Before ‘Hacks’: A look back at pioneering female stand-up comics

There is a heartbreaking scene near the end of episode three of HBO Max’s acclaimed comedy series “Hacks.” Young writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbender), who has been hired to create new material for veteran stand-up comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), is watching an old VHS tape of a young Deborah’s unaired TV pilot for a late-night talk show. She is fresh-faced, funny and hopeful. She thanks her husband, her sister and her young daughter. 

If the show had succeeded, Deborah would have been the first woman to headline late-night. But it didn’t happen. Her ex-husband ran off with her sister and she has a less than wonderful relationship with her daughter. Instead of challenging herself, she has had a longtime residency at a Las Vegas casino. But she’s been told that her dates are being cut back to make way for new talent. 

Despite the fact that there are lots of female stand-ups these days (just check out their  Netflix and HBO stand-up comedy specials) “Hacks” illustrates the life of a funny lady is anything but a laugh riot. Let’s face it girls, it’s still a male-dominated profession.  But can you imagine the what it took women break into the world of stand-up some 70 years ago? Just look at Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?” You need determination, a great act, personae and above all, cojones. Here’s a look at some early stand-ups:

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Jean Carroll
She began her career as part of the comedy team of Carroll and Howe. Her husband Buddy Howe was a vaudevillian and later became her manager. Carroll was pretty and wrote her own material that dealt with everyday life-husband, kids, shopping etc. The New York Times’ obit stated her “ready wit, impeccable timing and unorthodox blend of glamor and humor made her one of the first female stars of mainstream stand-up.” Carroll was popular on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” appearing some 20 times.

Check out her clips on YouTube. She was funny.  “The thing that attracted me to my husband was his pride. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, standing up on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze and he too proud to run and get it.” She even headlined her own short-lived 1954-54 ABC comedy series, “The Jean Carroll Show.” Carroll died in 2010 a few days shy of her 99th birthday.

Belle Barth
This stand-up was the opposite of Carroll. She was foul-mouthed and bawdy.  In 1953, she was arrested and fined $25 for her act. In another court case, two schoolteachers sued her for over a million citing she had morally corrupted them and harmed their health! Though her home base was Miami Beach, she also appeared in New York and Vegas and recorded successful comedy albums. Married five times, she died in 1971 at the of 59.

Jackie “Moms” Mabley
The African American stand-up, who came out as a lesbian in 1921, was one of the top female performers on the Chitlin Circuit and made her New York debut at the famed Connie’s Inn in Harlem. In the 1950s, she adopted the “Moms” character-no teeth, a bedraggled house dress and a floppy crocheted hat. Under this non-threatening guise, she could address such hot-button subjects as racism. One of her signature comedy bits was her preference for younger men over “old-washed up geezers.”

“‘Help me make it through the night’—if you can make it for half an hour, you’re alright with me! “There ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one…I’d rather pay a young man’s fare to California than tell an old man the distance.”

White audiences were introduced to her in 1962 when she appeared at Carnegie Hall and began recording comedy records. She was a favorite on such series as  “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”  She died of heart failure in 1975 at the age of 81.  Wanda Sykes appeared as her in an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Totie Fields
Before she turned to comedy, Fields sang in Boston clubs while she was still in high school. Married with two children, Fields loved to joke about being overweight. “I’ve waited all my life to say this… I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!” “Happiness is getting a brown gravy stain on a brown dress” Ed Sullivan caught her act at the Copacabana and gave her first big break on his show. She also was a mainstay on “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the 1960s and 70s.  

In the mid-70s, she was plagued by health problems, including having a leg amputated after surgery to remove a blood clot turned into phlebitis. She suffered two heart attacks while recovering. And the following year, she had a mastectomy when cancer was found in her right breast. But she didn’t stop her career. Fields, who lost an enormous amount of weight after the amputation, used a wheelchair, and incorporated her health problems into her act. But as her friend, actor Van Johnson said, “When Totie lost weight, she wasn’t funny anymore.” In 1978, she was set to appear at the Sahara in Las Vegas when she had a fatal pulmonary embolism. She was just 48. She was a big influence on Rosie O’Donnell who at on point was going to play the comedian in a biopic.

Phyllis Diller
Diller was once of the most eccentric and funny early stand-ups. She wore outrageous wigs, tent-dresses and ankle boots and always had a long-cigarette holder in her hand, Diller would do rapid-fire one liners about her husband “Fang,” his harpy-esque mother,” her ow appearance and her subsequent plastic surgery. She was top off her jokes with a loud cackle –“Haaaaaaahaaaaaaahaaaaa!” “I’m at an age where my back goes out more than I do!” “On my honeymoon, I put on a peekaboo blouse. My husband peeked and booed.”

She was a tremendous influence on countless female stand-up comedians from Joan Rivers to Ellen DeGeneres.  Diller was a housewife and mother of five when she began performing in 1955 a San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub.  She retired from stand-up in 2002 when she was 85, but when informed the L.A.Times  four years later that she didn’t miss it because there was a lot of “tension” in stand-up. “I used to say that, at 4 every afternoon, I would put the key in my back and started winding it. So, you see what I mean-there is a lot of tension there. You are responsible for a lot of people having a good time every night. An hour of one-liners is a lot of material.”

Diller was much more, though, than a funny lady. She was an accomplished pianist. She appeared as the famed nightclub hostesses and actress Texas Guinan in Elia Kazan’s 1961 “Splendor in the Grass” and appeared on Broadway in 1970 as Dolly Levi the musical “Hello, Dolly!” She began painting in 1963.  After she retired, Diller painted every day. She was 95 when she died in 2012.

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