writer-actress contemplates illness, middle age and an empty nest, humorously.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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