(“Funny Ladies.” Stephen M. Silverman. Harry Abrams. $29.95)
The best tribute to the late Phyllis Diller is a look at the comediennes who through the years have made us laugh. This book is both beautiful and colorful and brimming with photos the likes of Fanny Brice, Gracie Allen, Mae West, Zasu Pitts, Joan Davis, Bette Midler, the Golden Girls, Ellen Degeneres, for the total of 100 great comediennes.
Now, for the first time, noted journalist and critic Stephen M. Silverman takes a light-hearted look at these comediennes and shows how they’ve shaped our tastes and tickled our funny bones.
One of my favorite things about this particular book are the anecdotes, jokes, and shticks. Who can forget Gracie Allen or Mae West (“I’ve been on more laps than a napkin”). In addition to exploring the societal and cultural influences on these women, the lively text also explains how one performer often paved the way for another. These women paved the way to persevere in a man’s world of entertainment. Comedy was first dominated by the towering figures of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope. After reading and laughing through the pages, you will see that it is the women who are having the last laugh. To say nothing of causing it. Many of the comediennes turned to humor and the glory of the audiences who appreciated them, because of sadness and tragedy in their own lives.
Phyllis Diller, forever funny, in real life she was a survivor. While the average American woman in the early sixties was attempting to conform to the cool, tight-skirted, coiffed look of Jackie Kennedy, Phyllis Diller was going in another direction. She married Sherwood Diller, divorced in the mid-sixties, had five children and settled on her routine referring to husband as “Fang.” She made the ladies at the laundromat laugh in hysterics as she remarked to her neighbors that their wash was whiter than hers, “I guess I must wash mine.” It was the Tonight Show with Jack Paar that made her career take off.
Joan Rivers on Elizabeth Taylor: “She has more chins than the Hong Kong phone book. She puts mayonnaise on aspirin.” Taylor reacted, “Honey, those jokes don’t get me where I live.”
Mary Tyler Moore, born in 1936 in Brooklyn, was the ringmaster who never hogged the spotlight. In real life, she was plagued with tragedy. Her father was overbearing to the point of driving her mother to drink and her only son committed suicide.
The popular witty journalist, who paraded her Jewish ancestry, Dorothy Parker, once wrote in her column, “Fanny Brice cut off her nose to spite her RACE.” Upon hearing Calvin Coolidge had died, she wrote, “How could they tell?” In describing her apartment she wrote: “It’s really very small, I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” Parker will forever remain part of the American lexicon if for no other reason than the famous line, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Her wit and wise-cracking had truth in it.
Gracie Allen, “Dumb Dora” par excellence, was a wonder, and her husband and stage partner, George Burns proved that he was no slouch. George: “Did the maid drop you on your head when you were a baby?” Gracie: “Don’t be silly, George. We couldn’t afford a maid. My mother had to do it.”
Lily Tomlin, who espoused philosophy based on her experiences of licking her dog and mistreating her little brother. As Edith Ann, a five-year-old who liked to talk about pressing the soft spot on her baby brother’s head. Then she was the Evil Twin of Eloise. Yet as funny as her creations were, when she assumed the character of Ernestine, the telephone company switchboard operator, the audiences went wild laughing. “Here at the Phone Company,” (after which she would snort,) “we serve all kinds of people, from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth.” She called up Richard Nixon and Gore Vidal (whom she called “Mr. Veedle”) and then finish the conversation, “because we are the Phone Company. We don’t care. We don’t have to.” Good-bye.
Do you remember when the Orange Festival brought us such unforgettable characters as Carol Burnett, the nicest person ever, Totie Fields, billed at Size 18 as “the mother of mirth,” and Judy Canova, Hollywood’s Hillbilly, who still has relatives in Winter Haven and Auburndale.
Those were the days and they can be re-captured through the reading of this book.