Funniest Women Onscreen

From Lucille Ball to Lena Dunham, these comic stars have outwitted the competition

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Melissa McCarthy

Audiences can’t stop laughing at Melissa McCarthy in Identify Thief (and we can’t wait until her summer movie with Sandra Bullock, Heat). But this brilliant comedian is just the latest in a line of wacky women who are more than a match for their boisterous brethren.

 

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Lucille Ball

The gold standard for funny women, Ball began as a dramatic actress: She was even on the short list to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Once her comedic talents were unleashed, she ruled TV for two decades and (less successfully) made some film comedies (The Long, Long Trailer; Yours, Mine and Ours). Ball’s work is so timeless that kids today still explode in laughter at such I Love Lucy episodes as her grape-stomping attempt to make wine with sidekick Ethel.

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Tina Fey

Her gift for mimicry made Fey out-Palin the 2008 veep candidate during the comic’s  memorable turn on Saturday Night Live. Add to that her film roles (Date Night, Baby Mama); creating and costarring in 30 Rock; writing the bestseller Bossypants; and co-hosting (with her funny friend, Amy Poehler) the 2013 Golden Globes. 

 

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Carol Burnett

The host of the last great variety hour, The Carol Burnett Show, starred in sketches that parodied Gone With the Wind and As The World Turns and created an uproariously dysfunctional Mama’s Family and her trademark “cleaning lady.” Relying on her vocal as well as comedic skills, she also starred as Miss Hannigan in the 1982 film Annie.

 

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Roseanne Barr

One of the funniest standup comics ever, Barr broke TV barriers with Roseanne, a sitcom noted for its realism as well as sharp humor (“Why, it’s only second best for our family!”).

 

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Ellen DeGeneres

Now applying her quick wit on her daily talk show, DeGeneres propelled her standup persona into two TV series (Ellen and The Ellen Show) and is unmistakable as the voice of Dory in the animated hit, Finding Nemo.

 

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Catherine O’Hara

The comic center of any ensemble cast, SCTV star O’Hara projects a dazed image that perfectly suits her laconic delivery. Our favorite roles: The boozy divorcee she plays in Orange County, her airily dismissive mom in Away We Go, and absolutely anything she films with Christopher Guest.

 

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Jane Lynch

Towering over the party crowd in Julie and Julia, Lynch was comically subdued (and unforgettable) as Childs’ sister. But she made her first big mark in Christopher Guest’s tongue-in-jaw dog competition, Best of Show, and became a comedian to be reckoned with as devious and destructive coach Sue Sylvester in Glee.  Next up: She’ll play ornery orphan handler Miss Hannigan in Broadway’s current production of Annie.
 

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Lily Tomlin

She shot to fame on Laugh-In, the early ‘70s sketch show that featured her classic characters, including precocious five-year-old Edith Ann, nosey phone operator Ernestine and rigid social arbiter The Tasteful Lady. Movies, including Nine to Five, followed, as well as a one-woman Broadway show. Her unique brand of humor inspired many, and Tomlin is still a comic force in such current projects as the feature film Admission and the ABC sitcom Malibu Country.

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Jennifer Aniston & Lisa Kudrow

Aniston, the most beloved of that sextet of TV Friends, has long been underestimated for her comic skill. One problem: a parade of forgettable big box office films. Consider instead her amusing turns in such independent features as Office Space and Friends with Money. As for fellow Friend Kudrow—suffice it to say her Hollywood peers consider her the funniest among them (check out the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and her ingenious TV series, Web Therapy).

 

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Zooey Deschanel

When Fox’s The New Girl became a runaway hit, we didn’t have to search for a reason: blue-eyed cutie Deschanel.  As Jess, the teacher who ends up with an apartment full of male roommates after breaking up with her boyfriend, she is invariably upbeat and cringingly entertaining. Before series success, Deschanel charmed on the big screen in Almost Famous, Failure to Launch and (500) Days of Summer.

 

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Queen Latifah

Stealing scenes from even formidable costars (Steve Martin, Catherine Zeta Jones), the former hip-hop star got big laughs as prison matron Mama in the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Chicago and added dash to the big screen Hairspray.  But we love her best in the slapstick Martin movie, Bringing Down the House.

 

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Christina Applegate

We’ve watched her grow up—from slutty Kelly Bundy on Married…with Children through the movies Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and Anchorman and more TV, including her recent series Up All Night. Applegate is equally adept as comic centerpiece—or straight man.

 

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Mary Tyler Moore

Sputtering with indignation or pointedly sizing up neighbors and colleagues, Moore gets laughs in the most ladylike fashion. As the New Rochelle housewife of The Dick Van Dyke Show, she could match wits with his wisecracking officemates, but the groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show secured her place as a comic icon.

 

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Julie Bowen & Sofia Vergara

Perfect foils, these Modern Family mothers also project their own brands of humor. Bowen can seem all elbows and knees as she engages in rollicking physical comedy; Vergara, like Desi Arnaz before her, plays off the culture divide—with the added lure of South American sizzle.

 

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Whoopi Goldberg

Goldberg pulled out all stops as the body-invaded  Ghost psychic and led a wild crew of nuns through Sister Act. She joined Robin Williams and Billy Crystal for the many HBO Comic Relief fundraisers—and served as one of the more amusing Oscar hosts. Her role as moderator of The View, however, has often been less than funny as she defended accused child rapist Roman Polanski and Sandra Bullock’s philandering tattooed husband. Whoopi! Let’s stick to comedy!

 

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus

She now has three hit series (including HBO’s current Veep) to her credit, but it was Seinfeld that planted Louis-Dreyfus’s flag on the comedy map. As the sole female member of the most unabashedly self-centered group ever to share a coffee shop table, she added quite a bit of something to this “show about nothing.”

 

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Diane Keaton

From the dithering self-deprecation of Annie Hall to the comic confidence of  Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton has grown and blossomed onscreen. Still bankable in her sixties, the star glides through all projects with her trademark smile—and always enviable wardrobe. 

 

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Bette Midler

Tottering on too-high heels, casting doubtful glances and spouting such lines as The First Wives Club’s classic, “I am saying this with love, compassion and true sisterhood. You are full of shit!”—who can top the Divine Miss M?

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Lena Dunham

Not since Phyllis Diller cackled about her breast deficit has an actress made so much of an imperfect body—and Diller never stripped off her clothes to show us. Critics, and the young target audience for her HBO series Girls, can’t get enough of Dunham’s dry wit, deadpan delivery and discomfiting realism.

 

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Next: The Best-Dressed Women on TV

 

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First Published Tue, 2013-02-26 15:22

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