Before ‘Hacks’: A look back at groundbreaking female stand-up comics


There is a heartbreaking scene towards the end of the third episode of HBO Max’s acclaimed comedy series “Hacks”. Young writer Ava Daniels (HannahEinender), who was hired to work on new material for veteran stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), watches an old VHS tape from the unaired TV pilot of a young Deborah for a late night talk show. She is fresh, fun, and hopeful. She thanks her husband, sister and little daughter.

If the show had been successful, Deborah would have been the first woman to make headlines late into the night. But it didn’t happen. Her ex-husband ran away with her sister and she has a less than wonderful relationship with her daughter. Instead of challenging herself, she has a longtime stint at a Las Vegas casino. But she has been told that her dates will be trimmed to make way for new talent.

Despite the fact that there are a lot of female stand-ups out there these days (just check out theirs Netflix and HBO stand-up comedy specials) “Hacks” illustrates the life of a funny lady anything but a riot of laughter. Let’s face it girls, it’s still a male dominated profession. But can you imagine how women entered the world of stand-up 70 years ago? Just look at Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?” You need determination, great accomplishment, personalities, and most importantly, cojones. Here’s a look at some early stand-ups:

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Jean Carroll
She began her career as part of the Carroll and Howe comedy team. Her husband Buddy Howe was a Vaudevilian and later became her manager. Carroll was pretty and wrote her own material dealing with everyday life – husband, kids, shopping, etc. The New York Times obituaries stated that her “ready wit, impeccable timing, and an unorthodox mix of glamor and humor made her one of the first mainstream female stand-up stars.” Carroll was popular on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and made about 20 appearances.

Check out her clips on YouTube. She was funny. “What fascinated me about my husband was his pride. I will never forget the first time I saw him standing on top of a hill with his hair blowing in the wind and he was too proud to run and get it. She even headlined her own short-lived ABC comedy series from 1954 to 1954, “The Jean Carroll Show”. Carroll died a few days before she was 99 in 2010the Birthday.

Belle Barth
This stand-up was the opposite of Carroll. She was ill-tempered and indecent. In 1953 she was arrested and fined $ 25 for her act. In another lawsuit, two teachers sued her for over a million on the grounds that she morally corrupted her and harmed her health! Although her home was Miami Beach, she also performed in New York and Vegas and recorded successful comedy albums. She was married five times and died in 1971 at the age of 59.

Jackie “Mothers” Mabley
The African American, who came out as a lesbian in 1921, was one of the top performers on the Chitlin Circuit and made her New York debut at the famous Connie’s Inn in Harlem. In the 1950s she took on the figure of “Moms” – without teeth, a neglected house dress and a slack crochet hat. Under this non-threatening disguise, she could address hot topics such as racism. One of her signature comedy pieces was her preference for younger men over “old-fashioned guys”.

“’Help me get through the night’ – if you can make it for half an hour, you’re fine with me! “There’s nothing an old man can do for me except bring me a message from a young man … I’d rather pay a young man’s fare to California than tell an old man the distance.”

She was introduced to a white audience in 1962 when she performed at Carnegie Hall and began recording comedy records. She was a favorite in shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. She died of heart failure in 1975 at the age of 81. Wanda Sykes appeared on an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.

Totie fields
Before turning to comedy, Fields sang in Boston clubs while she was still in high school. Fields, married and father of two, loved to joke about being overweight. “I’ve waited my whole life to say that … I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!” “Lucky is getting a brown sauce stain on a brown dress” Ed Sullivan caught her at Copacabana and made her first big break in his Show. She was also a mainstay on “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the 1960s and 70s.

She was plagued by health problems in the mid-1970s, including amputating a leg after surgery to remove a blood clot that turned into phlebitis. She suffered two heart attacks while recovering. And the following year she had a mastectomy when cancer was found in her right breast. But she didn’t finish her career. Fields, who lost tremendous weight after the amputation, used a wheelchair and included her health problems. But as her boyfriend, actor Van Johnson said, “When Totie picked up the weight, she wasn’t funny anymore.” In 1978 she was supposed to appear in the Sahara in Las Vegas when she had a fatal pulmonary embolism. She was only 48 years old. She was a huge influence on Rosie O’Donnell, who was going to play the comedian in a biopic at the time.

Phyllis Diller
Diller was one of the most eccentric and funniest early stand-ups. She wore outrageous wigs, tent clothes and ankle boots and always had a long cigarette holder in her hand, followed by plastic surgery. She topped off her jokes with a loud cackle – “Haaaaaaahaaaaaaahaaaaa!” “I’m at an age where my back falls out more than I do!” “On my honeymoon I put on a peekaboo blouse. My husband looked and booed. “

She has had a huge impact on countless female stand-up comedians from Joan Rivers to Ellen DeGeneres. Diller was a housewife and mother of five when she performed at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub in 1955. She retired from stand-up in 2002 at the age of 85, but informed the LATimes when she informed them four years later that she didn’t miss it because there was a lot of “tension” in the stand-up. “I always said that every afternoon at 4 p.m. I put the key in the back and started to open it. So you see what I mean – there’s a lot of tension. You are responsible for ensuring that many people have a good time every night. An hour of one-liner is a lot of material. “

However, Diller was much more than a jolly lady. She was an accomplished pianist. She appeared as the famous Texas Guinan nightclub hostess and actress in Elia Kazan’s 1961 “Splendor in the Grass” and appeared on Broadway as Dolly Levi in ​​the musical “Hello, Dolly!” In 1970 on Broadway. In 1963 she began to paint. After her retirement, Diller painted every day. She was 95 years old when she died in 2012.

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