I’m about to show my age. I remember watching the great “comedienne” Totie Fields strut across the 1960s Ed Sullivan Show stage in her tent-sized ruffled chiffon. My memories also include Phyllis Diller, she of the manic cackle and flying cigarette holder; Jackie “Moms” Mabley, wearing a toothless grin and shapeless dresses; and the ever-enduring “Can we talk?” Joan Rivers, among others. Much of their humor undoubtedly escaped my young sensibilities at the time, but I’ll never forget them.
That was then, and this is now: Fields, Mabley, and Diller are no longer with us, but Rivers thankfully is: at age 80, while continuing to perform herself, she’s also helping introduce 21st-century audiences to a whole new generation of laughter-inspiring ladies.
The 2013 DVD documentary Why We Laugh: Funny Women showcases many of today’s female comediANS (time to abolish that “comediENNE” spelling, they now tell us!) in conversation about all aspects of being a “stand-up” comic at this juncture in entertainment history. Performers well-cherished and others probably less recognizable, of varied ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientation, offer fascinating insights.
They include Lily Tomlin, Kathy Griffin, Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy, Judy Gold, Helen Hong, Aisha Tyler, Brett Butler, Judy Tenuto, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Sheryl Underwood, Janeane Garafalo, Kathleen Madigan, Kim Wayans, Holland Taylor, Sandra Bernhard, Kym Whitley, Tig Notaro, and Merrill Markoe. (A few regrettable absences: no Ellen DeGeneres or Roseanne Barr.) Joan Rivers “hosts” the occasion, adding some moving observations from her own multi-decade career on the road.
While four-letter words often flow from the women’s lips (be forewarned), these are singularly dedicated, intriguing, keenly intelligent performers with abiding gratitude and admiration for the comedy trailblazers (Mabley, Diller, Lucille Ball, Jean Carroll) who preceded their own modern-day flourishing in clubs and on big and small screens. The film also offers clips from some of their routines, illustrating their individual performing styles and favorite topics for no-holds-barred commentary.
“Stand-up” is a tough profession, and not for the dainty of soul. In most comedy clubs, men still dominate any given evening’s lineup, and these ladies’ increasingly wider exposures notwithstanding, their ongoing struggle for parity is still very real. “Personal lives” off the road suffer accordingly. (Several of the women laugh heartily at the very notion of having relationships/families!)
But Joan Rivers could not imagine a better job—-enabling people to forget their troubles for an hour or two while sharing a sense of community as a group, with humor as the glue.
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting—or reacquainting myself with—these singular, still-pioneering women: creative artists and truth-tellers all. Long may they, and WE, laugh.