How did Julia Louis-Dreyfus come to reign over such a crowded TV landscape? Funny you should ask.
Earlier this year marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Lucille Ball, the greatest comedic actor in the history of television. And as that lofty title is rightfully passed to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it seems like a perfect time to tell you why. There’s a reason that even now, after literally decades and decades have passed, we all still love Lucy for the simple reason that there was no one like her then and there is no one like her now. Oh, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus is close. Oh. So. Close.
I had to work late that particular Thursday—the magazine I edited was on a tight deadline—so I invited two co-workers to my apartment to share Chinese take out and watch the latest episode of my favorite show, Seinfeld. On this night, October 10, 1996, in the middle of witnessing Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes “dance” at her company party, was the first and only time I’ve ever feared for my life. As I bit down on a steamed dumpling, Elaine’s dance moves filled my TV screen and my co-workers and I erupted in howling laughter at the humiliating, indescribable spectacle of what Elaine was doing (later in the episode George told Jerry that watching Elaine dance was “a full body dry heave set to music” and he was right). But as I was screaming at the hilarity of the moment, the feisty dumpling decided to lodge itself in my throat. And then panic set in. If it wasn’t for my friend’s sharp back slap and my subsequent dislodging of the rogue delicacy, I may not be here now to write about Louis-Dreyfus’ funniest moment.
Indisputably, Elaine’s dance became instantly as iconic and memorable as any TV comedy moment in history. I would go as far as saying not since Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory and Lucy’s “Vitameatavegamin” has there been a funnier moment by a female actor in a situation comedy on American television. It was an outrageously uproariously impossibly funny scene taken to epic heights by the masterful comedic chops Julia Louis-Dreyfus possesses. It was that good.
To get to the bottom of Louis-Dreyfus’ appeal, one has to examine the facts: She’s irrefutably beautiful, but is no girlie-girl and prefers the company of men who better appreciate her bawdy, take-no-prisoners outlook on life. Though she was born in New York City, the actress taps into an easy accessibility that makes her a relatable “everywoman” and not the daughter of a billionaire that she actually is. Her acting is unbelievably good; it’s as if Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur forged their best qualities as comedy titans and bequeathed them to Louis-Dreyfus. We root for Louis-Dreyfus much as we always did for Tyler Moore, and we laugh out loud at the razor sharp, impeccable comedic timing Louis-Dreyfus shares with Arthur. We know Louis-Dreyfus would’ve been buddies with Mary in Minneapolis and she would’ve been BFFs with both Maude and Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls. Combining the best of Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur makes for quite an explosively hilarious cocktail that Louis-Dreyfus embodies like no other.
Still not convinced? Let’s talk Emmy Awards, shall we?
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been nominated a ridiculous 15 times for Emmys for acting in comedies (winning five times) making history in two ways: Her latest nomination broke the all-time record previously held by—say it with me—Lucille Ball; and by winning her five Emmys for three different series—Seinfeld, The New Adventures Of Old Christine, Veep—Louis-Dreyfus becomes the first actress in history to ever accomplish that. The dozens of other accolades for her acting notwithstanding, these unprecedented Emmy records are a very big deal by anyone’s standards.
In her latest turn as Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO’s hit Veep—a show co-created by Armando Iannucci and the brilliant New York magazine writer, Frank Rich—Louis-Dreyfus is in full flight portraying the overtly ambitious, not quite wise, but scary smart VP. The show’s ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and Louis-Dreyfus has achieved a gravitas in this role that I’ve never seen in her previous performances. She is Selina Meyer. And she is running for President. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus has never been better.
Looking back on a celebrated career filled with so many highs including her three-year stint at Saturday Night Live as the youngest female cast member and, more recently, her jaw-droppingly funny rift as Lisa Kudrow’s sister on Showtime’s Web Therapy, has proven time and again Louis-Dreyfus paired with great writing and capable actors around her are the ingredients for comedic gold.
As we pay rapt attention to where this superlative actress takes us next, let’s reflect for a moment and do something so many of us never actually do: Let’s pay homage to a once in a generation supernova talent at the height of her career.
By watching Veep on Sundays or Seinfeld re-runs, you honor the remarkable work of our greatest television comedic actress. Louis-Dreyfus is the rightful successor to the title of “queen of television comedy” that for decades Lucille Ball laid claim to without competition. A quarter century after Lucy’s death, it is now appropriate to honor her successor. And, in case you’re wondering, I still never watch anything Louis-Dreyfus is in while eating. Almost dying of laughter is something I’d rather not experience again.
Bottom line: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is America’s new queen of television comedy. Has a smarter and sexier reigning monarch ever made us laugh so damn much?