When I first heard about a book called Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, it could be conservatively stated that I just about lost my frickin’ mind. Published in 1976—smack in the middle of the both the height of second-wave feminism and the golden years of Saturday Night Live—Titters collected parodies, comics, and humorous writing from some of the biggest female humorists of the era.
I felt like I had discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls of tampon jokes. The missing link between the female comedians of the past—Gilda!—and the female comedians of the present whom I worshipped—Margaret! Janeane!—had to be hidden inside this book. The book includes women like SNL performer Laraine Newman, SNL writers Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts (who also served as the book’s co-editor), satirist (and other co-editor) Deanne Stillman, comic artist Aline Kaminsky, comedian Phyllis Diller, and many more.
Alas, when my inter-library loan copy of Titters finally arrived, few of those hopes panned out.
Titters was not the perfect feminist comedy anthology that I had hoped for. Though some of the parodies held up quite well, I was underwhelmed by many of the gags and put off by the rampant sizeist and gay jokes. The whole book felt kind of phoned-in for a tome whose subtitle offered such a bold, history-making promise. I felt deflated. If I hadn’t found a lost classic of female comedy, well, what the hell had I found?
A decade after that first lack-luster encounter, I now believe Titters is an important part of women’s comedy history precisely because it isn’t enduring.
Despite its subtitle, Titters was not the first collection of humor by women. That honor would belong to 1885’s The Wit of Women. It’s not even the second collection of humor by women—that’d be 1934’s Laughing Their Way: Women’s Humor in America, edited by Mary Beard and Martha Bensley Bruere.
But it’s possible that the editors of Titters didn’t know about those books, either, just as I hadn’t known about the publication of Titters. Just like Titters, those early volumes were not brilliant, timeless collections of humor that achieved Mark Twain-style comedy immortality. Instead, all three books they were mixed bags of gags about contemporary life in the era, sprinkled with plenty of the era’s ‘acceptable’ racial, sexual, sizeist, and ableist predjudices.
Titters is noteworthy because comedy is able to provide a unique and visceral glimpse into someone’s anxieties and discontent in a way no diary, news article, or earnest piece of nonfiction can. Women’s humor (even women’s unfunny humor!) is worth preserving for the same reasons that women’s diaries, news articles, and earnest nonfiction pieces are also worth preserving. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or stay relevant, to be important to our understanding of how our culture has evolved and changed.
The book is, from start to finish, is full of parodies of the pop culture detritus that turned up in women’s lives in that era. Sylvia Plath and Eloise and “True Confessions Magazine” share space with tampon insertion instructions and Marabel Morgan’s heinous relationship advice tome, The Total Woman. The book’s introduction, most of all, feels like a peek at a specific moment in history: “If it’s now okay for women to write poems in menstrual blood, why shouldn’t it be okay for women to write jokes about women who write poems in menstrual blood? Well? Why?”
Reading the introduction now—which is certain of a future where “days of pigtails and hair ribbons and laughing behind our hands are gone,” where it would forever be totally acceptable for women to write poems in their own menstrual blood—I’m struck most by the editors’ belief that the issue of “women aren’t funny” had been finally and definitively laid to rest, that there would only be forward movement from this point on.
It’s difficult to get your hands on reviews of Titters nowadays—the only two I was able to hunt down were a brutal 1976 review in the Harvard Crimson that lambasted the book as a “smug, sorry collection of ‘female’ humor which is at best unfunny, at worst offensive and exploitative,” and a 1979 review by Catherine Clinton in Cultural Correspondence that praised the book, noting that “the majority the work transcends the feminine and becomes feminist.” I couldn’t find any sales data, but it is safe to say that Titters didn’t spawn the cultural revolution (or sequel books) that its editors had hoped for, and it crept into the dustbin of history like the women’s humor anthologies before it.
I think that we need to remember Titters—and The Wit of Women, and Laughing Their Own Way, and other works of women’s humor that I don’t know about—so no one creates another “first book of humor by women.” We need to remember that, contrary to a popular culture that tells us Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers were the only funny female human beings to exist before 1975, women have been using and performing comedy as long as comedy has existed. Just because most of their jokes were tied closely to their times (like Marietta Holley and Alice Duer Miller’s satire in favor of women’s suffrage), doesn’t mean that we should forget it.
We have to hold on to the history of women’s comedy, to toss up like the bat signal the next time someone talks about how women have “just started” doing comedy.