‘I don’t want a penis. I have 12 in a drawer at home’ – fearless female standups of the 60s | The comedy

Bhen they were still called actresses, an older actress turns to a younger one and says, “What is your character? The young woman is confused. Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce don’t have personalities, she says. They’re just allowed to be funny like themselves, so why isn’t she? “They have dicks,” retorts Sophie Lennon, one of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s most memorable characters.

On Amazon’s hit show – set in 1950s and 60s New York – Midge Maisel discovers her stand-up talent. She’s an accidental comedian, who takes the stage at a Greenwich Village club one night, drunk and angry and confessional, after her husband leaves her for his secretary. At the time, there was really only one mainstream female stand-up: Lennon, whose persona was that of a Queens housewife, complete with a feather duster, a fat suit, and a squeaky catchphrase. Maisel, with its shocking and electrifying setting – which ends with his arrest – represents a new style of comedy, especially for women.

No right to be beautiful… Phyllis Diller, the first female comic book superstar, wore a sack dress to hide her “tall figure”. Photograph: AF Archives/Alamy

Lennon and Maisel have been compared to actual comics Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers (series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino said Maisel was more of an amalgamation of a lot of people, including her father who was a stand-up ). When Jane Lynch, who plays Lennon, read the script, she thought of Diller, whose act was a caricature of a 1950s housewife. There had been others, like Belle Barth, Rusty Warren and Moms Mabley. In 1939, Mabley, who came from the black vaudeville circuit, became the first female comedian to perform at the Harlem Apollo (Maisel’s third season featured Mabley, played by Wanda Sykes, who performed there). Mabley had a grandmotherly housewife persona but was more edgy than Diller, her act confronting gender and racial bias. It was Diller, however, who became comics’ first female superstar.

“To break through,” says Lynch, “you had to have material that spoke to men, because club owners, television producers and late-night entertainers were men. You would tailor your material to what they think would be funny – and something men love is when it refers to them. You say, ‘I can’t have a boyfriend because I’m ugly’ and then you’re not threatening. You’re almost one of the guys, because guys don’t want to sleep with you. Lynch’s character explains this problem to Maisel, referring to her beauty. “Men don’t want to make fun of you,” she said. “They want to fuck you. You can’t get up there and be a woman. You must be a “thing”.

Modern viewers can immediately listen to Maisel’s material on sex and the challenges of motherhood, as well as her swearing rants, all delivered in up-to-date dialogue. It’s not meant to be a historic record, points out Yael Kohen, author of We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. “I think there’s an aspect of comedy and its point of view that’s very modern,” she says, “and it’s forced on someone in this era.” Back then, successful comics like Diller and Rivers didn’t “necessarily challenge female stereotypes. Joan Rivers joked about getting married.

In reality, it would be a few years after Maisel’s debut that more subversive intellectual comics like Lily Tomlin would take off. There had been other women whose acts weren’t based on comedic lack of self-esteem, like Elaine May, but she was into improv, not stand-up. Diller told Kohen that she wore a sack dress partly because looking funny was part of the act, but also “because I had such a great figure.” Kohen says, “There has long been a tension between how women look and their sense of humor – this idea that a funny woman can’t be beautiful.

Joan Rivers
“She should be at home making an omelet”…Joan Rivers. Photography: ABC Photo Archive/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

Rivers, with her black cocktail dress and pearls, challenged that to some degree. In her book, Kohen quotes a 1963 review of Rivers’ first act: “Female comedians are usually horrors who de-sex themselves for laughs. But Miss R remains visibly – and unalterably – a girl. But, Kohen points out, Rivers was no conventional Maisel-style beauty. “She cared about her appearance and she used it in her comedy, but that doesn’t mean the tension [between being beautiful and funny] was not there.

It is also, adds Kohen, “not irrelevant” that Ms. Maisel is Jewish. “Many of the most famous women in 1960s comedy were Jewish. It is important to note that these women were not seen as emblems of Wasp femininity. They were considered part of an ethnic minority and unconventionally beautiful. Jewish women were often seen as an exception to the rule that women aren’t funny – Christopher Hitchens, for example, singled them out in his infamous essay Why Women Aren’t Funny. And it wasn’t always a compliment.

In the 1960s, Treva Silverman – who was going to write for The Mandy Moore Show but was rejected for Johnny Carson because she was a woman – was writing sketches for Upstairs at the Downstairs, the New York nightclub where many comedians and musicians began their careers. careers. “With the newsreels,” she says, “no one cared if it was male or female. It was more of a cabaret vibe. There wasn’t the kind of sexism that there was with stand-up. My sketches weren’t that unusual for a woman.

Silverman and Rivers became friends. “Joan was so ambitious from the start,” says Silverman. “She was in contact with absolutely every agent and they didn’t usually book an actress. People were like, ‘Well…’ and her agent was like, ‘Try her for a night’ because they knew that would mean booking her in for a week. What were Rivers’ early audiences like? “They’d be thinking, ‘What’s she doing up there? She should be home stirring the omelet or anything. But she was so likeable. Men liked her immediately, because she was very pretty, even though she kept complaining that she wasn’t.

More avant-garde than Phyllis Diller… Moms Mabley in 1970.
More avant-garde than Phyllis Diller… Moms Mabley in 1970. Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Her act, Silverman says, “was absolutely from a feminine point of view. She talked about what it was like to be a woman, a single woman when everyone was doing the “right thing”. She was talking about feeling inferior, unattractive, being a strange person not only in a male-dominated world, but also about not being up to par with the rest of the women. But everything she complained about not having, of course she had. By putting herself down, Silverman says, “she kind of knew she’d be more likable.”

Robin Tyler was part of a duo in the 60s with his girlfriend Patty Harrison. “Comedy is the most aggressive medium there is,” she says. “The only way women were allowed to be aggressive was when they turned it on themselves. So you have Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers with, ‘I’m not pretty enough.’ Tyler says she understands that, “because that’s what they had to do for a living. Diller told Kohen, “The women’s liberators hated what I was doing. my self-mockery.

Harrison and Tyler had started joking about things like bra sizes, but second-wave feminism took off. They read Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, and it was like a wake-up call. “We said, ‘Why are we making jokes about ourselves?’ The women, Tyler continues, wondered “what we thought was funny. Patty and I reversed it and went “Take my husband” and “I don’t want penises – I have 12 at home in a drawer.” to men. “All we did was take the same material [male comics were doing about women] and turn it against men.

Tyler enjoys The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which has just begun its fourth series, not least because it echoes part of his own career, particularly when Maisel and his family vacation in the Catskill Mountains, where popular resorts attracted wealthy Jewish families. “I used to play as a singer in ‘The Borscht Belt’. The comics there, I loved them, all the Jewish comics, but it was still sexist.

“Comedy is the most aggressive medium there is” … Robin Tyler and Patty Harrison. Photography: Walt Disney Television/ABC Photo Archive

Like Maisel, Harrison and Tyler performed for the American troops but, unsurprisingly, their feminist act was not as appreciated as Maisel’s funny – but extremely feminine – material. While on a comedy tour in New Zealand, Tyler said the man who booked them for a gig was so angry they were encouraging women in their audience to organize liberation movements that he shot them above. “We annoyed a lot of people because not only were we funny on stage, we were activists off stage. And they had never seen women use comedy as a weapon.

They mostly played in colleges rather than clubs. “Why would we want to play in clubs where we played in front of sexist audiences? We were never going to end up in Vegas. In the ’70s, they tried to go more mainstream when approached to do TV, but they didn’t fit. Tyler remembers getting a call from Fred Silverman, the influential television executive. “We said, ‘We are lesbians.’ He said, “It’s okay. Don’t tell anyone. They were trying to get us to do stupid sketches of stupid women and we hated it. They did four pilots with us, and it didn’t work. Not only did we We were aggressive women, but we were aggressive lesbians, so it was just too much.

Television, she said, was like an extension of the comedy circuit. “It wasn’t just sexist. They must have neutralized us.

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