I’ve had the ”Who are your favorite comics?” conversation a thousand times. Ask me my favorite anything, I usually struggle. Favorite color, food, even band seems to depend on my mood when asked. Movie is easy – Citizen Kane – as is comic: Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, in that order. My Holy Trinity.

One of these conversations was with a female comic, who proceeded to give me a rash of shit because I hadn’t named a woman. It’s true, I have no female comic idols. But I have a very good reason! Women aren’t funny.

I’m kidding.

I came of age during what many consider to be standup’s Golden Age. Cable TV debuted when I was a kid, overnight we went from five channels to fifty. Networks were dying for content and broadcasting blocks of standup was an easy solution. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Weather Channel had a “Half-Hour Comedy Hour” back in the day.

Mind you, most of these channels were considered basic cable, meaning they had to follow the same FCC restrictions as free TV. No swearing, no nudity. If you wanted uncensored comedy you had to pay extra for HBO. So the overwhelming majority of standup on TV was family friendly, with maybe a risqué innuendo here and there.

Before and during the advent of cable, it’s hard to point out anyone who had more of an impact on standup than Johnny Carson. Before the Internet, The Tonight Show was the most potent avenue for a comic to reach a mass audience and open a lot of doors. Getting a spot on The Tonight Show would lead to you paying off your credit card debt; getting called to the couch afterward to talk to The Man himself would mean you could pay off your house.

Carson launched a thousand careers but he was not a fan of female comics. Joan Rivers was one of the few he respected and they had a great relationship until, unfortunately, they didn’t. Carson believed that to be a comic, you had to be aggressive, and this isn’t a natural female trait. In other words, to be a female comic is literally unnatural.

It wasn’t an unusual opinion. I still hear comics today aping Hitchens, saying that men developed humor instinctually as a way to get laid, and women don’t need to be funny to have sex. That might be true but, oddly, I’ve never heard a comic about to go on stage say, “I hope I do well tonight so I can have sex!” Hey, we all want to have sex, but I don’t think it’s top of mind.

I mention Carson’s view because, despite that, women did sometimes manage to get on The Tonight Show, and several found mainstream success. I laughed often at sets from Rita Rudner, Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres and Elayne Boosler, to name just a few. However, you could count the topics of their material on one hand: dating sucks, being married sucks, my mom wants me to have kids, having kids suck. Hell, even Ellen was straight back then. I was laughing, but pre-teen me couldn’t relate. It’s the only reason women didn’t make the same impression on me.

Every now and then, I’d see a female comic who would never be accused of being a “typical female comic.” Unfortunately for them, this was before alternative comedy was a thing, so to say they enjoyed niche success would be a kind way to put it. For example, Sandra Bernhard must’ve been aware that she wasn’t what anyone would call a looker, but that didn’t stop her from being overtly sexual and dominant on stage. Carson might’ve said she was doing something unnatural in order to be successful, but I disagree- she knew what was expected and embraced it to the point of parody.

Which leads to the inspiration for this week’s post: Judy Tenuta. I read that Judy passed away a few days ago and got a flash of nostalgia; I’m sure it’s been a good thirty years since I thought of her. In an era when everyone was falling over themselves to attain mainstream success, Judy went onstage carrying an accordion. I had to look at her Wikipedia page to see what she’d been up to since the Eighties and, apparently, she stayed busy, had a career successful enough to be the envy of many would-be comics. Still, she was far from a household name, and I have to wonder how things would’ve turned out had she been peers with Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo instead of Ellen. In other words, if she’d sprung out of the Alternative scene instead of competing in the mainstream Eighties.

(As an aside- I once saw Janeane Garofalo bomb horribly during a Comedy Central filming and, when I saw the special on TV a month later, they’d added a laugh track. Can you imagine anything more humiliating?)

So pour one out for Judy, one of the good ones. She was a macho woman and way ahead of her time.