This is the first installment of a feature called the Friday Question of the Day. Today, we’re going to determine who was/is the funniest actress in American television history. To find out my choice, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read this piece all the way to the end (I’m no dope).
There are lots of obvious choices, God knows. Here are a dozen contenders:
1) LUCILLE BALL has to get the first nomination, based on seniority and longevity. I didn’t love Lucy but I’m in the minority.
2) MARY TYLER MOORE distinguished herself on two very popular situation comedies, The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s and then her own hit a few years after that. Even if she had stopped at “Oh, Rob!” and never uttered “Mr. Grant,” she’d have been an immortal.
3) JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS’ Elaine Benes surely couldn’t dance and she didn’t help Jerry and George get that TV pilot when she had the chance. But she was smart, pretty, sassy, needy and capable of great physical comedy (“Get …OUT” — smack!). Come on. Who doesn’t love her, even today in the reruns that appear on the tube about 55 times a day, even on Thanksgiving. You betcha, she could put the asses in the seats, as Elane once put it on Seinfeld.
4) PHYLICIA RASHAD: Clair Huxtable held the center of The Cosby Show. She was a good team player and always left room for the other actors to get their yuks Bill Cosby was lucky to have her by his side.
5) MARILU HENNER had it all on Taxi. She didn’t take any guff from Louee. She supported Alex, Tony, Bobby, John, Iggy and Latke through all of their crazy problems, even offering a shoulder to cry on (and presumably much more) when he couldn’t get a date during their European vacation.
6) LENA DUNHAM, the star and brainchild of Girls on HBO, is a newcomer but she has made her presence felt in a hurry. It’s hard to remember the last TV actress who has made a bigger splash in a shorter period of time. Plus, remember, she is the voice of her generation and all that crap.
7-9) CHERYL HINES/SUSIE ESSMAN/WANDA SYKES: It took her a few seasons to assert herself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but she could take care of herself very nicely by the second season. Beginning with the episode known as The Wire in the first season, Susie soared into the comedy stratosphere. Never before had anyone made a fine art out of bellowing, “You fat fuck!” Wanda was the heartbeat of the show. She elevated sass to a special place. I bet Larry David, who famously ruins takes by laughing so hard, cracked up more often at Wanda’s delivery, than any other facet of the show.
10) ISABEL SANFORD: Weezie Jefferson didn’t have it easy on The Jeffersons, but Isabel Sanford challenged her caustic husband George for the biggest laughs, show after show, and often won. She was also terrific in the days of All in the Family when she played Edith’s best friend.
11) JEAN STAPLETON: Talk about not having it easy because of a snarling TV husband! Edith Bunker was likable, cheerful and loyal. The way Stapleton played her (hilariously), she was no dingbat.
12) PATTY DUKE: This is a highly personal selection. How I had a little-kid crush on Patty Duke when she starred on her eponymous show in the ’60s as Patty Lane, everyone’s favorite hip teenager in Brooklyn Heights. I didn’t really know why I was drawn to the character (remember, I was a little kid) but she was my first TV girl crush.
AUDREY MEADOWS: Alice Kramden got off some of the best zingers on The Honeymooners with only a few well chosen words (Ralph, to Alice, scornfully: You’re the kind of person who would bend way over on April Fools to pick up something. I WOULDN’T. Alice: You couldn’t!)
CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: When Kelly Bundy grew up on Married With Children before our eyes, she inherited a comedy mantle from every skilled TV actress who had preceded her. Some of the other characters seemed to run out of steam as the show’s run went on (plus, the plots became really inane after a while), but Christina got better and better.
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DRUM ROLL, PLEASE, AS I PREPARE TO ANNOUNCE MY SELECTION AS THE FUNNIEST ACTRESS IN AN AMERICAN TV SHOW:
SHELLEY LONG: Shelley’s Diane Chambers was a tour deforce of television comedy and acting genius — as Cheers is still on the air, in syndication, you might say IS, not WAS. Diane Chambers was a quirky, largely humorless character, except when she was roasting Sam Malone (the terrific Ted Danson). But Long gave Diane dimensions and nuances. Maybe Diane’s kookiness didn’t go over in the bar, but Shelley Long captivated this viewer with her intelligence, her insecurities and her uber-wit.
MEDIA MATRIX QUESTION: Who did I miss on this list? Where was I flat-out wrong? What are your picks?
Feel free to post a comment in this space.