On comediennes in early television

Women in comedy dominated from the beginning and didn’t slow down when they made the move to television. Their unique styles of comedy, precision in business, and dedication to the art form of comedy and the medium of television made them iconic, household names, fires that wouldn’t die out by the likes of challenges or challengers.

Lucille Ball ran her own television production company with her husband, Desi Arnaz. She produced three successful television shows, nearly simultaneously, one of which included I Love Lucy. The show was inevitably an excuse to spend more time with her husband, as he was a band leader and traveled away from home often. Lucille Ball was a master physical comedian, and although goofy, witty, and outright hilarious, she never followed the rule of having to look unattractive in order to make people laugh.

Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo and Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz in the iconic candy factory scene from I Love Lucy.

Betty White practically lived her entire career out on television; every time her she seemed to be fading into the background, she made her way back to the foreground starring in a new television show by the decade, Life with Elizabeth, Golden Girls, and Saturday Night Live to name a few. She was a cast member in sitcoms, variety shows, game shows, and even hosted talk shows, maintaining that same charm and good humor for the silver screen. Betty White’s never had a dull moment; her longevity seems to be never-ending, her hard work and determination paying off in every second of screen time.

Betty White was one of the first women to produce her own national television show.

Mary Tyler Moore, originally a dancer, was decisively casted for the Dick Van Dyke Show and caught on to the comedy game fairly quickly. She was dedicated and sharp, and had a persona that made America fall in love with her, and thus, they wanted nothing but for her to succeed. Mary Tyler Moore did just that, and with her unique All-American charm, she was able to run her sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show on the air for almost a decade, all while sticking to her core values in the process. Mary Tyler Moore reinvented what it was to be woman in television, inspiring many American women off-screen in the process.

Mary Tyler Moore moved audiences and revolutionized the industry in subtle ways, with The Mary Tyler Moore Show for example, changing the lives of women across the country and encouraging them to work.

Joan Rivers knew as soon as she could string together thoughts that she was supposed to be famous. The bold, saying-what-everyone’s-thinking style of comedy that she discovered doing stand-up broke barriers for what women could do and say in stand-up comedy. She was the guest on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, even getting the coveted permanent guest host spot on the Tonight Show. Her focus was on the audience and trying to make them laugh, and they did indeed laugh. Her sense of humor was clearly validated when CBS offered her her own talk show, affirming her success as a comedienne in television.

Joan Rivers was never afraid to pull any punches, and she didn’t have to, considering that she could always get an audience to laugh.

Carol Burnett, very much a queen of television comedy, struck gold when she sang the song “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” becoming an instant household name. Originally wanting to sing on broadway, she found her niche in comedy instead, becoming a regular on the Garry Moore Show with a comedic style embodied by sass, goofiness, and boldness, accentuated by her full, contralto voice. Her variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, had her surrounded by an inventive and diverse set of comedians, all of which were able to encourage each other and whatever ideas they had to offer. This winning formula was able to keep the show running for 11 years.

Carol Burnett used her very real life experiences to fuel her comedy, along with a fearlessness and a fierceness that propelled her television career for decades, variety shows making her feel the most at home.

Marla Gibbs, a black comedienne and television producer and actress, made it clear that classic female television stereotypes would neither shield her from nor confine her in television. She modeled the importance of delivery, her role on The Jeffersons upgrading from one line in a single episode to being a regular on the series. Marla Gibbs’ dry, sassy humor and witty sarcasm carried throughout her career, proving that you could still be funny while getting a point across, and her resolute decision-making earned her a five year run for her television show 227, which is impressive considering she was the first black woman to have creative control over her own show.

Marla Gibbs extended her one-episode appearance on The Jeffersons to a regular appearance on the show for 10 years.

These women and others, like Phyllis Diller, Cloris Leachman, Pat Caroll, and Jackie Mabley, one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians from the 1930s through the 50s (and a black woman), created a unique landscape of opportunities for television and women’s role in television. The work that they put in and the unapologetic personalities that they maintained fortified their success and provided both inspiration and hope to those aspiring to follow in their footsteps.


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