Bess Kalb Celebrates Women in Comedy With ‘Yearly Departed’

Bess Kalb didn’t mean to end 2020 by making Christopher Hitchens’ “Why Women Aren’t Funny” go viral. The 2007 Vanity Fair essay is — like so much of its late author’s work — self-indulgent, poorly written and lacking any well-defined quality beside its ability to irritate people.

One of those irritated people, more than a decade ago, was a young Kalb. In a Twitter thread posted Tuesday, the veteran late-night writer recalled the moment when, as an unsuspecting college sophomore, she picked up a copy of Vanity Fair in Penn Station, then read Hitchens’ essay (in which the author writes that it has been “one of the crucial preoccupations of my life” to make women, or the universal “her,” laugh so as to “[cause] her to loosen up and to change her expression” — an expression that was presumably unpleasant because this theoretical omni-woman had found herself talking to Christopher Hitchens).

She then drew a narrative line from that moment, which inspired her to pursue a career in comedy, to the creation of “Yearly Departed,” the new Amazon special created by Kalb and featuring a cast made up mostly of women and an all-woman writing staff.

In answer to Hitchens, Kalb closed her thread — retweeted more than 1,500 times thus far — with a screengrab from a videoconference with her all-woman writers room for a special whose cast includes Tiffany Haddish, Sarah Silverman, and Ziwe.

“I was initially just going to post a shot of the cast, and maybe a screenshot of the writers room, which I really wanted to highlight with the thread, to look at the incredible women who came together to make this happen,” Kalb tells Variety. “Because women are, despite what people may have written 15 years ago in a national publication, very funny.” “Yearly Departed,” she adds, “is sort of a good counternarrative to that piece. I’m looking at the special part of a career of trying to prove him wrong.”

“Yearly Departed” reimagines the comedy roast, putting at its center not an aged Friar, but the year 2020. Framed as a mock funeral, the special sees its stars deliver eulogies to the likes of “casual sex” and “beige Band-Aids.” Rachel Brosnahan takes off her pants. Cristina Aguilera wears a floor-length black veil and sings “I Will Remember You” as captions roll by mourning things lost in the past year such as “hugs,” “Burning Man” and “J.K. Rowling’s career.”

Kalb and the Los Angeles-based performing-arts collective We the Women developed the idea for “Yearly Departed” back in 2017, another horror-show year, staging a live version at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. The 2020 Amazon edition — which assembles its cast virtually through deft use of green screen — became reality after Kalb pitched it to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Brosnahan, whose production company Scrap Paper Pictures has a first-look deal with the tech giant.

“I feel lucky to have had a career in comedy TV at a time when there’s so many funny women doing such great work, and it’s become fairly normal to have female-helmed comedy content,” Kalb says. “But it’s odd that there haven’t been many major all-female comedy specials until ‘Yearly Departed.’” She found herself in a position where she could make the new special happen “because so many women in this industry have looked out for me and supported me.”

Kalb broke into late-night as a writer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in 2012, after having been encouraged by comedy writer Nell Scovell to submit a package. She spent eight years on the show, working under head writer Molly McNearney.

Though a miserable year for many, 2020 has seen Kalb scale new career heights. In March, just as the pandemic was taking hold in the U.S., Knopf published her first book, “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story,” about her grandmother’s life. It debuted as a national best seller and was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice for one of the best books of the year.

Now, with “Yearly Departed,” which debuted Dec. 29, she’s put a cap on the year. She has also provided an authoritative counterpoint to that smug essay that made her want to pursue comedy in the first place.

“There was a prevailing idea that comedy was for the boys,” Kalb says. “Up until college, comedy was something that I loved and enjoyed but never imagined that I could participate in. But because of this remarkable group of women like Nell Scovell and Molly McNearney, We the Women and Scrap Paper Pictures, ‘Yearly Departed’ was able to happen. So, as bad as Christopher Hitchens was, these women who lifted up my voice made it happen.”

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