In the 1950s, '60s and '70s—back when there were only three major networks (not counting PBS)—variety shows were a staple of television programming. And, as corny as the singing and dancing might seem now, some of those shows launched characters that transcended popular culture, just as Bart Simpson and the Sex and the City ladies have in more recent years. See how many of these characters you remember, or maybe your parents have mentioned…
1. The Flip Wilson Show - Flip Wilson as Geraldine
Flip Wilson’s famous female alter-ego on The Flip Wilson Show, Geraldine, was the obvious inspiration for other outrageous drag characters that popped up decades later, such as Martin Lawrence’s Shanaynay and Jamie Foxx’s Ugly Wanda. The sassy Geraldine had a boyfriend named Killer, with whom she’d rendezvous at a club “in a booth in the back in the corner in the dark.” Her catchphrases, “What you see is what you get!” and “The Devil made me do it!” were on as many t-shirts in the early 1970s as Hello Kitty is today.
2. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour – Cher as Laverne
One of the weekly highlights of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was seeing impeccably coiffed Cher slink onstage in a fabulous (and revealing) Bob Mackie gown. So the usually glamorous Cher was truly playing against type when she dressed in a Peg Bundy-style leopard print jumpsuit and cat’s-eye glasses to play the gum-chomping laundry room gossip Laverne Lashinski. Man-hungry Laverne was such an audience favorite that Cher revived the character in the 1980s for her Las Vegas act, performing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” natch.
3. The Carol Burnett Show – Mrs. Wiggins
The red-headed comedienne created many memorable characters during the long run of The Carol Burnett Show, and one of those was the inept secretary Mrs. Wiggins. During that less politically correct era, her name became an unfortunate synonym for any female clerical worker that was well-endowed in the caboose region.
4. The Carol Burnett Show – Eunice and Family
The syndicated sitcom Mama’s Family did not do justice to its source material. The original "Family" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show were not hackneyed slapstick; the comedy was based more on the reality of the dysfunctional family dynamic. It seemed that the only time Mama spoke was to criticize her daughter, Eunice, or her husband Ed, or to talk about anything else that irritated her. Eunice dreamed of a better life, but did nothing to improve herself. Ed was the proud owner of a hardware store and didn’t hesitate to fight back when Eunice complained about him, his nowhere job, and their nothing house. His best friend was Mickey Hart, loyal but not-too-bright hardware store employee. When gathered under one roof for any occasion, the family’s tempers could flare from zero to 212 degrees in an instant, not unlike what happens in many average American families when they get together for a friendly game…
5. Laugh-in – Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was Saturday Night Live on speed. Each 60-minute show was filled with rapid-fire gags and sketches, and it was only natural that some recurring bits would make for “breakout” characters. For example, Lily Tomlin’s 5-year-old Edith Ann espoused child-like philosophy from an oversized rocking chair. She was also responsible for adding “…and that’s the truth! Pbbbbt!” to the lexicon.
6. Laugh-In – Lily Tomlin as Ernestine
Another Tomlin character was the busybody telephone operator, Ernestine. Her “one ringey-dingey, two ringey-dingey” schtick became so popular that the Bell System used her to promote their services for a time.
7. Laugh-In - Arte Johnson as Wolfgang
Arte Johnson dressed in a German soldier’s uniform, peeked through shrubbery, and said “Verrry eeenterrresting.” For some reason this character and catch phrase caught on like (very annoying) wildfire.
8. The Steve Allen Show - Bill Dana as José Jiménez
Bill Dana created the Mexican-American character of José Jiménez for The Steve Allen Show. Just like Fonzie and Kramer, the character became an audience favorite, greeted with deafening applause as soon as he mumbled “My name José Jiménez…” One skit, in which José’s describes one of his many jobs—astronaut—became so huge a hit that the Mercury crew appointed him an honorary astronaut. In 1970, Dana officially “buried” his most famous character at a Mexican-American cultural pride festival.
9. The Red Skelton Hour – Red Skelton as Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid
One of Red Skelton’s many memorable characters was Junior, the mischievous youngster who was always getting into trouble despite knowing the consequences in advance. “If I dood it,” Junior would muse in his child-like dialect, “I get a whippin’…..” He’d consider the misdeed and the punishment for the briefest of seconds and then with a grin would announce: “I dood it!”
10. The Red Skelton Hour – Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader
Red Skelton’s father had once worked as a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and it was his dad’s makeup that Red used to create his Freddie the Freeloader character. Freddie was a hobo who made his home in the city dump, although sometimes he was seen napping on a park bench using a newspaper as a blanket.