How Jean Carroll Changed the World of Stand-Up
Legendary comedian Jean Carroll (née Celine Zeigman) passed away on New Year’s Day at the age of 98. A pioneering stand up comedian, Jean Carroll was a regular headliner in nightclubs and theaters in the ’40s and ’50s. She was featured on the Ed Sullivan Show, and she even had her own sitcom on ABC in the 1953-1954 season.
Jean Carroll began her career as a vaudeville performer, but is best known for her achievements as one of the first female performers to do stand up. During this period, nightclubs were not considered “fit” places for “ladies” to inhabit. Female comics usually performed in couple acts with a man alongside them. Jean Carroll originally performed as part of a duo with her husband, Buddy Howe. When Howe was drafted into the Army during the Second World War, Jean Carroll began her solo act. When Howe returned, even he could see that she was better on her own. Rather than rejoin his wife on stage, he became her agent.
Much like Sophie Tucker, Jean Carroll’s routine’s were risqué by the standards of her time. She made jokes about shopping, raising children, and her husband. As the New York Times wrote, “Genteel by today’s standards, Ms. Carroll’s humor was radical in its day — radical, that is, in the hands of a lone woman with a microphone in front of her and an audience at her command. For a female comic to wield that sort of power was unheard of then, especially in the smoke-filled universe of nightclubs.”
Leah Berkenwald is the online communications specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and a contributor to its Jewesses With Attitude blog, which cross-posts weekly with the Sisterhood.