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The Real Dirty Female Comedians of the Cold War Era

Billboard in 1961 ran a news item about comedian Belle Barth's move to a new record label. The article called her "the queen of the sophisticated LPs." "Sophisticated" must have meant something different back then. The record industry had hijacked and demeaned the word to work against itself, like certain movies and magazines did for "adult."

Barth's specialty was raunchy sex talk. She was arrested for obscenity in 1953 and opened her 1960 album, If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends, singing a peppy piano number about "banging 100 men." Later on the record, she quips (brace yourselves, folks): "I always say the most difficult thing for a woman to do is try to act naive on the first night -- of her second marriage. She hollers it hurts. And he's gonna tie his feet to the bed so he shouldn't fall in and drown." That was her first album, and it sold around 700,000 copies.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the award-winning Amazon Prime series about a housewife turned Greenwich Village stand-up in 1958, got me wondering. Were there really any female stand-up comics back then doing the sort of confessional, improvisational, obscenity-spiced ranting that Miriam Maisel breaks out with? Or is her act a revisionist fantasy, an anachronistic imposition of modern comedy sense into a setting where it didn't exist, like Marty McFly bringing his Walkman to the Fifties?

I blew the dust off some vinyl comedy albums in my collection to look for answers. My finding: there were female comics in that era who were utterly filthy. They were pioneers who sold millions of records. They mocked men’s impotence and nicknamed genitalia, in nightclub acts advertised as risqué and on “party albums” shopkeepers literally hid under the counter.

But the reality was different than the TV show. Just about nobody besides Lenny Bruce was doing the kind of observational, stream-of-consciousness riffing that Miriam does. (Joan Rivers was closest in style to Miriam, but Rivers worked clean with tightly worded one-liners and stories.) Few comics of any gender were tossing off bad words on stage. Bea Bea Benson, in a circa-1960 nightclub show for her album Let It All Hang Out, did say: “This one guy told me I’d really like to get into your pants. You know what I told him. I said I have one asshole in there already.”

Mostly, the risqué female acts of the age channeled Mae West and Sophie Tucker. They sang bawdy songs and worked in unsubtle innuendo rather than Mrs. Maisel's smart-girl wit. “Definition: Indecent. If it's long enough, hard enough, and in far enough, it's in decent,” says Pearl Williams crassly on her 1962 album A Trip Around The World is Not a Cruise. She yuckily refers to her private parts as a "knish" (Williams, born Pearl Wolfe, wasn't alone in adopting an un-Jewish-sounding stage name; Belle Barth was born Annabelle Salzman, and Rusty Warren was Ilene Goldman).

Crude and sometimes self-effacing as it could be, it was maybe a sort of proto-feminism, a role-defying freedom of speech. Really it was the way a female performer was permitted to be subversive. In those primitive days, audiences weren’t receptive to a female comedian's take on, say, the government. They had Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce for that. Women were expected to strive to be housewives, so they were allowed leeway to crack jokes about husbands, shopping, housework, sex -- lenses through which women were seen. On stage these risqué performers let men have it.

Moms Mabley, who got away with smarts by playing dumb, said her old (fictitious) husband was “always callin’ me a dog. Sayin’ I was as ugly as a dog. Dumb as a dog. Sometimes I wish I was a dog. And he was a tree.”

Rusty Warren, on her 1961 album SIN-Sational, gets women in her audience to admit they like sex, then mocks their useless husbands:​ "Look at this great male that promised all kinds of passion. His ulcer's bothering him. He had a big meal, he's tired, he worked hard today. You made him put a shirt and tie on, and clean socks, and he didn't wanna go out. The man is the power of each home, the nucleus. He's sitting in his chair. In front of his television. In his old clothes. An old dead cigar butt in his hand. And a warm beer in the other hand. And you'll try to cuddle, and he'll say, "shh -- not during Maverick."

Not all the naughtiness advanced equality. Warren, known for her titty ditties “Knockers Up!” and “Bounce Your Boobies," was chastised by women’s rights activist Bella Abzug at a rally. But, as with Miriam Maisel, their acts were a chance for these women and their audiences to vent. On her album, the zaftig Williams berates a guy in the crowd: “Don’t stare at me, mister. You don’t wanna laugh? Out! Go! None of you ringsiders gonna stare at me. I’ll throw you out of here. And if I can’t do that, I’ll sit on you. You’ll disappear!”

(from Issue #10)

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