Before comedy pioneers Joan Rivers, Carol Burnette, and Lily Tomlin helped disprove the notion that women couldn’t be funny, another woman was cracking up audiences decades earlier: Imogene Coca.
For decades, comedy has been largely a man’s world.
Today’s popular female comedians — like Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wiig — are indebted to a generation who struggled before them, helping build a world where they could be taken seriously (or comically, as the case may be) and fully appreciated. That previous generation of women —including Joan Rivers, Carol Burnette, Lily Tomlin — were pioneers in a world that was convinced women just couldn’t be funny (even though all three of them, and their sisters in comedy, were very funny indeed).
But another woman was cracking up audiences even earlier than that, before Phyllis Diller even, and she influenced many of the women we’ve already named. She was a true trailblazer, a funny woman in a world of funny men, a comedienne who didn’t play straight woman to a man’s gag, an award-winner whose hilarious career stretched over decades and touched generations of audiences. She was Imogene Coca.
Coca was a rubber-faced goofball, equally comfortable doing sketch comedy on Sid Caesar‘s “Your Show of Shows,” guest-starring on popular sitcoms and dramas, and hamming it up through song in a Tony-nominated Broadway performance in “On the Twentieth Century.” On the anniversary of her death June 2, 2001, we’re remembering a few of the greatest performances of a groundbreaking career. Here are five Imogene Coca favorites.
Your Show of Shows
Coca was a cast member of the early TV variety series, “Your Show of Shows,” for four seasons from 1950 to 1954. Though Caesar was the top-billed star, plenty of fans believed that Coca truly made the show great. Coca later reminisced, “There was a special chemistry to ‘Your Show of Shows,'” and that chemistry showed in the many classic sketches the stars produced.
What’s My Line?
In the 1950s and ’60s, you knew you were a star when you got to appear on “What’s My Line?” Coca made several appearances on the game show, both as a mystery guest and as a panelist. Here’s an episode in which she signed in as a mystery guest, having the time of her life as she tried to stump the panel. It’s always fun to see a star out of character, and Coca doesn’t disappoint as she grins from ear to ear and bounces in her seat.
‘On the Twentieth Century’ on Broadway
In this 1978 screwball musical comedy, Coca played Mrs. Letitia Primrose, a “religious lunatic” terrorizing the passengers of a train with her demands that they repent. Her signature song is delivered with all the comic perfection Coca usually displayed, plus a few trills and vibratos.
‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’
Coca didn’t appear in many films, but in 1983, she made a cameo appearance in the classic comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Playing Aunt Edna, who is foisted on the Griswold family for a portion of their road trip to Wally World, she is hilariously blunt … before she meets an unfortunate end.
One of Coca’s last roles came in 1988: a guest spot on the hit detective show “Moonlighting.” Taking the role of receptionist Agnes’ mother, Coca was nominated for an Emmy, her sixth nod from that awards show.