By Cory Barker, Greg Boyd, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Whitney McIntosh, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, and Cameron White
Welcome back to our performance-centric This Was Television Hall of Fame! We’re coming off a second straight month of record-breaking hits and votes, and what a month it was—Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully received more votes than any single nominee in our Hall of Fame’s history, and three of our inducted nominees just barely made it over the 60 percent threshold. We’re having a lot of fun with this theme, and we hope you’re all enjoying it as well. For our next round of nominees, we’re sticking with actresses but are switching genres into the great comedic performances.
As always, here’s the criteria for a performer to be considered for the Hall of Fame: they must have played the same role for at least one season of a show, and if they appeared as that character on more than one show they need to be tonally similar enough to fit the same category. Five-year eligibility rule is still in play, but it applies to the time a character was on a show, rather than how long the show ran, meaning that characters on shows still on the air can be considered as long as the last time they played that character was 2008 or earlier. And as always, 60 percent of the vote or better is necessary to grant entry to the Hall of Fame.
Without further adieu, here’s our picks for the funniest ladies in TV’s history.
Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker, All in the Family (1971-1979)
On the surface, Edith Bunker should be ridiculous. With her exaggerated naivety and screechy cartoon voice, there’s no obvious reason for the audience to take her seriously. All in the Family was a show that aimed to present an honest, true-to-life look at an American family, so why should the wife sound unnervingly like an ancestor of Tutter from Bear in the Blue House?
Because All in the Family was also a very broad, theatrical show. The Bunkers’ living room resembled nothing so much as a dressed stage, and all of the main actors played exaggerated types to some degree. I’ve always thought that that’s why All in the Family was allowed to get away with such edgy material—“These realistic arguments aren’t actually happening,” the tone suggests. “It’s just TV!”
And none of the main cast embodied that dichotomy better than Jean Stapleton. As I mentioned, hers is a very exaggerated performance. Edith’s voice is absurd, and her reactions to Archie’s big speeches often recall the silly one-liners of Gracie Allen. But few actors in sitcom history have been better at playing to a studio audience. She always knew the perfect amount of time to wait after delivering a punchline. And even when Edith wasn’t the focus of a scene, her small gestures are often the most memorable moments anyway.
But beyond the technical performance level, Edith is absolutely believable as an old-fashioned woman skillfully adjusting to a quickly changing world. While Archie wants to turn the clock back to a time when white Protestant men were in charge, Edith seems delighted at how things are progressing. Her daughter Gloria doesn’t have all of the same values she does, but Edith is always excited to hear what Gloria does value.
As the series went on, Edith increasingly disagreed with Archie’s point-of-view. She was always a loyal and faithful wife, but over the course of those nine seasons, she spent a lot of time discovering who she was at heart. And thanks to Jean Stapleton’s remarkable performance, the audience could feel every moment.
Phylicia Rashād as Claire Huxtable, The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
There is a false narrative that exists regarding The Cosby Show in general and Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashād as Dr. Cliff and Mrs. Clair Huxtable specifically. The narrative goes that the performances of these two actors and the ratings of the series changed the portrayal of African Americans on television and the acceptance of African Americans by the public at large. This is giving the series far too much credit. The Cosby Show postdates, among other, The Jeffersons (four times a top ten Nielsen show), Diff’rent Strokes, and Benson. And changing the future of television? Prior to The Cosby Show, Isabel Sanford (The Jeffersons) got Emmy nominations for lead actress in a comedy every year from 1979 to 1985, winning in 1981. Nell Carter (Gimme a Break!) got nominations in 1982 and 1983. Rashād got her only two nominations for The Cosby Show in 1985 and 1986 (the series was frequently overlooked by the Emmys, in part because Cosby refused to submit himself for nomination). Since Rashād’s final nomination, a total of zero African American actresses have received nominations in the category, and only one non-Caucasian has received a nomination (America Ferrera won in 2007 and was nominated in 2008 for Ugly Betty). Today, in 2013, no sitcoms on network television feature African-American lead actresses (although the female lead in The Cleveland Show is voiced by one), while only one, The Mindy Project, features a non-Caucasian female lead.
But The Cosby Show did break a barrier, if a more minor one. In The Jeffersons, George Jefferson played a successful businessman, but he only got his start thanks to an insurance settlement, and his wife Louise was a homemaker. Diff’rent Strokes was about African-American boys taken in by a wealthy Caucasian family. Benson, at least at the start, is about an African American butler, while Gimme a Break! was about an African American housekeeper. But The Cosby Show was different. Not only was Cliff Huxtable a doctor, but Clair Huxtable was a successful attorney, still working after having five children. And it is in this way, as a professionally successful, African-American woman, that Phylicia Rashād as Clair Huxtable was a pioneer. In many ways, this was similar to Eric McCormack in Will & Grace; Will Truman was not the first gay character on television, but he was one of the first that the public, regardless of sexual preference, could relate to. Rashād could never hide her race as Huxtable, but by being in the upper-middle class, the Huxtables were relatable to a television audience that had never related to African Americans before.
But beyond and cultural and historical impact of Rashād’s performance, she was also brilliantly funny, holding her own opposite a man Comedy Central listed as one of the ten greatest stand up comedians ever. She makes virtually every list of best television moms (most recently tying for first on ABC and People Magazine’s list). Just do a Google Images search for “best TV moms” and see how many of the top pictures are of Rashād (spoiler alert: it’s seven of the top 23).
For many reasons, Phylicia Rashād’s performance as Clair Huxtable is one of the strongest, most important, and funniest performances in television. She is an obvious nominee for this Hall of Fame.
Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
Much like the show itself, Mary Tyler Moore’s performance in The Mary Tyler Moore Show took quite a while to become memorable. I blame that on the material more than anything else, as she had proven herself an extremely gifted comic performer on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade earlier. But during the show’s first two seasons—and some of the third, for that matter—she was frequently overshadowed by the brilliance of Ed Asner’s Lou Grant and the wonderfully broad antics of Ted Baxter. If that wasn’t the case, she often was stuck in plots with Rhoda and Phyllis that were generally incredibly boring.
Then, in season three, the writers finally figured things out (or at least began to), and they started giving Mary storylines that were actually funny. Moore, of course, rose to the occasion, and by season four (the show’s first really great year) began to give one of the best comic performances in TV history. This was the season that saw Mary attempt to throw a surprise birthday party for Lou and deal with Georgette wishing to become a nun (in addition to many other things), and Moore took this hilarious material and elevated it to classic territory with perfect comic timing, great line deliveries, and brilliant physical comedy.
She was also instrumental in making Mary Tyler Moore into one of the greatest and most important feminist shows to ever air. Her Mary was devoted to her career, but not unhappily so, thanks to the friendships she formed with the people she worked alongside as well as the guys she dated (usually casually) throughout the series. This was a huge shift from most (if not all) of the programs that had come before, and her work paved the way for many other terrific feminist shows—both comedies and dramas—in the decades to follow.
Lastly, of course, there’s her performance in “Chuckles Bites the Dust”. If nothing else I’ve said has convinced you of Moore’s Hall of Fame worthiness, this episode alone should be all the evidence you need.
Roseanne Barr as Roseanne Conner, Roseanne (1988-1997)
The role of a sitcom is to make an audience laugh, but it can function as more than just a joke machine; and both Roseanne the person and Roseanne the show did just this. Real life issues don’t always sound like the funniest of topics, and it’s hard to turn economic troubles into a punch line, and Roseanne did just this.
Roseanne Barr has a reputation for speaking her mind and so does the character she played; this is part of the charm of this show and why Roseanne is such an influence. Perfection in your home, work and love life is impossible and there was never a question of having it all (even the lottery win turned out to be a fantasy) on Roseanne. The Conners served up realism that didn’t make viewers feel uncomfortable; instead it allowed us to laugh along with moments that any family experiences no matter what financial state you are in.
I watched Roseanne at a relatively early age and so I was unaware at the time of how groundbreaking it was, particularly with the issues it dealt with. Issues such as class, gay rights, teen pregnancy and alcoholism all wrapped up in a sitcom bow. Roseanne’s physical appearance was not in line with the standard Hollywood image of the perfect housewife and so it also challenged the feminine ideal. Not everything has to be polished and the Conner family showed that we can laugh at the faults that we all possess.
In a 2011 article for New York magazine Roseanne gave a detailed description of how toxic it was behind the scenes, during the first season and that the show had to go to number one for her to be considered “a genius and eccentric instead of a crazy bitch.” Roseanne is a great feminist influence in front of the camera and behind it; she refused to become a victim of misogyny, even though it was detrimental to her mental health.
Roseanne helped make a show that was as real, honest and funny as she is and even if the last few seasons dropped out of the top ten, it’s a show and a central performance that hold an important place in the pantheon of American sitcoms.
Marilu Henner as Elaine Nardo, Taxi (1978-1983)
The garage at the Sunshine Cab Company was home to a lot of distinctive characters—the eternally conniving dispatcher Louie DePalma, the often unintelligible and occasionally schizophrenic Latka Gravas, and “the living embodiment of the Sixties” Reverend Jim Ignatowski. As such, one could be forgiven for thinking that despite being a knockout in a mostly average cast, Marilu Henner’s Elaine Nardo was one of its less remarkable members. But in five seasons of Taxi, Elaine was every bit as important to the dynamic of the show, introduced in the pilot as the outsider entering a new world, a single mother who used her job as a cabbie to provide for her children while never giving up on her dreams of working full-time in the world of fine art.
This didn’t make her a snob however, although it did generate some wonderful culture clash moments when the world of art and cabbies clashed in episodes like “Come As You Aren’t.” Elaine didn’t think of herself as being better than the cabbies, nor did she ask for special treatment, and as such the other drivers embraced her into their makeshift family, not as “one of the boys” but as “one of the drivers.” Like the rest of the crew, she had her share of romantic adventures, finding entanglements with everyone from Jeffrey Tambor to Tom Selleck; and she could keep up with the ball-busting and unwanted overtures with the best of them. A particularly memorable occasion came during one of Louie’s many lecherous moments, as she gave him an icy stare when he tried to share news of his romantic conquests: “Whisper in my ear, and you’ll be whispering for life.” And she could turn around from that and hammer those moments of pathos that Taxi was so good at incorporating—I defy anyone to watch the closing scene of the fourth season episode “Vienna Waits” and not feel the genuine emotion of that moment.
When we did our Taxi roundtables last year at This Was Television, we covered several Elaine-centric episodes of the show, and they were fine showcases for what Henner brought to the table. “Nardo Loses Her Marbles” in particular was a wonderful installment, with Elaine’s work and home lives eventually consuming each other to the point that she teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and even made a pass at her longtime friend Alex. The scene where after some hesitation she pours her heart out to a therapist is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, a balance that Taxi at its prime managed better than many shows then or in the 30-plus years since. Noel said at one point that she was a model for such characters as Diane Chambers and Rebecca Howe, someone who had the best intentions but was sabotaged by her own neuroses and indecision, which I think is an incredibly apt comparison. Elaine was a mess in a lot of ways, but Henner always kept the character admirable, respectable and thoroughly human.
Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
Let’s not front, y’all: Candice Bergen is Emmy royalty. She was nominated for her starring role on Murphy Brown in the show’s first seven seasons, won in this category five of those seven times (1989, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995), and would have been nominated (and probably would have won) three more times had she not gracefully pulled herself from the race. You know, because she was winning too much. Along the way, Bergen grabbed a couple of Golden Globe wins (and a few more nominations) and some SAG nominations. But Bergen’s performance on Murphy was more than just about dominating the awards races; she was also really, really good. As conceived by Diane English, Murphy Brown was something of a logical next step in a post-Mary Tyler Moore world. She was not just a successful working woman—she was the most successful in her field. She not only had to balance those work triumphs with personal anguish—she was a recovering alcoholic, eventual single mother, and breast cancer survivor. The show broke some boundaries and caused some controversies, but Murphy’s characterization or the stories never felt gimmicky, mostly because of Bergen’s sharp, layered performance.
Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
Lucille Ball was a superstar. This is pretty hard to argue against, for so many reasons. With an empire of live performances, television series and movies, Ball accomplished just about as much as you can as an entertainer in one lifetime. From her four Emmys (off 13 nominations) to the Cecil B. DeMille Award to The Kennedy Center Honors, Lucy racked up trophies like it was her job and deserved every last one of them. She was one of the first Women in Film Crystal Award and one of the first female studio heads in the industry upon the inception of DesiLu Productions. Even though Lucy appeared in dozens of movies, stage productions and radio programs, she will be remembered first and foremost for her eponymous turn in I Love Lucy.
Running for seven years and almost 200 episodes, I Love Lucy was a show that took a pretty inside the box concept of two married couples as neighbors in an apartment building and turned it electric with impressive physical comedy alongside fast-paced line reading and witty scripts. For a show where most episodes ended up falling into some variation of “the wives get into shenanigans, the husbands find out, they shake their heads and laugh, everybody goes home happy” it never feels repetitive or cliché. It’s one of the most re-watchable and quotable shows of all time, and for good reason. If you’ve never said “Honey, I’m home!”, I’ll be the first to call you out as a straight up liar. Filming for Vitameatavegamin and the chocolate conveyer belt scenes are some of the most brilliant examples of physical comedy of all time. Yes, “Lucy’s Italian Movie” is a comedy episode that hangs from the rafters of television, but there are also 20 more from Lucy alone that are right up there with it. Every episode was a production, a love letter to television born from the roots of stage shows and variety hours.
Her legacy in Lucy lives on through these memories of two best friends just having fun together, but it was also more than just a script and good vignettes every week. I Love Lucy had heart as well. Ball put everything she had into this show, and gave television a lot of things we take for granted along the way. It was one of the first to film in front of a live studio audience, to film on sets adjacent to one another, to feature a married couple of different ethnicities, and to write a real-life pregnancy in to the story (after fighting CBS tooth and nail to be able to do so). Even though Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley were irreplaceable in a lot of ways, at the end of the day I Love Lucy came down to Lucy’s excitement for entertaining and unbelievable talent as an actress. Although she never reached quite the same heights in her other attempts at television after Lucy (coming really close a lot of times, don’t get me wrong), her work on this show should be more than enough evidence to vote Lucille Ball in to the Hall of Fame this month.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Seinfeld (1990-1998)
Seinfeld is an entire generation’s cultural definition of irreverent. It famously claimed to be about “nothing” and put all of its creative energies into making sure the audience was aware of that fact. Within this framework, Elaine Benes, the character fully embodied by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was a metamorphosis of Mary Tyler Moore: smart, driven, and creative, she’s still as neurotic as the men in the cast, a mix of characteristics that Louis-Dreyfus so perfectly embodies. Whether she was planting ideas in George’s head or sharing in the revelation and subsequent fear that the Joeys she and Jerry had been talking about were one and the same, Elaine was a character of immense complexity and contradictions. But the most important aspect, the one that Louis-Dreyfus always kept close to the core of the character, was the harsh lesson of being friends with a comedian, which is that no matter how hard you try, the joke is always on you. That doesn’t devalue the effort, as Elaine and Louise-Dreyfus proved over nine seasons. But it does mean accepting the endless struggle as a given and never letting it bring you down. That was and is the ethos of Seinfeld, and no one else played to that ethos quite like Louis-Dreyfus.