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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

8 Women Who Changed Comedy Forever

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today’s entertainment world is packed with brilliant female comedic minds. But it wasn’t always so easy for women to make their mark in the boys’ club of comedy. Comediennes of today stand on the shoulders of many hilarious women that came before them. Here’s a look at just a few of the ladies who made an indelible mark on the American comedic landscape.

1. Fanny Brice

It’s fair to say that without Fanny Brice there might very well never have been a Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. Born in 1891, Brice left school at an early age to become a burlesque performer, which is how she was eventually discovered by legendary entertainment impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. After skyrocketing to stardom in his Ziegfeld Follies, Brice went on to star on Broadway and in numerous motion pictures. She has been referred to as “America’s first female comedy superstar.” Years after her 1951 death, Brice was portrayed in the Broadway and film productions of Funny Girl, the latter of which won Barbra Streisand a Best Actress Oscar in 1969.

2. Lucille Ball

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Lucille Ball (along with her then-husband Desi Arnaz) deserves much of the credit for the television sitcom as we know it today. No television program before I Love Lucy, which ran from 1951 to 1957, had ever used a three-camera setup or filmed in front of a live studio audience. So those crowd reactions during iconic moments like the candy conveyor belt or grape-squashing scenes? Those are actual human audience members screaming out in laughter for one of the first times in television history. I Love Lucy was also one of the first TV shows ever to be sold into syndication, which is why you can still regularly catch reruns of the iconic sitcom today, over 60 years after its premiere. Back in 2012 it was reported that CBS was still making around $20 million annually from I Love Lucy syndication deals.

3. Phyllis Diller

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Long before Roseanne ever made the jump from housewife to comedy superstar, Phyllis Diller did the exact same thing—and blazed a trail for every female comedian who followed. Often cited as the very first female standup celebrity, Diller was widely known for her trademark wild hairstyle and off-the-wall outfits. But when it came to her material, Diller was serious business. Rather than performing song-and-dance routines or other flashy gimmicks like many other female performers of the day, Diller simply told jokes. And she told them so well that Guinness once recognized her comedic volume by conferring on her the world record for most laughs per minute. Countless fellow comedians, like fellow icon Joan Rivers, list Diller as an influence, which explains why she’s often referred to as the “Queen of Comedy.”

4., 5., and 6. Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Anne Beatts, and Rosie Shuster 

Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Anne Beatts, and Rosie Shuster’s names may not ring an immediate bell, but their work certainly does: They were the lone three female writers during the first season of Saturday Night Live, helping to shape the formative first year of what would become a comedy institution.

In addition to SNL, Miller also wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the award-winning Lily Tomlin television special, Lily. On Saturday Night Live she helped created the Festrunk Brothers (a.k.a. “two wild and crazy guys”) and some of Gilda Radner’s most popular characters. Beatts also spent time writing for National Lampoon magazine, one of the most revered publications in the history of American humor. Miller, Beatts, and Shuster helped pave the way for later SNL scribes like Tina Fey, who in 1999 would become the show’s first female head writer.

7. Whoopi Goldberg

Brian Ach/Getty Images for Variety

Don’t let The View be the thing that springs to mind when you hear the name Whoopi Goldberg. She began as a masterful live stage performer, using character-based monologues to simultaneously generate laughter and introspection about modern society. After starring on Broadway she was recruited into the world of motion pictures by none other than Steven Spielberg to star in his 1985 film adaptation of The Color Purple, and earned an Oscar nomination for her work in the film. In 1991, Goldberg became the first African American woman in more than half a century to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Ghost. That award serves as just one component of her lifetime honors; she is one of only 12 people to ever “EGOT” (a.k.a. to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award) and she was the first woman ever presented with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

8. Mitzi Shore

By The Comedy Store [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Though she isn’t a performer, Mitzi Shore has helped launch the careers of some of the most famous comedians of the last 50 years. As the co-founder and operator of the Los Angeles standup club The Comedy Store, Shore has helped introduce the world to the likes of Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Sam Kinison, and dozens of other A-list names. She also worked to break the comedy glass ceiling by creating a special standup venue that only allowed female comics on stage, and launched comedy nights designed specifically for LGBT performers.

After the club’s frequent acts banded together to go on strike requesting to be compensated for their performances, Shore began paying performers $25 per show. The decision had a nationwide impact on the standup comedy profession. An article in TIME noted that:

The strike's impact was far-reaching. Comedy clubs in New York City began paying their comics as well. Clubs that were springing up around the country were then forced to boost their fees too, to lure more top comics out on the road—launching the comedy club boom of the 1980s.

As of a few years ago, Tom Hanks’s film production company was working on a film based on Shore and her famous Comedy Store. (Yes, she is also Pauly Shore’s mom.)

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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