Sometimes, a casual reference in a play can cause you to lose an hour of your life on YouTube. I spent at least that long the other day on the website checking out videos of the comedienne Totie Fields. This performer, who was born on May 7, 1930 and died on August 2, 1978, is mentioned in Other Desert Cities by Silda Grauman. Silda mentions the rotund comedienne's most famous one-liner; it has to do with dieting and I'm not about to spell it out and spoil it here. Let's just say that you'll get the drift if you realize that Fields once published a book called "I Think I'll Start On Monday: The Official 8 1/2 oz. Mashed Potato Diet."
In our snarky century, Fields' one-liners feel almost like starry residue from a pre-Jon Stewart-and-Ricky-Gervais universe. "Shirley Temple had charisma as a child. But it cleared up as an adult." And: "Raquel Welch - a moron with less on." If these quips elicit only a mild "ba-dum-pum" drum roll in the rhythmic recesses of your brain, let me assure you that Fields can indeed set the attic afire when she's heated up. She can fire off one-liners that have the crack and ricochet of a rifle shot, though you won't feel their impact much by watching her on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1960s. Sullivan gave Fields her big break, launching the career toward more lucrative gigs in Vegas and regular appearances on the 1970s carousel of chat-show sofas of TV hosts like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. A perfect example: a YouTube clip of Fields on Sullivan doing "Talking About Women As A Sex Symbol." Not exactly edgy but the audience is amused.
I prefer the Fields of the roast: you know, those skewer-the-celebrity events that are tailor-made for insult comics like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers. In her appearance on a roast of Lucille Ball, Fields essentially lines up every old-school star on the dais - Dean Martin, Phyllis Diller - and mows them down without registering the slightest recoil.
With a tongue so acid, there was, inevitably, some burn. Fields had nonstop health problems during the last two years of her life: breast cancer, two heart attacks, and, as Silda says in Other Desert Cities, a leg lopped off "from the diabetes." But the suffering was just more grift for the comedy. In the 1977 HBO special series "Standing Room Only," Fields began her show seated in a wheelchair. As the audience welcomed her, she stood up and announced: "I've waited all my life to say this...I weigh less than Elizabeth Taylor!"
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com