Review: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on “the Original Queens of Stand-Up”
Surprise is an essential tool of stand-up comedy. Its masters know how to use it to get an audience quickly up to the speed of the “conversation” they want to have—a connection limited less by their gifts than by the particular historical moment and the willing engagement of the crowd. The trailblazers featured in Shawn Levy’s new book In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy may have lived in a time in which the sight of a woman commanding a large group of drinking people—by talking—was the first surprise. Seen through our age of covid and Zoom, the audience back then seems more alarming: nightclub patrons, elbow-to-elbow, their cigarettes lit and democratically cancerous for all.
World War II marked the end of vaudeville and the rise of nightclubs where solo monologists, or acts “working in one,” began to appear; Variety coined the term “stand-up” in 1950. It wouldn’t appear in a dictionary for another fifteen years, and men were the understood to be natural practitioners of the form, but Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller and Belle Barth (some of the “original queens” who get treatment from Levy), were participating from the get-go. Levy writes that the “new comedians, almost always working from material that they themselves had written,” were by commandeering the first person turning stand-up comedy “from a form of amusement into a form of self-expression, consciousness raising, even social critique.”
Much of what you might expect to find in a book about the early women of comedy is here: the fortitude; the inexplicable confidence (sigh), which becomes the (sigh) inevitable success; the need to water down beauty, power, sexiness—except when it needs to be amped up. The revelation that the scrappy are intelligent. There are the lovers and families to support, the men who help and those who don’t, the grandmothers and sisters who raise the children, some born into the show and getting an even earlier start than four-year-old Elaine May did, in the Yiddish theater, with her father. The day after Johnny Carson appeared as the inaugural guest on Joan Rivers’ talk show, she sent a nurse, carrying a bassinette and a note, over to his all-male writers’ room:
Dear Mr. Carson,
My parents don’t know how to thank you for what you did for my mother, so they wanted to give you something they really love, and that’s me. My name is Melissa Rosenberg. I weigh 12 pounds. I eat very little. Please bring me up Jewish.
Behind-the-scenes funny was—and remains—different from what’s funny on stage. On the Ed Sullivan Show, Rivers had not been allowed to use the word pregnant—she could, however, say, “I’ll soon be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” Carson, who relished the capacity still to be surprised, didn’t require the euphemism: he and his writers “just about died laughing,” Levy reports, and played with the actual baby until Rivers showed up to relieve the nurse (sigh). Less game gatekeepers, however, patrol the bankable boundaries of the business—until the market bears adjustments.
American audiences may, on the whole, have adjusted to the marvel of a woman’s existence on stage in front of a microphone—in entertainment—but these pioneers had to work the obvious fact into the act or around the act or through a character or through multiple characters in order to take the conversation where they wanted it to go. Although Elaine May didn’t perform stand-up, Levy rightly includes her because, beginning with her popular sketch act with Mike Nichols in the fifties, she demonstrated the generative power of what can happen with a willing and capable conversational peer, and Levy’s chapter on her is one of the book’s best. The ticket-paying classes had seen nothing like their improvisational fluency, but after a mere eight months of fame and fortune she rejected the prospect of a career coasting on a repetitive set, even if it didn’t look like a set, and turned to writing. The full measure of the ideas that she pursued to original ends in scripts and plays and on sets were often lost on showbiz handlers and the interviewers asking repetitive questions. Levy ends his stone-skipping survey with Joan Rivers, who brought a more familiar conversation as far as the era’s misogyny would let her—a woman’s relationship to self-hatred, told as self-deprecation.
“Can we talk?” became her catch phrase, a woman who for thirty-one years scraped and schlepped and dragged her tape deck to record her bombing sets, refusing to stop, studying the responses of her audience, to find a hook into what worked, to get them to listen. The insecurity worked, the schtick Rivers described as “the loser girl who cannot get married … my stand-up comedy persona … the secret of my success.” The manager Roy Silver understood that she was special, and they collaborated on letting the audience in on more of who she was in addition to insecure—a shift toward complexity that gave her more room to explore all that was happening in her life, good and ill, including marriages. As the times changed, Rivers kept moving onto newly “surprising” things—like a woman being gossipy about celebrities. Gossip is, of course, another way to diminish women talking about people and things. Yet despite Rivers’ longevity, her “mean” stage personality, her fame, her diamond-encrusted lifestyle and her diamond-cut skills, the audience still wasn’t ready for her joke involving 9/11 widows who just might not be quite so grief-stricken, who might be relieved. I saw her perform the bit years later at a workout club among her die-hard fans, and some of the audience wasn’t ready for it still.
I encountered my first stand-up on early cable and I wasn’t interested, despite this blue-collar art form reaching into my blue-collar living room. The frequent brawls at my high school didn’t make me hungry for more anger in language. Nor did stand-up need me: Its audience then was the young male demographic Amy Schumer would upend many decades later. When I re-encountered stand-up in the early aughts in New York City what I loved most, at first, was being among a true mix of people, out in the city, to see art at a price regular people could actually afford. Sometimes we were all lifted up together, or dropped, whatever our place on the evolution of expectations. The communal possibilities of live stand-up depend upon much more than the wild drive of the talent. One thing connection depends on is how wide the frame is cropped.
Of course, women talking have been the premise of jokes for as long as women have talked. And women have become pregnant forever, too. But a pregnant funny woman being funny about pregnancy remains noteworthy as recently as 2016. Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra made the news in part due to that material fact, along with her very real talent, and Netflix’s “dropping” the show on Mother’s Day, a “transparency” that invites the now-supposedly-savvy audience to feel smart about the publicity part of the modern stand-up comedy act. I have counted myself lucky to hear women telling abortion jokes, but I imagine they are decades away from being part of the publicity campaign. I wonder if Joan Rivers’ catchphrase even began as a catchphrase.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is a journalist who lives in New York.
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