Monday, October 31, 2011

Funny Girls

When I was a small girl, the Saturday night line-up of comedies on CBS was about the best thing in the whole world.   I got to see smart funny women being smart and funny.   The night would start off with All in the Family with Edith and Gloria getting the best of Archie and Michael (most of time).   Next the Mary Tyler Moore Show came on and our gal Mary Richards worked relentlessly to produce the WGM 6:00 p.m. Newscast with an over bearing boss and an inept anchorman named Ted Baxter.  Then there was The Bob Newhart Show where Bob's brilliant wife Emily tried to keep things in perspective between Bob's crazy friends and even crazier patients.   Sure, M*A*S*H* was in the line-up too, but I never really saw Major Hot Lips Houlihan as much of a role model even after she lost the "Hot Lips" and just became Margaret.  Finally, we had my patron saint of comedy, Carol Burnett.   I would have to beg my mom to let me stay up until 11:00 p.m. to see the entire show.   I got to sit at the altar of funny ladies every Saturday night and in the 1970's - they ruled network TV.   Back then, aspiring to be a funny girl did not seem that outlandish.   It could be feminine, sexy and intelligent.  You did not have to be Lucy and have to outsmart Ricky to get laughs.  You got what you needed on your own terms and if a man wanted to come along for the ride, all the better.   

Maybe it was because in the heyday of the Equal Rights movement, anything seemed possible for girls.  You had women in Congress like Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm daring to question Richard Nixon and his administration during Watergate.    You had Margaret Thatcher's rise to power as a women who wore pearls and puffy hair but could easily stare down her male counterparts just as easily as Winston Churchill.   Golda Mier was the Prime Minister of Israel and was first called the Iron Lady before Thatcher got that title.   Then in India, there was Indira Gandhi -- another nation ruled by a very strong woman.  It seemed conceivable that women were making strides everywhere and if you could dream it, you could be it.   I dreamed of making the world a better place through comedy. 

Praying at the CBS altar of those sacred Saturday nights helped form the comic sensibilities I have today.   The stand-up comediennes of the 1960's like Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers had to denigrate themselves to get laughs.  Samantha Stevens and Jeannie had to pretend they were less powerful then they were to assuage the insecurities of Darren and Major Nelson. But these new women of the 70's, these comic goddesses could hold their own with their male counterparts and had the strong ratings to show for it.   I loved them as extended members of my family.   I'd wear a bright paisley head scarf to my fifth grade class like Rhoda and pretend my desk was like the one Mary had in the newsroom.   Sometimes I would pretend my bully Lisa was Sue Ann Nivens - the Happy Home Maker - it made Blue Lakes Elementary a more bearable place to learn.  Once I was in Junior High, I'd get to stay up and see a little of Saturday Night Live.  Gilda Radner and Jane Curtain were a revelation.   Never mind that John Belushi once said that women weren't funny - who needed Samurai Deli and the Blue Brothers when you had Roseanna Danna and Candy Slice?  These women were writing and pushing the envelope in a very subversive way and I loved it! 

In the 1980's the trend continued with shows like Kate and Allie, Designing Women, Golden Girls, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and Grace Under Fire but for some reason they just didn't resonate with me like the my old CBS Saturday nights.    I liked the Designing Women and no one on TV could monologue like Julia Sugarbaker.  Murphy Brown seemed to be strong in a one note kind of way and every now and again you got to see her vulnerable.  I loved Claire Huxtable and her no nonsense way with her husband Cliff and her five kids.  I could identify with being in a large family and not wanting to tell your father that something around the house was broken for fear he would try to fix it.   God bless my dad, but he was not a handy man like Cliff and we would pretend that the dishwasher was working before we could get a repair in while he was out of town, just like Claire. 

But then in the 1990's - things changed.   You a had few stand out sitcoms like Seinfeld in which a character like Elaine was out numbered by three other male players.   I loved Mad About You and identified with Jamie Buckman during the early years of my marriage to Max.  We even got pregnant about the same time.   Ellen was very funny but the networks bulked when she came out.   When was the last time you saw a pair of lesbians on a sit-com like Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family?   I guess the networks were and still are more comfortable with Will being gay than Grace. 

I'd all but given up once the year 2000 hit.   It seemed like the new millennium was not ushering in new comedies with women at the helm.  Sure you had Friends, but no strong females pushing the boundaries.   Just when it looked like another season of sitcoms with men in the leads and women as copilots - Tina Fey came along with 30 Rock and the comedic embers of my youth were rekindled.   She, like Mary Richards, is the head of a motley crew of actors and writers whose egos lead to comedic chaos.  Her boss is a network executive that is way hotter than Mr. Grant.   The writing is intelligent, irreverent and not politically correct.  Liz Lemon faces being forty, unmarried and having that ticking biological clock with a charming mix of goofiness and brains that makes it one of my favorite sitcoms.   In fact, NBC Thursday nights are my new CBS Saturday nights with sitcoms either created by or starring women who are trying find that yoga-like balance between work and family that seems to elude them each week and many of us as well.   

I've written before about how comedy is my drug of choice.    Having an improv troupe and the ability to make very silly videos gives me a positive outlet for my frustrations.    Acting like a crazy lunatic all these years on stage and YouTube has kept me very sane.  My comedic idols taught me that women can show strength through humor and that laughing at yourself is the best medicine of all.   Edith, Gloria, Emily, Mary, Rhoda, Phillis, Carol, Gilda, Jane, Claire, Murphy, Julia, Jamie, Leslie, Ellen and Liz, you have been there for me when my life has been at a tipping point and I needed a compass to find my way.  Your comedy has been that needle to help me find my way out of an emotionally dark jungle of fear and gave me the courage to believe in myself even when other people wanted to write me off.   That gift, my comedy goddesses, is one I'll always treasure and pass down to the next generation.  

What I've learned is that these funny girls can teach our daughters more than the Kardashians or the Real Housewives ever could:  that life is funny, sweet, ridiculous, you don't always look hot and yes, sometimes it's really, really unfair.   Ellen came out of her career tailspin with a great talk show and a burgeoning entertainment empire.   She survived on her own terms much like my favorite sitcom heroines.  Learning to roll with the punches and laughing at ourselves is what life is all about.   Taking yourself too seriously is a sure recipe for a reality Diva meltdown.   What our girls need to see today are women who know how to be strong, smart and funny.   Women who know how to throw their hats up in the air  and smile because they know they are going to make it after all.  

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