Zero Mostel once said the common denominator among his favorite female television comedians is that they all loved to share.
“The best ones are generous. They don’t hog the spotlight. They play off their co-stars.”
Carol Burnett, a member of the Television Hall of Fame and whose variety show was the anchor of CBS’ legendary mid-’70s Saturday night lineup, echoes Mostel’s belief.
“Hiring the best people makes your own game better,” confides Burnett. “While blocking our show, I’d say to the director, ‘Look what Tim Conway is doing.’ Let everybody shine. There are no second bananas. I learned that from watching Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar on ‘Your Show of Shows.’ ”
Coca, one of TV’s earliest comic talents, who died in June at 92, claimed she and Caesar had chemistry based on sharing.
“I never expressed myself, because Sid always said what I was thinking anyhow,” Coca said.
“Your Show of Shows” was well rehearsed but the routines looked remarkably spontaneous.
“Our producer, Max Liebman, would have died if we had ad-libbed. It would have been an utter disgrace,” Coca admitted.
And with writers such as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner onboard, there was little need to improvise.
Analyzing the phenomenal success of “I Love Lucy,” the appeal of Lucille Ball was immeasurably enhanced by co-star Vivian Vance, says Jim Brochu, author of the bio “Lucy in the Afternoon.”
Brochu says the two actresses didn’t get along well at first but soon realized they made perfect onscreen partners and became best friends for life.
Ball was never afraid to appear silly, and neither was Gracie Allen, who co-starred with husband George Burns. Originally vaudeville entertainers, Burns and Allen hit it big with “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” which debuted in 1950. Burns proved an ideal straight man, reacting to Allen’s antics by repeating her lines or staring at her with open-mouthed surprise.
In the 1970s, TV delivered some of its most memorable women, who while quick to crack a joke weren’t playing second banana to their male counterparts and whose working lives resonated with auds.
Mary Tyler Moore, recipient of seven acting Emmys, was far from a typical sitcom mother or wife. After a successful stint as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” she evolved into Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” an independent career woman on her own, representing women everywhere who felt there was a life for them outside of the home.
As a television news producer, she was one of the first female characters to become a member of management. Of course, she would sometimes enlist the help of Edward Asner, Gavin MacLeod or the irascible Ted Knight — and laughs quickly followed.
According to co-star Valerie Harper, Moore was “wonderfully open and helpful, and there was never animosity, anger or bitterness on the set.”
Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern, who would later have her own show, was a delightful contrast to the proper and etiquette-conscious Moore — insecure, overweight, and as Harper puts it, “like a cousin, or a friend, or a gal at Sav-On. She’d blurt something out like a child would, and that always makes for comedy.”
Harper demonstrated that comedians can be far different in real life from their TV creations.
“Rhoda was trying to get married,” Harper says. “I wasn’t. She’s Jewish and I’m not. She’s from the Bronx — I’m not. But our obsession with food was the same. And she was self-deprecating.”
Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker offered a striking case of a dense, unsophisticated but goodhearted woman whose dimwitted humor provided the perfect foil for bigoted husband Archie. It should be noted that “All in the Family’s” first acting Emmy went to the actress, the first of her three statuettes.
Also notable during this time was Suzanne Pleshette, who happily lent an ear to her cerebral psychologist husband on “The Bob Newhart Show.” Her friend Dom De Luise explains why Pleshette was able to pull off the role with ease, often one-upping Newhart.
“She’s a beautiful broad with a truck driver’s sense of humor,” DeLuise says. “A great combination.”
Candice Bergen’s “Murphy Brown” marked a return to the working arena in 1988. Unlike many of her comedic contemporaries, Bergen exhibited little flair for humor in her movies. On “Murphy Brown,” however, Bergen discovered the joy of “making a complete fool of myself.”
It was during that time that standup comedians began to star in their own sitcoms, including Roseanne Barr and later Ellen DeGeneres, finding that their material reached a broad spectrum.
Barr became the definitive blue-collar housewife. DeGeneres was more controversial, bringing her homosexuality to the forefront of her sitcom. She later protested, however, “I never wanted to be a lesbian actress. I never wanted to be a spokesperson for the gay community. I did it for my own truth.”
Rise of dramadies
Sexual frankness, along with honesty, are key characteristics of modern comic heroines who emerged in the late ’90s, when we also saw the launch of dramadies: skeins with dramatic overtones and a humorous edge.
One example is Calista Flockhart’s “Ally McBeal,” who combines multiple love affairs, narcissism and career drive in one appealing if bizarre package. The same steely quality is evident in Sarah Jessica Parker’s sexually confident Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City.” Women like Flockhart and Parker take the initiative, approach men and directly ask lovers to satisfy their needs.
Whether disguised or overt, all great female TV comedians have strength — to handle the problems of home and husband (Isabel Jefferson, “The Jeffersons”; Patricia Heaton, “Everybody Loves Raymond”), an office (Ann Sothern, “Private Secretary”), a bar (Shelley Long and Kirstie Alley, “Cheers”), or even a classroom (Eve Arden, “Our Miss Brooks”).
They also project vulnerability, along with an overriding desire to spread joy and entertain.
As Ball biographer Brochu recalls, “Lucy loved to laugh and give the gift of laughter to other people. She cared, most of all, about making audiences happy.”