Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Imogene Coca were all comic television actors in the 1950s—but who was writing the jokes? Ball, Arden and Coca may have written some TV episodes but they were mostly actors and almost every comic writer who wrote for them was male. But women are funny. They THINK funny. How could producers not know that?
When I started writing a novel about a young girl growing up in a Beat family in 1958, I was also thinking about her friends. I didn’t think there would be many kids her age in Greenwich Village, but I wanted those friends to be like her—non-suburban, non-traditional families that tested the waters of their time.
I started thinking about a friend who wanted to be funny and who, in fact, was funny because she came from a comic family. But I didn’t want a father-comic; so I had to find out if any women comics existed at the time, and if so, who they might be.
I landed on two women writers—and luckily, both were famous ones. The first was Lucille Kallen, who wrote for Your Show of Shows, described by critic Kenneth Tynan as “a golden landmark in the wasteland of television comedy.” Artists like Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar made the show famous, but the writing made it work. Lucille was the only woman in the bunch.
She was “discovered” by television producer Max Liebman—meaning he saw some of her work onstage in a revue. Kallen was invited to work at Your Show of Shows and stayed until the show ended in 1954. She then wrote for Imogene Coca and wrote several plays produced on Broadway. Carl Reiner called her a “real writer” and “cute as a button.” When Neil Simon wrote his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor about a female television writer trying to survive in a man’s world, his lead character was modeled on Lucille Kallen.
The other female comedy writer I found was Selma Diamond, who wrote for famous comedians includingGroucho Marx, Sid Caesar and Perry Como. Though one of her male employers once told her she was not equipped for the hectic lifestyle of a television writer, she quickly proved him wrong. “There’s no such thing as woman comedy writer,” Diamond said. “I’m hired—and I’m fired—as a writer.”
Diamond was also an actor, but I was really excited to see her many writing credits because that meant I could create my own female TV writer and she would at least be modeled on something real. I think of Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen as pioneers who paved the way for comedy rock stars like Tina Fey and Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed some of my favorite films of all time (including Silkwood, which wasn’t a comedy.)
When talking about her book Heartburn, Ephron said that although it was a book about getting a divorce and getting her heart broken, she knew it wouldn’t work unless it was funny. I didn’t get that at first, but when I saw the movie again I realized how right she was. Misery served up straight can be all right; but domestic misery can quickly turn into soap opera unless you can make people laugh.
Ephron (and Kallen and Diamond before her) knew how to make us laugh. She knew it couldn’t be about being polite or careful or politically correct. Kallen recalls standing on her desk and waving a red sweater around to get attention. “Gentility was never a noticeable part of our working lives,” she said, recalling how Max Liebman quoted the movie tycoon Samuel Goldwyn. “From a polite conference comes a polite movie.”
Kallen and Diamond became the models for Mrs. Tanya, the mother of my lead character Ruby’s best friend. While the Beat poets may have thought of themselves as outlaws and outsiders, I think of women comedy writers as the ultimate outlaws, especially in the 1950s. In their own ways, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond were similar to the Beat artists of their generation. Both women used language to push back against the stifling times they lived in. But they figured out how to make that pushback funny—and make it pay.
And yeah, Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso may not have approved of Kallen and Diamond making money. Or maybe they’d have been jealous, who knows? I don’t think there was much focus on women writers in the 1950s, unfortunately. But the cool thing is, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond didn’t wait for anyone’s permission. They just did what they did and made it work.
Good for them.
Note: this post first appeared on Book Review Station.