Victorian novelist George Meredith said that without the tempering wit of women there could be no real comedy at all. As the husband of the funniest lady I have ever known, I heartily agree.
I always appreciated conversations with female friends ever since I was a teenager. If the only insights, observations, thoughts, and philosophy I had ever encountered over the years originated only from other guys, I’d probably be a sociopath by now.
But there has historically been a scarcity of female comics in the world of stand-up. There have always been female comedians, from vaudeville to radio to TV, but “back in the day” they were a rarity in solo acts. They performed with a male partner or had a unique stage persona as did Fanny Brice.
Jean Carroll, a popular comedienne of the 1940s and ’50s is widely credited with having blazed the trail for female stand-up comics who came after her, such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. In Carroll’s day, the world of stand-up comedy was thought to be unfit for a woman. Her humor was considered radical; she appeared alone onstage in an evening dress and diamonds (that alone was revolutionary) and unleashed a rapid-fire barrage of one-liners about her spouse, a staple of male comics.
Even with Carroll’s precedent-setting popularity, it has been a long and circuitous road for female stand-ups. There’s a reason why your local comedy clubs will occasionally have “Ladies Night” comedy shows but don’t feel the need to have a “Men’s Night.” It’s tough enough trying to get noticed in the sea of comedians that is out there nowadays.
In the ongoing debate over “He said something funny”/“she said something funny,” there have been some casualties. Eddie Brill lost his job booking comedians for “Late Show with David Letterman” after the backlash following his comments in a NY Times interview in 2012 that some considered sexist. He was quoted as saying “There are a lot less female comics who are authentic. I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.” Comic Jessica Kirson responded: “What does that mean?” Good question. Brill said his remarks were taken out of context. Even so, in 2011, only one woman (Karen Rontowski) was booked on “Late Show.”
In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Johnny Carson said he thought it was “very difficult” for a woman to be a comedian, acknowledging that his reasoning was based on long-standing role models that are associated with women. He said: “ A woman is feminine, a woman is not abrasive. She has to overcome that built-in identification as a retiring, meek woman.” Although he mentioned that he thought Joan Rivers had great success with stand-up, he said “The ones that try, sometimes are a little aggressive for my taste.”
A 1984 NY Times magazine story on women comics noted that in 1983, the Tonight Show featured only 5 female comedians. One was Sandra Bernhard who was promoting her film appearance in “The King of Comedy” starring Jerry Lewis. By the way, In 1998, during a Q&A session at Aspen’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Jerry Lewis was asked which women comics he admired, He answered, “I don’t like any female comedians.”
Rivers had auditioned seven times for Carson’s show but was repeatedly turned down until Bill Cosby recommended her. Even so, when she got the guest spot in 1965, it was as a comedy writer, not a comedian. That, however, worked out for her because, although she didn’t get to perform stand-up, her conversation with Carson cracked him up and he asked her to return many times. Rivers became his most frequent guest host, but when she phoned him in 1986 to tell him the exciting news that she had gotten her own talk show, he hung up on her and never spoke to her again. For some reason, he treated it as a betrayal.
By the advent of the comedy boom of the 1980s, female stand-ups were no longer a rarity. Shows like HBO’s “Women of the Night” profiled comics such as Ellen DeGeneres and Rita Rudner.
Speaking of which, In 2000, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas asked Rita Rudner to fill a six-week window they had. Her show became the hottest ticket in town. So much so that MGM built Rudner her own 450-seat theatre. She is now officially the longest-running solo comedy show in the history of Las Vegas.
Ellen DeGeneres began performing stand-up In 1981. In 1982 she entered a national talent contest held by the Showtime network, sending in a videotape of her stand-up act. She was voted the Funniest Person in America for her “conversation with God” monologue.
After that, her comedy career picked up momentum. Audiences liked her amiable and cheerful style. “I just watched other people and learned what I don’t like as an audience, and what I do like,” she says, “and anything that makes an audience uncomfortable, I know not to do next time.”
But with her early success came criticism from other comics who resented DeGeneres’s Showtime honor. During one appearance, a hostile club emcee incited the primarily male audience to turn their backs during her performance. Disheartened by this rude behavior, she left the stage in the middle of her routine, at which point the emcee ran to the mic and shouted “Let’s hear it one more time for the funniest Person in America. “I wanted to go home and get out of the business,” she recalled.” But she refused to let that incident set her back, and her determination paid off.
in 1986, a Tonight Show booking agent caught her act at the Improv in Hollywood and she got her chance to be on the Tonight Show. Well, actually, second time was a charm. The first time she was scheduled to appear on Johnny Carson, she got bumped because Robert Goulet went overlong; he kept forgetting the lyrics to the song “Memory.”
After she delivered a monologue on the Tonight Show, she became the only female comic to be invited to sit and talk with Johnny Carson after her first appearance. Since then, she has become a television icon, and her talk show “Ellen,” has earned dozens of Daytime Emmy Awards.
And the emcee who tried to publicly ridicule DeGeneres after she received her Showtime Award? I don’t know who he is.