Transgressive Comedy

Jean Carroll, trailblazing  Jewish comedienne,  was born Celine Zeigman  in Paris on Jan. 7,  1911, into a struggling  Jewish family making  its way across Europe  to the golden land of  America. Recollecting  her less-than-happy  childhood, she later said  that a memory of her father  flinging his dinner  at her mother made her decide never to be beholden to a man.  Celine, spunky and determined, snagged several $5 prizes as a  child dancer in amateur nights at theaters in New York and then  moved into vaudeville, where her pretty face and figure were  definite assets. She married fellow performer Buddy Howe, and  they partnered in a dance act. When he went into the Army during  World War II, she was forced to go solo. She began addressing  comments to audiences and “just got better and better” at it, her  daughter, Helen Tunick, told the Washington Post. Thus Jean Carroll,  trailblazing Jewish comedienne, was born.

Carroll was known for her rapid-fire delivery, and for trespassing  into the tough, traditionally male-dominated world of stand-up  comedy. According to numerous comedy/entertainment websites,  wearing her trademark cocktail dress and mink coat, she regaled  audiences with stories of her husband, kids and her everyday life.

“People are never satisfied,” she would say. Lawyers wanted  to be doctors. “Single men wish they were married. Married men wish they were dead.” Or she would riff on her own married life:  “Tonight, you are really going to enjoy yourself,” she quoted her  husband as saying. “Why?” she shot back. “You leaving me?”

Sixty years ago, this was pretty transgressive stuff. Funny women either  sacrificed any claim to being sexually attractive (think Phyllis Diller  and Totie Fields) or they undermined their own power and authority  by acting like total flakes (think Lucille Ball). Or else they just played  straight to the funny guys, like Gracie Allen. But Carroll sidestepped  both the scatterbrained and the homely shtick, and instead forged her  own path with a persona that was funny, sexy, sassy and smart.

Working on what daughter Tunick called “a dinky, almostimpossible-  to-use portable typewriter” in the family apartment,  Carroll went into semi-seclusion to write her own new material  whenever she needed it. And Tunick recalls the matter-of-fact way  her mother approached her professional life: “She would finish  cleaning the house, and then take her gown and shopping bag  with her shoes and makeup and go to work.”  In the 1950s, Carroll made more than 20 appearances on the Ed  Sullivan Show; Sullivan had signed her for the unprecedented fee  of $10,000 per show. In 1953 and 1954 she was the star of “Take It  From Me,” also called “The Jean Carroll Show.” And Carroll’s legacy  still resonates today. In her recent Off- Broadway production “The  J.A.P. Show: The Jewish American Princesses of Comedy,” stand-up  comic Cory Kahaney channeled her predecessors from the 1940s  and 1950s; Jean Carroll was in the line-up.

Jean Carroll died on January 1, 2010, five days shy of her 99th  birthday. Even near the end of her life, her sharp wit didn’t desert  her. Watching political campaign spots on television, she would look  at the screen and say, “I’m Jean Carroll, and I approve this message.”