Pioneers of Television: Funny Ladies

About This Episode


Comedy crosses boundaries, and in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, many female entertainers struggled just to enter the male-dominated world of stand-up and television. Self-deprecation, acting dumb and playing down their looks were some of the strategies these funny ladies employed to be taken seriously. While many comedians today get their laughs from shock value, racial and sexual characterizations or expletives, the first female stars of network television had no such fallbacks and instead entertained with pure talent and screen savvy. “They are just funny - silly as hell,” is how Betty White describes these pioneers, who are also her peers.

Phyllis Diller’s outrageous personality and jokes that mocked her looks and disdain of housekeeping flew in the face of the then stereotypical image of the ideal housewife. Carol Burnett first tried to make it as a musical theater performer, but it was her comedic twist on the Elvis craze that got her noticed. Joan Rivers pitched “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” for seven years before they booked her in 1965.

When show settings eventually moved from homes to the office, the funny ladies of television took on the male-dominated workplace with sass and humor, laying the foundation for future stars.