When she was a young girl, Dr. Angelou's grandmother would only let her listen to religious and comedy radio programs. She grew particularly fond of Gracie Allen and Molly of Fibber McGee and Molly. "I could laugh at them, and they somehow could ease the pain of the brutishness that black people were facing in the South," Dr. Angelou says. "In a strange way, they helped me to see through complexion and see community. The women on radio may not have only enlarged my life, they also enriched it, and I am forever grateful." Dr. Angelou talks with Phyllis Diller and Lily Tomlin about their careers and experiences as women in comedy.
Phyllis and Dr. Angelou have been friends for more than 50 years—they met at San Francisco's famed Purple Onion comedy club when Dr. Angelou was a singer and dancer and Phyllis was in the earlier stages of her comedy career. Known for her quick delivery and contagious laugh, Phyllis says her chuckles were always sincere. "In the beginning, it was a nervous laugh because I was terrified," she says. "Later, when I laughed, it was because laughing is contagious! If you hear the audience laughing, you break down." Now 91, Phyllis enjoys painting, staying active and being a grandmother and great-grandmother. "It's nice to complete a life because a lot of people never get to have one," she says. "I feel fortunate and blessed."
Born and raised in Detroit, Lily started performing at a young age. "I didn't know that it was what people do to make money or a career," she says. "I found that it was a way to please Daddy and make my mom laugh." Lily went to college to become a doctor but wound up as a comedian instead. "I think it was another character I had in mind," Lily says. She says she felt for a very long time that there were stereotypes toward women in comedy—they had to play the object of the joke and were portrayed as unattractive, overweight or scatterbrained. "A lot of great comic performances have been invented around those stereotypes," Lily says. She credits her writing partner, Jane Wagner, for her talent. "Jane so often gets very little attention or accolades; I get them all," Lily says. "People think that it springs full born from my head, but it doesn't."