Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Kathy Griffin, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and countless others. Some of the funniest and most ground breaking comedians of all time and all of them women. Naturally, none of them had an easy journey to the stage or a simple recipe for maintaining success once they got there.
A combination of small numbers, misogyny within the industry and competition within the ranks over the last half century of comedy has kept the number of female comedians at a steady percentage within the industry, but certainly not the level of humor.
This week’s installment of the PBS documentary series “Makers
” tackles Women in Comedy, a comprehensive look at the trials and tribulations of female comedians, from the early days of television through the present slate of comedy. With assistance from a wide variety of talking heads and a rich stable of footage of comediennes in all settings, PBS ably dissects the struggles of female comics over the years and the way they overcame industry blockades to rule the stage today.
With over 50 years of comedy history to cover, “Makers” does a great job picking and choosing small pieces of the most important moments rather than committing to only a few women or shows. Every major comic gets her due, from Diller to Rivers to Jane Curtin to Roseanne and all the way up to the “Saturday Night Live” ladies of today.
The best thing the hour-long special does with the time it has is to focus on all of the ways women in comedy broke barriers, from sketch comedy to sitcoms, instead of focusing only on stand-up sets and traditional club comics. The dynamic of boundary-pushing comedies like “Maude
” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show
” and subversive comics of the time was only the tip of the iceberg, and a sign of the future when fame as a stand-up could lead to a network sitcom (such as in the cases of Roseanne and Ellen).
Most importantly, the documentary allows each women to air any dirty laundry or opinions that remained, such as the Vanity Fair profile by Christopher Hitchens stating that women aren’t funny or the practice of major clubs of the ’80s or ’90s to segregate the women backstage. Even today, when so many women are at the top of the field with resources at their disposal, these opinions remain in the industry and it is important that boundaries continue to be pushed in order for the comedy to remain as shocking as ever.
In a tearjerking surprise, Joan Rivers is one of the talking heads who speaks so candidly throughout the special. The producers surely could not have anticipated her sudden death turning her portions into something more sad than joyous, but every time she comes on screen it is like she never left. The subjects she speaks on are as relevant and hilarious today as they were for her decades ago and PBS ends the hour with a still photo in remembrance of her wit, her knowledge, and her ability to blaze trails in a time when there wasn’t even a map for female comics.