Obits

Missing Bea Arthur

Missing Bea Arthur: Bea Arthur's line reading in this short clip demonstrates just how fantastic she was with a good, or even an average, joke. This is a pretty good punchline, but she makes it sing.

The death of Bea Arthur on Saturday broke my sitcom-watcher's heart, and also got me thinking about this fact: The Golden Girls ran from 1985 to 1992; Designing Women ran from 1986 to 1993; Murphy Brown ran from 1988 to 1998. That means that from 1988 to 1992, all three of these shows were on at the same time.

Ninety minutes of prime time given over to comedy driven by a total of nine mouthy women (that's a compliment), six of whom were over 40. (All the Girls, Candice Bergen, and Dixie Carter.)

How things have changed, after the jump...

There is very little like this now. Even good comedies centered on women — 30 Rock and Samantha Who?, to name two — often revolve around conventionally pretty, under-40 women who play more of the bumbling side of comedy than the road-tested, world-weary side. There's nothing wrong with bumbling; those are both good shows.

But I miss it so much, this critical mass of women who were sharp-tongued and funny, who didn't suffer fools gladly and had many years of experience to back them up.

Comedy has a difficult time finding spaces for women to be funny, which isn't surprising, given that there are people who will still openly declare that women are, as a matter of nature, not capable of it.

During the family sitcom boom of the 1990s, which brought Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The King Of Queens into our lives, plenty of women were fully adult and presented as very smart (not to mention played by skilled actresses), but they were forced into killjoy positions, often given the task of adjusting the behavior of the men they had married.

For the most part, the women in the Girls-led boomlet did not exist in the world relative to husbands or boyfriends. Murphy Brown existed relative to her job, and the women in the two larger ensembles existed relative to each other. Those were their most important relationships, and that's where most of the comedy came from.

Note that The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown were all created or co-created by women: Susan Harris, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, and Diane English, respectively.

More recent shows headed by female characters have been more likely to be created by men, including Darren Star of Sex And The City and Marc Cherry of Desperate Housewives. We do have The New Adventures Of Old Christine, helmed by creator and showrunner Kari Lizer (who previously worked on Will & Grace) and starring the extremely talented and funny Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And that's actually a pretty good show. But even right there in the title, Christine is defined not even by her relationship to her husband, but by her relationship to her former husband and, of course, by the elbow-elbow suggestion that she's yesterday's news.

It's not that you can't have great shows about women created by men, because you absolutely can. And it's not that you can't have great shows about young women or great shows about shy women or great shows about insecure women or great shows about women who are primarily identified by their marriages (or former marriages). It's not even that the shows that exist now are bad. There's nothing wrong with any of it, in and of itself.

But I dearly miss the days when you could count nine women in prime time with marquee roles in comedies, none of whom had highly visible husbands or boyfriends and none of whom relied on insecurity as their go-to comedy weapon.

I miss broads, I guess, in the best sense. Love Tina Fey, love Amy Poehler, love Christina Applegate and Portia de Rossi and Vanessa Williams and a lot of other fantastic women working in comedy. But today, I very much miss Bea Arthur.

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