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Funny ladies

The women who broke the glass ceiling of stand-up comedy

Created date

January 22nd, 2013
Comedienne Phyllis Diller smiles for the camera at the Bob Hope Christmas show

Stand-up comedy is a tough gig for anyone, but it has been especially tough for women. Perhaps it’s all those late nights at comedy clubs, the long, lonely years of rejection before you hit it big, or the constant travel; but for whatever reason, successful women comics are the exception rather than the rule.

While there is a long list of funny women actors, from Lucille Ball to Mary Tyler Moore to current sensations Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, the list of well-known female comics is much shorter. In 2012, we lost Phyllis Diller, one of the great stand-ups of all time. There is no question that Diller and her peers blazed a trail for women in comedy, but even today, it’s a road less traveled.

Two recently released books focus on the journey of women comics in America. Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady by Darryl J. Littleton and Tuezdae Littleton (Applause) takes a look at how far comediennes have come over the past 125 years, and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (Sarah Crichton Books) shines the spotlight on more contemporary comediennes.

Early days

Way back when, women weren’t even allowed on stage. Deemed “unladylike,” it was white men who played the role of the African-American “mammy” characters in the era when minstrel shows were all the rage. What changed this odd convention wasn’t logic or even fairness, it was the advent of the Civil War. While the men were off fighting, women took their place on stage. Soon, all-female minstrel troupes were traveling the country and getting lots of laughs. From one of these troupes came America’s first comedienne, May Irwin. Today, Irwin is best remembered for her role in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss, the first kiss in cinema history.

While most of the women who worked in Vaudeville did so as dancers, singers, and showgirls, there were a few notable female comics. Names like Mae West and Fanny Brice were popular and powerful enough to share top billing with the likes of Will Rogers and Al Jolsen. Interestingly, both of these groundbreaking comediennes built their acts on classic one-dimensional female stereotypes, with West as the classic sexpot and Brice’s Baby Snooks character as the impish little girl.

Say goodnight, Gracie

Another woman to see the comic potential in a classic female stereotype is the beloved Gracie Allen, one half of the comedy duo Burns and Allen. Allen played the ditzy wife to her real life husband George Burns’ straight man. Burns and Allen had a popular radio program and later a popular television program.

In the mid-1950s, women on the comedy circuit started to shake things up. Pearl Williams, a pianist in Louis Prima’s band, unexpectedly launched her comedy career when a heckler drove her to utter the “f-word” onstage. Nine successful comedy albums followed. Another comedienne of the time was Belle Barth, known as the female Lenny Bruce. Like Bruce, Barth found herself in court on moral charges for the content of her act. The case was thrown out of court and Barth’s career flourished. Her bawdy style is said to have influenced the likes of Bette Midler and Joan Rivers.


On March 7, 1955, Phyllis Diller took the stage at San Francisco’s famed The Purple Onion comedy club and the role of women in stand-up took a giant leap forward. For 87 weeks, Diller had The Purple Onion audiences in stitches. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the wacky Diller, with her wild hair and her ever-present cigarette holder (which, incidentally, was just a prop as Diller was a lifelong non-smoker). Diller kept audiences laughing her entire life, making her last television appearance last year on The Bold and the Beautiful, shortly before her death.

If Diller was the queen of stand up, Elaine May was the mother of improv. Her classic routines with partner Mike Nichols are as funny today as they were back in the early 50s. May’s particular brand of humor was a precursor to the sketch comedy seen for the past 38 years on Saturday Night Live. Like her partner Nichols, May went on to write and direct films…sometimes successfully as with Heaven Can Wait and sometimes not as with the undisputed disaster Ishtar.

The comediennes who followed, from Joan Rivers to Lily Tomlin to Rosanne Barr to Ellen DeGeneres, built on the work of Diller and May by adding their own special quirks and sensibilities to what these trailblazers established. There are many more women in comedy today than there were just a decade ago, but check out the lineup of virtually any comedy club in America and men still grossly outnumber women.

While women in every other profession have struggled for years to be taken seriously, women in stand-up just want to be laughed at.