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Laugh it to the Man: Pioneer Women in Comedy

Comedy has helped so many people cope with anxiety, depression, and reality, and it can also be used to simply lighten your mood. Comic relief can be expressed through satire, parody, sarcasm, irony, etc; it has become more of a necessity than a hobby at this point. Comedy designed for an audience dates back to the 5th century, has gone through Shakespeare, and now is produced for millions of people to watch on popular shows such as Saturday Night Live. Performing comedic material has been a struggle in the world of entertainment for a long time, so being a woman in this patriarchal business can come with its own separate and constant battles. Here are a few women who paved their own path in this business and have been able to share their passion for laughing with America and the world. 

In the ’50s, Jean Carroll was famous for her stand-up skits about raising children, having husbands, and performing other common duties that are a part of the housewife lifestyle. In a skit by Carroll, her mother explained that being a mother is such an extraordinary blessing and is something to be excited about. Carroll jumps ahead to when she had a daughter of her own and said she was excited to send her daughter to camp at age three to learn how to make a wallet. The New York Times says that the way she addresses the life of a housewife “was unheard of then, especially in the smoke-filled universe of nightclubs.” The lean, blonde, lengthy comedian was just as attractive as she was funny. This combination of beauty and wit was alarming for the audience, especially for the male members. This was a time when women in comedy were, first of all, women, and were not expected to work (often discouraged from working, in fact). Secondly, she was extremely attractive and the fact that her beauty was not primarily intended for attention was even more intimidating. This caused her popularity to struggle throughout her career, but her wit was too strong to let the audience surrender.


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4 feet 11 inches, Jewish, spunky, and “overweight” (according to her), Totie Fields used self-deprecating humor to amuse her audience in the ’60s and ’70s. She specialized in stand-up, and much of her content had to do with her body weight and the life of a low-class housewife. Fields was able to “push her appearance to garish, crass extremes,” says Travalanche. In a skit, Fields said, “I’ve been on a diet for two weeks, and all I’ve lost is two weeks.” Dieting and keeping a small figure was expected and a common conversation during the time of her fame, and continues to be a hot topic. By regularly drawing attention to her plump figure, she made a place for women’s bodies to be taken less seriously and to joke about the unrealistic social expectations of women.

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Joan Rivers did a skit on The Ed Sullivan Show about women being called old maids if they are unmarried after turning 30, and men are considered “a catch” if they are 90 and still not married. She joked that “anything that showed up was mine” at her mother’s house after Rivers turned 26, because her mother was running out of patience with marrying her off. She had the ability to address extreme sexism in a way that allowed people to step into different shoes — high heels. This might have caused her messages to resonate more with her audience due to the shock factor. Vanity Fair says, “Rivers was covering new terrain as an entertainer: giving voice to women’s experiences, bravely pushing the boundaries of taste, and drawing grudging respect from her fellow stand-up comics for pummeling her way into their largely male preserve.”

Rivers landed a monthly gig with The Tonight Show at age 31, which was the chicken dinner for the most celebrated winner. Her crude humor and shocking language was far from normal and arguably not acceptable when she emerged to fame. She regularly opened her show with: “I’m Joan Rivers, and I put out!” She often talked about personal and intimate topics many women would understand, but often avoid. In one of her many boob jokes she said, “I have no boobs. I went to nurse my daughter. She sucked on my shoulder. I moved her to the breast and she lost four pounds.” She also stepped into uncharted territory whe she joked about abortion, “I knew I wasn’t wanted when I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth.”

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These women used laughter to discuss sexism, unrealistic body expectations, and the mundane difficulties of womanhood in a man’s world. Even if someone doesn’t agree with what they have to say, they can all share a laugh.

I am a sophomore at the University of Utah. I enjoy snowy mountains and wearing green shoes.
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