(Carol Burnett, one of the subjects of this story, was just honored with the 16th Annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Award for Humor. PBS will air the awards show Sunday, Nov. 24 at 8 p.m. ET; check local listings.)
My favorite TV shows of all time are the sitcoms that I grew up on. I have a special affection for the funny ladies, maybe because my mother was always getting herself into Lucy-like predicaments, like the time I found her trapped in the dining room table. Don’t ask.
My first TV memory — I was 4 years old — is Life With Elizabeth, a sitcom that starred Betty White, who was in her early 30s. Broadcast live from Los Angeles, where I spent my early years, it aired from 1952 to 1955. I don’t remember any of the show’s plot lines, just Betty’s wicked grin as she outsmarted her husband at the end of each episode.
The PBS series, Pioneers of Television: Funny Ladies (which aired in January 2013 and can be watched free online), is a look at the early female comics, though not all of them. Sorry, no Eve Arden, Gertrude Berg, Imogene Coca, Joan Davis or Gale Storm.
“We didn’t set out to be an encyclopedia or a comprehensive list of 100 different people," co-producer Mike Trinklein told me recently. "We passed on Gracie Allen, for example, as she and everyone who worked with her is dead. We were biased toward the living. We wanted to feature women who had a big influence on our culture today, funny ladies that people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s grew up with.”
Those women include Carol Burnett (star of the Nov. 24 PBS special, Carol Burnett: The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize), Mary Tyler Moore, Joan Rivers, Marla Gibbs, Pat Carroll, Penny Marshall, Cloris Leachman and Betty White. Trinklein also conducted the last on-camera interview with Phyllis Diller.
Dead or alive, you can’t mention the funny ladies of TV without hailing the biggest game-changer of them all, Lucille Ball. Pat Carroll reveals that Ball, an MGM starlet, was trained in the art of physical comedy by Buster Keaton. “He taught her how to work with a prop, to make it an extension of herself," Carroll says. Joan Rivers recalls Ball’s impeccable timing and steely drive. The redhead is portrayed as fearless, the kind of comic “who takes the pie in the face.”
Although he doesn’t appear on camera, Trinklein asked all the questions in the hourlong documentary. “One of the most surprising things I learned about the funny ladies we profiled is that they didn’t set out to be funny ladies,” he says. “They all had different career paths in mind. Carol Burnett wanted to be a singer. Mary Tyler Moore, a dancer. Joan Rivers, an actress. Lucille Ball was almost 40 before doing I Love Lucy.”
There’s a lesson here for everyone: What these women proved great at wasn’t what they initially wanted to do.
The once-shy, awkward Carol Burnett became known for her outgoing persona and larger-than-life comedy gestures— and her Tarzan yell. I remember as a teenager going to CBS Studios for the taping of The Carol Burnett Show pilot. Before it started Burnett came on stage to warm up the house. Everyone fell in love with her. When I saw the show on TV at home, I remember thinking — ever the critic — they should've actually begun with the warm-up. Apparently, I wasn't alone. From then on, every episode of The Carol Burnett Show opened with her taking questions from the audience.
When Carl Reiner chose the then-unknown Mary Tyler Moore to play Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, he saw a comedic flair that she didn’t even know she possessed. Moore says if you watch the earlier episodes, before she loosened up, you’ll hear her talking like Katharine Hepburn at times — to prove it, a clip from one of those shows is played.
Moore is surprisingly direct about her image as a feminist role model, playing a single career woman on her eponymous TV show in the 1970s. Gloria Steinem tried to recruit Moore to join the feminist movement, but she refused. “I believed — and still do — that women have a very major role to play as mothers,” Moore says. “It’s very necessary for them to be with their children. That’s not what Gloria Steinem was saying. She was saying you can do everything and you owe it to yourself to have a career. I really didn’t believe that.” (I can just hear Rhoda saying, "Oh, Mare!")
Trinklein says he wasn’t prepared for how different the funny ladies could be from their TV selves. “Joan Rivers was the biggest surprise of all," he told me. "We went to her house. You expect her to be loud and bombastic, but she was the sweetest, nicest person. She even gave us gifts.”
Carol Burnett was low-key and contemplative, he said, not the goofball we think her to be. But I already knew that.
In 1981, while working as reporter on the San Francisco Examiner, I was invited onto a movie set — an outdoor parking lot in a seedy part of the city. The film was a comedy called Chu Chu and the Philly Flash. The publicist said I could talk to any of its stars. But when I approached Alan Arkin, he told me to go away. Jack Warden said the same thing. I was about to leave when I saw Carol Burnett walking toward me. She extended her hand and said, “I understand I’m supposed to talk to you.” With that she took my arm and escorted me to a seated area. “Now what would you like to know?” she graciously asked.
As different as their comedic styles are, these early funny ladies have something in common. They, unlike most of today’s comics, are or were extremely versatile. “They had to be in order to carry an entire show,” Trinklein says. “Lucy was in every shot. She did 40 episodes a year. Betty White had to learn to fill time on live TV. If that meant sing a song that’s what she did.”
There’s another thing, too. “As talented as they are," Trinklein says, "they all admit how fortunate they were.”
Reflecting on her career, Betty White tells the camera, “I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet.”
Of all the funny ladies on Pioneers of Television, she's kept me laughing the longest. More than 60 years.
How much do you know about America's favorite comedienne?