The First Mrs. Maisel
America’s original female stand-up star, Jean Carroll, stood up for herself — and her sex.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a housewife and mother who — of all the outrageous things — decides to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian in 1958.
Starring Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, the Amazon Prime show picked up eight Emmys last year for its first season and another eight this year for season two.
In striking contrast, in the real-life 1950s, Jean Carroll — America's first female stand-up star — was itching to ditch show biz and be a stay-at-home wife and mom.
Carroll, who preceded Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers at the mic, was unique. First, she was a woman doing stand-up in an era when men truly dominated the field, with much of their material consisting of potshots at their wives.
Second, apart from Lucille Ball, most top comic actresses at the time weren't conventional beauties. If they were, they made themselves appear unattractive in an effort to be funnier, mugging and acting ditzy.
Smart and pretty with a shapely figure, the five-foot-two Carroll didn't make faces, indulge in slapstick or use props. In nightclubs and on TV, she spoke in a conversational tone, performing lighthearted routines that she wrote herself and ad-libbing about her "idiot" husband, "rotten kid" and the characters she met in daily life.
Born Celine Zeigman in Paris and bred in the Bronx and Connecticut, Carroll was the daughter of an abusive baker and his religious wife. By age 12, she was supporting her family of seven by singing and dancing on the vaudeville circuit. Working was her own idea: even at that age, she craved financial independence.
By the 1920s, she was performing comedy with a partner. Later, she stepped into the limelight with a solo act, headlining at glamorous New York nightspots like the Copacabana and the Latin Quarter. Appearing on the new medium of television expanded her audience and fame.
Carroll was a major inspiration for Lily Tomlin, who, as a child, watched her regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show.
"Jean's style was breezy and feminine but assertive," Tomlin recalls. "Her comedy was about something. It had a subversive element. She was edgy for her time, but there was always a twinkle in her eye. I was inspired comedically by her intelligence and self-possession."
"That Dress Is You!" was Carroll's best-known routine. Based on a true encounter, it poked fun at a saleswoman's high-pressure tactics. Carroll did the bit many times on Sullivan's show, where she first appeared in 1949, when it was called Toast of the Town.
In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the feisty title character also does observational comedy about her real life. But Carroll shunned working blue, while Mrs. Maisel, who's influenced by Lenny Bruce, revels in the style.
In 1953, the stand-up pioneer starred in The Jean Carroll Show (also called Take It From Me!) on ABC. But, unhappy with the casting and the scripts (by Coleman Jacoby and Arnie Rosen), she quit the domestic sitcom after only 12 episodes — much to the chagrin of her real-life husband and agent, Buddy Howe, who pushed her to continue.
Originally a dancer, and later Carroll's vaudeville straight man for 10 years, he had become a top talent agent. He ultimately rose to chairman of Creative Management Associates, which would merge in 1975 with International Famous Agency to form ICM. Howe, who died in 1981, opposed Carroll's retirement. That was an ongoing issue in their marriage.
On Amazon, Mrs. Maisel is called "a funny lady with a lot to say" — and the same could be said of Jean Carroll, whom one critic described as "woman's answer to man's superiority." She died in 2010 at age 98, having lived for many years as Celine Howe.
Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff conducted a number of interviews with this trailblazer between 1990 and 2007. Here is a collection of amusing, insightful quotes gleaned from those conversations.
BEING A PIONEER
I didn't think of it in terms of competing with men, that I had to go out there and do battle against the male species. They said I worked like a man, that I was doing Jackie Miles, Milton Berle, Bob Hope. That annoyed me.
I said, "I'm doing Jean Carroll!" It never occurred to me that only men were supposed to talk.
Men would come up to me and say, "You're really funny — I had to laugh in spite of myself." That would really piss me off. Every time I ran into some stupid sexist thing, it surprised me — but it certainly didn't deter me. I knew I was good, and that was all that counted.
BEAUTY: PROS AND CONS
Men found it unusual that I was pretty and funny at the same time. A guy told me, "I resented your poise and assurance up there onstage." I said, "You know what? You're an idiot!" He resented that I, a woman, could be sure of myself onstage. After all, only men were supposed to be sure of themselves!
I never highlighted my looks. But I didn't make an ass of myself making faces and mugging, either.
Initially, being pretty was a big hindrance. I had good legs and wore short dresses. Working in one club, I heard a woman sitting up front say, "Oh, I don't think her legs are so great." That made me realize my looks were a distraction, and I started to wear long gowns to cover my body.
The task was to get the women to feel I wasn't a threat. So I also started doing a lot of self-effacing stuff about being overweight. I wasn't overweight. But you mix your herbs and spices — and pretty soon people are relaxed and you've disarmed them.
THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW
The first time I was on Ed's show, I laid such an egg. The second time, I said, "This is my comeback!" I used to do the "That Dress Is You!" routine a lot. Ed would say, "Do buying the dress. Sylvia [his wife] wants to hear it." I said: "Ed, I've done it so many times. People are expecting something fresh." He said, "But I pay you!"
Eventually, Ed and I had a parting of the ways. I had an exclusive contract with him that kept me off the other major programs, at a time when I should have had much more visibility. Also, I didn't like that I'd prepare a new script and just before I walked out onstage, he'd say, "Cut four minutes!"
When he found out I was getting my own show, he got mad. He felt I was his property. So I told him I wouldn't work for him anymore. Later, I did his show when he agreed not to cut my routines like that.
HER START IN STAND-UP
One day, when I was singing and dancing in vaudeville, Marty May, a comic, saw me horsing around backstage and said he wanted to use me in his act as his little stooge. So we became partners. I'd stop in the middle of whatever we were doing, walk down to the footlights and say something to the audience off the top of my head, like, "You know what happened today?" I always ad-libbed, which was half my success.
"THAT DRESS IS YOU!"
The routine was based on something real: I saw a dress in a shop window when my husband Buddy and I were performing in New York. I asked the saleswoman the size. She said, "It'll fit you." I said, "I'm a 12." She said, "A 12 wouldn't fit you." I said, "I really wanted something in pink." She said, "Pink isn't your color." I said, "How much is it?" She said, "Don't worry. We'll get together. That dress is you!"
When I got back to the theater, I was fuming and told Buddy what happened. The madder I got, the funnier it became. He was hysterical. He said, "Do that as a routine!"
One old review said I did "a lot of risqué ditties." My "risqué ditty" was a parody on "The Girl That I Marry": " The man that I married turned out to be/ As soft and as pink as a nursery/ The man I called my own/ Wore my satins and laces and stole my cologne/ He sent me flowers to show he cared/ I'd open the pansies/ And he'd be there ." That's as risqué as I got!
I wrote 95 percent of my material. When he was starting out, Alan King stole "That Dress Is You!" but changed it to buying a suit. One time, when we were, coincidentally, doing the same charity show, I insisted that I go on first — and I did his entire routine, word for word, about sending a kid to camp.
Afterward, I said to the audience, "You like that routine? It's not mine. It belongs to the fellow backstage who now has no act to do for you. Maybe this will teach him not to steal people's acts anymore."
So Alan didn't go on because he couldn't. Years later, he admitted that he'd stolen my act. His cop-out was that he was a poor kid and couldn't afford writers.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
I met Buddy through the comedian "Fat" Jack E. Leonard. They were working together, with a woman, as part of a trio. Within two years, Buddy and I were doing an act: he was my straight man; I was his funny lady. I wrote everything. We got married three years later.
Not long afterward, Buddy went into the service. I continued doing stand-up — alone — and was very successful at it. When he got out of the army, he refused to work with me. He said, "You're much too talented. I hold you back." So I became a solo act, and he became a talent agent.
But I didn't want to be a big star. What I wanted was a marriage.
As an agent, Buddy hurt my career. There was always the danger that people would accuse him of nepotism, because if he peddled me in preference to someone else, they'd say, "Well, she's his wife. What do you expect?"
I was making pots of money. In clubs, I could name my price — except I didn't want to work anymore. But Buddy wouldn't let me quit. He said: "No, I won't permit it!" He thought I was the greatest talent that ever lived. He kept pushing me to have a career. I just wanted to stay home and be a wife and mother. There was nothing more important to me than my daughter [Helen].
People who wouldn't know a comedy line if it jumped up and bit them had the power to say to me, "Don't do that line — it's unnecessary." But no one was going to tell me how to build to a punchline!
All the people I wanted to play my husband were signed to something else — or they said, "I'm not going to take second billing to that broad!"
By the time they got someone to play my husband, we were past the date that the pilot had to be shown to Procter & Gamble. So, instead of having a wonderfully high-paying commercial show, we had a sustaining [unsponsored] show. I got more money doing an opening at a supermarket — $10,000 — than I was getting per week on that show!
The actor they got for my husband was bloody awful. I wanted the part eliminated. I said I wanted authority over the writing. I wanted my character to be a working mother. But I guess that was considered too radical for those days. And I didn't want a guy — the director — who didn't know comedy telling me what's funny and what's not.
They wouldn't grant me those things because [Buddy's agency] didn't stand behind me. They kept saying, "You can't dictate to the network." I said, "The hell I can't! This is my show! My future is on the line here. I can dictate my own life, and I don't want to do this show anymore!"
So I canceled the show after 12 episodes. Bob Lewine, who was head of programming at ABC, said, "We'll do anything! You were right. We were wrong."
Buddy said: "You can't quit. You owe it to your public." I said, "I owe it to you, our daughter and to myself. That's who I owe it to."
YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE
I didn't want to continue, partly because of my health. I'd just come off serious surgery and had a heart attack before that. They told me I wouldn't have to work too much, but I ended up working five days a week.
I wanted to be out of the business, and I used my health as a perfect excuse. I always wanted to just stay home and be a wife and mother. A career didn't mean that much to me.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2019
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