The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The comedians who broke the glass ceiling — and laughed

Sarah Ophelia Colley performs as Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1974. She had a long career in radio and television; her famous costume was hastily bought at a thrift shop. (John Duricka/AP)
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Before I started reading “In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy,” I was reasonably sure I was not interested in learning about Minnie Pearl (1912-1996), the country-styled comedian who wore a straw hat with a price tag hanging off the side and opened her act by bellowing “Howdy!” I was certain I was familiar with Joan Rivers’s biography as we had briefly worked together on a project and I had been a fan of hers for years.

But Shawn Levy, whose previous books include biographies of Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack, has done a sensitive job telling the stories of the nine pioneering women he has designated as those who cracked the glass ceiling of comedy.

Jackie “Moms” Mabley was a Black ex-vaudevillian born in 1894 (or 1897; birth date is in dispute) in North Carolina who ran away with a theatrical troupe, ending up in Pittsburgh playing in a variety-show sketch called “The Rich Aunt in Utah.” Vaudeville, especially on the less-affluent Black tour, required a performer to sing, dance, tell jokes — and do it multiple times a day, 30 shows per week. Entertainers might couple up, like “Buck and Bubbles,” or emerge a star in their own right, like the actress Ethel Waters and the musician Fats Waller. Mabley’s grandparents had been enslaved. Her road to “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was the least likely of any of her contemporaries, especially as she performed her act in a housedress and a cap and, later, often without her teeth, playing elderly before she even was. Her material was risque, and she was a barely closeted lesbian. Her journey was made possible on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs and theaters that catered to Black entertainers and audiences in the 1930s and ’40s. Many famous musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Sammy Davis Jr. got their start at these venues. At Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater, Mabley killed.

I’d never heard of an entertainer named Jean Carroll, but like several of the stars in this book, she began her performing life as a singer-dancer. When she added jokes to her repertoire in the 1940s, the term “stand-up comic” hadn’t yet been coined. (That would happen in 1950, by Variety, the trade magazine.) She was called a “comic monologist,” and she was famous for being attractive. From a review: “Miss Carroll does not hurt her cause by being lovely to look at and by enunciating like an elocution teacher. . . . Her timing is faultless and the laughs follow each other in almost unending succession.” Perhaps she was a real-life inspiration for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” an idea Levy floats a few times.

The reason Minnie Pearl caught me by surprise, it turns out, is that her persona was completely invented and invested in by one Sarah Ophelia Colley, a graduate of posh Ward-Belmont College, where she was a theater major. Though not a fan of the “hillbilly” arts of the Grand Ole Opry, Colley auditioned for it and was a huge hit on the radio institution for years, until she had to figure out what Minnie Pearl would look like on the new medium of television. The costume in which she became famous was a hastily improvised purchase at a Nashville thrift shop. She died, after a long career, as an eminence in Nashville.

Levy salts his texts with anecdotes about Bob Hope, who could make comedians stars by featuring them as guests on his many USO tours and TV specials. Ed Sullivan, the Broadway columnist turned Sunday night TV host (when the country had three networks and only seven channels, everyone watched him), was even more powerful. Hope and Sullivan let Phyllis Diller and other female joke-tellers walk through their velvet ropes, but the men also kept out many would-be entertainers such as Belle Barth, who was arrested numerous times for obscenity. She told dirty jokes. “She knew she was never going to be on Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson,” Levy writes. As a late-night talk show host, Carson helped manage the door to fame for female stand-up acts. His feud with Joan Rivers is a poignant chapter in this book. Needless to say, there is no longer any single television impresario with that kind of omnipotence.

Female stand-ups also benefited from the era of TV variety shows — hodgepodge programs filled with something for everyone, like Carol Burnett’s long-running show. It seemed like every performer of the ’60s and ’70s had a variety show — Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell, Dean Martin, Rowan and Martin — all names that now have the scent of a musty vintage wardrobe and that are scarcely known to younger audiences. The shows were generally an hour long, and guest stars would do an abbreviated edition of their act and perform gamely with an almost Las Vegas-style company of singers and dancers. (Famously, David Bowie once sang “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. Get the picture?) Now they seem laughably old school, but that was the 20th-century version of exposure to a broad audience.

Of all the paths to fame and equality in our less-than-fair culture, comedy seems to be among the more retrograde. Those hoary complaints that women aren’t funny (yawn), that funny women aren’t feminine enough (gag) and that men can’t stand the implicit competition they feel from a woman with a sense of humor (I can’t hear you) seem to me to be deaf, dumb and blind. All the women in this volume had to endure that and worse. No one’s parents wanted their daughters to go into comedy. For the women who wanted to be actresses or singers, those careers weren’t quite as embarrassing — but the stage was not an elegant or appropriate setting for a young lady, especially a young lady who was in want of a husband.

“In on the Joke” demonstrates how tough the work was — incessant travel, leaving one’s family for weeks at a time just to get heckled onstage or fondled backstage, doesn’t seem so fun. Levy spends too much time calculating what a 1959 paycheck would be today. We get it: inflation.

Of his nine exemplars, only one is still alive: Elaine May. I was so looking forward to reading Levy’s interview with her and disappointed that her profile was written without her input. At the end of his book, Levy does list some of the more successful working comics who are women. They are not funny despite being women, and they are not funny because they are women. They are funny. Here’s looking at you, Amy Schumer.

Lisa Birnbach is a writer in New York. She co-wrote and edited “The Official Preppy Handbook” and wrote “True Prep.”

In on the Joke

The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy

By Shawn Levy

Doubleday. 383 pp. $30

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