“Comedy Cuts”: Night Flight remembers pioneering comedian Adrianne Tolsch

By on January 5, 2017

Adrianne Tolsch, who succumbed to esophageal cancer on December 7, 2016, was a frequent presence on the “Comedy Cuts” segments of “Night Flight.” Many viewers laughing at home may have not been aware of the strides she made for female comedians that followed in her path.

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Our Night Flight Plus channel currently has two episodes of “Comedy Cuts” featuring rare footage of prime Tolsch performances.

On our December 18, 1987, broadcast, she discusses the hazards of living alone and her delight in younger men.

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And in an October 10, 1986 broadcast of “Comedy Cuts,” Tolsch muses on how men would brag about dealing with female health issues.

This episode also contains performances by Wayne Federman and the black sketch troupe Mary Wong, which featured future Chris Rock collaborator and Pootie Tang star Lance Crouther.

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As stand-up comedy morphed from being a simple joke-delivery process into a personality-driven art form in the ‘70s, it was progressing in terms of the subject matter being addressed on stage, but it was still slow to embrace the notion of women discussing such subjects.

The climate was described by Rick Newman, the founder of one of those influential comedy clubs, Catch a Rising Star, in Phil Berger’s The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics:

“Back in the mid-1970s when we first started seeing young female comics, a lot of agents and managers who came into the club, and even [television] network people, couldn’t accept them. In fact, sometimes I’d put on a female singer between comedians just to balance the show. And she would do humorous patter between her songs – it’s infectious, I guess, when you work in a comedy club. Well, some of these old-school managers and producers – the typical cigar-smoking characters – would holler from the audience rudely: ‘Just sing!’ Like that. And that was the kind of attitude there was – just no acceptance of a female doing comedy.”

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This was the territory that Adrianne Tolsch ventured into and earned a place.

She described it in a 1981 New York Times article this way: “It’s a lot like being in a locker room – you have to fight harder to be accepted.”

As a youth, her father had smuggled her into Lenny Bruce performances, whetting her interest in comedy.

Much like the late Phil Hartman, she had studied graphic arts, and had been working drawing renderings and designing rock album covers, before making a career change to stand-up and improv comedy.

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1970 Tommy James solo record, cover art by Tolsch

Tolsch’s first stamp on history came in an unassuming fashion. According to the book Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin, frequent Catch emcee Kelly Rogers asked her to fill in for him one night at the club, so that he could work another show.

While owner Newman initially reprimanded him for not clearing the switch in advance, Tolsch’s positive reception led to her becoming the first regular female emcee at the club.

Tolsch soon became a manager and booker for Catch, and used the position to elevate other women performers.

She would frequently hold Sunday afternoon conclaves for them at her apartment, telling the Times, “There are so few of us that we need to get together. The camaraderie is essential and we are so all over the lot that we don’t get to talk together all that much.”

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By the ‘80s, women expanded their presence in stand-up from a 1-to-100 to a 1-to-10 ratio, but there was still market resistance to overcome.

In a New York Times review of Yael Kohen’s We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, critic Julia M. Klein wrote:

“In the early 1980s, while I was reporting a story on female stand-ups for Ms. magazine, [Adrianne] agreed to arrange a special night of women comics at [Catch]. There was one caveat: She told me that she would be obliged to intersperse a male act between each two women. The clear implication was that no audience could be expected to tolerate a women-only night. Even so, the occasion was a rare enough feminist landmark that virtually the entire editorial staff of Ms., including Gloria Steinem, turned up for the show.”

Her reputation grew as she toured with headliners and opened for major pop stars, and drew worldwide respect.

In 1984, UK newspaper The Guardian cited her with Sandra Bernhard as an important female comic.

When stand-up became a lucrative industry in 1989, another New York Times article featured her insights.

And in 1991, when comedian and cartoonist Russel Harvey shot a pilot for a proposed comedy panel show called “But Seriously Folks,” she was recruited with Mark Cohen, Mike Ivy, and a young Sarah Silverman, to offer her opinions.

Harvey has maintained that talent manager Brad Grey, who had represented him at the time of production, plagiarized this concept in the creation of “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher. In one of those you-gotta-laugh convergences, Maher had been a house emcee at Catch during Tolsch’s tenure.

Furthermore, Maher’s successor at the club, Bill Scheft, was an early contributor to “Politically Incorrect” — the two conducted a weekly segment on the program called “Cleaning Out the Notebooks” — and married Tolsch in 1990.

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Bill Scheft and Adrianne Tolsch

Scheft often joked about how in his early stand-up days, before their relationship began, he had to audition for her six times before she allowed him to perform at Catch.

In turn, Tolsch frequently made jokes about her two previous marriages and finding suitable partners. Their union lasted 26 years.

Scheft told the Hollywood Reporter, “I could never get enough of people being jealous of our marriage.”

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Tolsch always took a mordantly modest view on her accolades.

In Merrill Markoe’s book Cool, Calm, and Contentious: Essays, in the chapter “In Praise of Crazy Mommies,” she described being humbled by her family:

“I called Mom, dizzyingly excited and proud. ‘Mom, Newsweek magazine called me one of the new queens of comedy!’ I said. ‘A two page spread, with a picture and everything!’, and Mom said, ‘You don’t say hello? You don’t say how are you? And we don’t get that magazine here.’ She lived in Los Angeles.”

In the ’90s, as stand-up saw another changing of sensibilities, she transitioned into creating one-woman shows for stage and cabarets, resuming her pre-comedy craft of painting and sculpture, hosting a radio program, and film production.

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She and Scheft are producers on the just-completed documentary Take My Nose, Please: Women, Comedy, and Plastic Surgery.

A new solo show, Tolschinsky, had been planned for 2017.

Night Flight offers our condolences, and our laughs, to the Tolsch and Scheft families, and the greater comedy community, which she helped to expand and diversify. We are glad to help keep her memory and jokes alive on Night Flight Plus for future generations to enjoy.

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About Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck is a writer and cultural historian best known as the Movie Geek from Comedy Central's "Beat the Geeks." He was an associate producer and researcher for Robert Rodriguez' "The Director's Chair" interview series on the El Rey network. He created the eclectic blog The Projector Has Been Drinking, and his screening series Cinema Tremens revived many rarely-exhibited films, featuring interviews with their creators and champions. He has recorded more than ten DVD commentary tracks, and has been a memorable guest on many podcasts. He cites discovering "Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains" on "Night Flight" as one of the significant milestones of his cultural evolution.