Although Totie Fields enjoyed considerable visibility on American television in the 1960s and 1970s, her contributions to women's television comedy have been obscured both by her untimely death in 1978 and by her self-deprecating style of humor. This article reconsiders Fields's comedic persona, which forced audiences to confront the realities of voices and bodies that did not conform to classical ideals, in the context of more recent theoretical work on the economy of charged humor (Rebecca Krefting) and the place of women's comedy within contemporary culture (Linda Mizejewski, Kathleen Rowe Karlyn). Ultimately it argues that, rather than constituting a “ghost of women's comedy past,” Fields's persona in feminized TV spaces such as the daytime talk show has more in common with the work of contemporary female comedians than has been previously acknowledged.
As a graduate student, I was once introduced to an unnamed scholar as someone whose dissertation focused on the television work of “grotesque female comics of the 1960s, like Totie Fields.” The scholar laughed and said, “Oh great—you mean just when we'd finally forgotten them?”
While undoubtedly meant as a joke, this seeming desire to forget the work of Fields is perhaps understandable. Seen from more contemporary eyes, much of what was said about her and what she said about herself during her career seems unforgivably cruel. In a single TV Guide profile of the comedian, she was referred to as “look[ing] like a snowman in drag,” “dumpling face,” “America's favorite size 44,” “hard to overlook … on the tube or off,” “Miss Caloric Catastrophe,” “[sounding like a] falsetto foghorn,” and “bulky.”1 As one of the most visible female stand-up comedians on American television in the 1960s and 1970s, Fields reportedly made her career out of being fat—she was less than five feet tall and sometimes weighed close to two hundred pounds—often demonstrating this in graphic ways. For example, she would shake the loose skin on the backs of her arms (while incongruously inviting the audience to notice that she'd lost weight) or demonstrate her “technique” for combating a double chin by patting her chin with two fingers and then exclaiming, “look how thin my fingers are!” before laughing raucously.
Until she died of a pulmonary embolism in 1978, Fields exhibited this persona regularly on American television via guest appearances on variety programs; late-night talk shows; daytime talk shows; sitcoms; game shows; and even one-hour dramas. Together, these appearances, along with the reviews and articles about her in the popular press, paint a picture not only of a woman who was willing to insult herself or endure insults from others in order to get a laugh, but also of an institution that was perfectly willing to support that abuse in the name of entertainment.
The argument for “forgetting” Fields, then, is directly related to this abuse and Fields's seeming complicity in it. Presumably because her comedy appeared to focus on naming and performing her physical shortcomings (for an audience who was predisposed to laugh at her), it must have come from a place of self-hatred. In the same TV Guide profile mentioned above, writer Robert Higgins included quotes from unnamed sources who characterized Fields as “crude and totally lacking in class” and speculated about the deep-seated neuroses that contributed to her approach to comedy.2 According to both popular and scholarly comedy histories, Fields's so-called grotesque persona places her squarely in the era where female stand-ups needed to present themselves as ugly—or at least not stereotypically female—in order to do stand-up comedy. As Linda Mizejewski details in the introduction to her 2014 book Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics, the reasons for this so-called requirement are rooted in theories of sexual difference that posit women's bodies as maternal, private, and to be looked at, and men's bodies as patriarchal, public, powerful, and intelligent: “Performing stand-up comedy, like piloting a plane or being a detective, was long considered an implicitly male undertaking” because it conferred “status and power … as well as qualities of aggression and authority” on the speaker.3 Because ideal (“pretty”) women were not thought to possess such qualities, their performance of them constituted a threat to the dominant order.4
This pretty/funny dichotomy Mizejewski describes can be found in perennial discussions in the popular press about whether women can in fact be funny and in popular histories that typically acknowledge women like Fields (and her contemporaries Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers) as at once pioneers of modern women's stand-up comedy and throwbacks to a less enlightened moment.5 In the latter scenario, before second wave feminism—the period that the comedy historian Phil Berger refers to as a “hag legacy”—funny women had to be ugly in order to placate the segment of society that felt that being funny in public went against women's nature. By the 1970s, he writes, this kind of comedy was no longer fashionable:
[In 1973], if ladies were in men's saloons and NASA programs and in cop cruisers too, not many were doing jokes… . Clearly the gig had no allure for the performing Ms. Too Tacky… . A dearth of example. Too many grotesques had gone by, savaging magic. A hag legacy. It'd be a weird little jill who got off on screech sisters Fields / [Martha] Raye / [Phyllis] Diller and [Belle] Barth. Somewhere well below Eleanor Roosevelt they ranked for inspiration.6
In other words, after feminism, any kind of appreciation for what came before was at best nostalgic and at worst sexist.
This approach to the history of women's stand-up comedy creates a teleology of “progress” that ignores two important ideas in feminist scholarship on comedy. First, nonnormative female bodies in comedy are powerful precisely because they threaten or question societal ideals of what “pretty” might mean and those bodies are subject to the limits and constraints of what Rebecca Krefting refers to as the “economy” of humor, which dictates the visibility and profitability of certain types of comedy at different historical moments.7 Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, whose work builds on Natalie Zemon Davis's concept of the unruly (female) body, which takes up too much space by being too fat, too loud, and too greedy, argues that unruly female comedians have the potential to disrupt social norms that dictate how women should behave.8 So it is Fields's primary focus on her fat body, an approach that Mizejewski refers to as “body politics,” that creates the potential for a “queer [aka unruly] performance” of gender and thus the potential for the “undoing of [normative] gender.”9
Indeed, in the case of Fields's non-television stand-up act, which combined the sequined gowns and musical numbers of Las Vegas nightclubs with more targeted discussions of her body in conflict with a culture that prizes thinness, the unruly or queer aspects of her performance were related to her insistence on being seen and heard as fat and beautiful. Totie Fields Live! (1969, fig. 1), her only live comedy album, begins with her singing the tango-esque “Sexy Me,” a humorous ode to the plenitude of her body and an exhortation to recognize its desirability: “You're gonna see lips like you've never seen before / You're gonna see hips you'll remember evermore … / And when you put them together, what do you see? / You see adorable, lovable, beautiful, sexy me.”
From there, she transitions to “Shopping” (video clip 1), a story about the indignities she suffered at the hands of snotty (skinny) department store salesclerks and the revenge she enacted upon them:
So I walk in, there are two salesgirls … you know the ones with the screwed up noses—like this. They both look like they're smelling something and I look like what they're smelling, you know what I mean? One of ‘em spots me walkin’ in with the outfit, she gave the other one a push, knocked her through four racks of dresses to get her to look at me and opens up her mouth in front of me here and said like this, “Oh no. Oh I don't believe THIS. Take a look what just came in here in bell bottoms. I'm going over to have a million laughs.” She comes walking over, they all look alike with the black dress and the Red Cross orthopedic shoes. Right, kids? And the glasses hanging on the chain with the little bun and the moustache. So she comes walking over to me and I say to myself, “She started with the right one.” I said, “I'm gonna give her a day todayyyy.” She won't forget for twenty years! What else have I got to do days, I work seven nights a week. And she doesn't know last week alone, I put away a hairdresser and a furrier. They're in institutions right now taking the cure.10
The rest of the album proceeds in this fashion, moving between the musical performance and Fields's earthy, edgy storytelling style that is punctuated with side conversations with particular audience members (which run the gamut from coy protests against desiring men—“Take your hands off me, you animal”—to the more traditional “Where are you from?”) and conversational phrases like, “Am I right, kids?” Given her openness in displaying her body and discussing its meaning(s), it is possible to see Fields's comedy as an example of what Krefting refers to as “charged humor” or humor that is not designed merely to entertain but to articulate marginalized perspectives.11 On some level, by foregrounding the politics of her fat body, Fields forces audiences to engage with the “humor-challenging social inequality and exclusion” that she experiences in a thin culture.12
However, as Krefting also points out, the acceptance of such humor is also shaped by the economic and cultural context in which it is allowed to emerge and be consumed.13 It's not clear from the discourses surrounding Fields at the time whether her comedy was promoted or seen as “charged” or overtly political. According to a biography produced by a Los Angeles public relations firm (Mann Scharf and Company), while she did think of herself as sexy and fashionable (and thought other fat women should feel the same about themselves), Fields's approach was not explicitly about confrontation but about common experiences and recognizing oneself in the jokes:
Without visible effort, Totie can capture an audience, have people look at themselves and laugh at what they see. Anyone who has been through the ordeal of a crash diet or has endured a tasteless weight reducing meal, reacts with delight to Totie's humor. Twiggies come and Twiggies go—they merely sell high fashion. But, Totie radiates warmth, affection and, in doing so, proves that, with more woman to love, you love that much more. [Moreover,] Totie takes great pride in the fact that her act is for the whole family. Most of her humor is self-directed but, while we laugh at Totie, we laugh at ourselves. She's a very funny woman, and, after seeing her work, you can't help feeling you've been captivated, intoxicated and devastated by a scintillating charmer.14
In this respect, the bulk of her television appearances looked like the work of so many female comedians who made the move to TV from other performance spaces because they involved performing a specific comedic persona in formats for which there was “no economic incentive to identify with or consume charged humor.”15 Whether the appearance in question was a guest spot on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948–71), The Tonight Show (NBC, 1962–92), the Lucille Ball sitcom Here's Lucy (CBS, 1968–74), the prime-time medical drama Medical Center (CBS, 1969–76), or celebrity-filled “soft” talk shows such as The Mike Douglas Show (syndicated, 1961–82), Fields's comedic persona was subject to the constraints of “regular” commercial TV (as opposed to premium cable, for example).
Indeed, for a female comedian like Fields, who was coming up in stand-up in the 1960s, network TV became not only an important promotional tool for her non-televisual career (as it is with most stand-up comedians), but also the subject of much of her comedy. This is apparent in the clip devoted to her that is featured in HBO's fifth-anniversary special of its stand-up comedy showcase On Location (1975–ongoing).16 In this segment of her 1977 comeback special Totie Returns!, Fields chats with her audience about the daytime soap opera General Hospital (ABC, 1963–ongoing), particularly the tangled web of destruction woven by one particularly popular nurse (“How come the whole hospital wants to bang Jessie? I was going to get out of show business and go into bedpans!”) and the glacial pacing of most daytime stories, allowing her to return to the program after “six weeks on the road” and not miss a thing.17
As was typical of Fields's stand-up shows, the bit is structured like a conversation, as she asks the audience to predict what will happen next on General Hospital (read: who will sleep with whom) and they oblige her with actual responses. This impression of conversation rather than monologue is reinforced by cutaways to audience members responding verbally and nodding, chuckling and shaking their heads, as if they are both tickled and ashamed to admit they indulge in such stereotypically feminized stories.18 By depicting the bit as a conversation among women, the clip enacts a different relationship between the female stand-up comic and the female audience member than stand-up comedy is typically celebrated for enabling. Rather than simply embodying the negative stereotype—in this case, the soap opera–obsessed housewife—to give others the license to laugh at it, Fields invites her audience to participate in an affirmation of that identity and to recognize themselves within it.19 In this way, her comedic persona seemed to be a natural fit with the realm of regular TV, and by extension its performance of the ordinary and/or ephemeral in ways that are deeply tied to popular second wave feminism's exploration of women's experiences.
In this article, I would like to challenge the “before feminism” versus “after feminism” demarcation of women's stand-up comedy outlined by writers like Berger by examining key archival examples from Totie Fields's television work in order to sketch out some of the connections between her comedy and television's engagement with women in a variety of programming spaces. My intention is not to argue for Fields's hitherto unacknowledged subversion of gender norms on 1960s and 1970s TV, but to argue for her connection to that space that Mizejewski says has lately “become the primary site in mainstream pop culture where feminism speaks, talks back and is contested, [namely] … women's comedy.”20 In particular, I would suggest that her emphasis on combining performance with casual talk and conversation—the preferred modes of address in non–prime time “women's” television—provides a direct link to present-day female comedians, such as the late Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, and Chelsea Handler (to name a few), who have made a career of carving out new spaces for speaking intimately and bluntly about women's experience in ordinary (as opposed to quality) television.21
FRAMING TOTIE FIELDS
The rapport that Totie Fields's conversational style afforded her with some audiences was more difficult to achieve on television in spaces where traditional stand-up comedians were showcased in short segments, such as on prime-time variety shows and late-night talk shows, or in narrative formats. On these occasions, Fields's comedy was often framed within the discourse of the programs' male hosts or the demands of the format in question. For example, in a 1963 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, her performance of the “Shopping” routine was not only subject to Sullivan's control as host of the variety show, but also bookended by a bit of physical comedy in which Fields needed to be hoisted by a group of burly men onto the stool provided for her.22 In this case, Fields's withering assessment of the snotty salesclerks that is the punch line of her story is defused by the picture of her unruly body being put into its proper place. This move is reminiscent of Sigmund Freud's definition of the dirty joke in which the woman functions as the (absent) object of humor rather than an interlocutor in her own right.23 This erasure of her comic voice is underscored by the exchange between one of her “handlers” and his comrades (and presumably the audience): “Get a crane!”
The exclusionary dynamic at work in that episode of Ed Sullivan is less definitive in spaces that featured both stand-up performances and panel discussions, such as The Tonight Show. Like Sullivan's program, The Tonight Show was considered an important gig for stand-up comedians because of its national reach and the possibilities for exposure to new audiences. Moreover, comedians who were set to perform on the show were also subject to the same behind-the-scenes scrutiny that Sullivan practiced: jokes and discussion material were routinely prescreened before the show's taping.24 Once the performer was on the stage, however, they were free to do their set and then join Carson for an interview and conversation with other panel members. In this format, Fields demonstrated an ability to if not elude the frame, at least respond to it or evade it momentarily.
For example, her appearance on a September 1972 episode of The Tonight Show coincided with the publication of her book I Think I'll Start on Monday: The Official 8 ½ oz. Mashed Potato Diet, which was a satiric take on dieters and dieting (fig. 2).25 Accordingly, Carson began by introducing her as “a very funny lady, one of the funniest” and followed that up with, “she's a practiced dieter and she's gonna keep practicing until she gets it right.”26 Presumably, this qualifier worked to segue into the conversation to come, as Fields was promoting a book with “diet” in the title. However, as she points out to Carson, her intention in writing the book was not to promote diets, but to satirize them. She explains that after undergoing a stint at a “diet farm,” an experience she “wouldn't wish on Hitler,” she got the idea to write a satire of diets as a way to address their seeming pointlessness: “What am I doing? I'm going to walk out of here—I'll be six pounds thinner. Who's gonna know? I'll maybe lose one chin… . I am gonna write a book. An anti-diet book.”
The book in question is a slim volume that features humorous illustrations and short chapters with titles like “Snappy Answers for Chubby Questions” (“Q: How did you get so fat? A: I became pregnant and I never gave birth. My baby decided to live in.”); “101 Things to Do with Cottage Cheese” (“Mold it in the shape of a long rope. The get two teams at each end and have a ‘Tug of Curd.’”); “Eleven Things to Do with Melba Toast” (“Now that St. Christopher's demoted, mount a melba toast on the dashboard of your car.”); and “One Thing to Do with a Cucumber” (no text, just a drawing of a cucumber with a hand pointing toward it). Fields mentions the last three chapters by name on The Tonight Show, offering no commentary on the cucumber other than a pointed look into the camera. The next few moments are awkward, as she has just told a dirty joke—which according to Freud is an exclusively male enterprise—about female pleasure on television, arguably evoking the ambivalence that Rowe Karlyn associates with female unruliness. On one hand, Carson's reaction (he raises his eyebrows and moves on to another topic) suggests “unease” or “fear [of censors]” but on the other hand, an unseen (male) audience member lets out a delighted whoop, which suggests he is receptive to the joke.27
This kind of framing also happens—perhaps to a less pointed degree—in Fields's appearances in narrative programming, such as in a 1972 episode of Here's Lucy and a 1976 episode of Medical Center.28 In both, she is represented as a slightly offbeat character of the lower middle or working class. In Here's Lucy she is Poopsie, the jealous wife of Lucy Carter's milkman Mr. Butkus, and in Medical Center, Phoebe Armbruster, an eccentric but hardworking hospital scrubwoman who also happens to be the mother of the chief resident of surgery. Rather than employing direct address as their primary performance mode (as in stand-up comedy) to establish a conversation, these characters emerge from the demands of the format in question. One (the sitcom) relies on narrative as a framing device for spectacle, and the other (a prime-time drama) calls for a more realistic mode of performance in its storytelling.
In Here's Lucy, Fields's performance strategies most resemble those of such zany 1950s housewives as Lucy Ricardo and Gracie Allen that Patricia Mellencamp theorizes were a hallmark of the genre prior to the 1960s; they were designed to momentarily disrupt the status quo by showcasing the specific talents of the star (as opposed to the fictional character) in question before being re-contained by the show's often thinly constructed narrative problematic.29 When she is offscreen, Fields is framed humorously by other characters, such as Lucy's daughter Kim and brother-in-law Harrison. For example, we learn that she rides a motorcycle and has a penchant for (melo)drama (after Lucy explains her predicament to her family, Harrison remarks, “This all sounds like a bad opera,” and Kim quips, “Yeah, Madame Buttermilk”).
When she is on-screen, however, she performs her character in what the scholar David Marc calls a presentational style.30 In the first act, she chases Lucy around the island of a highly stagey (read: horizontal and shallow) kitchen set and loudly delivers over-the-top lines about what “mama always said” about men and betrayal. In her next appearance, which happens in the third act, she is featured at home in her living room. She is wearing a caftan (one of Fields's signature dress styles) and wordlessly searching through what turns out to be an empty box of chocolates. After discovering that she has eaten them all, she gets up and crosses to the fireplace (above which is hanging an oil painting of a dairy cow) and reaches into the chimney for her secret candy stash. After opening the new box of chocolates, she picks one up and says to herself, “No, be strong,” and picks up a magazine to read. A second later, she shrugs and says, “Nah, be weak,” and selects a piece of candy before being interrupted by Lucy, who is coming to tell her that her husband is ill (a ruse to get her to reunite with him) and needs her help. When Poopsie is finally convinced by Lucy and company that her husband will only get better if she serenades him, she breaks out into “You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You,” as if she's on a nightclub stage.
In this case, Fields's performance of her comedic persona is typical of most episodes of Here's Lucy that feature the talents of known stars, as the specific qualities associated with her are on display within the frame of theater-influenced (fake) mise-en-scène, the editing patterns, and the demand for narrative closure of the form.31 When chasing Lucy or when bingeing on chocolates in “secret,” Poopsie is depicted in alternating wide to medium shots so that we are able not only to hear and see the awkward excess of her body in motion but also to see her with objects that we might associate with those same qualities (the chocolate, the cow oil painting). When she is singing to her husband, she is depicted in medium shots and close-ups to provide audiences with the best view of her nonnarrative performance. Together, these have the effect of presenting Fields as a narrativized version of her stand-up self.
In contrast, Medical Center, which was a prime-time drama devoted to the lives of surgeons at a fictional university hospital, demanded a more realistic mode of production and address. Like Here's Lucy, the show provided occasional space outside of the linear narrative for Fields to showcase her particular brand of unruliness. For example, the image that bookends the episode is a long shot of Mrs. Armbruster walking away from the camera and “sneaking” a scratch at her behind. This, along with her eccentric methods for making wet floors safe to walk on (strategically placing newspapers in long lines down the hallway), her search for odd items for her ongoing garage sale in the boiler room of the hospital (prosthetic legs, mini roulette wheels), and her bawdy exchanges with Dr. Joe Gannon (played by Chad Everett) mark her as a kooky cleaning lady with a penchant for wisecracks (fig. 3).
Fields's performance style changes from silly scrubwoman to long-suffering Jewish mother when the story takes a dramatic turn, as we discover nearly simultaneously that Phoebe needs bypass surgery to address her failing health and that her son Danny (played by Ron Rifkin) has been dismissed from the hospital for ignoring the instructions of the head of surgery and presumably causing the death of one of his patients. Until this point, Fields performs her Jewishness in much the same way she would in her stand-up routines, by peppering her speech with Yiddish words like “mishigoss” and “fakakta” and talking about the roast and latke dinner she is preparing for her son. When she discovers that Danny has been fired, she first tries to bargain with Dr. Gannon, saying she will only agree to have the surgery if the hospital will hire him back, conjuring up the stereotypical association between guilt, emotional blackmail, and Jewish mothers.32 When that tactic doesn't work, she leaves her hospital bed for the boiler room, where she destroys her garage sale wares (after all, she only sold them to raise money for her son's medical practice) and ponders the meaning of her life: “My whole life, doc, picking up other people's junk. What am I? Am I an intellectual like Ann Landers? I'm a frumpy broad that pushes a lousy mop around. Didn't expect to be an astronaut. I kinda hoped I could do something, anything that mattered more than cleaning a restroom.” Like Poopsie Butkus, Phoebe Armbruster contains shades of Totie Fields's persona, but her eccentricities are subordinated in this case by a melodramatic imperative that requires emotional suffering rather than jokes.
HAVING TOTIE FIELDS FOR LUNCH: THE “SOFT” TALK OF DAYTIME
In all of the examples I have discussed so far, different aspects of Fields's star persona—theatricality and honest talk—are bracketed off in service of the format in question. The closest she ever came to combining them (as she did in her stand-up shows) was within the spaces of daytime programming. Perhaps because these formats traded on celebrity and “soft talk” more than targeted shtick, she was more often allowed to follow along in the conversation and speak frankly. These programs, which were hosted by such figures as Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, also suffer from neglect in the canons of television history because of their reputation as “harmless entertainment” directed toward, as one TV Guide writer put it, “stay-at-homes, shut-ins and drop-outs,” which, as I will discuss later, basically means women.33 In general, according to the TV talk show historian Bernard Timberg, the aim of these programs was to bring together an eclectic mix of entertainers and other public figures for lively, noncontroversial, and sometimes banal conversation and musical performances.34 Arguing that they were descended from such popular 1950s programs as Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (CBS, 1948–58) and Home (NBC, 1954–57) with Arlene Francis, Timberg claims that they should be considered distinct from the more socially conscious audience-participation talk programs that were ushered in by Phil Donahue (during roughly the same time period). In this latter form of talk, guests and audience members regularly offered personal information and opinions in the service of starting a public discussion about issues of importance to women.35
To be clear, I am not entirely comfortable with making hard-and-fast distinctions between talk shows that focused on entertainment and those that dealt with issues of social import, as it is always possible to find an example of “soft talk” that engaged with more traditional “public sphere” politics. Indeed, some of the most famous episodes of Mike Douglas are those in which John Lennon and Yoko Ono cohosted the program in the 1970s and helped to introduce figures who would have been considered controversial at the time, such as Black Panther Bobby Seale, to the viewing public. Moreover, as Joshua Gamson, Kevin Glynn, and other scholars have argued, historically, talk shows—especially the most “sensational” and/or critically reviled forms—have been an important space in which struggles over representation and identity are waged.36 But because part of my project in this essay is to establish the specific “economy” of Totie Fields's comedy within these spaces—that is, where and how it was framed within the larger economy of American network television—it is important to point out, as Timberg does, that the programs Fields regularly appeared on were characterized as privileging “soft,” unremarkable, ephemeral chatter.
In this respect, Timberg's (and others') use of the word “soft” to describe Douglas's program should give pause because of its historical association with women's culture (and women's television in particular). From this perspective, soft talk connotes talk that the stereotypical female viewer—the housewife—would engage in while going about her day, nothing too taxing, but pleasurable nonetheless. And press coverage certainly suggests that this is what Douglas offered his female fans. For example, in 1965, when the Ohio-based Douglas show got a national syndication deal and moved to Philadelphia, TV Guide writer Richard Gehman declared:
All of a sudden in Los Angeles and New York, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas, Omaha and Milwaukee, Phoenix and Portland in Maine and the one in Oregon, in St. Louis and Cincinnati and Sacramento—in these cities and in many others, shirts are lying damp and untouched on ironing boards, dishes are neglected in sinks, and carefree toddlers are happily trying to de-tail kittens and puppies while housewives and mothers stare entranced at Mike Douglas.37
The anxiety surrounding this image of the slack-jawed, delinquent housekeeper and mother who has been undone by daytime television is, as many feminist media scholars have pointed out, ubiquitous in popular writing about women and television.38 But in the specific case of The Mike Douglas Show, that anxiety is coupled with the rather condescending image of Douglas as a daytime TV “guru” who “has given [the average housewife] part of the world” through his “frothy” approach to a variety of topics.39 To quote another TV Guide writer, Patrick Walsh:
Mike brings these little snippets of esoterica to stay-at-homes, shut-ins and drop-outs. Things like appeals for aid in the Florentine art restoration program are spoon-fed to millions of Americans who wouldn't necessarily know a Tintoretto from a Ponte Vecchio, but who may send a few farthings in because Mike thinks it's a good idea and the prof. from the University of Penn. seemed like a nice sincere fella.40
It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of the host in daytime talk programs—after all, according to Timberg's “rules of talk television,” the host is the person “responsible for the tone and direction, and for guiding and setting limits on the talk that is elicited from guests on the air”—but such accounts that occur in both scholarly and popular contexts and posit the “host-as-guru” do not always consider the role guests (and audience members, for that matter) played in shaping the discussion on talk shows of this era.41 In the case of The Mike Douglas Show, Douglas was usually flanked by a weekly guest cohost or cohosts, with whom he would share the duties of performing and chatting up more “legitimate” guests. As opposed to passively answering questions posed by the host or simply performing a pat routine, cohosts operated more freely in this loosely scripted environment, where they worked with Douglas and his staff behind the scenes and were allowed to ask questions of and respond to the other guests on the set. Similarly, as many talk programs did at the time, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Douglas's show favored a roundtable format in which he would begin the show alone on a stage (usually by singing a song) and then move to a set that housed several chairs that would eventually be filled by all of the guests. As a result, both the cohosts—who came on stage after Mike's musical number—and the accrued guests would often act as counterbalances to Douglas's typically white male point of view by participating in a seemingly impromptu conversation. In this respect, Totie Fields, who was a frequent guest, was there less as an expert or legitimate guest and more simply as a commentator with a particular point of view that perhaps matched those of the viewing audience.42
For example, in an episode of the program often cited by self-professed fans of both Totie Fields and the band KISS, Fields was on the panel, along with Douglas and fellow comedian Robert Klein, when Gene Simmons (KISS's lead singer) appeared onstage in full makeup (video clip 2).43 Douglas begins by introducing Simmons to Totie specifically. He says, “I've got a new rock group for you Totie … this is their latest album [holds it up to camera]… . Before we see them perform, I want you to meet one of the members of this act close up… . Here from KISS is Gene Simmons.” The images of Simmons, decked out in his batlike outfit with skin-tight, studded leather pants and platform shoes, prowling around the stage with tongue waggling, and the sounds of tepid applause from the studio audience and the smooth jazz–esque intro music in the background, signal a deliberately staged culture clash. After Simmons shakes hands with the panel and settles into his seat, Douglas resumes his role as cultural interpreter by asking for a close-up of “the shoes” and Fields quips, “Incidentally, he's up for adoption.” This dynamic continues, with Douglas asking earnest questions about the band and why they look the way they do. In between answers to those questions, Simmons makes statements like, “Your audience really looks appetizing” and “I am evil incarnate.” At that point, Fields rolls her eyes, which is captured first in a wide shot and then again in close-up. Mike responds with, “I can tell he's your type, Totie, I can just tell,” and giggles awkwardly, while Totie says to Simmons, “Is your mother watching today?” and follows that with, “Wouldn't it be funny if under all this, he was a nice Jewish boy?” Simmons responds with, “You should only know.” After a beat, Fields says in deadpan, “I do—you can't hide the hook.”
Fields's ability to roll with whatever situation presented itself on The Mike Douglas Show was undoubtedly why she was such a popular guest host, but those seemingly impromptu moments, such as her appearance on the panel with film-actress-turned-beauty-columnist-and-astrologist Arlene Dahl (video clip 3), also formed the basis for new stand-up material:
Of all the shows I've ever done, I once did a show with a lady called Arlene Dahl. And for some reason, I guess 'cause she writes a beauty column, all the women say, “Is she really so gorgeous in person?” Wanna know the truth? Most gorgeous woman I ever saw in my life… . I look at a woman like that and I say, “I wonder if she ever bought Sani-Flush? Do you think she ever washed a toilet in her whole life?” She's so rich—I don't even know if she goes! You know? Well, they have servants for everything, you know? She could call in the maid—“I have to make” [noise]—that's it, it's all over. I look at a woman like Arlene Dahl and I say, “I wonder if she bought a flanken in her whole life.” That's how you stay normal—a flanken, that's right! You don't know what a flanken is? I'm a flanken. It's a good hunk of Jewish meat! Could you picture Arlene Dahl going to the butcher (in a waspy voice), “Hi. I'd like a hunk of flanken.”
So she went into the audience that day, she gave beauty hints. I'm saying, “What, are they listening?” If Arlene Dahl told you what to do, would you look like Arlene Dahl? Right, shouldn't I write a beauty column? More women look like me than Arlene Dahl!44
Although I have been unable to ascertain exactly what was said on the actual television appearance, in the segment in question, it is likely that Fields would have functioned as a counterbalance to Arlene Dahl as a qualified beauty expert. In this instance—as in many others—Fields positions herself as a surrogate for the women in the viewing audience who look nothing like Dahl. Her sarcastic response to Dahl's no-doubt well-intentioned advice on how to be beautiful—“Shouldn't I write a beauty column? More women look like me than Arlene Dahl”—is both a snappy line and a commentary on the impossible standards of beauty to which women are expected to aspire. And Fields takes up that line of argument more explicitly in her act when she first speculates about Dahl's personal life, including her bathroom habits (or lack thereof), and second declares herself sexually attractive to her husband, George, who would rather go out to eat than choose the kitchen as the room his wife should “be great in.”
This double-edged quality of Fields's humor—where she simultaneously tells stand-alone jokes and confronts audience members about private, sometimes painful issues—no doubt made her an entertaining talk show guest and cohost, but it is also the hallmark of much of popular women's humor from this time. In particular I am thinking of writers like Erma Bombeck and Shirley Jackson, whose columns and novels spoke of the messiness and chaos of women's everyday lives that were in humorous but deep contrast to the feminine ideal espoused by mainstream American culture. On television, popular television performers like Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers gave voice to similarly complicated perspectives on women's place in culture, even as they struggled with the seeming impossibility of framing themselves as women or artists.
Like Phyllis Diller, who based her routines on the absurd trials of her Frankensteinian housewife persona and jokes that were often written for her by actual housewives, and Joan Rivers, whose tagline, “Can we talk?,” encapsulated her live stand-up act, which was built on her ability to engage audience members in frank, sometimes embarrassing discussions, Fields sought to make a connection with people by revealing what would seem to be very personal details about her body, her sex life, and her battles with weight, not simply to make them laugh at her, but also to initiate a kind of public discussion about those matters. Although these stories are told within the context of a stand-up comedy act—which at the time was not always understood as a politically charged space—they undoubtedly contain the impulse to challenge preconceived notions about the largely invisible female audience that characterizes many of the highly charged confrontations typical of The Phil Donahue Show (syndicated, 1970–96) and its progeny. Like the Donahue guests who offered “too much information” to the viewing public as a way of bringing attention to women's issues, Totie Fields as talk show cohost had the ability—however constrained—to reframe those issues.
In a 1972 episode of This Is Your Life (syndicated, 1971–73), Ralph Edwards surprised Totie Fields in the middle of the opening night of her new show at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas with a recounting of the important events and people in her life.45 In typical This Is Your Life fashion, Edwards narrated Fields's life with the help of a range of voices and faces from her childhood in Hartford, Connecticut; her “lean years” as a performer in Boston; and her eventual explosion onto the comedy scene in New York, Las Vegas, and beyond. While the thirty-minute program often rendered Fields verklempt, a particularly significant moment for my purposes was her reaction (or lack thereof) to the attempts by several male TV hosts (Merv Griffin, Ralph Edwards, Mike Douglas) to frame her journey as in part related to her body or her weight: Griffin refers to her winkingly as a “svelte young lady”; Edwards tries to commemorate her marriage to George Johnston in terms of her dress size: “You were wearing a size seven then?”; and Douglas calls her “the biggest little girl he's ever known.” After having given so many performances where Fields beat people to the punch by throwing her weight out there for discussion first, she was remarkably subdued and unresponsive to those comments. Surrounded by her husband, two daughters, older siblings, first boyfriend, first acting and dance teacher, former employer, and manager—not to mention her pal Sammy Davis Jr., with whom she and her family had recently shared a Passover Seder—Fields seemed much more interested in recalling the ways she built her life as a wife, sister, and working mother.
It's impossible to know what Fields might have done comedically had she lived as long as Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers, who, as Kristen Anderson Wagner has argued in work on aging comediennes, were able to alter their framing on television and in mainstream culture more broadly.46 Even in the years just before her death, when she struggled to regain her health and get back to performing comedy, her zany “Miss Caloric Catastrophe” persona had morphed into something more akin to melodramatic heroine, as stories about “the happy courage” of Totie Fields who managed to “brave” the comedy stage despite having lost a leg to phlebitis circulated in the popular press.47 Despite such somber stories, Fields maintained her penchant for unruly body-related jokes (“I never had good legs anyway… . You never heard people say, ‘Geez, what a pair of gams that Totie Fields has.’”), and trouper-like professionalism by getting ready for her comeback show at the Sahara, which would become immortalized as Totie Returns!48
Perhaps the most regrettable thing about the desire to forget Totie Fields and the feminized TV culture with which she was closely associated is the loss of those images and what they can tell us about which kinds of comedy are valuable and why. In this respect, claiming Totie Fields's TV comedy as somehow secretly feminist is much less useful than it is to consider which televisual modes of expression were and still are available for female comedians and at what expense. After all, by the mid-1970s, when, as Timberg points out, “women's issues were particularly hot,” Donahue was actually competing with a number of female syndicated talk-show hosts—including more stereotypically entertainment- or comedy-oriented figures like Dinah Shore and Joan Rivers.49 Thinking about how such women functioned in what has traditionally been thought of as a throwaway form of television might help shed some light on the myriad ways the institution of American television frames, manages, and works through the public discussion of those issues.