From its very beginning, television has been full of funny women (really; ignore all those studies that say otherwise).
Who would you rather believe, anyway, some study or Lucille Ball? How about Carol Burnett? Mary Tyler Moore? Ellen DeGeneres?
But while, without a doubt, all of the above women contributed majorly to the success of their respective shows, none of them were the creators. This means that the ultimate overall tone and sensibility belonged to somebody else.
Historically, the number of women who’ve developed their own network sitcoms has been lamentably small. However, those who did manage to buck the odds not only created thousands of side-splitting half-hours, they also left an indelible mark on all of TV Land.
Here, in chronological order, are the Top 10 Network Sitcoms Created By Women… and their legacies. How many have you seen?FIRST SHOW --> 1) The Goldbergs (1949-1956)
She was a woman, she was Jewish, she was not a size 2 (or a 10, for that matter), and still, all that didn’t stop Gertrude Berg from creating, writing and starring in first, a radio show (1929-1946) and then a television show depicting the life of an immigrant family in the Bronx. What Berg brought to the medium was a weekly reminder that not everyone in America was the same (and that was a good thing, too!) and that a well-meaning, let’s say slightly meddlesome mama was someone anyone from any kind of family could relate to – and embrace. (Read more about Berg on BlogHer, here).NEXT SHOW --> 2) One Day at a Time (1975-1984)
Whitney Blake had starred as the mother on Hazel in 1961, along with a host of other TV and film roles when, in 1975, she and her third husband created a series based on Blake’s life as a single mom (to, along with a pair of sons, the actress Meredith Baxter) that would go on to run for nine seasons. One Day at a Time brought to television a woman who not only wasn’t a widow, but a divorcee, no less – and she was the one who walked out! It also was one of the first to feature teen-agers whose problems couldn’t always be solved with a firm, wise talking to from Mom, Dad (who, to the show’s credit, remained involved in his children’s lives and was never demonized), or even the super.NEXT SHOW --> 3) Soap (1977-1981)
Created by Susan Harris, it was supposed to be an insignificant soap opera spoof (soaps, after all, are a women’s medium, so how substantial could they be?). Instead, despite vocal opposition before the first episode even aired, it tackled issues like adoption, suicide, gay parents, cults, cougars (before there was a word for it), interracial romance, metal illness, political instability and yes, alright, children possessed by the devil (give them a pass, The Exorcist had just come out). It also cemented the notion that a show could be hilariously funny while still making you care about the characters and what happened to them, going through laughs to tears in seconds. The ongoing saga of Ross and Rachel on Friends, the serialized call-backs of How I Met Your Mother and even the fantasy arcs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see: Baby Devil Possession Amidst Wise-Cracks) can all be traced directly back to Soap.NEXT SHOW --> 4) Golden Girls (1985-1992)
But Susan Harris wasn’t done yet! Less than half a decade after Soap ended, she created The Golden Girls, a show that not only demonstrated older women could be funny, but that they could be sexual beings, too! Oh, and, more importantly, that they could get ratings. Not just other older women wiling away their Saturday nights alone at home with nothing better to do save wait to die, but young people – college students, high school students - who saw in Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia the adults they hoped to grow into (with social lives to match). Plus, these girls were golden in syndication!NEXT SHOW --> 5) Designing Women (1986-1993)
TV is nothing if not the ultimate in Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery production. When four females-of-a-certain age living in a Southern state created by a woman proved to be a ratings bonanza for NBC, CBS decided they needed one of those themselves. They’d make the females even more Southern (Ha! Atlanta, GA! Take that, Florida!), but they’d make them a litttle less old (no need to go crazy; that other show was probably just a fluke, anyway)… and a lot more political. Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomas, the Designing Women in question were always ready to take an unqualified stance on any issue of the day, from AIDS to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings… and they were even happier to make a speech about it.NEXT SHOW --> 6) Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990)
When complimented on her ability to affect a seemingly endless array of accents and characters, three-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep demurred, “I’m not as good as Tracey Ullman.” (The pair co-starred in the movie Plenty in 1985). Two years later, Ullman would bring all her accents, all her characters and all her insanity to an American, self-titled project that would single-handedly revive the variety show format, put FOX on the map as a major network to challenge the previously presumed unassailable Big Three, and introduce the world to The Simpsons, which debuted as short interstials prior to taking over the universe with their merchandise. Anyone who thought they knew just how far creativity on television could go (especially with a woman in the lead), simply hadn’t met Tracey Ullman, yet.NEXT SHOW --> 7) Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
She was a fictional character who got into a real-world tussle with a Vice President (a decade later, actress Candice Bergen admitted she actually agreed with him), but the long-term importance of the Diane English-created Murphy Brown wasn’t the fleeting (and dated) political commentary (Designing Women got there first and more pointedly), but the fact that this was a woman who aggressively, brazenly and apologetically wanted a career. Everything else – man, child, house painter – came a distant second. More importantly, Murphy wanted to be good at her career. No, she wanted to be great. No, she wanted to be the very, very best. And she wanted everyone around her acknowledge it. Which gave those watching inspiration – and permission – to seek the same. And know that it was okay.NEXT SHOW --> 8) Roseanne (1988-1997)
Alright, I admit it, I’m cheating a little here. Roseanne Barr (Arnold? Fortensky? Arquette?) is not technically listed as the creator of her eponymous TV show. But she is credited as “based on a character created by…” and the first few episodes, especially, are practically taken verbatim from her stand up act (not that there’s anything wrong with that; check out the pilot of The Cosby Show and listen to one of Bill’s albums – when you’ve got material that you know works, you go with it). Roseanne brought a completely different feminine sensibility to TV, one Murphy Brown ignored and Designing Women skillfully skimmed over – where were Mary Jo’s children most of the time, anyway?), that of a woman who has a husband and kids and a sister and a mother and a job (except for the periods when she’s unemployed), not to mention bills to pay and lunches to pack and laundry to do and a car to coax into starting for just one more cold morning. In that sense, Roseanne had more in common with the Molly Goldberg of thirty years earlier than she did with the Murphy Brown and Julia Sugarbaker of her decade. Roseanne didn’t have a career. She had a job. Actually, a series of jobs meant to make ends meet, and not much else. Which gave those watching inspiration – and permission – to seek the same. And know that it was okay, too.NEXT SHOW --> 9) 30 Rock (2006-2013)
What if instead of a seldom seen son, Murphy Brown had a daughter? Someone say, like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon? Someone who, after a lifetime of watching strong, female role-models, went out into the world with all of her mother’s intelligence, talent and unapologetic ambition? And what if, instead of becoming a well-respected newscaster in DC, she ended up writing a comedy sketch show in NYC? Those amazing women of the 80s gave us a whole lot to aspire to, professionally and personally. But, they forgot to mention one, key thing – having it all was really, really hard. We would periodically screw up. That’s where Liz came in. Liz demonstrated that you could be pretty and bright and successful… and that you would, nonetheless, get knocked down every once in a while. But that you were also strong enough to get right back up. Liz agreed that yes, it was hard. For everybody.NEXT SHOW --> 10) The Mindy Project (2012 - )
One of the best shows on network television today is created by Mindy Kaling. Her alter-ego, Mindy Lahiri is even younger than Liz Lemon. Mindy didn’t grow up on Murphy Brown, but on the rom-coms of Nora Ephron – not that there’s anything wrong with that. You can be intelligent (look, Ma, I’m playing a doctor!) and you can enjoy TV (and possibly model your entire life on its tropes; not that there’s anything wrong with that, either). You can love pretty clothes – and still know when to change out of them for work. And you can be funny.
Not the kind of funny where viewers can predict the tired punch line in advance, but freshly funny. The kind of funny that comes from owning your own voice, you own life experiences, and your own unique perspective. The kind of funny that isn’t trying to mimic anyone else’s.
Image: © Martin Sloan/UPPA/ZUMAPRESS.com
A huge part of comedy stems from the element of surprise, the thrill of the unexpected. As a result, isn’t it much more likely that a punch line you haven’t heard before will more likely come from a voice that previously wasn’t allowed to speak much?
What better time than the 2014 television season to put that theory to the test? In addition to The Mindy Project, other network sitcoms with women creators currently include 2 Broke Girls, The New Girl, Trophy Wife and Super Fun Night.
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