I have been a standup comedian since the fall of 1980. Back then, it was a novelty to be one. Hell, no one really understood what a standup comic was. And the only women hugely successful at that time were Phyllis Diller & Joan Rivers.
My how times have changed. In the 30-odd years I have been slinging jokes, television had a run of comics in front of brick wall shows, comedy clubs opened all over America and oh yeah, the Internet.
When I started out, you waited outside the club you wanted to work at all day, waiting for a number in which you then came back at the end of the night for the privilege of going onstage. It was a lot like waiting for tickets for a concert back then. I met some great comics on that line, Margaret Smith and Rita Rudner were just two. Paul Reiser was hosting, Bill Maher was one of the regulars, and a young guy named Jerry Seinfeld was the comic you HAD to see.
If and when you got passed at the club you were given the lovely opportunity of going on late in the evening to a bunch of drunks. And that's how you got strong. Night after night, onstage with no-one paying attention to you. Sometimes the crowd was louder than you, sometimes you ducked from someone throwing a beer bottle during a fight. All in the name of getting your 10 minutes of jokes funnier.
Eventually I ended up doing the New Jersey one-nighters. And that's exactly what it sounds like. Some restaurant with a room in the back with a bar figured "Hey it's empty here during the week, let's do a comedy show." We got paid, we got fed, we were in heaven.
Around the late 80s comedy exploded. And we were all basking in the new found fame that standup comedy had brought. I did every TV show that showcased comedy in one year. I knew that returning to these shows would take another year so I decided to become pregnant. I was told being pregnant would ruin my career. Funny thing, I was back on television three months after my son was born. Nowadays there are a huge amount of comics with kids. Back then it was unheard of.
I lived my life performing on the road and it was starting to get to me, leaving my young son at home. So to give him somewhat of a normal childhood, I moved to Las Vegas to work in production shows. Yes, you read that right, Las Vegas & NORMAL childhood. Except for the fact mommy was the dirty comic in a burlesque show, my son had a very ordinary upbringing. Little League, school performances, friends that lived around the corner.
I was 48 when I moved back to New York City; it's been seven years since I left Sin City. You do the math, but I ain't getting any younger. My husband and I had pined for NYC since we left it all those years ago. We wanted to come home and so we did.
New York changed since I left all those years ago and so has comedy.
It is no longer an artist's game, it's for the masses now. And if there's one thing today's society has been programmed for, it's that old people don't matter. Being over 50 means you are this close to death. I see it when people look at me in the streets, when I walk into a clothes store, when I turn on the television or watch a film. Occasionally we get something starring Helen Mirren or Judi Dench and us oldsters jump, (ok maybe not jump, we could hurt ourselves) for joy.
Truth be told, sexism is a piece of cake compared to ageism. At least I got whistled at when I was younger. Now the wind whistles through my thinning hair.
So when DID the ageism start? Lucille Ball was 40 when she created I Love Lucy in 1951. She went to become one of the most influential people in television and was revered until her death at 78. The thing about the days of early television was that everyone was given chances (no one really knew what they were doing) and from that great TV was born.
Mentally I don't feel any older, physically it's day by day. Hanging out at a comedy club till the wee hours just isn't fun anymore and that's where a lot of my business takes place. Oh I can still drink anyone under the table doing shots of Patron but my recovery is now about a week. I start yawning around the time The Daily Show is ending. I have traveled thousands of miles across the USA and around the world to make people laugh. I'm tired.
The problem is that I still love being a comic. It has been part of my life for over 30 years. You know the saying "Everyone's a comedian?" These days, everyone IS. Right now, somewhere, someone is thinking to themselves I make my friends laugh, I'm gonna make a video and put it up on You Tube and it'll go viral. That's where Hollywood is looking for their talent these days. I can't compete with youth, nor do I want to. What am I going to say to the powers that be, "Hey I'm old and wrinkly but I have wisdom!"
I'm proud of my age and refuse to bow down to the gods of plastic surgery. Nothing is scarier than an old person with a wrinkly body but with a face you can skate on. I've been told that mentioning my age will hurt my career. Yeah right, just like "having a baby" did all those years ago. It IS a young person's game. So maybe it's time to throw in the towel and find something new. But the catch here is because of the rampant ageism in TV & film, the "real world" has been told not to look at us boomers either.
Slowly I have been moving away from standup comedy which makes me sad. I am doing more directing & producing shows, mentoring young comics, a lot more writing. At least with writing, no one can say, "get me a good looking 22 year old". Well, if they did, I would just say, "give me a minute to write her in".
In the seven years since I've returned to NYC I have seen so many people who were just finding their way as young comics blossom into huge successes. Getting onstage every night, writing new jokes, honing their material. And that's the way it should be. I'm just hoping one of them will let me play their mom... or grandma.
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Doesn't it seem like Betty White has been around since David torpedoed Goliath with a slingshot? Our favorite golden girl is only 90 though. Even though Miss Betty White began her career in the 1940s on radio, and later appeared on late night talk shows and game shows (including Password) in the 50s and 60s, she wasn't a household name until, at the age of 51, she began playing "The Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973-1977). She continued her rise to fame as the lovable, naïve Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992. In 2010, at age 88, she became a superstar after her hilarious appearance in the Snickers Super Bowl commercial. What soon followed was a grassroots effort that got her a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, giving her that final "cool" status. We love you, Betty White! May you live to be 150!
Heavy metal vocalist Ozzy Osbourne has been famous for over 40 years as lead singer of the English band Black Sabbath. His wife, Sharon, however, did not become a household name until their family reality show The Osbournes premiered on MTV in 2002. By then, just barely 50 years old, Sharon had become a media darling, which opened up many doors. She went on to become a judge on America's Got Talent and has been co-host of the CBS daytime show The Talk since it debuted October 2010. I caught up with Sharon in 2002 at a White House Correspondent's Dinner after party and asked how she liked being a newborn celebrity. "I love it," she said with a big smile, "but I just wish it had happened when I was younger."
Regis was comedian Joey Bishop's sidekick on the ABC television show The Joey Bishop Show from 1967 to 1969 and hosted his own local talk show -- A.M. Los Angeles -- from 1975 to 1983. But his name wasn't exactly on the tip of our collective tongues until he became a daytime staple with Kathie Lee Gifford in 1988 Live with Regis and Kathie Lee when he was 57. His vibrant, caustic, yet fun-loving personality pushed him over the top sometime after the show began to gain in popularity with daytime viewers. Hosting the night-time game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 1999, catapulted him up to superstar status because of the show's initial popularity ("Is that your final answer?" became the catch phrase of the early aughts). Philbin left Live in 2011 because of contractual issues. But who knows where the 80-year-old entertainer might show up again? Why isn't he sitting next to David Letterman every night as his sidekick? Just sayin'...
Frances Bavier appeared in vaudeville, later transitioned to the Broadway stage and appeared in more than a dozen films. But it wasn't until she claimed the coveted role of everybody's favorite "Aunt Bee" on The Andy Griffith Show in 1960 that she became a household name at the tender age of 58. Bavier continued the role through 1970 and retired from acting in 1974, moving to North Carolina. She succumbed to heart disease and cancer on December 6, 1989. The actress was buried in Siler City, NC. Her headstone references her Mayberry name and reads: "To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die." (Here is a rare interview that Carolina Camera Reporter Bill Ballard got with Francis Bavier after she retired to North Carolina.)
Abe Vigoda captured the role of Salvatore Tessio in the film The Godfather in 1972 at the age of 51. His next big role came in 1975 when he signed on to play Sgt. Phil Fish on the television series Barney Miller. Strangely enough, false reports of his death made him a household name. In 1982, People magazine referred to Vigoda as "the late" Abe Vigoda, even though he was performing in a stage play in Calgary. Being a great sport, he laughed off the error. Vigoda was "dead" again in 1987 when a reporter for a television station in New Jersey referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." She corrected her mistake the following day. As a result, there have been many running gags about his death including skits and appearances on Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and even on The Today Show. Vigoda joined Betty White in the Super Bowl XLIV Snickers commercial in 2010, although he didn't get as much attention for his efforts. In case you're wondering, as we post this piece, the 91-year-old actor is still alive! ... Or, is he?
Can you imagine getting your big break at the age of 64? Even though this screen and television actor appeared in over 100 films, it wasn't until he played the feisty landlord Fred Mertz on the television sitcom I Love Lucy that he achieved his greatest fame. This motion picture veteran almost didn't get the part due to his rumored drinking problem. Although Lucille Ball was initially willing to hire him, Dezi Arnaz was less impressed and gave Frawley a stern warning that if he were late to work, arrived drunk or was unable to perform because of anything other than a legitimate reason, he would be written out of the show. That never happened, and Arnaz became one of Frawley's few close friends. Frawley died of a heart attack on March 3, 1966 at the age of 79. Here's Frawley in a cameo on The Lucy Show.
I know. This one is a real stretch, but let me make my case. Bergeron has hosted America's Funniest Home Videos since 2001 and Hollywood Squares from 1998 to 2004, but those TV shows were career builders. Now, he's what we might call an A-List celebrity, jumping up a couple of notches since the popularity of ABC's Dancing With the Stars. The hot host was 50 when DWTS premiered in 2005. He's charming, handsome, humorous and just oh so appealing. He's a keeper. Long live his career!
Maybe Mike Wallace was well-known in some hard-core news circles, and perhaps he was on a first-name basis with a few news junkies many moons ago, but it wasn't until he laid his groundwork as a superb gotcha reporter on 60 Minutes -- which he did from 1968 (after he turned 50) until 2008 -- that his star began to shine. Wallce was a force to be reckoned with, pushing him into the high-profile-household-name category. This affable news bulldog had a way with words. If Mike Wallace came calling, his subjects tended to want to run out the back door. This well-respected news journalist sadly passed away on April 7, 2012 at the age of 93.
Andy Rooney is another personality that seems to have been around since the beginning of time, and we're all glad to have been the recipients of his off-the-wall satirical takes on human nature, and occasionally educating us on used cars and what to do with annoying relatives. In 1978, at the age of 59, Rooney began his "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney" segment on the CBS news show 60 Minutes, continuing through 2011. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he made us think. It doesn't get better than that. Rooney died on November 4, 2011 at the age of 92 only a few weeks after his last appearance on 60 Minutes.
Who doesn't love Morgan Freeman? This Academy Award winner (for Million Dollar Baby) paid his dues and then some. Freeman worked for several years as an actor, and then came into his own playing chauffeur Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy at the age of 52 (although he was 50 when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the film Street Smart). His film career continued on the fast tract as he starred in many other films, including The Shawshank Redemption, Glory, Deep Impact, The Bucket List and March of the Penguins, resulting in a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from the American Film Institute.
Uh, oh. Joy Behar does not like dwelling on her age so I'm not going to mention how old she is. Behar was 54 when she was cast as one of the original members of The View, which made its debut in August 1997. (There will be a math quiz later.) A few years before that, you could catch Behar doing hilarious stand-up comedy on television. She became a household name sometime after The View became a must-see, daytime television talk show.
This Jack Russel Terrier was in the movies Mr. Fix It and Water for Elephants, but he wasn't a household name until he appeared in the much heralded silent movie The Artist in 2011. The Uggster was nine when he starred in The Artist -- that's 52 years old in doggie years. What did he do before he got his big break in Hollywood? He was about to be sent to a dog pound, but was rescued by an animal trainer. Let's hope that Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Toto and Benji don't get their noses out of joint looking for bones up in Heaven. I have no idea how old they were when they starred in their movies and television shows. Uggie has a good publicist.
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