When Comedy Was Queen: The Women of the 1950s Sitcom
“You’ve heard it before: Women aren’t funny. The opinion has been appearing and reappearing in various guises for decades… But few assertions are easier to prove than this one. It’s as simple as saying that women make us laugh… Women have always been funny. It’s just that every success is called an exception and every failure an example of the rule.” (We Killed 5)
Women have been active participants in history since the dawn of time (Who Cooked the Last Supper?), and the world of comedy is no exception. When looking back over the history of entertainment, who is the earliest comedienne you can think of? Fanny Brice immediately comes to mind. I am also reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady Edna Purviance. No doubt there are many examples of funny ladies from Hollywood’s Golden Age – let’s not forget our very own Katharine Hepburn in such films as BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940).
But what of television’s golden age? Were women funny in an era when the happy housewife was the glorified ideal of American femininity? You bet your bloomers they were!
“The women featured here headlined their own sitcoms and were the top-billed stars of those shows. These actresses and their characters were the primary laugh-getters on some of the most highly rated sitcoms of the 1950s, shows that were noteworthy not only for their popularity, but for their innovation and creativity in the then-young medium of television.” (The Women Who Made Television Funny)
Many of television’s first sitcoms were holdovers from radio. Husband and wife comedies like Ozzie and Harriet, Fibber McGee and Molly, and George Burns and Gracie Allen all enjoyed profound success on the airwaves before appearing on the small screen. Despite Beatrice Arthur‘s later comment that the women of these shows were “just a bubblehead out to get laughs,” each earned professional respect as a comedienne in her own right.
This was certainly true of what I like to call “The Big Three” of early television comedy: Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Betty White. The popularity of these comediennes, obtained independent of their male co-stars, has endured to today.
Although Lucille Ball enjoyed B-list success in Hollywood, her real claim to fame would be as television’s favorite zany housewife. This fiery red-head has been the undisputed queen of comedy since My Favorite Husband aired on radio in 1948 co-starring Richard Denning. When the show went to television in 1951, Ball insisted on playing opposite her husband Desi Arnaz, and I Love Lucy was born. The show ran until 1957, then it was followed by The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-1960). Ball went on to have her name featured in the title of two more television sitcoms, The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-74). In 1964, Ball bought Arnaz’s share of Desilu Studios, which the couple had formed in 1950, to become the sole owner of one of the most successful television production companies in Hollywood.
Sometimes I Love Lucy is criticized for its traditional representation of the 1950s housewife, who is only funny because she doesn’t have a brain in her head. While it is certainly true that Lucy represents women of a different time, when gender roles were understood in a decidedly different way, we can still glean inspiration from Ball’s comedic performance. It is important to note that the action of the show revolves around Lucy, not her husband – he reacts to her behaviour, not the other way round. The show also features a strong and healthy female friendship between Lucy and Ethel, not a common trope in television situation comedies. Also, although the understanding of women’s roles in society has shifted, it is surprising how much of a pioneer Lucille Ball was in her own time. In an age where few women were involved in the production side of the television business, a woman owning and operating her own studio is a glorious exception.
When it comes to the Betty White craze of the past few years, I can proudly don my hipster glasses and assert that I loved Betty White before it was cool because I’ve always been a fan of her 1950s sitcom Life With Elizabeth (1952-54). You might remember her best as Sue Anne Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973-77), as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls (1985-1992), or perhaps from the latest TVLand show Hot in Cleveland (2010-). The woman has written almost as many books as Bob Hope and her work on behalf animal rights has reached sainthood status. White earned a Primetime Emmy for her 2010 appearance on Saturday Night Live after caving to public pressure when the Facebook group calling for her to host the show reached 500,000 members. Indeed, at 88 years old, White is the oldest person ever to host SNL, and she is one of the oldest performers in Hollywood never to retire (Mickey Rooney is the oldest at 92).
Arden is perhaps the least well-known of these three comediennes, but her portrayal of the spinster schoolteacher Connie Brooks on Our Miss Brooks (1952-56) broke away from the stereotype of the “ministering angel” wife/mother role in favour of a professional, working woman role. Like Lucille Ball, she owned her own production company, Westhaven Enterprises, which produced The Eve Arden Show, in which she played Liza Hammond, based on the autobiography of Bryn Mawr graduate Emily Kimbrough: author, travelling lecturer, widow, and mother of twins (Frances Bavier, aka Aunt Bee, played the housekeeper). You might remember Eve Arden best as Principal McGee in GREASE (1978), while I will always love her as the wisecracking cat-lover in STAGE DOOR (1937), in which she co-starred with Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers.
Betty White once commented on the popularity of Arden as Our Miss Brooks when she spoke of her role in Ellery Queen in which she murdered the Eve Arden character:
“Even now I am often asked if I wouldn’t like to play more dramatic roles, and I confess that killing Eve is about as dramatic as I want to get. To do in Our Miss Brooks is enough to get drummed out of the industry!” (Here We Go Again 186)
Then and Now
The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 70s led to a broader spectrum of sitcoms and variety shows that revolved around the female leads: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78), and Maude (1972-78) not least among them. Phyllis Diller and Joan Collins made waves in the arena of stand-up comedy, a notoriously male-dominated field of entertainment. Despite the fact that queens of 1950s television represented a different standard of womanhood, their comedic genius, professionalism, and popularity are worth the praise of the most ardent feminists. If we are to encourage the broadening concept of women as active agent’s in history, we must see their participation for what it was at the time, whether they reflected or resisted the gender paradigm as it then existed.
In 1993 Betty White attended a seminar hosted by the Chicago Museum of Broadcasting entitled “From My Little Margie to Murphy Brown”:
“It was fascinating how many interviewers overlaid the early shows with today’s interpretation… I tried to make the point that all of these shows were about women, with women in the starring roles. Nor were they all husband-and-wife sitcoms – some were about unmarried working women… I’ll grant you there have been inequities, but let’s not paint everything – then and now – with the same brush… After hearing so many questions regarding ‘contending’ with men, I had to say that, in our day, The Battle of the Sexes was a tongue-in-cheek name for a game show, not the all-out war it has become.” (Here We Go Again 275-76)
Unfortunately, it has become an all-out war, a war not necessarily against men, but against the sexist attitudes that continue to pervade our culture. Although comediennes still keep their audiences in stitches, it is clear that we have a long way to go before we can say the battle for gender equality has been won:
“Funny women continue to face challenges in the comedy arena. Out of one hundred and forty-five writers working across late-night shows, sixteen writers are women (five of them from Chelsea Lately); out of twenty-four writers on Saturday Night Live, six are women; and out of fourteen performers, four are female. Female stand-ups continue to be left out of major stand-up lineups; and Comedy Central, which has a woman as a president, targets male audiences eighteen to thirty-four years old.” (We Killed 4)
As long as we keep laughing at lines women have written and the jokes women are telling, we will be able to even out these numbers so that the next generation of comediennes will have an even wider array of role choices. And let’s be honest, not matter how progressive we get, we will always laugh when Lucy screws stuffs her face with chocolate and wrestles an Italian in a vat of grapes. Comedy is funny whether its a 1950s housewife making you laugh or a grasping B-lister (ahem – Kathy Griffin). Just keep laughing!
“We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, a very oral history” by Yael Kohen (2012)
“The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms” by David Tucker (2007)
“Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, 1949-1995” by Betty White (1995)
“Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present” by Alex McNeil (1996)