Roseanne, Rhea, and the Rise of the Female Sitcom Star

Women have proven they could be funny since the beginning of television; there were female comedy stars on shows like SNL, Lilly Tomlin on Laugh In, Carol Burnett. But the sitcom was different — the mothers, girlfriend and secretaries were secondary characters. Women were never the comedic force on a sitcom. They never had the punchline, they were the punchline. But all that changed in the 1980s.

I was born in 1982, and 7 years later I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. While most girls my age wanted to be doctors, teachers and princesses, I wanted to work in a bar. I longed for an overweight man who sat at home while I pulled a double shift at a diner. It’s not that I didn’t have ambitions as a child. In fact, I had a very important dream: I wanted to be funny. And at the time I thought, courtesy of network television, I would have to be miserable to be funny. I wanted to be Roseanne Connor and Carla Tortelli.

Obviously there were comediennes on sitcoms long before Cheers and Roseanne. But not truly funny ones. Lucille Ball could make an audience laugh for over 60 seconds (fact!) but by being adorable, not witty. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve laughed a lot while watching I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was funny: by falling, by crying, by dressing up in a disguise to trick her foreign (read: oblivious) husband. Her physical comedy has gone unchallenged for over 50 years. But she was funny in a completely non-threatening way. The female sitcom was a strange thing before the 80s. It was family time for most people watching television between 8 and 10pm. And writers, actors and studio execs didn’t want to upset the model that was expected of them. As a result, TV dads were the one in charge. Dads were also the ones smart enough to be funny.

Another classic TV wife was Jean Stapleton of All In The Family. Edith Bunker is one of those perfect pre-80s sitcom characters: sweet, naïve and utterly dedicated to her husband. The voice Stapleton created is a reason for the comedy community to look back fondly on Edith. But would she have been funny if she weren’t constantly up against Archie? Even in shows that didn’t center around a family, there were very clear roles that men and women portrayed. Take, for example, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Tyler Moore was fantastic on the show. But she was the mother figure to everyone she worked with; the straight (wo)man to the cast of characters surrounding her. Her laughs came from her reactions to the situations she found herself in, not from her quick one liners. There are many different kinds of funny, but due to a sarcastic father and an appreciation for the mean spirited, I’ve always found the darker kind humor most appealing. And before Cheers, that was a type of humor reserved only for the men.

For those who haven’t seen Cheers, Carla AKA Carla Maria Victoria Angelina Teresa Apollonia Lozupone Tortelli LeBec was a smart ass. As the only real working woman on Cheers, she didn’t have to work hard to fit in with the boys. She was crude, vicious, biting and hilarious. Played by the often-forgotten Rhea Perlman, Carla was the first woman on a sitcom allowed to be funny on her own merit. Carla was different than anyone else I had ever seen on television. She played mommy to no one. She was emotionally vulnerable at times, but always refused to be the typical girl. She was the only woman who would stand up to Sam, cut Norm and Cliff to the core and mock Fraiser’s affectations to his face. And the audience laughed. With her, not at her.

Carla was the everywoman. She wasn’t the perfect mom, the perfect employee, or the perfect girlfriend, but she was perfect at delivering biting quips and coming up with unflattering nicknames. However, she was still a secondary character. For a strong female lead, the world would have to wait seven years for a brash, overweight and angry stand up comedienne to write her own show.

So much has been written on the social impact that Roseanne had on the cultural landscape that I couldn’t do it justice here. Needless to say, Roseanne mattered. To the audience, to the zeitgeist, and to every show that has followed. Even now every series revolving around a blue collar family gets compared to Roseanne. It wasn’t the first show to show a blue collar family — Married With Children premiered a year before Roseanne, in 1987. But for as fantastic as Married was, it was a farce. The characters of Al, Peggy, Kelly and Bud were hilarious, but they were hyper realized. No one actually knows a Bundy. But Roseanne Barr took an unblinking look at the real blue collar family. Hers was a family much like most: one that cared for each other, but often couldn’t stand one another. But there was real love in the Connor family, and Roseanne was the matriarch. In that, Roseanne was similar to sitcom moms of the past. But that’s where the conformities end. Instead of wearing dresses, aprons and a smile when her husband got home, Roseanne wore a uniform and a scowl. Instead of asking her kids how much homework they had, she would wonder where the hell they were. Roseanne was a real mom. But beyond that, she was also the funniest person on television. She, like Carla, was the one who got to say the punchlines. She was the first female comedy star who could stand on her own. She didn’t need a husband, boyfriend or boss to make her funny. Her studio audience laughs didn’t come from an “aw shucks” look or an adoring glance at a dress she could never afford. She got her laughs like no other mom on television had before — from saying something funny. Her relationships extended beyond her husband and children. In one episode, she said “I consider myself a pretty good judge of people, and that’s why I don’t like none of them.” And she didn’t. She constantly berated her sister Jackie, her various bosses, even her mother. But it seemed to come not from anger, but from a both pessimistic and realistic view of the world. And her take on family and work resulted in some of the best one liners in television history.

After Roseanne and Cheers went off the air, there was a slew of comediennes to follow in their footsteps. No longer was it a surprise that women could be funny in network primetime. These brash, unpolished women had broken the barrier of what a woman could and could not say on television. They represented the poor working class woman, not just the high powered Murphy Brown types. But above all else, they were truly funny. Actors like Ellen Degeneres, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Jane Kaczmarek and Tina Fey have since taken the comedy crown from the original strong women of sitcoms, but there’s still a part of me that wishes I were just as funny as a waitress and a bar maid.

Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles where she watches lots of old television and produces this show.

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