Gilda Radner would have been 55 years old on the day I wrote this article, June 28 2001. In a retrospective piece we stroll back to the rich, dynamic and rapidly evolving world of the comedy of women in 1970s television that she and a select group of comediennes created for us before our very eyes. Laugher shapes a generation and these were the women who shaped our generational concept of humor.
Happy Birthday Gilda!
Gilda Radner would have celebrated her 55th birthday this week. Ovarian cancer took her from us at far too early an age. Born June 28, 1946, she was one of the oldest boomers and had a tremendous influence on the wealth of female comedic talent that burst onto the comedy club seen in the 80s and 90s. So, today I’m meandering down memory lane of women’s humor in the 70s in honor of the wonderful woman who taught a generation of women that riotous free spirited laughter was a “good thing.” Just think of the fun she’d have had goofing on Martha Stewart!
“Well it just goes to show you, if it”s not one thing, it’s another.” To put the comedy of the women, women who actively created comedy and did not just interpret scripts, of Saturday Night Live were doing in perspective is to remember the wasteland into which Jane Curtain, Lorraine Newman, and Gilda Radner ventured. Less than ten years before SNL, Phyllis Diller and Mary Tyler Moore displayed the entire range of the repertoire allowed to women in televised comedy. You could play off a man by being a dingy helpless creature a la Mary Tyler More on the Dick Van Dyke Show, or you could be the ugly witch a la Phyllis Diller (and I have to confess that I absolutely loved her as she was right at the edge of the PC filter.) By the 70s the sterotypes had gained a significant bit of breadth with the good girl Mary Tyler Moore being showcased in her own show that featured several other comediennes such as Betty White, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachmanand Georgia Engel.
Lily Tomlin broke ground on Laugh In1968-73 than did Ruth Buzzy, Judy Carne or Joanne Worley, or even Goldie Hawn who eventually dwarfed the others mentioned her with her comedic, dramatic and production success. Tomlin’s character that allowed women a wry, nonconformist voice through a little girl persona of Edith Ann that probably wouldn’t have been tolerated from an adult character. But the success of the wacky comedy show was built on predictable characters in predictable situations. The comedic element of the show that is often overlooked in retrospective analysis is its incorporation of a significant number of comediennes in a day where “variety” televisions shows at best featured one female comic. The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour, while groundbreaking in the depths to which it took political humor, primarily showcased male talent.
The realm of political comedy and satire was not long left to the men once the ball got rolling. Eventually SNL filled the bill in sketch comedy, but before that was Maude, starring Beatrice Arthur, was a groundbreaking sitcom for women which dealt with the issues of divorce, abortion, and a host of other politico-religious issues. This show was also significant in that it gave Esther Rolle a platform to give a woman of color voice to some knee jerk, but fairly well rounded pronouncements on the issues of social idiocy, race and class. And it acted as a stepping stone for Rolle to get her own show in the late 70s. Maude spun off from All in the Family with Jean Stapleton and Sally Struthers playing fairly predictable stereotypic roles but with some of the the best sitcom casting ever done. Other shows that show cased great talent and writing but were not necessarily the offspring of women’s creativity included Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in which the dysfunction of the world of the 70s was charicatured in Fernwood by Louise Lasser and crew. And perhaps no sitcom character’s growth illustrates the changes in women’s roles in comedy and television better than looking at the transformation of Loretta Switt’s character Hotlips into Margaret on M*A*S*H* (1973-1983). Gilda wasn’t alone in her expansion of women’s comedic presence in television, but she certainly personified the integration of a woman comic into the total fabric of televised comedy. She wasn’t just in front of the camera, she was the first ensemble cast member selected for the show, so in many ways the selection of the now classic team of The Not Ready for Prime Time Players cast for the original Saturday Night Live were anchored on Gilda’s talent. Women focused sketch comedy of the 60s often centered on sex roles or gender based expectations as in Ruth Buzzy’s spinster hitting Artie Johnson with a purse, or Lily Tomlin’s gossipy phone operator. Gilda’s characters, such as Emily Latela or Roseanne Roseanna Danna, were female, sure, but their comedic essence lay in their humanity not in their femininity.
Women’s comedy of the late middle 20th century, of course, could not have existed without the classic work of Lucillie Ball and Carol Burnette. These groundbreaking comediennes, really the grandmother and mother of the comedy of the early 70s continued doing comedy through the rapidly changing 70s. In a 1980 article in People Magazine Lucille mentions Carol Burnette, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler as being among her favorite comediennes of the day. Lucille Ball’s mention of Bette Midler makes the point that women who could stand a life of constant travel did find venues prior to the 1970s. During the 70s, the queen of the well established nightclub circuit, the venue for comics before the days of comedy clubs, was undoubtedly Bette. In the 70s she took live, adult-oriented comedy out of the clubs and brought it to the attention of a much larger audience, while she in no way submitted to domestication. No discussion of comedy in the 70s would be complete without her. She stretched some very traditional schitck and formats to new limits.
Stretch marks are largely women’s territory and our generation certainly enjoyed the liberating mindset of broad ranging comedy that was a trademark of the 70s. Without these great ladies contemporary comedy of Ellen Degeneres, Elayne Boosler, Paula Paundstone, Rita Rudner, Sandra Bernhard and many many other funny women would not have found as many doors open to them as they have. Without Gilda we wouldn’t have Rosie O’Donnell who first ventured into stand-up after doing a magnificent impression of Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rosannadana in a high school follies production. Thank you Gilda, your legacy continues to bring us laughter and joy.
Gilda links: If you haven’t had enough of memory land those of us that spent most saturday nights at home in the 70s, can read an interview with Gilda from Crawdaddy‘s pages, or buy her autobiography It’s Always Something or find out more about Gilda’s battle with ovarian cancer Gilda’s Disease listen to her work on cd Live from New York, or watch a video Gilda Live (1980).