The Trailblazing Women Who Changed the Face of Comedy

YouThe Friars Club was the bastion American comedy royalty and hosted a Sid Caesar roast in October 1983. There were more than 2,000 people who laughed with appreciation, but not one woman. Mixed into the throng were some guests of club members, people who weren’t entertainment professionals but who were happy to spend a goodly sum for the experience of being among a constellation of comedy stars and listening to raunchy jokes for a few hours.

Phillip Downey was one such man. He was a slim, handsome, quiet, mustachioed, and dapper fellow from Southern California. But he blended right in with the civilians at these wingdings. When he arrived at the wingdings, he was noticed only by those around him. He was still the talking point of Friars the following day.

Phillip Downey didn’t exist. Underneath that wig and mustache and tailored suit and demure manner was Phyllis Diller, a comedy legend of more than two decades’ standing but someone who, simply by virtue of her gender, could not be admitted to the Friars as a member or be permitted to attend one of the club’s stag parties/roasts without resorting to subterfuge. “I’ve always wanted to eavesdrop,” she told the New York Post. “It was the funniest, dirtiest thing I ever heard in my life.”

Diller would be the subject of two years of roasting before Diller was made the center of their own roast. Another year passed before Diller would be offered membership to the Friars. She would become the first woman admitted into their comedy troupe. It wasn’t an honor that she needed. Diller was a well-known name in America for more than 25 year. It was like justice was finally done. Diller was anointed and made a member of the ranks. It felt as though a woman not only had been chosen for the top ranks of American comedy, but that women were also worthy.

Diller, even though she was disguised, had made significant progress by going to a Friars’ roast. She continued her career and craft until they could not help but acknowledge Diller as one of their own. Diller was among a few female comedians who had made history, set new standards, and succeeded in making a name for themselves. As in so many aspects of her career—indeed, in having a career as a comedian at all—she simply would not be denied.

This sums up the history and early achievements of women in standup comedy.. They worked alone for the most part, both in the sense that they were almost all solo performers and in the sense that, in many cases, they didn’t know about one another or see one another as doing the same thing as themselves. Their families were often subject to the indifference, confusion, naysaying and sometimes the enmity from managers, agents, critics, audiences, performers, their family, as well as impresarios, managers, executives, customers, critics, colleagues, and other performers. They persevered., Making their way, even incrementally, ever further and higher and making space for those women who followed in the bizarre business of making people laugh.

Today you look around the landscape of comedy and you see women ascendant, if not preeminent—women of all types, styles, ages, sensibilities. Today’s comedy shows feature women who are headliners at Las Vegas comedy venues.

Today we have Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Tiffany Haddish, Hannah Gadsby, Ali Wong, Mo’Nique, Rita Rudner, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Margaret Cho, among others.

It’s indisputable: there has never been more—or, arguably, better—comedy by women.

Maybe that’s why it can feel so absurd to recall a day when this once seemed impossible, when women were deemed unsuited for stand-up comedy, when the very idea of a female comedian seemed, to the eyes of the men who ran show business and to most audiences, to be a joke in and of itself.

It was true. From the days of vaudeville until the dawn of color TV, a funny woman who wanted to tell jokes was faced with a brick wall—and not the kind you stood in front of at an improv comedy club. Feminine comedians weren’t just rare; they were also actively discouraged. American culture and American showbiz had to evolve in order for women comedians to be accepted as normal.

A lot of it had to do the nature of standup comedy. Stand-up comedy refers to a specific form of art: The solo performer, with only a microphone, an energy source, jokes and nerve, who is facing an audience. Stand-up comedy must not only be entertaining, but also original, funny, relatable and economical. Stand-up comedy requires an appreciative response from the audience many times per minute. A stand-up performer is subject to harassment by bored, unamused audiences or any other individual members of the audience.

All of these qualities of the art could seem, to someone steeped in antiquated and patriarchal ways of thinking, to be somehow “inappropriate,” or “unbecoming” for a woman, somehow “unladylike”—characterizations so absurd and offensive in and of themselves that merely typing them feels like succumbing to the most thick-skulled sort of misogyny. These were dominant ideas in show business’s minds before the rise of feministism in 1960s. On a stage, a woman was expected to perform on her own and sing or dance. If comedy was performed at all by a woman alone, then it was either with a male partner or in an ensemble.

In these early days, funny women were not allowed to be female comedians. Women could not be considered comedians if they were constrained, or deformed in a way that robbed them of their womanhood. One option is to be ditzes. They can look cute and featherheaded like Gracie Allen. Allen was a comedian who worked with George Burns for years. You could make them infantilize themselves, just like Fanny Brice who took on the Baby Snooks role.

They could act older than they were, as the comedian Jackie Mabley did in the 1940s, calling herself “Moms” and affecting the demeanor of a woman decades older than her actual 40-odd years. They could also act silly and rural, like Sarah Ophelia Colley, a college educated woman who assumed the role of Minnie Pearl, a bright, sunny, country girl. But what they could not do was walk out on a stage looking like an ordinary woman from anywhere in the world and talk in plain, comic terms about the things that people like them—that is, other ordinary women—might recognize as true and funny: husbands, children, housework, or any number of the quirks of everyday life that affected men and women equally but which show business and popular audiences seemed to think that only men could address. They had to deny their femininity if they were to make a joke of it.

Ironically, stand-up comedy was the first art form to allow women to be accepted as comedians.

At the start of the 20th century, vaudeville presented a wide variety of entertainment genres, and comedy—often in skits, often blended with singing, dancing, and novelty acts—was a big part of the draw. After World War II, the vaudeville circuits ceased to exist. New possibilities emerged. The programs offered by nightclubs were less extensive and shorter. Even smaller acts could be found: small groups of comedians, or even solo artists, were often the norm. The popularity of this phenomenon was astounding and it’s still new. Variety, the font of so much show-biz jargon over the century of its publication and influence, began to use a new term for it—“stand-up comedy”—in 1950.

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In the 50s stand-up took on the shape we now know: the lonely at the mic, telling jokes and stories. Sometimes he or she riffs off the crowd either in premeditated strategies or to provoke or defend others. Like many cultural aspects, stand-up comedians evolved from a standardized, traditional, unpersonalized, or routine form to be more creative, unique, and revelatory.

A new style of comedy emerged in the 1950s. It was inspired by method acting, which required actors to look within themselves and find their truths. New comics appeared almost in unison, often working with material they had created. This transformed stand-up comedy into an art form that allowed for self-expression and consciousness-raising, as well as social criticism.

They were a distinctly diverse group, but they were lumped together by commentators and critics as the “sick comics”——as if their attempts to somehow personalize their material signaled mental derangement. This generation was unique in that it featured Black comedians such as Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge and Elaine May, along with her partner Mike Nichols, as well as women such as Moms, Mabley and Phyllis Diller. Their generation would be able to set new standards for originality in comedy and their uniqueness. It may have been a sign of “sickness” in some eyes that women were being allowed the same chances as men to be funny or fail in the effort. As the first history of female stand-up comedians shows, they were not weak or disabled.

It is not uncommon for women to be stand-up comics. But when many began their careers—and, in some cases, even when they retired or died—the very idea was a matter of puzzlement and consternation. We are much happier because of their determination. And we’ve had more than a few real laughs in getting here.


This article was adapted fromIn On The Joke: Comedy’s Original QueensShawn Levy. This book is available from Doubleday on April 5. Copyright © 2022 by Shawn Levy.

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