[Clip from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: “I’ve been coming here with my family since I was 4. It is the best place to have your first nervous breakdown…which automatically comes with spending months in a cabin with your family every year since you were born. My first everything happened in the Catskills…Everything. My mother first told me to keep my knees closed until there’s a ring on my finger in the Catskills. Actually, she told me it was biologically impossible to have sex without a ring on your finger. Guess what, Mom? It’s not.”]
What you're listening to is of course, a clip from the hit Amazon prime show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Now, if you're a fan, you may have already binged the third season, which dropped just a couple of weeks before we publish this episode.
Part of what gives the show its spark and dramatic tension is that Miriam Maisel, or Midge, as she's known, flouts the conventional roles assigned to young Jewish women of the 1950s. She's separated from her husband and single, at a time when young women were supposed to be married. Instead of staying at home to care for her two young kids, Midge is out every night telling raunchy jokes in smoke-filled nightclubs.
And in the nearly all-male world of comedy of the era, she's not only a woman, but an incredibly attractive woman, battling against the stereotype that beautiful women can't get laughs. In other words, Midge Maisel is depicted as a trailblazer.
But of course, Midge is a fictional character. So maybe, like me, you've wondered about the real-life female comics of the 1950s that inspired the character. Now, Joan Rivers comes to mind, of course. And the creator of the show, Amy Sherman-Palladino, is on record as being a big Joan Rivers fan. But Sherman-Palladino, and the actor who plays Midge, Rachel Brosnahan, had other influences too. In fact, Brosnahan honed her comic patter by studying clips of one of the true female pioneers of standup comedy, Jean Carroll.
If you've never heard of Jean Carroll before, you're definitely not alone. Before beginning research for this episode, I’d never heard of her either. And yet in her heyday, during the 1950s and ’60s, Carroll was a pretty big deal. She was a headliner at many of the best theaters and nightclubs, she appeared almost 30 times on The Ed Sullivan Show, and for a short time, she even started in her own TV sitcom.
Today, though, Carroll has pretty much disappeared from public memory and from the annals of comedy, which is strange, since she was such an important standup innovator, and really paved the way for Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and so many other female comics who came after them. It's also a shame, because Carroll's story provides a fascinating window onto mid-20th century Jewish American life, the lives and roles of Jewish women at the time, and the evolution of standup comedy as a distinctly Jewish contribution to American culture.
Jean Carroll was not the first Jewish female comic artist. During the heyday of vaudeville and the early days of film and radio, many of the most popular female comedy performers were Jews. Molly Picon was a star of Yiddish theater and film, and during the 1930s, she starred in the musical comedy radio show The Molly Picon Program. Fanny Brice, originally Fania Borach, was an acclaimed singer and theater and film actress who created and starred in a top-rated radio comedy series called The Baby Snooks Show. She was portrayed by Barbara Streisand in the 1968 movie, Funny Girl. And then, of course, there was Sophie Tucker born, Sonya Kalish, known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”
Tucker was one of the most popular performers during the first half of the 20th century. Her performance of the tune “I Don't Want to Get Thin” is classic Tucker.
Tucker and Brice were known not only for their singing and acting, but also for how they looked and carried themselves. Tucker was a large woman with a broad face and a brash, bold manner. Brice had a stereotypically large Jewish nose and often played the clown. Neither was considered attractive, according to conventional standards of beauty at the time. And for the sake of comedy, that served them pretty well.
Judy Gold: Comedy is the most unfeminine profession.
Jeremy Shere: This is comedian Judy Gold.
Judy Gold: Here I am, I have an opinion, and I am going to control this entire room. And, you know, being opinionated…at that time being a lady meant you didn't have an opinion, you had your husband's opinion, or you kept your opinion to yourself. You dressed a certain way. You had a certain place in society and in social situations and even in your home. But you look at Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker — they're outspoken. They're sort of outrageous, in a way.
Jeremy Shere: In some ways, Jean Carroll followed in the footsteps of Brice, Tucker, and other lesser-known Jewish female comic performers. For one thing, her real name wasn't Jean Carroll. It was the more Jewish-sounding Celine Zigman, and she was actually known as Sadie, an even more obviously Jewish name. And like most aspiring female performers, Carroll got her start as a dancer and singer on vaudeville, on the variety theater circuit.
In 1922, Variety magazine noted her lively, flirtatious performance in a musical review called Midnight Rounds, describing her as “a pretty blonde dancing soubrette,” who took the lead on numbers, including “A Rattling Good Time” and “A Bushel of Kisses.”
In 1934, Carroll formed a comedy duo with Buddy Howe, a dancer she'd met on the vaudeville circuit. According to Grace Kessler Overbeke, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University’s Center for Jewish Studies, whose dissertation on Jean Carroll is central to this episode, the partnership with Howe, whom Carroll married in 1936, gave her the opportunity to showcase her comic chops.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: When she started working with Buddy Howe, she got to write the routines, she got to give herself the punchlines. She really got to be in control. And so all of a sudden she got to be more recognized. It was still the same general form. There was still dancing and singing. It wasn't what we would think of as standup comedy, by any means. But she was getting to be a comedian and being recognized as such.
Jeremy Shere: But she was still following the tried-and-true format of the male-female comedy team, where the guy typically played the straight man and the woman played his ditzy comic foil. The legendary George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, perfected the form.
As you'll hear in the following clip of Howe and Carroll in 1937, their act sounds pretty similar, with Howe playing the straight man and Carroll channeling Allen's silly illogical persona.
[clip from Howe and Carroll act]
Carroll: Look at this, isn’t it lovely?
Howe: What is that?
Carroll: It’s just a little picture I drew. I draw occasionally.
Howe: Let me see it. What is that?
Carroll: A picture of my home.
Howe: Oh boy, that’s a terrible picture.
Carroll: I know, I have a terrible home. You oughta know.
It was only after World War II, when Carroll went solo and started doing standup comedy, that she really stepped off the expected path for female performers and began to do something truly innovative.
Now, it's important to understand that in the late 1940s and early fifties, standup comedy in its modern form was pretty much brand new. The idea of a performer standing alone on the stage telling jokes seemed strange.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: The ’40s was unusual because it was a time when standup was just finding its feet. It's really entertaining to read old reviews of standup, particularly in the ’40s, because critics don't quite know what to call it. They're sort of baffled. The term that they often use is a “comic monologist.”
Jeremy Shere: Nearly all of the comic monologists were men, and they were mostly Jews. Some, like Lenny Bruce, made their Jewishness and explicit part of their act.
[clip from Lenny Bruce act: “I’ll show you how it works. Eddie Cantor is goyish. Gene Ammons is Jewish. Ray Charles is very Jewish. Al Jolson, goyish. The Army is goyish, the Navy is goyish, the Marine Corps is goyish, the Air Force is Jewish.”
Other standups may not have relied as much on Jewish material, but the rapid patter and quick-witted wordplay was understood as a distinctly Jewish type of humor.
[clip from Henny Youngman act: “So happy to be here tonight, even at this salary. Two gamblers coming out of church, one says, “Look, it’s Hallelujah, not Hialeah.” A drunk walks up to a parking meter, drops in a dime, the arrow goes to sixty, and he says, “Gee, I lost a hundred pounds”.]
That's Henny Youngman, the legendary King of the One-Liners. Now to a certain extent, Jean Carroll’s standup act was kind of similar. She delivered her material in a quick, breezy tone, packing in as many jokes as possible. In Judy Gold's view, Carroll was basically doing stand up like a man would do it.
Judy Gold: She was a straight joke-teller. She was doing the job, not as a woman, but just as a comedian. She performed like all the great male comics of the time. She went out on the stage and delivered her well-crafted jokes. And if I'm not mistaken, I think one of the guys actually stole a joke from her.
Jeremy Shere: But Carroll was a woman, of course, which presented all sorts of challenges. As a woman, doing standup comedy meant flouting conventional ideas about the place of women in 1950s society.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: Yeah, I think it's just this issue of the idea that women should be nurturers and caretakers and supporters, rather than performers. She's doing something that puts herself into a spotlight, which is, in a way, a very subversive thing to do for a woman, to voluntarily take up space and insist upon your voice being heard and insist upon other people listening and laughing and giving you their time and attention.
Jeremy Shere: A staple of standup comedy of the era was talking about Jewish women as dim-witted, emasculating, and generally a giant pain in the neck, a characterization that hearkened back to the “ghetto girl” stereotype of the 1910s and ’20s.
Riv-Ellen Prell: And the stereotypes that begin to emerge are of Jewish women as excessive…
Jeremy Shere: This is Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Riv-Ellen Prell: …as greedy, as interested in forcing men to take care of them and taking a man's money away from him, either in this new American ritual of dating or in marriage as well. So that Jewish women become in the eyes of Jewish men figures who will complicate their lives, who will force them to work harder than they want to, who will take everything from them.
Jeremy Shere: After World War II, the figure of the Jewish mother came in for similar treatment.
Riv-Ellen Prell: The image is always the same. She is the suffocating, the emasculating, exhausting figure in the life of the son and his father. So she is emasculating to her husband, she takes all the power. But the result is her love for her son is too intense and he cannot deal with the expectations, and all of that is focused on her.
Jeremy Shere: In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge's mother-in-law, the mother of her estranged husband, Joel, represents the type, with her loud and vulgar manner, her fixation on money, and the way she babies her grown son. Jewish comics seized on the stereotype and made Jewish mother jokes a staple of their routines. Even Carroll, a Jewish wife and mother herself, made fun of Jewish mothers.
The point is that when Carroll began doing standup, she was entering a world that was distinctly unkind to women. And what's really amazing, even subversive, especially for the time, was how Carroll dealt with the reality of being one of the very few women in a masculine domain. Watching clips of Carroll on YouTube, a few things really stand out. First, she’s really beautiful.
Riv-Ellen Prell: She's elegant, she's quite attractive. She falls within the norm of how women are supposed to look. She isn’t in that line of women comics and Jewish women comics as well.
Jeremy Shere: Prell is talking about Fannie Brice and Sophie Tucker, who, as I mentioned before, it did not meet typical standards of beauty. As Overbeke notes in her research, Carroll deliberately broke that mold, and she accentuated her beauty with fancy, form-fitting dresses, a string of pearls, and sometimes elbow-length gloves. In a very clever way, she was playing with and against the age-old comedy adage, that beautiful women can't be funny.
Judy Gold: I mean, if you really look at the outfits of women comics through the years, you could not look sexy. You couldn't look sexy, because that would objectify yourself. It's a spoken-word art form. You wanted people to listen to what you were saying. So if you’re glamming up and looking like a sexpot, the guys are gonna be not listening. And the women are going to be jealous. And it's only recently where we see the Amy Schumers and the Rachel Feinsteins and the Nikki Glasers, and these people just getting up and being like, “I am going to wear whatever I want. I'm going to look hot on stage.”
Jeremy Shere: Carroll was the first Jewish female comic to present herself as a woman who is beautiful, vivacious, and funny. But her path-blazing was about more than just her appearance. Carroll's act was carefully crafted to put her audience at ease and to upend and their assumptions and expectations. For example, in this clip from 1955, Carroll comes out on stage in a form-fitting low-cut dress and begins to sing as the audience might expect from a pretty female performer.
But after the first few bars she stops and says to the audience:
[clip from Carroll act: “I don’t want to sing, I want to talk about love.”]
It's a clever twist, confounding the audience's expectation that a beautiful woman performer must be a singer and a dancer. Instead she's a standup comic, and she's funny.
[clip from Carroll act: “What is love? Does anybody know? Well, that’s a moot question. So I asked Moot. Moot is such a smart fella, and he’s my first boyfriend. Oh, I was crazy about Moot. I went with Moot for…what did I go with him for…I don’t remember now, but I really liked him. Our romance was one of those triangles — you see, he and I were both in love with him. Well, anyhow, I said, ‘Moot, how do you know when you’re really in love? He said, ‘Jeanie, you’ll know because you’ll feel so funny inside, you’ll feel sick.’ And that’s what happened when I met Jack. Jack asked me to marry him, and Jack, just looking at him, he was such a hunk of man, 6’ 2” and a solid 80 pounds…”]
Now, if you're not exactly doubling over with laughter, I get it. The jokes are a little silly, maybe a little tame for our modern sensibilities. But at the time, this was funny stuff, and what's really significant is that a woman on stage seemingly just being herself and speaking her mind was something entirely new.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: That was where Jean Carroll really was quite innovative and remarkable, because she had this seeming lack of a boundary between Jean Carroll offstage and Jean Carroll onstage. She was doing something that women hadn't done before. She had male colleagues who were doing it, which was just pretending to speak from her particular viewpoint and tell a series of seemingly authentic stories and jokes in a very conversational, personal, intimate way.
Jeremy Shere: Carroll's act didn't include a lot of material that was overtly Jewish. It wouldn't have fit her image as a refined, assimilated, Jewish woman. But as Overbeke notes, she did talk in a sort of coded way about things that her audience would recognize as obviously Jewish. For example, she has a bit about the sort of decked out overbearing Jewish women who winter in Florida and brag about their kids.
[clip from Carroll act: “And you know something, oh the women, they were so nice, we used to sit around and tell lies. You know, they all brag about their children. ‘Oh, my son is a genius, he talks, he’s only 30. All the women have sons — doctors, lawyers. No one works. But I met one nice old lady, she was so nice, she had so many operations…”]
Carroll also talked a lot about being a wife and mother, in direct counterpoint to how male comics complained about their nagging, grasping Jewish wives. Carroll made a point of talking trash about her husband and daughter, whom she referred to as “that rotten kid.”
For the 1950s, this was radical stuff. Mothers were supposed to dote on their children and dedicate their lives to raising them. Carroll had a daughter who she did, in fact, love and dote on, and she may have had a very proper ladylike persona, but in her comedy, she pulled no punches in puncturing the idealized image of the loving mother.
Riv-Ellen Prell: She is somebody who challenges the norms, who uses language differently and who is willing to poke at the traditional ideas of what a mother or a wife is in real life.
Jeremy Shere: Carroll was happily married to her former comedy partner, Buddy Howe, but in her act she portrayed her husband as a drunk idiot.
[clip from Carroll act: “But you know, I shouldn’t make fun of him, should I, because after all, he is my husband, and he’s so sweet. You know, he has a lot of little things, like his disposition. Most fellas, they have a tough day at the racetrack, they get nasty. But not my Jack, he’s so sweet, nothing bothers him, he drinks.”]
As you can tell by the uproarious laughter, Carroll is killing it. The audience loves her. By the early 1950s, Carroll was headlining at many of the best theaters and nightclubs in 1953. She even got a short lived sitcom on ABC called The Jean Carroll Show. Throughout the ’50s and into the early ‘60s, she toured extensively and performed regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety programs.
But even though she was a star, Carroll still had to deal with the pressures, and sometimes the indignities, of being a woman standup comic. When she performed on Ed Sullivan in 1964, for example, Sullivan thought nothing of remarking on her appearance.
[clip from The Ed Sullivan Show: “It’s so wonderful to have you back on the show again. I want to congratulate you, you’ve taken off a lot of weight, your hair is different, everything about you is different."]
Carroll takes the remark about her weight in stride, but it's hard to imagine Ed Sullivan telling a male comic he's lost weight and looking good, right? Carroll talked about losing and gaining weight in her act, but even given the social attitudes of the time, that sort of thing had to bother her.
Plus, by the mid-’60s, younger and edgier female comics, such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, were gaining more attention. A woman doing standup and talking about life from a female perspective was no longer quite as new and attention-grabbing as it was when Carroll started out. Her time in the spotlight was coming to an end. Jean Carroll retired from show business in 1965, at the age of 55, to spend more time with her family.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: She had a daughter, Helen, who had a really difficult time, I think, being both Jean Carroll’s very beloved daughter and also being people’s stand in for the “rotten kid” that Carroll would disparage time and time again on national television. So when you look at the clippings that Jean Carroll chooses to save, disproportionately they're ones that are about her relationship with Helen.
Jeremy Shere: Carroll's retirement may have had just as much to do with the fact that by the mid-’60s, American cultural and social mores were rapidly changing. Carroll was a product of the 1930s and ’40s, and it's likely that her brand of comedy was beginning to feel a little bit safe and dated compared to some of the younger and more risqué female comics appearing on the scene.
Grace Kessler Overbeke: By the 1960s, you have, you have Phyllis Diller and you have Joan Rivers and, you know, the entertainment industry is a little bit fickle. And so there's a lot of excitement about these new women comedy pioneers, sometimes even at the expense of flat-out erasing Jean Carroll.
Jeremy Shere: As I mentioned near the beginning of this episode, until pretty recently, Jean Carroll had more or less disappeared from the history of American comedy. Why she disappeared is a difficult question without an obvious answer. Maybe, as Overbeke suggests, Carroll was simply overshadowed by Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who became comedy legends.
And in a counterintuitive way, Carroll may have faded from memory because of the recent rise of women in comedy. The past decade has especially has seen an explosion of incredibly talented and game-changing female comics: Amy Schumer, Tig Notaro, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy…the list goes on and on and on. But maybe because standup comedy is now so suffused with successful women, and more open than ever to female talent, it’s all too easy to forget that Jean Carroll was one of the pioneers, up on stage in a beautiful dress and pearls, speaking her mind and paving the way.
Judy Gold: I mean, you can compare so many standups from today to her style. Wendy Liebman reminds me a lot of her. Ellen Degeneres is a lot like her, with this classic way of just standing there with the mic and telling the jokes. And yet, she was a great ad libber. She was nobody's fool. And you know, she brought home a paycheck. I mean, what woman did that?
Now, we could end the episode right here, but to honor our subject, the Marvelous Mrs. Carroll, I think it's only right that we let her have the last word.[clip from Carroll act: “I took a cruise. Beautiful ship — the SS Seasick. My husband is getting dressed to go to dinner, and he noticed something green lying in my bunk. It was me. He said ‘Oh honey, it’s all in your mind. Come on, you gotta get out, you gotta forget about yourself. They’re showing a movie tonight, let’s go, it’ll relax you, you’ll enjoy. I went. Very relaxing movie — The Sinking of The Titanic…Well, I certainly have enjoyed my short visit with you. I hope you have too. Goodnight.”]
Grace Kessler Overbeke
Jeremy Shere, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD