Praying for laughs: Viv Groskop on the funny women who inspired her own stand-up career
Why would a well-balanced, perfectly sane woman approaching middle age suddenly decide to become a stand-up comedian? And why would she then subject herself to playing 100 gigs in 100 nights? Blame the women who paved the way: the TV comedy goddesses of an earlier age.
I was born in 1973. It was a vintage year for comedy. The pilots of Open All Hours, Porridge, Last of the Summer Wine all aired. Are You Being Served? and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em had their first series. New Faces launched, the TV talent show that kickstarted Victoria Wood's career, and Sunday Night at the London Palladium came back after a six-year break. Most of all, there were funny women pretty much everywhere.
I'm not sure we owned a TV until we moved to a new house when I was about three. I grew up with Lynda Carter playing the ultimate superheroine: "Get us out from under, Wonder Woman!" The series aired from 1975 to 1979. It was formative. It was the whiz-around-twirly-thing everyone did in the playground. But the thing that really opened up my world as a little girl? When I realised that I did not want to be Wonder Woman at all. I wanted to be Blunderwoman. This was not only a more fun choice, it was a realistic choice. Wonder Woman is a superhero who saves the world. Blunderwoman is an ineffectual buffoon who rolls her eyes a lot. I know which I would rather be.
Portrayed by Bella Emberg on Russ Abbot's Madhouse, Blunderwoman had big star-spangled knickers, too-tight red sparkly boots and a hook nose. She wasn't strong. But she was funny. And that was more interesting. For dressing-up purposes Blunderwoman was a gift. Massive pants on the outside of your clothes and no need to be a hero, just be an idiot? Sold.
There's always a big fuss around the idea that there aren't enough role models for women in comedy. But back in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were dozens of funny women around. Yes, it's true that most of them weren't doing stand-up. But then stand-up was not really a thing on TV then in the way that it is now. Instead there were endless sketch shows, sitcoms and skits which featured women as much as they featured men.
OK, so the most high-status, mass-appeal stuff probably didn't showcase women that prominently: Morecambe and Wise, Cannon and Ball (brace yourself for this distressing trip down memory lane), Hale and Pace. Or when it did, the women were not being funny they were the butt of the joke (Angela Rippon). Or just the butt (Benny Hill).
But I cannot remember as a child thinking for a moment, "Where are the women?" or even "So are women not funny?" I was too lost in the world of Doris Schwartz (Valerie Landsburg), the stand-up comic in Fame (1982-1987), too busy learning the words to Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know" (1983), too caught up in wonder at Margo's kaftans on repeats of The Good Life (1975-1978). It took me 30 years to do what I wanted to do with my life and get up and perform.
This week sees the launch of I Laughed, I Cried…, a diary of my attempt to become a stand-up comedian by doing 100 gigs in 100 nights. It was an experiment undertaken after months of randomly messing around doing an open-mic show here and there, without knowing whether it was going to change my life or not. I didn't know if I had it in me to do comedy "properly" or not. (In my day-job I am a writer.) But I knew that 100 consecutive gigs would soon give me the answer. The seeds sown by these women were basically what made me do it.
Fame's Doris Schwartz became the ultimate reason I took up stand-up. But before Doris, it was Blunderwoman who was my first comedy love, the sidekick to Russ Abbot's Cooperman, a cross between Tommy Cooper and a superhero. When you think about it, Cooperman is a genius idea. (Don't think about it too long, though.) It's something only Abbot could have pulled off. He was a shameless entertainer, a gurner and a shoulder-shrugger who wheezed hard at his own jokes. They don't make them like that anymore. This is probably just as well (the humour is, let's say, not exactly New Labour), but in its time it was joyous.
If you log on to Russ Abbot's fan site (yes, it exists!), you can listen to the theme tune which makes me feel the height of the kitchen surfaces again: "We're rockin' and we're rollin' and we're tunin' into Russ Abbot's Madhouse/ Livin' it up, rockin' and a-jivin'/ Livin' it up, duckin' and a-divin'/ Livin' it up, wheelin' and a-dealin'/ Livin' it up tonight." A lot of what passed for comedy entertainment in the 1970s was what people would have wanted if they had owned a television during the Second World War. I am not complaining. I lapped it up. (I also had no choice and watched a lot of TV as a child.)
Blunderwoman was gloriously silly and eccentric and proper old-fashioned British. And the whole programme was politically incorrect towards her size and gender. Cooperman: "Have you got any washing at home on the line?" Blunderwoman: "Yes. A bra." Cooperman: "I can see it from here, there's a family of gypsies moving in." She was a surreal seaside postcard, a winking end-of-the-pier 1950s character for a 1980s audience. Typical song line from an opera about being a superhero from Blunderwoman to Cooperman: "And what of the time you caught a young girl/ Who fell out of that helicopter/ But when you looked down, your flies were undone/ And that was the reason you dropped her."
Most of the scenes between the two of them consisted of them trying not to corpse and Blunderwoman saying things such as "Oi, Cooperman, why don't you show them your equipment?" (I would have had no idea what this meant at the time.)
The comedy has not exactly become a classic like Fawlty Towers or Monty Python's Flying Circus but the silliness is triumphant, the lack of pretension laudable and just the thought of the existence of Blunderwoman makes me happy. I'm not sure anyone could get away with doing that character now, of course. Bella Emberg, an actress who started out on The Benny Hill Show and also appeared in Z Cars, has a lugubrious deadpan quality to her you rarely see anywhere. She often features now on Bear Behaving Badly on CBBC which I watch with my own children.
Blunderwoman was my main comedy crush. But the undisputed queen of this golden time was Tracey Ullman. Three of a Kind, with Ullman, Lenny Henry and David Copperfield, ran between 1981 and 1983. (Slightly unaccountably, I thought David Copperfield was The Ideal Man. He is still performing and surely due a comeback.) One of the writers on Three of a Kind was a young satirist called Ian Hislop, who went on to write for Spitting Image which launched shortly after Ullman, Henry and Copperfield disbanded. Three of a Kind was amazing. There's plenty of it on YouTube. Most of it is one-liners: "I hate being Quasimodo. It really gets my back up." "The Home Secretary has called for greater efforts by the Police. He didn't like their last record at all." The best thing about it is the simplicity: the writing is tight, the performances spot-on. It's like The Fast Show before The Fast Show. And they didn't outstay their welcome. Has there been anything like it since, a sketch group on national television with two men and a woman? There has not.
Tracey Ullman moved on to Girls on Top. I remember being sad that it was too childish. And, remember, I was a Blunderwoman fan. Ullman then went on to her own show in America, which spawned The Simpsons (first commissioned by the producer of The Tracey Ullman Show). A few years ago she topped a list of "Wealthiest British Comedians" with an estimated personal fortune of £75m. Last week it was reported that she's in talks with Disney to appear in their latest blockbuster Into the Woods, alongside Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Ullman was and is a legend. Loads of things happened because of her.
No one really remembers any of this now. But we must not forget these ladies. Equally massive at the time and frequently in my thoughts now is Marti Caine (catchphrase: "Press your buttons now!"), the compere of New Faces, the show she won in 1975, beating Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood. She returned to host the talent contest in the mid- 1980s. This was also the time of Nina "the original Simon Cowell but in woman form" Myskow. You cannot imagine someone like her existing now – uncompromising, bitchy, indifferent to the audience's love. Now we have Amanda Holden. What happened? On Marti Caine's watch the ratings climbed to 15 million. Caine later became known for her fight with cancer (she died in 1995). Where is the equivalent of her now? A woman who can sing, dance, do comedy and MC on live Saturday-night TV?
We're also not exactly spoiled for choice with impressionists in 2013 either whereas in the late 1970s there were two so popular they were mistaken for each other: Faith Brown and Janet Brown, who both impersonated Margaret Thatcher. From age six I had a Margaret Thatcher impression modelled on Janet Brown's finger-wagging. Everyone in the playground did. She was one of the reasons The Mike Yarwood Show became so huge, with 28 million viewers at its height, out-gunning Morecambe and Wise. Janet Brown died in 2011. But Faith Brown lives on, to my great delight, as the voice and teeth of the villainess on CBBC's Trapped. Thank God, basically, for CBBC. It, at least, understands old-school comedy.
Brilliant though all these British women were, looming above them all in my imagination and secretly fuelling my dreams for three decades was the greatest of the comedy saints: a short, dumpy, wiry-haired girl from the New York School of the Performing Arts called Doris Schwartz. Doris is immortal. She once had to utter this line to Julie Miller, played by Lori Singer (she portrayed a serious, classical music scholar with serious, long, straight hair): "Swear on your cello that what you just said was the truth." It was the Doris solo in the legendary song "Step Up to the Mike (and Say What's on Your Mind)" that first lodged the idea of stand-up in my brain.
It looked like the best thing ever – and it transformed Doris from miserable, down-trodden frump to self-believing goddess. Doris's comedy bought her inner peace and the attention of Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri), the bug-eyed, crazy-haired piano prodigy, and, as far as I was concerned, one of David Copperfield's main rivals for The Ideal Man slot. I would lie in front of the TV on my front, legs dangling upwards, hands cupping my chin, and I would gaze up in devotion at Doris. I could not know at the time that a girl called Jennifer Aniston was already attending the real-life New York School of the Performing Arts. But I did know this was a cult that I could not possibly join. Not for the time being anyway. Instead, I worshipped silently with bliss in my heart and I waited.
When I think back to this time, it reminds me of Skips crisps, watery orange squash and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. No wonder that feeling lodged inside me, waiting for the moment in my thirties when I got a glimpse of my mortality and thought, "Hang on, wasn't there a time I wanted to do stand-up?" And when I finally did get round to it, I felt as if I had all these ghosts looking on and nodding approvingly.
I've only missed out one woman, which is wrong because she used to make me lose it completely: Kenny Everett's Cupid Stunt. Aged five when she first emerged – "It's all in the best possible taste!"– I cannot recall thinking it was a man in drag or that her name was an interesting juxtaposition of consonants. I actually only worked this out about a year ago. Which is ironic really.
'I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life' (Orion, £11.99) is out now
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