But some of the best comics to ever make an audience shed tears from a great joke have been women. From Moms Mabley to Bea Arthur, women have been making us laugh for decades.
For my money though, no woman--check that, no person regardless of gender--did it better than Lucille Ball, who posthumously celebrates her 100th birthday on Saturday, August 6th.
As a kid, I was introduced to Lucy at a very early age. The hijinks of Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy always stuck with me, and when Lucy became even more vivid in the colorized Lucy Show, her combustible relationship with Gale Gordon helped keep this zany red head alive in my mind long after she had passed in real life.
Truth is, you don’t get much props for trying to get your fellow 7th grade classmates to tune into a black and white series that aired in the 1950s, but there I was on the playground, a young kid attempting to convince his peers to appreciate the comedic timing of Lucille Ball over the sweaty machismo eschewed by the WWF’s The Rock.
It sounds like I was diagnosed with some nostalgic Lucy-nerd syndrome, but that wasn’t the case. I loved shows and movies geared towards pre-teens. I was always the quarterback when we played football at recess. I had friends, went to birthday parties, and was never beat up for my lunch money. But the brilliance of Lucy always stuck with me. Even as a kid.
It’s impossible to watch modern comedy on television and not see traces of Lucille Ball. It’s in the way Kristen Wiig’s eyes widen in shock or embarrassment on SNL. It was evident in the physical comedy of Carol Burnett on her self-titled variety show. Even the dynamic between Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara on Modern Family is essentially a role reversal homage to the days when Lucy and Ricky Ricardo shattered TV ratings on CBS.
Jay making fun of Gloria’s mangling of the English language is funny. But it was funnier (and more original) when Lucy did it to her husband sixty years ago.
In comedy, we’re taught to laugh at a punch line - but that’s always the easy part. The true test of a comedian is whether or not they can make us laugh without words. If their face and body language can convey enough emotion to garner laughs, then they’ve truly earned their degree in the school of comedy.
With Lucy, she damn near graduated summa cum laude.
Whether she was brawling in a grape vat, overwhelmed by chocolates, or lighting her own (fake) nose on fire, the Lucy we saw on-screen was a domestic, scheming stooge. And she was brilliant at it.
So as Lucille Ball turns 100, let’s celebrate the comedic importance of this radical red head. How she made comedy look easy, and helped set the tone for the way characters and sitcoms would be modeled for the next half century.
Sixty years later, we still love Lucy. And if you don’t, you’ve got some serious ‘splainin to do.