15 Women Who Changed the Face of Comedy
by Rachel Weeks
On stage, on screen, in your Facebook feed, it seems like wherever we turn these days, there’s a new and hilarious woman, and we LOVE it. But women weren’t always welcome in the comedy world. Here are 15 female comedic actors, writers, and stand-up comics that blazed the trail for our favorite women in comedy today.
Fanny Brice (1891-1951)
“America’s first female comedy superstar,” Fanny Brice paved the way for funny girls in every generation. In fact, she was so prolific, they created a Broadway production about her called—you guessed it—Funny Girl. After starting her career as a burlesque dancer, Brice was discovered by producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and was skyrocketed into fame as a comedic actress on stage, in film, and later on her own radio comedy series The Baby Snooks Show.
Moms Mabley (1894-1975)
Credited as the first female stand-up comedian, Moms Mabley is the female comedy pioneer. Born Loretta Mary Aiken, Mabley adopted the dirty, old woman character to give herself more freedom on stage. The persona allowed her to explore topics that might be deemed inappropriate for a female comedian at the time, like racism and sexual innuendo.
Lucille Ball (1911-1989)
You know her; you love her; and so did everyone else. Once the “Queen of the B Movies,” Lucille Ball rose to stardom after playing the lead in comedy radio program My Favorite Husband. The monumental family sitcom I Love Lucy burst onto the scene soon after. The show tackled issues that had never been addressed on television before, including pregnancy, women in the workforce, and interracial marriage.
Beyond her comedic prowess, Ball went on to become the first woman to head a major television production company. She and her husband Desi Arnaz co-founded Desilu which backed iconic shows like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek.
Phyllis Diller (1917-2012)
When she was discovered as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, no one knew that Phyllis Diller would become one of the most prolific comedic performers of her time. Recognized for her overdone makeup, costumes, and outrageous cackle, Diller played the character of a hapless housewife. She was relentlessly self-deprecating and undeniably old-school, but was the only female stand-up of her age to rise to stardom in the ’50s and ’60s. “I became the genre,” she said in later years.
Mitzi Shore (1930-Present)
While Mitzi Shore wasn’t a performer herself, she helped define comedy as much as any comedian in her day. Founder and owner of the famed Los Angeles Comedy Store, Shore shaped the careers of many now-famous comedians, including Robin Williams, Marc Maron, Chevy Chase, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and many more. Shore was also one of the most progressive bookers in the business. As early as 1978, Shore dedicated a whole floor of her club to booking just female comedians.
Joan Rivers (1933-2014)
Joan Rivers started her career in the late ’50s, when the idea of a brazen female comic was unheard of and blew the stand-up world wide open. She spoke candidly and critically about anything and everything—gender norms, her sex life, politics, her body—and she did it with style. It didn’t take long before she was a regular on late night TV and even hosted her own program, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, for a short time. Rivers was feminine and smart and fearless and funny, and she gave other women permission to be so, as well.
Carol Burnett (1933-Present)
Before Carol Burnett took television by storm with The Carol Burnett Show, CBS tried to talk her out of it. “You know, Carol, variety is a man’s game,” they told her. A few years later, her variety show was the ratings darling of the network and Burnett was well on her way to being a comedy icon. Always the biggest character in the room, Burnett was unflinchingly funny, whether that meant belting out a silly ballad or hurling herself across a stage.
Marilyn Suzanne Miller (1950-Present), Anne Beatts (1947-Present), and Rosie Shuster (1950-Present)
While you may not recognize any of these women by name, you certainly know their work. Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Anne Beatts, and Rosie Shuster were the only three female writers on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Like all the writers at that time, Miller, Beatts, and Shuster helped shape the late night fixture into what it would become.
Gilda Radner (1946-1989)
While Gilda Radner wasn’t the only female cast member on the first season of SNL, she was the most prolific. Radner created iconic characters like life coach Roseanne Roseannadanna, a Barbara Walters’ parody called “Baba Wawa,” and hearing-impaired Weekend Update guest Emily Litella. She was the first in a long line of female SNL comedy stars to steal the show including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and so, so many more.
Whoopi Goldberg (1955-Present)
An iconic actress, a groundbreaking comedian, and a long-time talk show host, Whoopi Goldberg can do—and has done—it all. In the ’70s, she won an award for her portrayal of the first African-American stand-up comic, Moms Mabley. In the ’80s, she won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, based on her popular one-woman show The Spook Show. And in the ’90s, she became the second Black woman to win an Oscar. Talented in almost every way, Goldberg tackled and continues to tackle the issues of race and class in ways that are both deeply biting and perfectly funny.
Ellen DeGeneres (1958-Present)
Today, we know Ellen DeGeneres best from her award-winning talk show, but DeGeneres had an enviable comedy career long before The Ellen DeGeneres Show started in 2003. In fact, in 1997, she made history when both she and her character on the sitcom Ellen came out as gay. And before that DeGeneres was hitting it big as a stand-up comedian with her own style of clean, understated comedy. She even has the distinction of being the first woman invited to the couch on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Samantha Bee (1969-Present)
Samantha Bee isn’t the first woman to host a late night show, but she’s the only one out there today. After capturing our minds and hearts as the “most senior correspondent” on The Daily Show, Bee is finally getting her own spotlight on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and she is crushing it. While we certainly felt the loss of Jon Stewart this election season, Bee has been ample replacement for the poli-comedy legend.
Mindy Kaling (1979-Present)
At only 36, Mindy Kaling has already done it all. At 24—straight out of college at Dartmouth—Kaling became the only woman on the writing staff of The Office. At 32, she became the first Indian-American actress to star in her own show, Emmy-nominated The Mindy Project. She’s written three books. She’s provided the voice for two beloved animated characters. And she’s a shining example for writer/actresses who stepped up to create the character they wanted to play.