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March 7, 2010

Girls Behaving Badly: Say Goodnight Gracie
by WomenInComedy - 0

The names run together in a way that prefigured the Bennifer and Branjolina mash-ups: Nichols-n-May, Burns-n-Allen, Stiller-n-Meara. In pairs, they form some of the most influential husband and wife comedy teams in the history of American comedy. As individuals, these comediennes were more than comedy co-pilots: they drove these teams to critical and popular acclaim.

The growing popularity of film and radio combined with the expansion of vaudeville and cabaret-style performance venues meant an increased opportunity for singers, dancers, actors, comediennes, and the occasional trick pony. Consequently, different types of performing groups began to crop up. Specifically, duos, trios, and quartets comprised of all-female and all-male teams inundated the performance circuit, lobbying for the radio (and in some cases film) spotlight. These groups offered an ideal arrangement for women: it gave them a lot of visibility and allowed them to retain their more refined and genteel sensibilities.

The era of a 200-lb Marie Dressler busting up the stage in the name of high comic art was beginning to fade. The public appetite became more refined, sophisticated in its desire for jokes like: “Take my wife. Please.” At the same time, the containment of the female performer within a duo (a male/female or female/female combo) gave rise to an unflattering comic type, affectionately coined by an, undoubtedly male, historian as the “Dumb Dora” character.

“Dumb Dora” was the ditzy, idiotic, female persona who was slightly less smart than a talking cabbage on a stick. She played opposite the charismatic, sexually desirable, male jokester. A typical bit featuring a “Dumb Dora” figure went as follows:

Male Host: If you do well this week, I may hold you over.

Woman: Hold me over what?

Male Host: I mean, I’ll renew your engagement.

Woman: Has it been broken?

Male Host: Has what been broken?

Woman: Our engagement!

That kind of exchanged slaughtered every time. Pure. Comedy. Gold. I don’t know who typically wrote this material, but it’s a good thing they are probably worm food or else the Family Guy might have a lawsuit on its hands. That’s all I’m saying. And then along came Gracie Allen.
Comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen changed the way male/female comedy duos did funny business. Performing together on stages and for radio shows in the early 1930s, Burns realized immediately that not only did audiences adore Allen as a very genuine, relatable kind of person, but they found her freaking funny. So funny that it was Burns who took one giant step behind his wife to take on the role of the “straight” or “talking” person to Allen’s deft delivery of comic word play and what Burns described as her “illogical logic:”

Burns: Gracie, let me ask you something. Did the nurse drop you on your head when you were a baby?

Allen: Oh no, we couldn’t afford a nurse. My mother had to do it.

Yeah, take THAT “Take my wife. Please.” Pffft. Pfft I say.

Burns and Allen worked successfully in stage, radio, and film for over twenty years. Allen’s portrayal of a beguiling, sincere type of woman engaging in such charming word and mind play served as a contrast to the realities of women constrained by gender roles that limited their freedom and hampered their self-expression. Gracie Allen’s creation of a hybrid role that combined comic intelligence with, well, grace, produced a new way of conceiving the comedy team that impacted the comic work of women such as Elaine May and Helen Meara, demonstrating that besides every funny man was an extremely funny woman.

Burns: Say goodnight, Gracie

Allens: Goodnight Gracie!

Sample videos here:
George Burns and Gracie Allen, clip 1

George Burns and Gracie Allen, clip 2

Nichols and May, "Mother" sketch

Nichols and May, "$65 Funeral" sketch

Stiller and Meara Interview, joint interview begins at 11.40

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