A funny thing happened. Not funny, ha-ha, funny as in ironic. I’ve been watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Prime, about a divorced female stand-up comedian in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and just stumbled onto a book called In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy. The karmameter siren sounded, dive into this and write a blog, it said. I blame it on fate.
Women have always been funny in movies, radio, theater, vaudeville and television. But there was a time when doing stand-up was a man’s world. Yes, really. If you are familiar with Mrs. Maisel, you see her battle to be accepted and break through the gender ceiling. The term stand-up comedy is a more recent phenomenon, although there are sources that say it was used in the early 1900s. Also the term “monologuist” was also used to describe someone standing before an audience engaged in storytelling, poetry or in any way monopolizing the gathering.
Shawn Levy’s book, In on the Joke, traces the history of the women who made it possible for Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman, Rita Rudner, Margaret Cho, Chelsea Handler and many others. Note: This is film critic and author Shawn Levy (Castle on Sunset, Paul Newman: A Life), not the film director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Stranger Things).
Moms Mabley, Minnie Pearl, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Elaine May and Joan Rivers are featured in Levy’s book. There were other women who worked in film, radio, television and on the stage who specialized in comedy and helped break the stand-up ceiling too. Each achieved a different level of success and legacy, but all had early careers that seem to be cut from the same experiences and challenges.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley was not her birth name, but one she adopted. It was 1941 when she first appeared on stage with that name. She had been a performer appearing with others over the previous two decades, working the vaudeville circuit, mainly Black clubs for Black audiences on the “chitlin circuit” after a very hard life and giving birth to five children, two by rape.
“As a fireside philosopher, Moms commented on men, children, sex, politics, contemporary
fashions in music, clothes, courtship the whole gamut of human experience. The character was a mask: the wardrobe like a clown’s suit, the slow, raspy-voiced delivery, the countrified speech, and, in later years, the decision to perform while seated in a chair and with-out her false teeth. You felt as if you were sitting in her kitchen.” – In on the Joke
Real success came late in life to Moms, although she earned a good living playing the Apollo and other established venues. It was television in the 1960s that brought her to the attention to White America and she used this broadened appeal in the 1970s to enjoy hard-earned wealth and travel. She was invited to the White House in 1966, and made her first national television appearance in 1967, at age 70, on The Merv Griffin Show. From there, she appeared on other talk shows, television specials and variety shows, TV advertisements, a feature film and Bill Cosby’s sitcom. What an incredible life!
The Moms character was typical of how women began to find opportunity, adopting a persona acceptable to audiences; and the notion of a woman commanding an audience, not as a singer or actress, but telling jokes and stories, and crossing over into adult language and comedy. An entire subgenre of female stand-up was based on “blue comedy”, women talking about sex and using frank language, delivering the kind of material that sometimes came with a police arrest.
Riffing about parts of the anatomy and sexual adventures, was shocking enough, but for women to be discussing their sexual interests and desires, that was difficult for the times, and especially to come from the mouths of women. Mrs. Maisel was arrested several times on the television show. While Levy comments about the Mrs. Maisel show, he refers to it as very fictionalized and does not seem impressed with accurately representing the true nature of women working to breakthrough and gain acceptance in stand-up in that era.
Mrs. Maisel is presented as a young, attractive and elegantly dressed woman, who can openly talk like a sailor and be quite descriptive and confident onstage, going toe to toe with veteran comics. If a woman did not hide behind a character, like Moms or Minnie Pearl, she seemed to wear evening gowns and be made-up for an elegant night on the town. On Mrs. Maisel there is a character, Sophie Lennon, played by Jane Lynch, whose stage persona is a frumpy, wise-talking housewife, with a thick neighborhood accent, a character much different than the “real” Sophie Lennon who is wealthy, refined and stuffy.
Sarah Colley invented the Minnie Pearl character and became the most well-known female comic in the country. Her father gave her a piece of advice; be kind, and she would be embraced by her audience. Sarah Colley was a country girl, but not like the character she portrayed. For decades she was a Grand Old Opry performer, but had not been a country music fan.
As a young lady, she first struggled to find a career, but found a job traveling to small communities organizing local talent shows. It was on the road that she got the idea for a folksy character, so she assembled a costume, and was asked to perform what became Minnie Pearl. Like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and many others, the Minnie Pearl character was not very lucky with the opposite sex. Sarah gave Minnie a backstory and entire community filled with characters and their own stories.
Performing regularly on the Opry made Minnie Pearl a well-known character and led to many opportunities for appearances on television, fairs, concert venues and USO shows. She wrote books and other ways for Minnie to share her stories and comedy. She was a regular performer on Hee Haw for many years. Sarah Colley rarely stepped outside of the Minnie Pearl character as a performer. Minnie Pearl was lovable and revered.
I remember Phyllis Diller primarily from television and films in my childhood. She had a persona more than a character, of a woman that was challenged in love and life, but was not afraid to talk about it. Her “husband” Fang, was often the subject of her stories. Phyllis wore rather loud, frumpy dresses, exaggerated makeup, wild hair and performed with a cigarette holder. She was loud and laughed at her own jokes, but there was something earnest about her, she was self-effacing and never mean-spirited.
Phyllis did not get her start onstage until age 37, as she had a husband and five kids. After some financial setbacks, she had to become the earner in the family, so she began writing witty advertising copy and eventually doing short, daily television appearances giving advice to women. She started performing some of her material in unpaid opportunities before being convinced to appear in a club. She said that she had no idea what she was doing as a comic and she saw no other women doing what she was trying to do. Trial by fire, and she bombed many times, but never gave up.
What people did not know about Phyllis Diller is that she was educated, a trained pianist and singer, performed with symphony orchestras, was an accomplished painter who also collected art, and owned numerous classic cars.
Bob Hope befriended Phyllis and often put her in his films, television shows and overseas visits to the military. That is how I came to know her, and probably many others as well. Television was the key to becoming known to the masses. To get booked on Jack Parr, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen or Ed Sullivan opened up the careers of many performers, particularly the female stand-up. A great performance would change your career overnight.
Born Sophie Feldman, she became kind of a cross between Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, the butt of her own jokes about her love life and her looks. Known for her ribald sense of humor, she had to tone it down for fancy bookings and television. Her career really took off in the early 1960s, aided by many television appearances, and she was performing until her death in 1978, despite increasing health problems.
Totie was quite a popular personality, appearing on game shows, variety and talk shows, and became a punchline for plus-sized women. Talking about her weight and chasing men were common female comedy topics. There was nothing dainty about Totie Fields, she could out-cuss a sailor, would not to held back, and was known to battle other female comics for jobs.
Back in the 1950s, music was still part of the stand-up act for many performers, especially women. Song seemed more acceptable than telling jokes.
Jean Carroll is not known by a lot of people today, but she was very successful in the 1950s and 1960s before she retired. An influence for Joan Rivers? Style and mannerisms, yes. Was Jean the model for Mrs. Maisel? She certainly was a role model for fellow Michigan resident Lili Tomlin.
Jean was a singer, dancer and sketch comedian, she released record albums, had her own TV show and appeared on variety/talk shows, and earned big money at nightclubs. She walked away when the travel grind wasn’t worth it, before the days of big media exposure, to retire and enjoy her family.
Before Joan Rivers was a fashion reporter and Home Shopping Network businesswoman, she was a stand-up comic. Joan bared her soul as a comic, not afraid to insult others, and especially hard on herself. She was often in her own crosshairs.
It took awhile for Joan’s career to take off, but that was true of other comics too. Joan was successful as a department store chain buyer, and later used her writing skills to write gags and scripts for others. When she finally was booked for Johnny Carson, she was a hit and her career took off. Later, she was Carson’s permanent guest host, until Fox hired her to compete with him, then he never spoke to her again.
Joan Rivers is probably the best known of the early female comics, and much has been written about her life. Was Joan Rivers the model for Mrs. Maisel?
Yes. No. Maybe. There are those who say yes, but it is likely the character was both a blend of real stand-ups and original character traits.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a great series, whatever the origins. The production values are extraordinary, the cast is extremely talented and the writing is so whip-smart that you might have to watch it several times to catch everything.
Sophie Tucker used songs in many of her performances, a holdover from her vaudeville days. Sophie performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, appeared in theatrical productions and in many films. Her act consisted of songs and comedic banter with her musicians. Bette Midler was one of many performers to use her as a stage model.
The Ribald Humorists
Men were not the only ones venturing into adult language and “blue” material. Not only was it racy to hear male comics curse and talk about sex, it was shocking to hear women do it, and talk so frank about it.
There were clubs and saloons across America where this adult entertainment played. If you couldn’t attend, party records, recordings of live performances, were available for home enjoyment. Mort Saul, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx and others offered an alternative to Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and other male comics. Rusty Warren and Belle Barth were two of the women comics who released bawdy comedy albums.
In on the Joke, is a great look-back at American comedy through the lives of some pioneering funny women. Levy includes Elaine May and Anne Meara in his book. Funny and talented women, but not part of these solo, stand-up comics. Neither did I include Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett or Bea Benaderet as these were more skit or comedy actors. Gracie Allen did stand-up before she became a sitcom star, but like Anne Meara and Elaine May, were part of comedy teams.
When you are watching television or films with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Goldie Hawn, Samantha Bee, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, Kristen Wiig or other talented women, keep in mind the challenges of the women several generations before them, and the obstacles they knocked down to open the world of comedy for those who followed.
Watch the YouTube clips. Enjoy!