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On Sept. 14, David Chack, a faculty member of The Theatre School at DePaul University, presented an overview of selected stand-up comediennes from the 1920s through present day, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat: Women in Comedy.”
The live lecture, viewable at the link above, was seen by more than 200 registered attendees through Zoom courtesy of the Levy Senior Center Foundation, the community organization that provides funding and technical support for the free lecture series.
For Chack, the most difficult part of preparing the lecture was deciding which female stand-up comedians to include and which ones to omit within the bounds of an hourlong webinar. Fanny Brice, the first woman featured, was an easy selection. When she performed in the 1920s, there weren’t that many well-known female comics. Fast-forward 80 years and there are countless women in comedy from which to choose. Many fabulous funny ladies were left out.
Each of the comics showcased provided sly social commentary and insights about being female while pushing the boundaries of what women said on stage. Using YouTube clips of movies, interviews and acts, Chack showed the similarities and differences between the women, as well as the themes that link them.
Sex and their appearance were universal themes at the heart of many of these acts. Some deal with it by making fun of what it means to be a “lady” and creating caricatures that poke fun at women. Some approach the issue by making fun of their own looks – whether accurately or not – thus controlling the narrative. Each of them inverts society’s expectations of how they are “supposed” to be.
Fanny Brice, the first comedienne featured, was the true-life inspiration for Barbra Streisand’s debut film, “Funny Girl.” Brice pokes fun at her looks and Jewish ethnicity – to great comic effect – as a ballerina with a Yiddish accent dancing in the ballet, “Swan Lake.”
Chack revealed that offscreen, Brice was unhappy with how her nose looked. She opted for a rhinoplasty (aka, a nose job) to improve her looks as well as “hide” her origins, yet doing so risked how the change might affect her comedic persona. The pressure to “fit in” was strong.
Expanding their acts
Moms Mabley was the next featured performer. One of the first African American female comics, she was also an actress and spoken word recording artist. Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894, was part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of African American vaudeville.
She built her act around her shrewd observations of people, relationships between men and women, and sex. One of her favorite personas was that of a “dirty old lady” who had no time for old men – except if they were carrying messages for her from younger ones. The film clip Chack chose demonstrates her no-nonsense attitude.
Female comics who became famous during the 1950s and 1960s such as Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Belle Barth and Jean Carroll expanded what comediennes talked about during their acts. (As an aside, Carroll is thought to be the inspiration for the hit television series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
They showed their wit and intelligence dealing with the men in their lives. They brought their personal lives on stage and mined their troubles about their looks and relationships for laughs. They also talked about sex euphemistically, usually to riotous laughter.
Joan Rivers, in particular, led the way with this confessional style of confiding in the audience. She was smart, college-educated and funny. As an admirer of Lenny Bruce, she chose not to suppress her talents and ambition; she ran with what she knew.
She talked about her parents’ dogged quest to get her married, and once wed, she talked about her marriage, her husband and their sex life, or lack thereof. She made fun of her appearance relentlessly, and later in her career, sometimes too much so.
Diller, another comedienne who poked fun at her appearance, did so while in character as a kooky woman married to the fictional Fang. Her wildly teased hair, extra-long cigarette holder and flashy outfits portrayed a caricature; Diller was not that person in real life.
The female comics that have become successful over the past 20 years have taken Joan Rivers’ confessions and candor to a new level.
Women like Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Julie Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish do not apologize for their appearance. If anything, they embrace their looks. They believe they are entitled to personal and professional happiness, including a great sex life. They say, and occasionally do, things that were unthinkable even a few years ago.
Like their predecessors, these women push the boundaries of what it means to be funny while exploring experiences that are relatable, ubiquitous and genuine. Their language may be too strong and direct for some, but the ideas being expressed in their acts are uproarious. Watch the video clips if you have any doubt.