Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale: a tale of how I uncovered a little known Bea Arthur television appearance from 1988! It all started with the photo below.
On a recent afternoon I was looking for Golden Girls and Bea Arthur related items on ebay, as one does, when I happened upon this black and white promotional photo of Bea standing next to a neon sign for the A&E network’s An Evening at the Improv. At first I was pretty excited because, wow—a Bea Arthur stand up routine! With a little bit of sleuthing I found out that she appeared on an episode of the show in 1988 featuring Mack & Jamie, a not that funny comedy duo that I vaguely remembered once I tracked it down. My first stop was YouTube, which has a whole channel dedicated to “America’s longest running comedy television series and the originator of the stand up comedy television genre.” But it only features clips of the stand up comics and not whole episodes. So I had to do a little more poking around.
As it turns out, Bea was the host of the episode which basically means she just introduced the comedians that also included Al Lubel, Paula Poundstone, Steve Sweeney, and Bill Maher. Thankfully, full episodes are available to stream for free on both Amazon Prime Video and Tubi! You can find the episode Bea hosted in Season 3. I recommend watching it on Prime, though, because you can scrub past the unfunny bits if you just want to focus on Bea. And while we don’t get a full stand up routine from Bea, we do get a few bits from her in between their sets.
In her intro Bea mentions that she got her start “back in the era of the Blue Angel and the Reuben Bleu nightclubs in New York when singing comedians were very chichi.” This is a nod to her early days performing off Broadway in shows like the Shoestring Revue, where Norman Lear first discovered her singing “Garbage” in the 1950s. Of course, Lear later cast her as Maude. Bea laments that it wasn’t easy for women to perform as stand up comedians then and that she’d “hoped for more” than just one woman on the show’s bill that night, noting that “we’ve come a long way but not far enough.” After talking about how men have been given punchline priority since Shakespeare’s time, Bea jokes that “someday perhaps we women’ll be able to play men’s roles. Wait, uh, wait just a minute. I think that I might have done that already on Maude.” The 1980s stand up style here and throughout the episode is a little dated today, but Bea’s point about sexism still stands.
You know, I thank heaven that I don’t have to do this kind of thing for a living. On Golden Girls we have wonderful writers who give us marvelous words, and the whole world thinks that we’re the funny ones.
Watching the episode, I doubt that Bea would’ve found most of the comedians all that humorous, but she was incredibly gracious to all of them. The best part is that she’s so genuinely happy to be hosting the show! This is one of the things that I love most about Bea: no matter the occasion, she always just relished the opportunity to perform. And she always gave credit where credit was due, as in the quote above. Yes, she was also quite fond of those earrings, too, and the whole outfit for that matter. You’ll likely recognize both from promotional photos of her from the time.
Bea’s time hosting An Evening at the Improv probably also reminds you of the “Comedy of Errors” episode of The Golden Girls when Dorothy decides to fulfill her dream of doing stand up. She signs up to perform at the Comedy Barrel and—after a bit of a rough start and some heckling from Sophia in the audience—she ends up getting lots of laughs with jokes about hot flashes, dating, and still living with her mother. This episode aired after Bea’s Improv hosting gig, so it seems like an obvious source of inspiration, especially since it also plays with concepts of sexism when Blanche’s IRS auditor ends up being a woman. Finally, thanks to finding the press photo and my additional research, I was able to add this television appearance to Bea’s Wikipedia page. No detail is too small for Dorothy “Show Us Your” Zbornak!