Late Night Last Century: Totie Fields Roasts Lucille Ball

Comedy Features late night
Late Night Last Century: Totie Fields Roasts Lucille Ball

Late Night Last Century is a new weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable comedy from late night, talk shows, and variety shows of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week we look at a clip of the great comedian Totie Fields roasting another legend, Lucille Ball. 

Few comics could command a stage like Totie Fields. While not a household name to most today, Fields was a fixture on television screens in the 1960s and 1970s, including more than two dozen appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. She was just as comfortable singing show tunes as she was delivering devastating one-liners: “Shirley Temple had charisma as a child. But it cleared up as an adult.”

Like many female comics of the period (Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, among others), Fields layered her humor in self-deprecation. Jokes about her height and weight became a key facet of her act. TV Guide called Fields “America’s favorite size 44.” Fields has often been erased from histories of the period, a trend that feminist media scholars in recent years have sought to buck, noting the subversive nature of her work. 

Fields, who had diabetes, had her left leg amputated above the knee after an unsuccessful surgery in 1976. She continued to perform on stage in a wheelchair, including for the 1977 special “Totie Returns,” part of HBO’s Standing Room Only series. Fields died the following year at the age of forty-eight. Many comics have cited her as an influence, including Rosie O’Donnell, who, in the 1990s, nearly starred in a biopic of Fields

In 1973, as the ratings dipped on the once-hugely successful The Dean Martin Show, the producers at NBC decided to pivot into a new medium. The following year, Bob Hope became the first guest of honor on the retooled show, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. Each 10:00 p.m. special featured a unique dais packed with stars of classical  and contemporary Hollywood. The Ziegfeld Room at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas often played host to the affair.

On February 7, 1975, a group of stars gathered to pay tribute to the “Woman of the Hour,” Lucille Ball. The dais included Hope, Diller, Henry Fonda, Vivian Vance, and Jack Benny in one of his final public appearances. Fields was there too, seated between comedy greats Nipsey Russell and Don Rickles. From the moment she takes the stage, Fields turns to Martin and delivers the best opening line of the roast. In Totie Fields’s presence, no one is safe. You can watch a clip below, and the full roast here.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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