Funny girl: A provocative ranking of pioneering female comedians
With so many modern female comedians coming into the industry or continuing their bold reign of comedy within it, it’s easy to forget some of the trailblazing women who helped clear the path for them. Last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Tina Fey (30 Rock) celebrated the life and influence of groundbreaking Saturday Night Live original cast member Gilda Radner while introducing the documentary, Love, Gilda.
“We talk a lot right now about visibility and representation in movies and TV; I can personally attest — and I feel comfortable speaking for Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch when I say that seeing Gilda as a kid — she was so lovely, but she was also so authentically herself and so regular in so many ways.
She was not a piece of casting, she was who she was on the TV and we all saw that and said, ‘I want to do that and it’s possible because I see her doing that.’ It was an early example, for me, about how important representation is, for everyone in every walk of life.
Radner became a breakout comedy star in 1975 with her relentlessly hilarious performances on the long running sketch show, but sadly died of ovarian cancer at the young age of 43 just fourteen years after starting the show. However, as Fey suggested, her influence remains as important as ever. We ranked ten other pioneering female comedians who have continued to leave their mark within the industry.
10. Wanda Sykes (1964 – )
After a successful standup career gave her a writing job on The Chris Rock Show in the late 90s, Sykes has continued to soar as one of the most successful openly gay female comedians in the industry. Since then, Sykes has appeared in comedies including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Pootie Tang, and Will & Grace and is still churning out critically acclaimed standup sets.
9. Phyllis Diller (1917 – 2012)
One of the most prolific comedic talents of her time, Diller (Eight on the Lam) is also one of the most influential. The raunchy comedian boasted an old-school style (befitting for someone who was discovered on Groucho Marx’s game show) and was renowned for her savage self-deprecation and OTT stage costumes.
8. Fanny Brice (1891 – 1951)
After starting her career as a burlesque dancer, Brice (The Great Ziegfeld) went on to become such an influential comedian that a Broadway musical called Funny Girl was made about her and she’s still celebrated as being America’s first female comedy superstar.
7. Carol Burnett (1933 – )
With The Carol Burnett Show, the comedian defied TV execs who cautioned her that such variety shows are really a “man’s game” and not for her. The show became a roaring hit, proving the multi-talented star and women everywhere by extension most definitely had a place in comedy.
6. Moms Mabley (1894 – 1975)
Celebrated for being the world’s first female standup, Loretta Mary Aiken’s (Boarding House Blues) dirty old woman alterego gave her the freedom to explore otherwise inappropriate topics for the time like sex and racism.
5. Ellen DeGeneres (1958 – )
DeGeneres is now better known for hanging out with celebrities on her daytime talk show, but prior to that she was wowing audiences with her understated standup sets and breaking new ground with her own titular sitcom. DeGeneres also made history in 1997 when she and her character both came out publicly as gay.
4. Mary Tyler Moore (1936 – 2017)
Moore helped to usher in a new era of comedy when she led sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore show in the 70s. The show depicted the life of a single, working woman in her 30s trying to make sense of the everyday nonsense of existence and has undoubtedly continued to influence a set of modern female-set comedies ever since.
3. Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989)
The former B-movie queen rose to stardom in the seminal family sitcom I Love Lucy, which gave the comedian and actor the chance to explore such groundbreaking and rarely seen issues (for the time) as women in the workplace and pregnancy. Ball pushed boundaries in comedy but she also became the first woman to head a major television production company. You could say Ball was quite the baller.
2. Joan Rivers (1933 – 2014)
Smart, quick, and salty as hell, Rivers (Spaceballs) proved to the world comedians could still be raunchy and hilarious while maintaining their femininity. The legendary comedian was revered for her unapologetically caustic and candid take on the world where no topic was ever out of bounds to be joked about.
1. Whoopi Goldberg (1955 – )
Breaking numerous grounds, the actor, comedian, and talk show host has proved herself to be a trailblazer throughout her eclectic career. Goldberg (Ghost) became the second African-American woman to win an Oscar in 1991 and continues to use her platform and comedic prowess to spotlight issues concerning race, gender, and class.