Friday, January 28th, 2011

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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  • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com/ BobSacamano

    Doesn't the existence of Maude 10 years earlier through a wrench into this theory?

  • Alison Bennett
  • brosefk

    >> But all that changed in the 1980s.

    I don't think so. Listen, I can appreciate that since the author came of age, or became aware of sitcoms in the 80s, that this tends to be her frame of reference, but just off the top of my head… Laverne and Shirley, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Maude, Alice, Flying Nun, That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore. Arguably, Three's Company.

    The thing you seem to be hung up on is the wife (or secretary) angle. And, of course, Roseanne played the mom in a fairly traditional sitcom scenario, and her wisecracking patter was nothing new *AT ALL* if one recalls Audrey Meadows of the Honeymooners back in the 50s no less. Female comedy actors did not come in to their own with Roseanne or Rhea Perlman, both impressive in their day, but ultimately not as iconic as you seem to think. Where are they now? Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Bea Arthur dominated as comedians for decades. And they still resonate today.
    And if you think Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett were funny because they got all moon eyed when their husband or boss cracked wise, you completely did not understand them. Those two were piss-your-pants hilarious and, in my estimation, completely and totally superior to Roseanne, though Rhea Perlman fares better in that regard.

    I don't think the author went very deep on this one and frankly I'm more than a little insulted that you would suggest that Lucille Ball's popularity was mostly a product of her being "adorable." And then to suggest that TV dads were the only ones "smart enough to be funny?" Really?! Usually, just the opposite. The dad was the straight man and the kids or wife got the best lines. Again, off the top of my head, Tom Bosley, Dick York and Dick Sargent, and Hugh Beaumont. In particular, if you think Desi Arnaz had better lines than Lucile Ball or even Vivian Vance then you really never paid attention to that show. He was a total cypher and most of his function was to just stand around tossing slow pitches to Ball. Arnaz was like furniture in that show. Other sitcom dads off the top of my head who were mostly soulless props for the antics of the kids and wife: Robert Reed, Michael Gross, Conrad Bain, Dick Van Patten, and Fred MacMurray.

    In fact, not only were the 80s not the decade that changed everything, one could even argue that the Reagan dominated decade was a setback for the evolution of female comedy with such shows as Family Ties, Cosby Show, Benson, Diff'rent Strokes.

    And Roseanne, in my view, was never as edgy as it was given credit. Also, Rhea Perlman, as brilliant as she was in Cheers was just another luminary on par, and not exceeding, such talents as Danson, Wendt, Ratzenberger, Grammer, Harrelson, Rosen. However, that show's female contingent was certainly equal to their male counterparts with Neuwirth, Long, and Alley. But saying that the 80s changed everything because Roseanne was just another family sitcom with a wise cracking mom and Cheers had a strong, but equal, female component does not a sea change make.

    But, if you were going to build a case for the 80s being the decade "of the female star," I'd focus more on Golden Girls, Designing Women, Flo, or Mama's Family.

    And that's one to grow on.

    • j bacher

      +10 for pointing out Golden Girls and Designing Women; I can't buy age as an excuse for not bringing up GG, as this author is the same age as my younger sister who LOVES Golden Girls.

  • brosefk

    One more thing… the female comedians who dominated pre-80s did so pre-cable, pre-VCR, and pre-Internet. There were three channels. Three. That means EVERYONE who had a TV was watching Lucille Ball. EVERYONE was watching Laverne and Shirley. Kids talked about last night's episode on the playground, adults around the water cooler. TV was more central as a cultural touchstone. For Lucille Ball or Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams to really command that central stage and hold the national interest was a much greater accomplishment. The significance of this cannot be overstated.

    Also, Roseanne began in late 1988 and ended in 1997. It's really more a product of the 90s and competed in a different era.