These Female Comedians Changed the World of Comedy

By Michael Kasian
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The comedy scene was once a static, male-dominated industry. Over the last 60 years, each of these funny ladies shook up the entertainment industry in her own unique way. Check out our roundup of groundbreaking women who continue to make the world of comedy fresher and more inclusive than ever before.

Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller didn’t become a stand-up comedian until she was in her late 30s. She was already married with six children, so Diller had a lot of material to work with. When she started performing in front of audiences, she was the only woman on the comedy circuit.

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Her larger-than-life persona on stage paired well with her self-deprecating humor. Diller would routinely wear oversized clothes and outrageous hairstyles to make herself the butt of the joke. Many comedy legends credit her as their inspiration.

Whoopi Goldberg

A young Caryn Elaine Johnson grew up destined for comedy. Even her stage name came from a place of humor. The name "Whoopi" comes from her time as a student at HB Studios in NYC, where people claimed her onstage gas sounded like a whoopee cushion.

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All jokes aside, Whoopi Goldberg is one of the most successful comedians of our time. The EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner has an incredibly prestigious collection of awards for her work in film, TV and theatre.

Joan Rivers

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Joan Rivers always wanted to be a serious, dramatic actress. However, it was hard to deny her talent for making everyone laugh. As a successful pioneer in female stand-up comedy, Rivers was the first woman to host a late-night network talk show.

Rivers is best known for her biting wit, her endless collection of one-liners and her ability to humanize the Hollywood elite. She could say what others were afraid to, which made her a trailblazing voice for generations to come.

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Moms Mabley

Loretta Mary Aiken, aka Jackie "Moms" Mabley, is often credited as the first female stand-up comedian. Her routine as the sassy and outspoken Moms Mabley provided an escape from her troubled upbringing that included losing her parents at a young age.

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By playing the elderly, foul-mouthed grandmother role, Aiken could get away with controversial humor on stage. As a black, gay woman who talked about politics in her act, Aiken broke down all kinds of barriers. Mainstream audiences didn't get to know her until she actually was an older woman, but by that point, she had perfected the role.

Rosie O'Donnell

As the daytime talk show host of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, O’Donnell wore "The Queen of Nice" label like a badge of honor. She made a career out of making people smile, fawning over celebs and volunteering for philanthropic causes.

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At the end of her show’s run, she publicly came out of the closet to advocate for LGBTQ couples to adopt children in Florida, which was illegal at the time. She continues to advocate for gay rights and other social justice causes using her platform as a comedian and writer.

Mo'Nique

Mo’Nique made a name for herself in the stand-up comedy world as a member of the Queens of Comedy and for her role in the UPN series The Parkers. But it was her dramatic turn in Precious that won her global acclaim and an Academy Award.

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In 2007, her stand-up special I Coulda Been Your Cellmate! was filmed outside of a women’s penitentiary. The special humanized the women who were incarcerated and sought to bring love to the often-ignored population.

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Hannah Gadsby

Gadsby’s star rose in 2018 thanks to her 2018 Netflix special Nanette. The anti-comedy special was a gripping exploration of comedy and the importance of storytelling — in particular, how important it is to tell stories that are often left out of conversations.

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In her gripping special, Gadsby confesses to being the victim of abuse by a man for being gay and never reporting it to authorities. By deconstructing the building blocks of jokes through her own stories, Gadsby created a performance that encapsulated the #MeToo movement.

Ali Wong

Being a housewife and raising children were the cornerstones of early female comedians’ sets. Ali Wong took motherhood and relationships to a whole new level. In her unfiltered stand-up specials, Wong describes a mother’s body in explosive fashion.

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A San Francisco native, Wong’s routine challenges gender roles through explicit details about childbirth and the aftermath. In her special, Baby Cobra, Wong performs her filthy routine in her third trimester, a gripping visual that amplifies her rage against the double standards of parenting.

Tig Notaro

In 2012, Notaro performed a legendary set at Largo in Los Angeles. Just four days after receiving a cancer diagnosis in both of her breasts, Notaro took to the stage to share her story with the audience.

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The set was a tremendous success, and its recording received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album in 2014. Her courageous yet deadpan recounting of how she processed her diagnoses made it ok to laugh when death seemed imminent.

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Aparna Nancherla

Nancherla credits antidepressants for providing her the courage to try stand-up comedy. It seems only fitting that her act leans heavily on living with anxiety and depression. Her candid commentary about living with mental health challenges is what makes her work so relatable.

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A comedian for the Twitter age, Nancherla has amassed over half a million followers by sharing her daily challenges. She’s become a voice for the often ignored and an advocate for pursuing happiness through adversity.

Jean Stapleton

When it comes to sitcom families, no long-suffering wife was more believable or hilarious than Stapleton’s Edith Bunker. Her portrayal of a devoted wife was especially convincing when, in real life, Stapleton was a noted feminist.

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All in the Family was the must-see sitcom of the ‘70s, and Stapleton’s Bunker was far from a one-note character. As feminism was catching on, her character found her inner strength and commanded respect. Whenever Bunker fought back against her husband, the audience would cheer in support.

Jennifer Saunders & Joanna Lumley

Saunders’ Edina Monsoon and Lumley’s Patsy Stone proved that being out of touch can still be fabulous. With Saunders at the helm as the series creator and writer for the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, the dynamic duo took London by storm.

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The show was a slapstick comedy about two former It Girls coming to terms with aging in industries that focus on youth. They helped anyone who was uncomfortable with aging understand how foolish it can be to grow older gracelessly.

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Wanda Sykes

Wanda Sykes’ entire career focuses on addressing political and social injustices through comedy. Her stand-up specials are less about telling jokes and more about focusing on what’s happening in the world through humor. No President of the United States is safe from her biting wit.

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As a member of the LGBTQ community, Sykes is an outspoken advocate for charitable groups like GLAAD, The Trevor Project and The True Colors Fund. There’s no social issue too difficult for Sykes to address on stage.

Lucille Ball

Thanks to Ball’s expertise in slapstick, I Love Lucy is one of the most important sitcoms in TV history. At the age of 40, Ball defied industry expectations and landed the lead role alongside her husband, Desi Arnaz.

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But the legendary comedian didn’t only break barriers on screen. Behind the scenes, Ball became the first female CEO of a production company, Desilu. Five years later, she sold her first company to become head of Lucille Ball Productions.

Amy Poehler

As one-half of the first female-led "Weekend Update" on SNL, Poehler’s comedic timing brought pure comedy to the news. She later parlayed her comedic prowess as a producer, writer and star of Parks and Recreation.

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Her Parks character was a politically savvy, courageous and loyal person, which isn’t a stretch from Poehler in real life. Outside of comedy, she founded the Smart Girls organization, a website that provides programming to helping young girls achieve their fullest potential.

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Maya Rudolph

Rudolph, another Saturday Night Live alum, is the daughter of singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph. With performance in her DNA, it’s no surprise that Rudolph found her footing under the spotlight.

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When she’s not featured in hit movies or TV shows, Rudolph also uses her pipes as the lead singer of Princess, a Prince cover band. Her talents combined when she sang a Prince cover for the ending credits of her movie Wine Country.

Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin’s stand-up career started out as a storytelling series in which she shared her hilarious encounters with Hollywood elites. Her stand-up career was so successful that she earned herself a Guinness World Record for having the most televised TV stand-up specials.

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In 2017, Griffin found herself the subject of a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and was placed on Interpol’s "No Fly List" for her infamous photo with a Donald Trump mask. Her act has evolved to focus on the importance of the First Amendment to protect free speech.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

She’s the comic who just won’t quit. Thanks to her expert comedic timing, Louis-Dreyfus has become one of the most awarded comedians on television. Her collection includes 11 Emmys, a Golden Globe and nine Screen Actors Guild Awards for her work on Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep.

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On Veep, Louis-Dreyfus played Selina Meyer, an egomaniacal political climber who ultimately becomes the first female President of the United States. She made it possible for fans to root for a truly terrible character.

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Flame Monroe

On Netflix’s Tiffany Hadish Presents: They Ready, a different female comedian gets their own stand-up special on each episode. Out of all the women featured in the series, Monroe exploded onto the national stage with her own star-making episode.

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Monroe self-identifies as a bisexual transgender person. Her raunchy yet candid performance opened the door for other transgender comedians to share their stories on the comedy stage. She left no details behind and brought the house down with her incredibly funny set.

Bea Arthur, Betty White, Estelle Getty & Rue McClanahan

For a show about four old ladies living together, The Golden Girls was ahead of its time. The four comedic legends made us laugh while teaching viewers important life lessons about being more tolerant of others.

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The show challenged a generation to view family, marriage and sexuality from a different perspective. Decades later, the show remains funny and fresh, thanks to their progressive take on relationships and love. Sure, they don't have cell phones or talk about Facebook, but their performances are timeless.

Mary Tyler Moore

As Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the world fell in love with Moore’s spunky and modern single career woman. The show offered the perspective of a smart woman in the workforce, which solidified Moore as a feminist icon.

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It was also a revelation for Moore’s character to not be hellbent on getting married. With Moore at the helm, the show tackled issues like birth control and equal pay, which, for a show in the 1970s, was way ahead of its time.

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Margaret Cho

Cho found early success thanks to her stand-up work across college campuses and nightclubs. In ‘94, she starred in All-American Girl, one of the first TV shows centered around an East Asian family. The show didn't last long, but it was a huge stepping stone towards more diversity on TV.

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Nothing is too dangerous to talk about in a Margaret Cho stand-up special. Her routines are bold, unfiltered and socially progressive, covering topics like her bisexuality, her history with substance abuse and her relationship with her ethnicity.

Carol Burnett

Burnett’s legendary career spans seven decades of comedic excellence. After getting her start on Broadway, Burnett started making waves as a guest comedian on various TV shows. A few years after her first TV appearance, her groundbreaking show, The Carol Burnett Show, was the first variety show on television to have a woman as its host.

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In 2005, Burnett received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being one of America’s most cherished entertainers. In 2019, she was the first recipient of the Golden Globes Carol Burnett Lifetime Achievement Award in Television, which is named in her honor.

Goldie Hawn

On the ‘60s sketch comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Hawn made a name for herself as the ditzy blonde in a bikini. However, her comedic timing and witty candor proved that it was merely a shtick, and Hawn was in on the joke.

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Around the same time, Hawn was Hollywood’s "It Girl." Her performances were so expertly delivered that she won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award in 1969 for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Cactus Flower.

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Issa Rae

Rae took the DIY approach to earn herself a seat at the table for Hollywood’s comedy elites. On her self-produced YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, Rae showed the world the inner dialogue of a modern-day, socially uncomfortable young woman.

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Hollywood took notice, and HBO gave the green light for Rae to create, co-write and star in her own show. On Insecure, Rae explores the black female experience from the perspective of college friends finding their footing in life and love.

Lily Tomlin

Tomlin’s comedy career spans six decades of success on stage and screen. In 1969, Tomlin first established herself as a genius character actress with a knack for a good gag on shows like Music Scene and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

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As Ernestine, Tomlin was a stern and uncompromising telephone operator. As Edith Ann, she played a five-and-a-half-year-old girl who was too smart for her own good. Now in her 80s, Tomlin plays the precocious Frankie Bergstein alongside Jane Fonda on Grace and Frankie.

Gilda Radner

Radner holds the distinction of being the first cast member of Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live. Over the show’s first five years, Radner established herself as an incredible character actress through roles like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and Lisa Loopner.

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In 1978, Radner won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music for her work on SNL. Her career was tragically cut short in 1989 when she died of ovarian cancer at age 42.

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Mindy Kaling

Kaling was only 24 years old and fresh out of Dartmouth when she joined the writing staff of The Office. As the daughter of an Indian father and Bangladeshi mother, Kaling knew at a young age that she needed to carve her own lane in Hollywood.

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Kaling didn’t want to play the role of a supporting character, so she created, wrote, produced and starred in her own show, The Mindy Project. She’s also written two New York Times best-selling memoirs about her experience as an outsider working her way into the mainstream.

Tina Fey

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Tina Fey is a powerhouse in the world of comedy. As the first female head writer of SNL, Fey added a much-needed perspective to the male-dominated program. Her biting wit was most prominently featured as one half of the "Weekend Update" segment alongside Amy Poehler.

One of her most successful projects post-SNL was adapting Queen Bees and Wannabes into a screenplay for Mean Girls. The film was a major success, and Fey later helped to turn it into a Broadway musical.

Sarah Silverman

As a stand-up comedian, writer and actress, Silverman started her career dripping in irony. Her performances were based on a character that was ignorant about the world’s social issues and made herself the ironic punchline.

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Later in her career, she turned her focus away from mocking the uninformed and instead focused on finding the common ground and goodness in everyone. Her show, I Love You America, showed that Silverman was on a mission to preach for peace with a punchline or two.

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