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.