Something Different from The Consumer Guy – A Commentary on Journalism and Phyllis Diller

I’m going to step out of my The Consumer Guy persona to discuss a few topics that are near and dear to me. For almost 20 years in a previous life, I was a standup comic and actor. That career actually led me to one in television consumer reporting.

During my comedy career, I twice crossed paths with Phyllis Diller. Once, I appeared in disguise on the iconic “game” show, The Gong Show, as the Bandit Impressionist. Ms. Diller was one of the three judges. She, along with the other judges, gave me the maximum score of 10 points each and I was that show’s winner, walking away with $516.32 and a trophy (which sits on my bookcase even today).

Some years later I ran into her at LAX. I introduced myself. We spoke for a brief moment. She was affable and very real, as opposed to her wacky comedy persona.

I tell you this because I want it understood that I have no axe to grind with Diller. I really liked her.

But . . .

When I hear in TV reports that she was a “pioneer” in women’s standup comedy, or as Joan Rivers said, Diller “broke the way for every woman comedian,” I feel that I must correct the record.

Have you ever heard of Minnie Pearl? Or Judy Canova? Moms Mabley? Betty Walker? Or Jean Carroll? They are among the handful who really were the “standup” trailblazers for women, including Phyllis Diller. And they started in the 1940s.

Minnie Pearl – photo – wikipedia

Canova was a major radio star and film actress in the 40s. You can still  listen to episodes of her show.

Minnie Pearl, a character portrayed by Sarah Colley, with her trademark straw hat sporting a price tag hanging on a string, was a Grand Ole Opry fixture for decades starting in 1940. She became a regular on TV’s Hee Haw in 1969. There are more Minnie Pearl videos on YouTube than fleas on a stray hound dog.

Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley became a star with general audiences not too long before her death in 1975. She had spent most of her career in vaudeville and the so-called chitlin’ circuit, a loose collection of venues for black audiences that sprang up as a result of racial discrimination in the first half of the 20th century. Moms’ bawdy humor found a wider audience as television shows became less restrictive.

One of my favorite female comedy “pioneers” was Jean Carroll. She was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show. Carroll was one of the few women on the “borscht belt” circuit – the Jewish hotels in the Catskill and Pocono Mountains near New York City. She had a fast-paced delivery with impeccable timing. I think of her as a precursor to the Joan Rivers style of standup. She even had her own TV show in 1953-54.

Jean Carroll. photo – whosdatedwho.com

Jean died last year at the age of 98.

I mention all of these women not to degrade Phyllis Diller, who stands tall in her own right, but to pay deserved homage to the ladies mentioned above and their many lesser-known contemporaries and those who preceded them.

Check out these women, and while you’re at it, take a peek at Fanny Bryce, Gracie Allen, Totie Fields, and any other old-timers you can find.

It couldn’t hurt!

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