Happy Birthday, Joan Rivers!

Joan Rivers is 80 years old today! Enjoy an excerpt from Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady by Tuezdae and Darryl Littleton in honor of her long and successful career.

Joan Rivers

As Johnny Carson’s go-to guest host, the raspy voiced comedienne who’d been plugging away since the ’60s was finally getting some serious attention. So much so that in 1986, the newly christened FOX network beckoned Rivers over to do her own late-night talk show.

Being a pioneer means sacrifice. Not only did Rivers’ show die a rancid death, after attempting to fire husband, Edgar Rosenberg (who was the producer), FOX ended up firing them both. Three months later, Rosenberg was found dead from an apparent suicide. Joan blamed FOX. Several years later, she found success on a daytime talk show. She also got daughter Melissa in on the act by co-hosting the E! Entertainment network’s Golden Globes pre-show and Academy Awards pre-show and ripping celebrities a new one.

“I like people that don’t really give a damn and just say whatever. Sometimes I wish I had balls like that, but I’m too scared to hurt people’s feelings.”  —Nikki Carr

Joan Alexandra Molinsky from Brooklyn didn’t have time to care about other people’s feelings. She was too busy trying to get ahead. After graduating from Barnard College with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature and anthropology, she worked a number of diverse jobs: tour guide at Rockefeller Center, writer/ proofreader at an ad agency, and fashion consultant.

Rivers began her show biz career in the theater and New York comedy clubs and landed on The Tonight Show hosted by Jack Paar. She was a gag writer for Candid Camera, as well as a plant to sucker participants into doing wacky things. It was during the ’60s that she made her first foray into the talk-show format with a daytime talk show of her own. Her first guest was Johnny Carson. She also released two comedy albums during this decade.

The 1970s saw a Rivers expansion. She appeared on variety shows (The Carol Burnett Show), participated in children’s programming (The Electric Company), and did game shows (Hollywood Squares). She wrote the Stockard Channing movie comedy The Girl Most Likely To . . . and wrote and directed the Billy Crystal film Rabbit Test. She also introduced herself to Las Vegas audiences as singer Helen Reddy’s opening act.

By the ’80s, Rivers was headlining Vegas. She took her growing cache and wrote a bestselling humor book, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz.  Her popularity was such that she found herself initiating a lawsuit against drag queen Frank Marino for doing her stand-up material as part of his impersonation of her. This was also the decade she became estranged from longtime friend and mentor Carson after jumping over to FOX and directly challenging him for viewers and precious ratings. Once that whirlwind of missteps and tragedy subsided, Joan stepped back into the daytime talk show arena with The Joan Rivers Show and got an Emmy and a five-year run for her efforts.

The only thing that was getting more attention than Joan Rivers’ own biting self deprecating wit was her multiple plastic surgeries. She’s never shied away from the fact that she’s had some work done, having popped up on three episodes of Nip/Tuck playing herself and as a vagina that’s had too much plastic surgery in the animated adult show Drawn Together.

The new millennium found business-savvy Rivers being omnipresent. She had an $8 million deal to do TV Guide’s red carpet show, leaving E! holding considerably less. She had a line of baubles called, what else, The Joan Rivers Collection being hawked on the QVC shopping network. She was one in only four Americans invited to Prince Charles’s wedding and won Donald Trump’s NBC reality show hit, The Celebrity Apprentice. Joan Rivers is no mere comedienne. She’s a comedy factory.

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments.

Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.

Happy Birthday, Tina Fey!

Littletons

Guest Bloggers: Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton, authors of Comediennes: Laugh Be a Ladycontribute a little something for Tina Fey’s 43rd birthday today.

Despite SNL’s imperfections over the years, the show’s output of talent can’t be denied and no comedienne has been more impressive than Tina Fey. By sheer accomplishments and accolades alone she’s in a class all by herself – female or male. An alumni of Chicago’s Second City, the writer / actress / producer / author has managed, in a career spanning a mere 17 years, to amass 7 Emmys, 4 Screen Actor Guild, 3 Golden Globes and 4 Writer Guild of America Awards. Fey’s film, Mean Girls had a worldwide box office take of 129 million dollars. Baby Mama made 64 million and Megamind pulled down 321 million worldwide.

Her comedy virginity was broken by old Marx Brothers movies and Honeymooner episodes. Her father forbade the viewing of The Flintstones since he deemed them a Honeymooners rip-off. However, she was allowed to watch Second City TV and adopt Catherine O’Hara as the woman she wanted to be one day.

During middle school she did a project on the subject of comedy. Then Tina went to work on learning her chosen craft by studying playwriting and acting in college earning a degree in drama; next stop – Second City and total immersion in the religion of improvisation. She took a stab at stand-up, but realized her strength lied in improvisation.

Besides, being quick on her feet and a nimble wit, Fey was also a writer with a wicked pen. In 1997 she got her SNL gig by submitting scripts, which got the attention of then head writer Adam McKay, who suggested her for a paid writing slot. She took personal improvement to the next level and lost 30 pounds to make her physical package more TV friendly after seeing herself on camera. Following that version of scaling back she got approached to do a lot more sketches.

In 2000 she got the coveted co-anchor position on SNL’s ‘Weekend Update” along with Jimmy Fallon. Fey was now not only the first female head writer for the show, but according to alumni, Dennis Miller – the funniest “anchor” to ever sit at the Weekend Update desk.

30 Rock had already been green-lit be NBC by the time Fey left SNL at the end of the 2006 season. It had actually been a rejected pilot idea she presented in 2002 to a cable affiliate of NBC’s. In 2003 she signed a renewal contract for SNL that also allowed her to develop a sitcom. As soon as she left in 2006 30 Rock made its premiere in October of that year and ranked very poorly. Regardless, NBC stuck with it and the show became a critical darling if not a ratings blockbuster. Fey and the show won so many awards that you forgot there were other nominees.

On top of all the industry recognition Fey became a cultural phenomenon. Between September 2008 and March 2011 she impersonated Sarah Palin a half dozen times, with the September 13th maiden voyage holding the distinction of going viral to the tune of 5.7 million hits (a SNL record), and the October 18, 2008 sketch where Fey meets the real Sarah Palin being the highest rated program since 1994. Fey’s debut as a screenwriter (Mean Girls) grossed 129 million worldwide and her follow-up, Baby Mama made 64 million at the box office.   She’s been ranked as hot and beautiful by Maxim and People magazines respectively and voted one of the 50 most powerful women by the New York Post.  And did we forget to mention that in 2011 Tina Fey was Forbes magazine’s highest paid TV actress.

Well, not every comedienne is going to be a Tina Fey, but she’s a yardstick; something to aspire to be and she’s just hitting stride.

 

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.

Happy 80 Years, Carol Burnett!

What better way to celebrate Carol Burnett’s 80th birthday than with an excerpt from Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton’s Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady?

Carol’s first year in the city that never sleeps would’ve given most fledgling performers nightmares. One thing—her father died of complications from alcohol. She had to deal
with that while working the entire year without a gig in show business. Her gig was as a hat-check girl, and they weren’t discovering too many of them for stage stardom. The one bright spot of 1955 for Burnett is when somebody came up with the idea to hold a showcase. She lived in a boarding house and the girls there had similar circumstances. So Carol and company invited agents and industry types to The Rehearsal Hall Revue and displayed their talents. Carol got a gig playing the girlfriend to Paul Winchell’s dummy, Jerry Mahoney. From there she earned a sitcom spot on the Buddy Hackett one-season laugher, Stanley. Despite breaking in as the love interest to a piece of wood, Carol was on the radar. She gained a reputation as a rising talent on the New York night club scene. By 1957, Carol was performing on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and was a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz. It was a red-letter year. It was also the year her mother died.

In 1959, Carol Burnett appeared in the smash Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress and became a regular on The Garry Moore Show. The year 1962 gave Carol the memory of her first Emmy win, for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series. From there it was off to Carnegie Hall to headline along with friend Julie Andrews in Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. The show won an Emmy. In ’63 she hooked up with producer Joe Hamilton and entered into her second marriage. Carol also met Lucille Ball and they became friends until Ball’s death in 1989. The relationship was so chummy that Lucy offered to produce a sitcom for Carol under the Desilu banner. Carol thanked her, but opted to do a variety show instead. A tragic side note to their friendship came in the form of a yearly ritual. Ball would routinely send Carol flowers on her birthday. On her fifty-sixth birthday, Carol got the news that Lucy had died, and as she grieved the flowers arrived with a note that read, “Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy.”

The plan to do a variety show was not met with enthusiastic applause from the suits over at CBS. They’d given Carol a one-year contract to do whatever type of show she wanted; little did they suspect she’d choose the variety format. That was the bastion of male performers. Women were guests on such shows, not hosts. It was going to be a big mistake. Carol didn’t agree and held them to their written agreement. Her big mistake lasted eleven seasons and received twenty-three Emmys with the cast of Lyle Waggoner, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicki Lawrence (who got the job because she looked like a young Carol Burnett).

The Carol Burnett mistake featured parodies of movies, TV shows, and commercials. One sketch was so popular it was spun off into the hit sitcom Mama’s Family starring Lawrence. Carol’s ritual of tugging her ear at the end of each taping to let her grandmother know she was doing fine and happy took on a bittersweet quality when her grandmother died during the show’s run. The success stopped in 1978, and Carol moved on to other aspects of her career. She starred in several films playing dramatic roles, guest starred on sitcoms, and returned to the stage to co-star with Rock Hudson in 1985. She even tried to revive the variety show format, but the ’60s and ’70s were over and so was that genre.

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of women in comedy through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.

Did Jean Harlow Ever Make You Laugh?

LittletonsGuest Bloggers: Darryl J. Littleton and Tuezdae Littleton are the authors of Comediennes. Below is an excerpt from their blog.

Whenever you take on a big subject like history there’s going to be arguments.  We took on the history of female comics and of course the debate becomes who qualifies to carry the title of comedienne.  We tried to answer that question in our book, “Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady”, but the discussion rages on.  We’d like to address as many of these disagreements as possible.  Today we’d like to address the question of Jean Harlow.  Was she a comedienne?

Some claim Harlow was a comedienne due to a string of ‘comedies’ she filmed.  Of the 33 movies she did only 9 were credited comedies.  She also shot dramas, romantic-dramas, gangster flicks and an adventure.  Twelve of Harlow’s films are as an uncredited extra.  I hope the criteria for being a comedienne is not extra work.  In that case Ben Stein is a comedienne.    Harlow is credited with a lot of uncredited extra work.  One’s even unconfirmed uncredited.   Then when she did ‘act’ the critics wished she hadn’t.   They conceded she had enough sex appeal to put butts in the seats and a sense of humor, but nobody used the word ‘actress’ and “Jean Harlow’ in the same sentence unless the word ‘bad’ preceded either.  But before casting Harlow off as a charismatic screen personality with friends on the other side of a casting office door, we’ll examine her for closer scrutiny.

Let’s start with her life. Things started off big for Harlow.  She was born a whopping 9 lbs.  She was born in the big city of Kansas City Missouri and grew up in a big mansion.  Her parents had big money.    She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter.  Her pops was a dentist, but her mother felt like she married Novocain and in 1922 she was granted a divorce and sole custody of Harlean. Without contest her father agreed to child support yet was rarely allowed to see Harlean.   Nice to know that very little of that game has changed.  However, Harlean was determined to see her father and arranged secret meetings.

Keep reading this post on the Comediennes blog!

 

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.

Name those Comediennes (and win a free book!)

Below is the cover of the new book Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady by Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton (Applause Books). We are going to give one free copy of this book to the person who can name the most comediennes on the front  cover by commenting on this blog. DON’T FORGET TO INCLUDE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS IN YOUR COMMENT SO WE CAN LET YOU KNOW IF YOU WON. All you have to do is name the people in order (left to right, then top to bottom). Don’t worry if you can’t name them all. You just have to name more than everyone else in order to win. The answers are in the back of the book, so we’re trusting that if you’re trying to win the book, you don’t already have it. We trust you guys. No cheating! We’ll pick a winner at the end of the week.

Can you name them all? – Illustration by Cliff Mott

Below is an excerpt from Comediennes to celebrate Whoopi Goldberg’s birthday.

Another comedienne pulling the Renaissance routine burst upon the scene in a one-woman show she created, entitled The Spook Show. Famed director Mike Nichols took it to Broadway, and the artist who could do so many funny characters ruled the town.

“I remember when she first did her one-woman show. She was crazy in that. It was way in the beginning when stand-up was different and she puts on this one-woman show doing all these characters. It was remarkable.”

—Sara Contreras

Caryn Elaine Johnson, later known as Whoopi Goldberg, was then cast as Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,  directed by Steven Spielberg, and in 1985, became a household name. From there Whoopi was making plenty. Besides film, Goldberg had her own NBC sitcom and a late-night talk show. She co-produced the popular game show The Hollywood Squares , wrote books, produced plays on Broadway, did voice-overs in classic cartoons (Lion King  and Toy Story), cofounded Comic Relief, was the first black female to host the Academy Awards, and co-hosted the morning gabfest The View. By the way, did I mention she won an Oscar (for Ghost ), making her the first African American stand-up comedienne to receive the award?

“I auditioned for a great movie. They were looking for an unknown actress. The movie was called Ghost. I went to the casting director, then to the director, the writer—they were absolutely amazed. The writer said this is who I saw when I was writing the script. This is it! We wanted an unknown and she’s perfect. They sent me paperwork to be in that movie. And then Whoopi Goldberg decided she wanted that part. It was taken away from me. I had been on a high from the moment I got to Los Angeles. My little bubble popped really hard. I was back to being a comic again.”

—Jedda Jones

More about Whoopi Goldberg and other influential comediennes of today and yesteryear in Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady.

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Here is a video of Whoopi Goldberg at the launch party for one of our books called Mr. Broadway earlier this year:

Beware of Funny Ladies

Guest Blogger: Darryl Littleton, co-author of Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady (Applause Books). The following is an excerpt from his and Tuezdae’s blog.

I never set out to marry a comedienne.  Ever since I got into the business avoiding them romantically was a stated rule.  Why would I want to get involved with a loud-mouthed comedienne?    Then I met Tuezdae.  Not that her mouth was any less loud than anyone else’s.  As a matter of fact when I first saw her she had a microphone up to it and she was getting plenty of laughs.   Did I mention we met in a comedy club?   That’s a good place to be in front of people spewing with a microphone and getting laughs.  Otherwise you’re a roadside preacher and not my type.

I stood there trying to think of what to say.  I couldn’t believe it.  I talk for a living.  Words are my tools.  Over the years I’d talked myself into jobs and out of the clutches of the police.    Hell, I’d talked my way into a car once with no down payment, credit history of proof of being able to pay for it.  It later got repossessed, but the point was I talked it off the dealer’s lot.   So I thought of myself as a verbal virtuoso.  However, at that moment I was a dry mouth guy with as much cool as Tucker Carlson.

I didn’t want to run her off.  I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes comedians can be a tad bit aggressive.   We have a tendency to come on strong.  It works fine with groupies, but this was one of us.  I doubt she’d be impressed by my basic cable and premium channel notoriety.   What to say? What to say?  I was running out of time.  She was wrapping up her set and I was still drawing a blank.  Dammit!  She’s done.

As I stood there thinking about all the things I wanted to do with her and not all of them involved getting naked I realized I was about to break my own rule.    It was the rule of any thinking comedian.  Leave co-workers alone.     There was a reason for them.   They’re the sacred 3 Commandments of why you should steer clear of comediennes.

Find out what the 3 Commandments are and what Darryl ended up saying (and not saying)  to Tuezdae on their Comediennes blog.

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.

Comediennes, an interview

 Onstage and Backstage podcast from Hal Leonard is available on iTunes and Libsyn. Each episode authors and their guests have a chat about the topics of their books. Today, authors of Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady, Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton, interview 5 comediennes about the biz.

>>>LISTEN HERE<<<

Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments. Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.