Comedy is hard, but these women make it look easy. Throughout the decades, funny women have taken the stage to challenge stereotypes or make a statement — but mostly, to make us laugh. Lucille Ball, the beloved “queen of comedy” who died 30 years ago today (April 26, 1989), and other comedy pioneers from Moms Mabley to Phyllis Diller to Joan Rivers (said to be the basis of the very funny, award-winning television series “The Amazing Mrs. Maisel”) opened the door for stand-up comics Amy Schumer, Whitney Cummings, Wanda Sykes, and so many more. In honor of Lucy, we pay tribute to comedy’s funniest women.
EDIE ADAMS (1927–2008)
EDIE ADAMS (1927–2008) was blonde, beautiful, smart and could do it all in show biz, comedy, acting, singing, even started her own successful businesses. She worked extensively with her husband, the ahead of his time comic Ernie Kovacs until his death from a car accident in 1962. She was known for her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impression, using her terrific singing voice to hilarious effect.
GRACIE ALLEN (1895–1964)
GRACIE ALLEN (1895–1964) and her husband George Burns (1896–1996) were one of the most popular comedy duos ever. Allen was a teenage vaudeville performer when she heard that the vaudeville team of George Burns and William Lorraine were going to break up. She went to the theater where the duo was performing meaning to approach Lorraine about becoming his new partner but she mistook Burns for him and he did not correct her. They were a success in vaudeville and love, marrying a few years later.
When Burns and Allen started their act, she played the straight man until Burns realized she was getting all the laughs so he smartly switched to the straight man while Allen took on the naïve ditzy role. The move paid off with the pair hosting a popular radio show that boasted 40 million listeners and then moved to television to star in a pioneering hit sitcom.
LUCILLE BALL (1911–1989)
LUCILLE BALL (1911–1989) was the “Queen of Comedy,” starring in the legendary sitcom “I Love Lucy,” alongside her then husband Desi Arnaz. The series featured Ball as the ditzy housewife who schemed to appear in show business with her bandleader husband. The series dominated TV during it’s six year run in the 1950s and is still fondly remembered in reruns. Ditzy on screen only, the savvy Ball was the first woman to own a Hollywood studio, her Desilu Productions brought shows such as “Star Trek” to the small screen.
“I Love Lucy” left us with so many unforgettable episodes such as the Christmas episode, the day Ricky is born, Lucy getting tipsy as a spokesperson for vitameatavegamin, stomping grapes, and of course Lucy working in the chocolate factory.
FANNY BRICE (1891–1951)
FANNY BRICE (1891–1951) did it all, comedian, singer, actress on stage and film but she was best known for her popular radio comedy series, “The Baby Snooks Show.” Brice headlined the Ziegfeld Follies at the age of 19, with “My Man” from the Follies became her signature song. She starred as a bratty toddler on the top rated “Baby Snooks” radio show, first as a guest skit on various variety shows and then headlining her own show from 1944 until her death in 1951 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Barbara Streisand rose to fame playing Brice in the stage and film versions of her life titled “Funny Girl,’ the film focusing on Brice’s stormy relationship with professional gambler Nicky Arnstein.
IMOGENE COCA (1908–2001)
IMOGENE COCA (1908–2001) started her show business career as a dancer in music revues, she did not begin her legendary career in comedy until she was in her 40s. She starred on the legendary variety show “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar from 1950 until 1954. Coca was known for her rubbery face and the variety of expressions she could make. She made memorable guest appearances on many television shows including “Bewitched” and “The Brady Bunch.” Coca kept working into her senior years, playing “Aunt Edna” in the movie “Vacation” and receiving an Emmy nomination in 1988 for a guest spot on “Moonlighting.”
Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar in a classic sketch from “Your Show of Shows.”
PHYLLIS DILLER (1917–2012)
PHYLLIS DILLER (1917–2012) was the first female stand-up comic to become a household name. She was married and raising children when she started working in broadcasting. After trying out jokes at PTA meetings, her husband convinced her to try stand up comedy, making her debut in 1955 at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. Diller had no female comics to look up to so she created her own material based on her personal life as a wife and mom, making fun of herself, her husbands (she called “Fang”), and her sex life while holding her signature fake wooden cigarette. An appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the late 1950s greatly raised her popularity. She made a series of movies in the mid-1960s with Bob Hope and toured with Hope for the USO in Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War. She officially retired form stand up in 2002 at the age of 85 but did her last stand up at age 89 on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
DODY GOODMAN (1914–2008)
DODY GOODMAN (1914–2008) was a recognizable comic character actress known for her distinctive high pitched voice. She attended Northwestern University yet took on a successful dizzy airhead stage persona, which turned her into a popular guest on talk shows including “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. Goodman may be best known for playing the title character’s mom on the TV satire “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” She appeared as a guest on many TV series and played ditzy secretary Blanche in the movie “Grease.”
JAN HOOKS (1957–2014)
JAN HOOKS (1957–2014) helped bring “Saturday Night Live” back to prominence after the infamously disastrous 1985-1986 season. Lorne Michaels came back and hired Hooks, Dana Carvey, and Phil Hartman to the cast. Hooks starred on the show from 1986 until 1991, known for “The Sweeney Sisters” skit and her impersonations of Hillary Clinton, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Kathie Lee Gifford. Hooks got her big break on the TBS comedy skit show “Tush,” which ran from 1980 until 1981.
MADELINE KAHN (1942–1999)
MADELINE KAHN (1942–1999) didn’t think she was funny but the rest of the world did, especially Mel Brooks who cast Kahn in some of his classic films. “She is one of the most talented people that ever lived… I mean, either in stand-up comedy, or acting, or whatever you want, you can’t beat Madeline Kahn.” Kahn played unforgettable characters in “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “High Anxiety.” Kahn was also a fantastic singer who starred on the Broadway stage.
The brilliant Madeline Kahn guest starred on a 1976 George Burns TV special and stepped into Gracie Allen’s shoes to do one of Burns and Allen’s classic routines. She keeps up with the legendary Burns in this funny clip.
JACKIE “MOMS” MABLEY (1894–1975)
JACKIE “MOMS” MABLEY (1894–1975) was so ahead of her time. She started out as one of the most popular entertainers on the segregated Chitlin’ circuit for years, breaking through to a wider audience in the early 1960s, She appeared on many mainstream television programs including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Mabley pushed the envelope on controversial topics before it became mainstream, and was one of the first entertainers to come out as a lesbian.
ANNE MEARA (1929–2015)
ANNE MEARA (1929–2015) was one half of the popular Stiller and Meara comedy duo with her husband Jerry Stiller. She was also the mother of comedy star Ben Stiller. Following in the footsteps of Burns and Allen, they became the most popular male-female comedy duo in the 1960s. They would mine humor from their marriage, playing up the fact that Meara was Catholic and Stiller was Jewish. At the peak of their popularity, they ended the act because it was affecting their relationship. Meara continued to appear in movies and television shows, starring on “Archie Bunker’s Place” and had a recurring role on “The King of Queens,” which starred Jerry Stiller.
Anne Meara’s Obituary
MINNIE PEARL (born Sarah Colley) (1912–1996)
MINNIE PEARL (born Sarah Colley) (1912–1996) was the daughter of a successful lumberman and majored in theater at the prestigious Ward-Belmont College, a slightly different background than her hilarious down home country comedy personality. Dressed in frilly dresses and wearing her trademark straw hat with the price tag hanging down, she cracked up audiences on the popular variety show “Hee-Haw.”
GILDA RADNER (1946–1989)
“Saturday Night Live” legend GILDA RADNER (1946–1989) created some of the funniest characters in the celebrated history of the show including Roseanne Rosannadanna, Baba Wawa, and Emily Litella. Radner got her comedy start with SCTV in Toronto and then joined the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” with fellow cast members John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray who all would star on “SNL.” Later she would star in movies, meeting her husband Gene Wilder filming “Hanky Panky.” After her death in 1989 from Ovarian Cancer, Wilder set up Gilda’s Club which helps support for people and families dealing with the disease.
Arguably the most memorable of Gilda’s “SNL” characters, Roseanne Roseannadanna was inspired by Rose Ann Scamardella, a television news anchor at the time in New York City. A typical Roseanne Roseannadanna skit would involve the newswoman giving an editorial during “Weekend Update,” wandering off topic and telling grotesque stories about celebrities personal hygiene issues, and finishing with her catchphrase, “What are ya tryin’ to do, make me sick?!”
JOAN RIVERS (1933–2014)
JOAN RIVERS (1933–2014) was one of the most influential female comics, the first to host her own late night network talk show, “The Late Show with Joan Rivers” in 1986. Her life is said to be the basis of the award-winning Amazon Prime series, “The Amazing Mrs. Maisel. “Rivers was a Rockefeller Center tour guide, an advertising copywriter, and a men’s clothing store salesperson before she entered show business. In the early 1960s, she honed her material at New York coffeehouse-clubs The Gaslight Café and The Bitter End. Her big break came on her first appearance in 1965 on “The Tonight Show,” when host Johnny Carson said to her on air, “you’re gonna be a star.” That was the start of a close friendship that permanently ended when Rivers was given a competing late night talk show on Fox in 1986. That show ended quickly but Rivers found success with a daytime talk show a few years later. In the mid-90s she hosted the pre-show Academy Award ceremonies on E! with her daughter Melissa, using her acerbic wit to cut down the fashion sense of celebrities.
“Can we talk?” Joan Rivers doing a hilarious opening monologue on one of her many guest hosting appearances on “The Tonight Show.”
MITZI SHORE (1930–2018)
SOPHIE TUCKER (1886–1966)
DANITRA VANCE (1954–1994)
DANITRA VANCE (1954–1994) was the first black woman to become an “SNL” repertory player when she joined the cast in 1985. She felt typecast in her roles on the show, playing a maid, waitress, and an unwed teen mother, so she left after only one season. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she created a well-received one-woman skit called “The Radical Girl’s Guide to Radical Mastectomy.” She died from the disease in 1994 at the age of 35.
MAE WEST (1893–1980)
MAE WEST (1893–1980) was a pioneering sex symbol, pushing boundaries in an era much tamer than today. She wrote, acted, and sang her way to the top of the box office, doing it her way. She was the queen of the hilarious one-liners, some of the best were “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better” and “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
Mae West at her seductive best firing off classic double-entendres in the 1935 movie “Goin’ to Town,:
YVETTE WILSON (1964–2012)
YVETTE WILSON (1964–2012) was a popular comic staple on television for eight years in her role as Andell Wilkerson on the UPN sitcoms “Moesha” and “The Parkers.”
Zasu Pitts (1894 – 1963), Thelma Todd (1906 – 1935)
Hal Roach, producer of the Our Gang series, wanted to have a female version of Laurel and Hardy, which he also produced. Roach paired ZASU PITTS (1894–1963) and THELMA TODD (1906–1935) to become the Pitts and Todd duo. The pair worked together on 17 short comedy films until Pitts left the studio. Todd was then paired with PATSY KELLY (1910–1981) until her untimely death in 1935 at the age of 29.