Creators and Their Characters: Broadcast Domestication
Gertrude Berg, Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler all starred in programs that they had some part in creating, but the distinction between these creators and the characters they played is complex. Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball played slightly lesser versions of themselves, using their own names and playing opposite their off-screen husbands. Tina Fey, too, created a character very similar to herself, but with a different name and about ten years less experience. Gertrude Berg, Mary Tyler Moore, and Amy Poehler, however, portrayed characters who were stand-ins for women of their time: the stay-at-home immigrant mother, the newly independent woman, and the working woman, respectively. This chapter examines the relationship between comic actresses, the characters they play, and the reality of their lives as cultural producers. Though working decades apart, these women faced several of the same career challenges and ultimately created and portrayed similarly flawed characters.
Berg, Allen, Ball, Moore, Fey, and Poehler are female comedy icons who have been extraordinarily successful in their careers. These business-savvy women, however, created and portrayed characters that were much more traditional than – and enjoyed far fewer privileges and career opportunities than – the comediennes themselves. The reality is, of course, much more complex than the seeming simplicity of the devalued, fictionalized characters these women have created and portrayed. Indeed, Moore and Poehler play much more liberated and feminist women than these other actresses; however, they were only distantly present in the creation of their characters. Ultimately, comediennes that created their own characters usually portrayed relatively dependent, unsuccessful women, while male-created sitcom characters were more independent and feminist than their female-created counterparts.