Funny Ladies

Comedy crosses boundaries, and in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, many female entertainers struggled just to enter the male-dominated world of stand-up and television. Self-deprecation, acting dumb and playing down their looks were some of the strategies these funny ladies employed to be taken seriously. While many comedians today get their laughs from shock value, racial and sexual characterizations or expletives, the first female stars of network television had no such fallbacks and instead entertained with pure talent and screen savvy. “They are just funny — silly as hell,” is how Betty White describes these pioneers, who are also her peers.

Phyllis Diller entered the profession of comedy in the 1950s, an era when gender roles were often exaggerated. Diller’s outrageous personality and jokes that mocked her looks and disdain of housekeeping flew in the face of the then stereotypical image of the ideal housewife.

Carol Burnett first tried to make it as a musical theater performer, but it was her comedic twist on the Elvis craze that got her noticed. Her parody song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” presented as an ode to the U.S. Secretary of State, landed her performances on both “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957.

Joan Rivers pitched “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” for seven years before they booked her in 1965. The producers thought she was “too rough, too wild, and talked about things a woman shouldn’t be talking about,” Rivers remembered.

When show settings eventually moved from homes to the office, the funny ladies of television took on the male-dominated workplace with sass and humor, laying the foundation for future stars.

“The Carol Burnett Show”

The critically acclaimed hit series “The Carol Burnett Show” debuted on CBS in 1967 and made America laugh for eleven seasons. The variety show used musical numbers and skits with guest stars to riff off anything from popular culture to classic films. Shirley MacLaine sang about fan mail, Joan Rivers did stand-up routines, and sketches included spoofs of popular television at the time, such as “The Walnuts,” a take-off on “The Waltons.” Burnett was charming and quick, frequently sending her co-stars into barely controlled fits of laughter and endearing herself to both a live studio audience and those watching at home.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered on CBS in 1970 and was the first TV program to feature a single, professional career woman as the protagonist. The character Mary Richards was not divorced or widowed and she independently supported herself as an evening news producer. Over the course of seven seasons, the show won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. Moore was at first hesitant to take on the role out of concern that her breakthrough television role as the stay-at-home wife in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” would suffer in comparison.

“I Love Lucy”

“Riiickyyyy!” Everyone recognizes the familiar cry of Lucy Ricardo on the much loved sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the show won five Emmys during its six-year run from 1951- 1957. As silly and scheming as Lucy was and as bossy as Ricky could be, there was heart underneath their incessant bickering. The entertainers were married for 20 years and jointly owned the show’s production company, Desilu Productions. Ball, nearly 40 when the sitcom premiered, became one of America’s most beloved funny ladies. Thanks to unprecedented ratings, “I Love Lucy,” raised the profile of television in the 1950s because of Arnaz’s producing expertise, the writers’ daffy situations and a wonderful ensemble that featured Vivian Vance and William Frawley.

  • Peter Riordan

    Where s Katherine Helmond? I can’t find any reference to “SOAP,” either. The Jessica Tate character and the entire show was ground breaking and paved the way for a new era of television humor.

  • Coleen Spence

    I believe the first single career woman protagonist in a series was Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie in That Girl, not Mary Richards.

    • mcflyer54

      Actually “The Gale Storm Show” (aka “Oh Susanna”) in 1956 was the story of a single career woman (shipboard activities director) 10 years before “That Girl” (1966) and 14 years ahead of “Mary Tyler Moore” (1970). This is not to take anything away from either Moore or Thomas but it Often seems that television historians often forget the 1950s, with the exception of Lucy & Andy Griffitn.

      • Lauren Jones

        Ann Sothern had a show in which she was a working woman, as well, in the 1950s.

  • Jaxon Burgess

    Sorry, “Our Miss Brooks” starring Eve Arden aired on CBS radio 1948-57, and on TV 1952-56.

  • disqus_xssQVb26SG

    Also not in this list is Gracie Allen.

  • Lisa Pentz

    I watched these gals growing up. I miss shows like these.

  • Warren Dean

    Tina Fey is not even close to the talents of Lucy, Carol Burnett or Mary T Moore…
    You wonder why the conservatives want to stop govt money?

    • nickc66

      conservatives believe that the market should pick winners and losers not the government.

      • Robbie Moraes

        Conservatives want state run media. They may talk small government, but NO they want BIG Government as seen through the eyes and no brains of Ruport Mourdoch and Fox News. Bleech.

        • nickc66

          Everybody should have a voice. Why mock those who disagree with you? MSNBC might be to me is a bunch of crazies but i would rather they be on so people can judge for themselves. You on the other hand might love MSNBC (I bet you do actually) Should i want your voice to silenced? Not at all. I don’t want big government. There are Republicans who do but they are not conservative just because they are a Republican. The first amendment is just not for those with whom we agree.

          • Robbie Moraes

            Trying to reason with you is like trying to talk to Glen Beck about not being a racist.

  • Ed Hirzel

    Truly great comedy

  • leslie

    An awesome show! I loved the walk down memory lane. Nothing today compares to those old sitcoms and variety shows. Tim Conway is a stitch!

  • disqus_IgRyVDhypg

    This show sucks. Let’s feature the “nice” “all American girls”. Barf. At least they gave some airtime to Joan.

    • Mark

      Do not confuse vulgarity with wit.

    • Robbie Moraes

      Joan Rivers is a vulgur air head.

  • Kim’s Kitchen Sink

    I’m watching this right now, and loving it. These women were pioneers long before today’s Lean In generation!