Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Perhaps no one since Imogene Coca has done face comedy as well as Maya Rudolph. It is fair to say – and meant as a compliment – that Rudolph has a funny face.
Rudolph, who is launching a new variety show with Martin Short, has a pliable face that can as easily portray Barbra Streisand, Lucy Liu and Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president facing impeachment.
One critic called Coca’s comic face “rubbery.”
There are many funny female comediennes. But few use their face as their punchline. Lucille Ball made many faces, but she was best known for her physical humor. (who can forget Lucy stomping grapes in a vat after she is chosen for a part in an Italian film called Bitter Grapes.) Carol Burnett followed in Ball’s funny footsteps.
Rachel Dratch gave us Debbie Downer, but she is a one-face pony. Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine featured puckered lips, but most of her other characters made us smile because of what they said and how they acted.
Coca and Rudolph are different.
Life magazine described Coca’s characters as people suspended between dignity and absurdity. Rudolph’s cast of characters is incredible – ranging from Condelezza Rice and Michelle Obama to Tina Turner and Beyoncé, with Paris Hilton and Scott Joplin thrown in for good measure.
Coca was a perfect match for Sid Caesar, also a gifted facial comic. Coca learned her craft on vaudeville stages as an acrobat and wannabe dancer. Caesar wanted to pursue a musical career until his comedy sketches between music sets drew louder applause than his melodies. He avoided broad comedy and instead used accents and facial contortions to get laughs.
Together, Coca and Caesar were irresistible on Your Show of Shows. You couldn’t stop looking and laughing at their faces, which were freeze frames from Vaudeville. Their original show was an enormous hit, so much so that its sponsor canceled the show because it couldn’t keep up with the demand for new TV sets.
Rudolph came to national attention on Saturday Night Live, gaining fame as Beyoncé in sketches parodying Prince, portrayed by a silent, smirking Fred Armisen. Rudolph and Armisen also teamed up as vague Scandinavians with “unplaceable accents and bewilderingly foreign manners.” You couldn’t look away for an instant or risk missing a hilarious “look.”
As someone who unabashedly practiced “making faces” in front of the bathroom mirror as a kid, I have a special fondness for face comics. Their humor isn’t necessarily more subtle than slapstick comics, but it seems more intellectual. Face comics don’t trip over barrels or set houses on fire. They force you to laugh with a twitch. That’s the kind of comic I wanted to be.
Alas, my face is more plastic than elastic. It also isn’t very expressive or unusual. Coca’s father, who was a violinist and a vaudevillian, was of Spanish descent. Her mother was a dancer and magician’s assistant. Rudolph’s mother was African-American soul singer Minnie Riperton and her father, who also had a musical background, was Jewish. The combinations produced women who were “lookers” with remarkable faces who would never appear on the front page of a fashion magazine.
Coca’s first break came on Broadway in New Faces of 1934 where she played a striptease artist who “made sultry gestures and faces,” but only ever managed to remove one glove.
Rudolph, who grew up in Los Angeles, took her college degree in photography and started her career as a backup singer and keyboardist with a band called The Rentals. She performed songs like “Together in Pooping” along with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Coca enjoyed a long career that lasted into her 80s. She was nominated for a Tony Award at the age of 70 for portraying a religious zealot who stuck decals everywhere.
Rudolph is 43 and appears to have a long career ahead of her. If her face lets her down, she always can return to music.
Coca died at age 92 in 2001. She was given the Lucy Award in 1995 and was cited as a major influence by comediennes Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.
Coca had a face that is hard to forget. Lucky for us, Rudolph has a face like that, too.