Day 6

Stand-up comedy's pioneering women get their due in new book, In On The Joke

In his new book, In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-up Comedy, Shawn Levy profiles many of the female comics who overcame barriers and shattered glass ceilings to pave the way for many recognizable women in comedy today. 

Shawn Levy's history of women comedians details the lives of Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and others

Shawn Levy is author of In On The Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-up Comedy. (Shannon Brazil/Penguin Random House)

With star female comedians like Amy Schumer, Tiffany Haddish and Leslie Jones showcasing success in stand-up and on the big screen, women are situated in comedy more prominently than ever before – but it wasn't an easy ride.

Before the household names of today, the course of women's inclusion into the comedy scene was charted by pioneers like Moms Mabley, Minnie Pearl and Phyllis Diller, who endured sexism, misogyny and racism along the way. 

"They were really sort of adventurers setting off to sea on their own and it's incredibly courageous," said Shawn Levy, author of In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-up Comedy

In his new book, Levy profiles many of the female comics who overcame barriers and shattered glass ceilings to pave the way for many recognizable women in comedy today. 

Day 6 host Saroja Coehlo spoke with Levy about a few of the comedic queens profiled.

For the folks who might not be familiar with her, how would you describe Moms Mabley as a character on stage? 

Moms, starting in her 30s, came out on stage as a wise, old granny — wore frumpy clothes and later in life she left her teeth out when she performed. 

She told jokes, but her jokes, they were subtle political or social commentaries. She would talk about race relations in the United States or the sexual relations between men and women.

You picture an old gal around the fire just sharing her life's wisdom. So she didn't really come off as brash or confrontational, but she was very subversive and very funny. 

Moms Mabley made her mark in Black vaudeville between the world wars. (Getty Images)

Because she was Black, she was obviously facing a lot of bias that many comedians weren't facing at that time, both through her race and her gender. She left home at such a young age after being sexually abused [and] supported herself for years. Do you feel she ever achieved the fame that she deserved for such a talented comedian? 

She wasn't put on TV until the mid 1960s when she was in her 70s, and she had about 10 years where she became sort of a household name.

She presented awards at the Grammys, she had a feature film built around her [that] she starred in called Amazing Grace

So she finally, toward the end of her life, became a sort of crossover star. But prior to that, she owned her own home, she had a chauffeur driven Rolls-Royce, and she wore furs and jewels. 

She was successful in her métier, she just didn't really break out into superstardom until she was a senior citizen. 

I want to move to Minnie Pearl because she comes to mind. She was performing around the same time as Moms Mabley, but she was two decades younger. Incredibly talented young woman at the time — played piano, and was college educated — but being a comedian wasn't the original plan. What did she originally plan to do for her career? 

She thought she was going to Broadway to become a dramatic actress and perhaps to Hollywood. But she was a small town Tennessee girl from a well-to-do and well-educated family. 

While she was sort of making her way in the world as a young performer traveling from town to town, putting on plays in small towns as fundraisers, she met a lot of old country gals. 

She started to take them off, backstage and among her friends, and people said: "You know, you're OK as an actress, but at this you're really good. You're very funny and charming."

She wound up doing that for about 60 years. 

Minnie Pearl performed for decades at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It's an incredible career she had, but what she did end up with is that unbelievably famous country bumpkin character.... Always in that same outfit, she had the hat with the price tag hanging on it. Why did that work for her? Why did that character that she created lead to her success? 

She was an anomaly. Country music at that time was primarily a male-dominated field and there were one or two people doing comedy, but they were men and they were also musicians, so they would sort of do little bits between their musical numbers.

She was a straight-up comic. And she was a woman, she was tall, she stood out and I think she also had this sunniness about her. 

One of the last bits of advice her father gave her when she was just starting out as a performer, saying "You'll do great with this character so long as you keep it loving." And that really is apparent — Minnie Pearl is always smiling. 

Sarah Colley is her real name … and she and her husband remarked about how Minnie Pearl never cried, never has a tear on her face. 

She was spotted once in a grocery store and a woman was sort of following her around and finally said, "Oh, I know who you are! You're Minnie Pearl but I didn't recognize you because you weren't smiling."

Phyllis Diller began her career in advertising, only performing on stage for the first time at 37, says Levy. (George Stroud/Daily Express/Getty Images)

If you think of the men of that era, you've got Milton Berle, you've got Bob Hope. They all got to be Johnny Carson, they all got to be themselves. So why were the women playing characters and often these exaggerated or dumbed down versions of women? 

Unfortunately, that's a legacy of showbiz — and there's even traces of it today — but women had to present themselves as something other than women to be accepted as funny.

If a woman got on a stage in 1955 by herself with a microphone in front of her, you expected her to sing, maybe to take off her clothes. You didn't expect her to tell jokes. 

So [if] she came out exaggerated as a clown, or a frump, or a rube. Then you could say, "Oh, this is a funny person." It allowed the audience to make that leap.

The one woman who was dressed elegantly and presented herself as a woman with a household and ordinary problems was Jean Carroll – and she's almost completely forgotten. 

She retired from showbiz in 1965 or so having tried everything and not become a superstar.

I think it's down to the fact that she did not bend or create a false flag around herself. She played herself on stage and there really wasn't an appetite at that time for such a comedian in the audience. 

Unlike her contemporaries who took on characters, comedian Jean Carroll performed as herself. (Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

What on earth compelled you to dive so deep into the stories of these funny women? 

I have a very strong partner and a very outspoken daughter who've been asking me for years, "When are you going to write about a woman?" And I've been trying to find that project for a time. 

The day my agent said they're interested in a book about the women in comedy, and he said, "I can get you Jean Carroll's granddaughter." 

I was on the phone with him saying, "That's great," and at the time Googling Jean Carroll because I had no idea who she was.

And then I was like, "Oh, my gosh." This woman was doing contemporary with Milton Berle. I had no idea there was such a person, and that was very exciting. 

I'm a born digger — and to be able to find these stories and share them was just a joy.


Written by Liam Dawe. Interview with Shawn Levy produced by Laurie Allan.

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