Phyllis Diller is 94. Carol Channing will be 91 at the end of January. Betty White is 90. Carol Burnett and Joan Rivers (the first female comedian admitted to the famous Friar’s Club) are 78. Mary Tyler Moore is 75. Lily Tomlin is 72. It’s hard to imagine that this country’s funniest women have become not only icons, but grand matriarchs of comedy. These women have made us laugh on radio and television, in film, and in concert time and again.
I first remember seeing Phyllis Diller on television in the 1960s. I resonated with her self-deprecating humor, huge ribald laughter, and crabby reflections on her life with imaginary husband, Fang. Little did I know that we shared a birthday of July 17. Not the same year, of course, but the day was enough for me. Then in the early 1970s, I saw Lily Tomlin in concert. What an amazing ride that was as she shared Edith Ann, Ernestine the Telephone Operator, and Mrs. Judith Beasley with us. I was transported with each new character that arrived on stage.
After Ms. Tomlin left the stage, my father dragged my brother, David, and me across the stage to the dressing room door to say hello to Ms. Tomlin. We were first in line because of Dad’s audacity. As Ms. Tomlin opened the door, she smiled at David and me, and said a gracious hello. In a fit of certain insanity, I broke into Ernestine’s voice and said, “A gracious good evening, Miss Tomlin. We truly enjoyed your show. *snort snort*”
Ms. Tomlin roared with laughter. Dad and David were not as amused. They looked simply mortified watching their 11-year-old son and brother putting the fingers of his right hand down his shirt, and the fingers of his left hand to his ear, intermittently puffing his hair mimicking what he had just seen Ms. Tomlin do. We got her autograph and started walking down the hallway in what should have been a walk of shame. The audience members lined up behind us giggled and pointed. Suddenly, they broke out in applause. I knew this would be a moment that would live in my heart forever.
Last year, I wrote to Ms. Tomlin celebrating her birthday to share this memory with her. She wrote back through her manager and invited my husband, David, and I to her show in March as her guests, with full backstage privileges. This invitation came with the caveat that Ms. Tomlin hopes I reprise my performance for her these 40-plus years later. We’re going.
Many people have memories equally as dazzling as mine because these women chose to share their enormous gifts with us. Could trailblazers such as Sophie Tucker (January 13, 1886 – February 9, 1966) , Fannie Brice (October 29, 1891 – May 29, 1951), Moms Mabley (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975), Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911 – April 26, 1989) and their ilk have realized what they were starting? They paved the way for our current and upcoming grande dames of delight! Through jokes, skits, and bawdy songs, these women took risks that were less common in that era. They dared to say unladylike things, at least by the standards of the day. They laughed with the big boys, even while remaining vastly outnumbered. Even today, if one looks at any random list of comedians, one finds the ratio of women to men about 1:20.
Now, the Bette Midlers, Whoopi Goldbergs, and Ellen Degenereses are already making room for the Kathy Griffins, Chelsea Handlers, and Wanda Sykeses, and others of the newer generation of funny ladies. They definitely have huge pumps to fill.
The elder stateswomen of giggles perpetuate their legacy of guffaws still in concerts, appearances, and red carpet photos. We have the pleasure of knowing that there are those who are moving ahead of a younger generation as well, learning from the dynamic mothers of comedy. We can securely know that our laughter remains in good hands.
Thank you women of laughter. We value your presence in our lives and celebrate your creativity, daring, and willingness to tell the truth in the funniest ways possible! Brava diva, one and all!
To honor these performers, my company, Sacramento Vocal Music, will produce a show of all comedy music entitled, “Grins, Giggles, and Grace Notes,” at the Woodland Opera House. The show on June 15, 2012, will feature my vocal students performing funny songs and standard pieces created to be funny. I hope that our Matriarchs of Mirth would be proud!