These Female Comedians Changed the World of Comedy
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.