The 1960’s were an important era in the burgeoning comedy scene. While the majority of comedy in the earlier parts of the country stemmed from places like Vaudeville, it began to branch out more and more during the ‘60’s. Comedians started to push boundaries like never before, and the advent and popularity of variety shows and game shows made it so they could reach wider and wider audiences via television appearances. It was a decade where a comedian could have a career that not only saw them performing stand up in nightclubs, but also appearing on TV, getting film roles, recording comedy albums, and becoming big time media celebrities. And while there are some comedians from this era who generally come to mind, today we’re focusing on a few that you might not be as familiar with. These are performers who, in their day, were as big as it gets. But somehow, for various reasons, aren’t always talked about as much. So join us, as Facts Verse Presents: The Best Comedians of the 60s You Might Not Remember.
Stiller and Meara
Most people will know Jerry Stiller from either his iconic role as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, or as Arthur Spooner on The King of Queens. But fans of mid-century comedy will know him better as one half of the legendary duo, Stiller and Meara. The other half was the brilliant Anne Meara, who also was known as being Stiller’s wife. To call Stiller and Meara a strictly 1960’s era comedic duo is slightly misleading. After all, while they might have started up in the ‘60s, their success ad a duo extended well into the 1970’s, and their careers, particularly Jerry Stiller’s, extended for decades.
But while they were a duo, they were considered a mainstay on the variety show and talk show circuit. They were early members of the famous Second City improv troupe, and the first of that bunch to actually become well known comedians. The two actually met on a set up of sorts, because Meara was on the hunt for a partner for a vaudeville act. Her talent agent set her up on a meeting with Stiller, and they were a perfect match. Little did the agent realize that they’d match romantically too. They were married next year.
Over the course of the ‘60’s, they became a staple on shows like the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, appearing 16 times that decade. They also appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, several times. When variety shows were less in vogue during the ‘70’s, they began to expand their appearances, including a regular 5 minute slot after SNL on the NBC affiliate in Washington DC., and several comedic advertisements on the radio for various products. Eventually the duo branched out to more solo work, as both Stiller and Meara began getting roles on various sitcoms. Meara joined Archie Bunker’s Place from 1979 to 82, for example. Though the duo did get a chance at their own show, The Stiller and Meara Show, but it failed to gain traction. While they have since passed away, they are considered to be one of the premiere comedic duos of the ‘60’s and 70’s.
Totie Fields, born Sophie Feldman, was a Jewish singer and comedian originally from Hartford, CT. She started off singing on the nightclub circuit, even gaining traction when she was still in high school. She eventually got the attention of the Ed Sullivan, who asked her to be on his popular show in 1964. Sullivan had seen her perform at the famous Copacabana, and was impressed. This was a huge break for Totie, and she was able to parlay it into many more appearances in the mid ‘60s, including spots on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and others. She was able to cut her acting comedy chops when she appeared on a couple of sitcom episodes such as Here’s Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show. Totie was able to use her talent and charming personality to shine on game shows during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was a regular guest on Hollywood Squares, for example. She also appeared several times on the game show, Tattletales, alongside her husband George Johnston. She capped off her successful run during the 1960’s by releasing a humorous book called, I Think I’ll Start on Monday: The Official 8½ Oz. Mashed Potato Diet, which was released in the early ‘70s.
Sadly, she suffered from numerous health problems, including diabetes and blood clots. She had to have a leg amputated at one point, and was forced to move around in a scooter. Later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had to have a mastectomy. She died in 1978, but not before being named “Entertainer of the Year” by the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Shelly Berman was a multi-talented performer, who shined in various mediums such as acting, writing, comedy, and even teaching. He might be best known to modern audiences as Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but his career began decades before he took on that particular role. Born in Chicago, Shelley went to the Goodman School of Drama after serving in World War II. While there, he met his future wife, Sarah Herman, and the two eventually relocated to New York City. While there, he picked up a variety of odd jobs as he tried to start an acting career. These included stints as a speech teacher as well as a dance instructor at the famed Arthur Murray Studios. His first industry job came when he was hired to write sketches for The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. Around this time he was also performing on a variety of sketch teams, as well as developing his own solo act. This led to a burgeoning stand up career, as Berman was hired to play nightclubs in the Chicago area. He was then signed to Verve Records, who released his stand up act as records. This brought him immense success. His comedy albums went gold three different times, and he even one the very first Grammy Award for spoken comedy recording.
Shelley used the success of his comedy albums to move into more TV and stage performances. He was a regular on the popular variety shows of the ‘60s, and then moved on to starring in various Broadway shows. These included shows like Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, and Guys & Dolls. In the next several decades, Berman appeared on a slew of TV shows and films. He could be seen in shows like Bewitched, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Night Court, Friends, and many, many others. He also appeared in films like Dementia, Meet the Fockers, The Holiday, and many others.
Berman also had a successful career as a college lecturer. He was a lecturer at USC in Los Angeles on the topic of humor writing, as part of their Professional Writing program. Berman
Berman died in 2017 from Alzheimer’s disease complications. He was 92.
Flip Wilson, born Clerow Wilson Jr., was an actor and comedian who shined during various TV performances in the ’60s and ‘70s. Originally from New Jersey, Wilson got his start in comedy touring on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” This was the name given to a number of nightclubs frequented primarily by black audiences and black entertainers. Eventually he was able to parlay that success into being a regular performer at the legendary Apollo Theater in NYC. His big break came in a slightly unexpected way, however. While on the Tonight Show, legendary comic Redd Foxx was asked by Johnny Carson to name the current funniest comic. Foxx said it was Flip Wilson, and Carson immediately booked Wilson to perform on the show. He became a regular performer on Carson’s show, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show.
After appearing in a number of shows as a guest performer, such as Here’s Lucy and Laugh-in, Wilson was eventually given his own variety show. It was called The Flip Wilson Show, and it not only made Wilson a household name, but it garnered him accolades like a Golden Globe and two Emmy’s. Perhaps most importantly, it cemented Wilson’s name in the history books, as he was the first African American to act as host for a successful variety show on TV. It was so momentous, Time Magazine not only had Wilson grace the cover, but they referred to him as “TV’s first black superstar”. He continued performing comedy, even releasing several comedy albums. His album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress garnered him a Grammy Award. He was a regular performer through the ‘70s, ‘80’s and ‘90s. He made many TV appearance, and starred in now cult classic movies like The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and Uptown Saturday Night. Sadly, he died in 1998 from cancer.
These comedians were all incredibly talented and successful. And in their heyday, they were all famous enough to be household names. But sometimes even big names get lost in the shuffle of history. That’s why it’s important to remember the contributions they made to the world of comedy, TV, films, and more. And of course there are the important social aspects such as the pioneering work of Flip Wilson as an early face in the world of successful black comedians. Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you familiar with any of these comedians from the 1960’s? Do you think you’d find their stand up or sketch comedy funny today, or does comedy change too much over time for that? Let us know in the comments section below!