Funny ladies have been prescribing laughter since the days of Fanny Brice
By Mary Werblin
If laughter is the best medicine, comediennes have been America’s finest doctors for the past century. A sense of humor in women was, for millennia, believed to be the ability to laugh at a man’s joke, rather than tell the joke herself. Comedy was designed to what men would find funny and non-threatening. When women finally entered the arena of comedy, they were given a small corner, and told not to make trouble if they wanted any gigs. As women comics gained slow acceptance, they were able to expand the topics they covered.
Women comics have since made significant gains, finding fame through stand-up, television, movies, and writing. Women as diverse as Phyllis Diller, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes and Niecy Nash have contributed to the world of comedy, spanning both time and the medium itself. As comedy has grown, women have wielded it as an instrument within the larger realm of feminism, using laughter to draw attention to issues like rape, gender inequality, beauty norms and chauvinism. As an easy and readily acceptable means of communication between the genders—and between the races—comedy lends itself to not only the feminist movement but to inequality and discrimination that, sad to say, is still ubiquitous in the 21st century.
The world of comedy has evolved and today’s entertainment world is filled with brilliant female comics, like Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman. But this new generation must never forget the large shoulders upon which they stand—the women who fought to make their voices heard in the male monopoly of comedy—to remember how difficult it was for women to overcome the racist and sexist barriers that their predecessors had to overcome.
Here is a look at some of the pioneers who blazed the trail for the funny ladies of today.
“Being a funny person does an awful lot of things to you. You feel that you mustn’t get serious with people. They don’t expect it from you, and they don’t want to see it. You’re not entitled to be serious, you’re a clown.”
Born on October 29, 1891, in New York City, Fanny Brice sang in a talent contest when she was 13 at Keeney’s Theatre and won first prize. In 1910, Florenz Ziegfeld heard Brice singing in a burlesque house and made her a headliner in his Follies that year. Brice was a Follies perennial after 1910, and her comic routines and parodies were highly popular. She also appeared in a few motion pictures. Shortly after having a stroke, Brice died in 1951 at the age of 59. Certainly, Brice paved the way for the likes of Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett. She has often been referred to as “America’s first female comedy superstar.” Years after her 1951 death, Brice was portrayed in the Broadway and film productions of Funny Girl, the latter of which won Barbra Streisand a Best Actress Oscar in 1969.
Here is Fanny Brice’s only TV appearance, on CBS’s “Popsicle Parade of Stars”. She plays here iconic character Baby Snooks.
Here she is doing one of her famous Broadway routines, “Quainty Dainty Me” in the film Everybody Sing (1938).
“The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”
Born Lucille Desiree Ball on August 6, 1911, “Lucy” was an American actress, comedienne, model, film-studio executive, and producer. She was best known as the star of the self-produced sitcoms “I Love Lucy”, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”, “The Lucy Show”, “Here’s Lucy” and “Life with Lucy”. Ball’s career began in 1929 when she landed work as a model. Shortly thereafter, she began her performing career on Broadway using the stage names Diane Belmont and Dianne Belmont. She later appeared in several minor film roles in the 1930s and 1940s as a contract player for RKO Radio Pictures, being cast as a chorus girl or in similar roles. During this time, she met Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, and the two eloped in November 1940.
In 1951, she and Arnaz created the sitcom “I Love Lucy”, a series that became one of the most beloved programs in television history. Ball and Arnaz divorced in May 1960, and she married comedian Gary Morton in 1961. In 1962, Ball became the first woman to run a major television studio, Desilu Productions, which produced popular series like “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek”. Ball did not back away from acting completely, appearing in film and television roles until her death in April 1989 at the age of 77.
In 1977, Lucille Ball was among the first recipients of the Women in Film Crystal Award. She was the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1979, inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1984, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center Honors in 1986, and the Governor’s Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1989. Lucy was also a great businesswoman. Lucille Ball didn’t worry about it being a “man’s world,” she just took the ball and ran with it.
Watch Lucy and Ethel wrapping chocolates!!
“If you don’t have wrinkles, you haven’t laughed enough.”
Born Phyllis Ada Driver on July 17, 1917, Phyllis Diller was an American actress and stand-up comic, best known for her eccentric stage persona, self-deprecating humor, wild hair and clothes, and larger-than-life, cackling laugh. Diller was one of the first female comics to become a household name in the U.S., paving the way for Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, and Ellen DeGeneres, among others, who credit her as an inspiration. Diller had a large gay following and is considered a gay icon. She was also one of the first celebrities to openly champion plastic surgery, for which she was recognized by the industry.
Diller worked in more than 40 films, beginning with 1961’s Splendor in the Grass. She appeared in many television series, often in cameos, but she also had her own short-lived sitcom and variety show. Some of her credits are “The Night Gallery”, “The Muppet Show”, “The Love Boat”, “Cybill”, and “Boston Legal”, plus eleven seasons of “The Bold and the Beautiful”. Her voice-acting roles included the monster’s wife in Mad Monster Party, the Queen in A Bug’s Life, Granny Neutron in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and Thelma Griffin in “Family Guy”.
Diller was widely known for her trademark wild hairstyle and off-the-wall outfits. But when it came to her material, Diller was serious business. Rather than performing song-and-dance routines or other flashy gimmicks like many other female performers of the day, Diller simply told jokes. And she told them so well that Guinness—as in the Guinness book of records—once recognized her comedic volume by conferring on her the world record for most laughs per minute. Many other women comics, including Joan Rivers, list Diller as an influence, which explains why she’s often referred to as the “Queen of Comedy.” She died in 2012.
Here’s a stand-up routine from 1968
“I’ve been on a diet for two weeks and all I’ve lost is two weeks.”
Born Sophie Feldman on May 7, 1927, in Hartford, Connecticut, daughter of a shopping center owner, “Totie” Fields began her career singing on local radio stations by the time she was 4. She toured the Borscht Belt in her teens and, by 21, she was a “tummler”—a Yiddish word for an entertainer or master of ceremonies, especially one who encourages audience interaction. Through the 1940s, Fields entertained guests on the “Borscht Belt circuit,” the hotels of the predominantly Jewish resort area in the Catskill Mountains. It was during this period that Sophie took her stage name – Totie being the way she pronounced her given name as a child. Before the 1960s, women were not expected, or even allowed, to offer opinions and ideas. Totie broke that “glass ceiling” by assuming a comic persona built on her weight and pride in her round shape. She might have been a zaftig yenta (a buxom lady) but rather than espousing self-pity she was confident in her appeal and brimming with self-love. Totie married George William Johnston, Jr. in 1950, a fellow comic in Boston who then worked as her musical director. Ed Sullivan gave Totie her first national break when he booked her on his television show after seeing her perform at the Copacabana in New York. She proved so popular that she would appear nearly 20 times on Sullivan’s show. I remember watching her on Ed Sullivan with my mother and the two of us laughed until we cried.
On August 2, 1978, Fields was scheduled to begin a two-week engagement at Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel when, on the eve of the opening, she was stricken at home by a blood clot, suffering a fatal pulmonary embolism at only 51 years of age.
Here she is on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
Jackie “Moms” Mabley was often billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World” but because she was black her humor was not made available to a wide national audience until she was an old lady. She tackled topics too edgy for most mainstream comics of the time, including racism. One of her regular themes was a romantic interest in handsome young men rather than old “washed-up geezers”, and she got away with it courtesy of her stage persona, where she appeared as a toothless, bedraggled woman in a house dress and floppy hat. At 75 years old, Moms Mabley became the oldest living person ever to have a US Top 40 hit, a cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John”.
Born on March 19, 1894, in Transylvania County, N.C., Loretta Mary Aiken was one of a family of 16 children (!). She did not have an easy early existence. While working as a volunteer fireman, her father died when a fire engine exploded. Her mother took over the father’s business, a general store, but then she, too, died tragically, run over by a truck on Christmas Day. By age 14, Loretta had been raped twice (at age 11, by an older black man, and age 13, by a white sheriff) and had two children, given up for adoption. At her grandmother’s encouragement, Loretta ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, joining a traveling vaudeville-style minstrel show starring Butterbeans and Susie, where she sang and entertained. She eventually became a regular attraction at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She came out as a lesbian at the age of 27, becoming one of the first openly gay entertainers. During the 1920s and 1930s, she appeared in androgynous clothing (as she did in the film version of The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson) and recorded several of her early “lesbian stand-up” routines. Mabley entered the world of film and stage as well, working with writer Zora Neale Hurston on the 1931 Broadway show Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes and taking on a featured role in Paul Robeson’s Emperor Jones (1933).Starting in the late 1930s, Mabley became the first woman comedian to be featured at the Apollo, going on to appear on the theater’s stage more times than any other performer. She returned to the big screen as well with The Big Timers (1945), Boarding House Blues (1948), and the musical revue Killer Diller (1948), which featured Nat King Cole and Butterfly McQueen.
She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend. In 1970, she told Ebony magazine that the old boyfriend had taken so much from her that it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as “Moms” because she was indeed a “Mom” to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s.
Do NOT go another minute without checking out the Moms Mabley 1969 performance below:
“Everybody needs a passion. That’s what keeps life interesting. If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.”
Betty White is an American, actress, author, animal rights activist and comedienne. She was one of the pioneer American women who played a role both behind and in front of a camera during the early days of television. She received the honorary title of ‘Mayor of Hollywood’ for producing a sitcom as she was the first ever female to do so. She has received a large number of awards for her performances in sitcoms, game shows and television shows based on comedy. She became famous for her role in game shows and was dubbed as the “First Lady of Game Shows”. Her career as singer, actor, host, and producer was spread over a period of more than 75 years making her the longest-serving female personality in the world of entertainment.
Born Betty Marion White on January 12, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, she was the only child of her mother Christine Tess and father Horace Logan White, an executive in a lighting company. She studied at the Horace Mann School, Beverly Hills, and the Beverly Hills High School. Three months after graduation in 1939, she made her debut appearance on television by singing songs from the opera The Merry Widow. In 1940, she acted in plays “The Great Gildersleeve”, “Blondie” and “This is Your FBI” and started her own radio program called “The Betty White Show”. In 1949, she co-hosted the daily live show “Hollywood on Television” with Al Jarvis and continued for four years. All through the 1950s she went on performing in TV commercials. She founded her production company ‘Bandy Productions’ in 1952 and created the comedy production “Life with Elizabeth” in which she played the lead role. From 1955 up to 1975, she was a commentator on the ‘Tournament of Roses Parade’ show with co-host Lorne Greene. She appeared on the big screen for the first time in 1962 in the lead role in the feature film drama Advise & Consent. In 1963, she was co-host of the game show Password with Allen Ludden whom she married later. She made regular guest appearances on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973 as the unforgettable Sue Ann Nivens. In 1985, she appeared in her biggest hit show “The Golden Girls”. During her 75-year career, she has received eight Emmy awards, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild awards, and a Grammy. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is a Television Hall of Fame inductee (class of 1995), and a Disney Legend (class of 2009). Betty White turned 95 in 2016.
Here is Betty White still funny as hell at age 94 on the Late Late Show with James Corden
Check her out below:
This is Part One of a Two-Part series on “Funny Ladies”. More contemporary artists will be covered in the next installment. Stay tuned!
Mary Werblin is an attorney and columnist in Waterbury, Connecticut. She writes frequently on the intersection of law and culture.