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Anne Beatts, Laughter Pioneer

During a time when comedic institutions like SNL were largely impenetrable boys' clubs, Anne Beatts leveraged her connections, developed her own voice, and wrote some of the most edgy satire of the 1970s.

by Sascha Cohen
Jan 23 2016, 7:00pm

Anne Beatts likes to tell people that she got into comedy the "same way Catharine the Great got into politics—on my back." As a young woman in the 1970s, Beatts dated humor writers Michel Choquette and Michael O'Donoghue, accompanied them to the right social events, and got many of her ideas into the infamous satire magazine The National Lampoon. She went on to write for Saturday Night Live during the show's first five years, developing many of the sketches that featured female cast members Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, and Jane Curtin.

During a time when comedic institutions like the Lampoon and SNL were largely impenetrable boy's clubs, Beatts leveraged her connections, developed her own voice, and wrote some of the most bizarre, button-pushing, and edgy satire of the 1970s. She compiled and edited Titters: The First Collection of Humor By Women in 1976. A dark and politically incorrect anthology, it included a parody of Ms. Magazine, "The Sylvia Plath Cookbook," and "Gilda Radner's Diet Tips." In the early 1980s.Beatts went on to create the CBS sitcom Square Pegs, which starred Sarah Jessica Parker as a high school misfit.

I talked to Beatts, who now teaches comedy writing in Los Angeles, about free speech, feminism, and how to be funny in an environment that's hostile to women.

BROADLY: Looking back at the National Lampoon in the 1970s, it's easy to interpret much of the male-authored material as misogynistic.
Beatts: Yes, it was super misogynistic.

The writers used slurs liberally, and seemed to delight in the sexual objectification of women. Was this something you noticed at the time? Or did you interpret that type of content differently?
Yes, I noticed, believe me. They didn't really want women in the magazine so much. I always had to struggle. I had to try harder. And ultimately I stopped writing for the magazine because I was having difficulty getting some of my work in. I had lunch with [Lampoon Co-founder] Henry Beard, and I asked, what's the deal? and he said,

"I just don't think chicks are funny." I cried and lost a contact lens in my soup – instead of punching him in the nose, which is what he deserved. So I stopped writing for the magazine altogether.

Did you ever, in later years, confront any of these people, or did you just move on with your life?
I didn't confront them in person, but I sort of confronted them in my work. I was lucky enough to be on SNL, and they weren't. So it was sort of like I didn't have a lot to prove at that point. It wasn't like I was picking up copies of the Lampoon and going, "oh this is offensive to women!" Because to some degree, the magazine tried to be offensive to everybody. It was more about trying to play on the same field as the boys, which was always a struggle.

Anne Beatts (seated on floor) with SNL cast. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

Do you think that popular comedy is changing with respect to diversity? How far do you think we have come?
Not very far.

In an older interview you mentioned trying to get Lorne Michaels to cast a black woman on Saturday Night Live
Well, [my writing partner] Rosie [Shuster] and I used to ask him to cast a black woman, and finally he did – there are two of them now. [Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata]. Of course, I think it's a better time for "women in comedy" now than it was the 80s, certainly, but I would still say it's not an equal playing field.

I mean, come on, when Matt Damon can win the award for best comedic actor in The Martian, can you imagine? It's ridiculous. That was just crazy.

So, you still think it's more difficult for female humorists and comedians?

I think it's harder. Especially in stand-up, which I never did, but if you're trying to do it, the life that you have to live is more difficult than for men. Because you know, you're constantly on the road and stuff – and what do you tell your boyfriend? "Oh, I'm just gonna be at the Comedy Store until two o'clock in the morning." I think men still have an edge there. It's why I think that so many women in comedy are gay, because it's easier.

Were you involved in the women's liberation movement in the 1970s? Some of the content in Titters actually makes fun of second-wave feminism, but the book itself, by showcasing female comic voices, is an inherently feminist endeavor.
That's kind of a tricky question because – you know, first of all, it wasn't like everybody got together at Gloria Steinem's house. There wasn't like a secret handshake or something. I never described myself really as a feminist because I really felt that it was such a blurry definition. Like, is the woman in the Virginia Slims ad a feminist? I don't know. It just seems like the word was co-opted the minute it was invented. So I never went around going, "I'm a feminist." But I obviously believed in equal rights and equal pay and that kind of stuff.

Political movements aren't known for their sense of humor. But Titters was a response to Henry Beard saying that chicks aren't funny. It was a statement. But I think we were also coming from the position that nothing is sacred, you know. You could believe in the Equal Rights Amendment and still make fun of feminism, you know what I mean? Or people who eat their placenta, or whatever.

Do you think the new emphasis on political correctness, driven by millennials, is "killing" or stifling comedy, like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have suggested?
I believe in freedom of speech – you should be able to say anything, anytime, anywhere

I'm thinking of how the specific projects you have worked on, the Lampoon and SNL, were known for pushing the boundaries of what people were allowed to say.
We didn't really have censorship at the Lampoon. But we had censors, literal censors – human people who told us, "you can't say that"—on Saturday Night Live at NBC. We had an argument because they didn't want us to say "do it," they wanted us to say "have sex." Like you could say "penis" or whatever, but you couldn't say a slang term for a penis. It was all about words. We used to put things in so that we could take them out and get away with what we actually wanted to put in. Everyone in TV who dealt with censors did that.

What were some of the memorable sketches you wrote?
I was so annoyed by these ads where they went "my wife, I think I'll keep her!" and also just the general mindlessness of soap and cosmetic ads. So I wrote this soap ad for "Angora Bouquet" and the slogan was, "It washes your brain as well as your face!" And it was Jane Curtin, and she was like "Hi, I'm beautiful but stupid, and my husband wants me to stay that way!" So it was "Angora Bouquet: The Soap that helps you stay that way." And then another line was, "My husband loves the way I never bother him with my opinion." It was filmed beautifully and all that, it was an ad parody, and the soap company that advertised on SNL – Ivory or whatever it was – took their ad off the show as a result. I thought I might be in trouble for that, but ultimately it didn't matter. They got the point. So I always wanted to have an effect.

The most outrageous sketches I can recall are the "Uncle Roy" bits, with Buck Henry as a pedophile babysitter, and Gilda and Laraine as his young victims. You could never put that type of thing on television today.
That was Rosie and me, writing that. It was the lighter side of child molestation, I guess. Buck Henry was one of those very touchy-feely guys, who was always hugging you and stuff like that, so in some ways his personality was a little bit of an inspiration for Uncle Roy. But the idea of – what was funny to us, first off all, was that the parents [in the sketch] were so clueless. They were just like, "Oh Roy, you're too good!" Then the other thing was that the girls were innocent, and they just always triumphed over him, they turned the tables on him as a sexual predator, in a way. It pushed the envelope a little.

When I look back at some of the material they got away with, I'm just sort of astounded.
I think the show had a darker, and more adult orientation, and we dealt with a lot of taboo subjects. Ralph Nader did a sketch with blow-up sex dolls!

Who were your comedic influences as a young adult? What styles of humor were you drawn to?
I spent a lot of my childhood reading old copies of The New Yorker magazine, and I was always a big fan of James Thurber. I guess I was probably first introduced to him by reading his children's books, but then I started reading his humor collections and stuff, and reading him in The New Yorker, which was a big influence on me. I sort of wished I could live inside a Christmas issue of The New Yorker. Another person that I always looked up to as a humor writer was Terry Southern. As well as writing some blackly comedic novels, he wrote the screenplay to Dr. Strangelove. And he actually wrote on Saturday Night Live at one point, although by then was past his prime. I suppose I should also say Dorothy Parker, and that whole Algonquin bunch.

I've noticed though, in interviews with comedians, they tend to downplay that aspect of it – they'll say, "I was just trying to be funny" or "we just wanted to make people laugh," without acknowledging -
Well, yeah, because they don't want to seem like they're on a soapbox, they don't want to seem polemical or whatever. If they say that they have an axe to grind, they might not seem interesting.

In any of your projects, did you have a sense that you were using humor as a form of social commentary or criticism?
Of course, yes, absolutely. That was the whole point. If there's not some sort of attitude or point of view, you know, I'm not interested.

Top image: (top row L to R) Anne Beatts, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Jim Downey Bottom row: Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Michael O'Donoghue, Tom Schiller, Rosie Shuster, Alan Zweibel, Bill Murray —2nd Emmy win, 1977.