Moms Mabley (March 19, 1894-May 23, 1975) — Jackie “Moms” Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken, was a comedy pioneer credited with being the first female standup comedian. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time — gay, black and political. After a difficult childhood — both her parents were killed in separate accidents and she was raped twice by the time she was 13, got pregnant both times, and was forced to give away the babies — she escaped to Vaudeville.
It was on the Chitlin Circuit, she found an outlet for her talents. She developed an onstage persona as an old woman with a frumpy housedress, funny hat and toothless gums, years before she was old. It was an homage to her grandmother, the one parental figure she had been able to count on.
But it was also a smart decision. In character, she was able to be edgy with her routine covering racism and sexual innuendo through double entendres without offending. Her “bit” was to pretend to be a dirty old lady, lusting after younger men. It wasn’t until the 60’s that Mabley was “discovered” by white audiences, even though she had been performing for several decades at that point.
Lucille Ball (August 6, 1911 – April 26, 1989) — Is there anyone in America who doesn’t recognize the iconic redhead, who was the star of I Love Lucy? That’s what having a successful TV series that has spanned generations will do. Before the success of I Love Lucy, Ball had been known as the “Queen of the B’s,” meaning B movies, but when she got the chance to star in a TV series, she took her genius for physical comedy, which had been honed under Buster Keaton’s tutelage, and ran with it, creating the unique playground that was her CBS TV series.
From slapstick, to one-liners, to classic double takes, Ball was a master of funny. Her ability to let go of vanity and forge ahead gung-ho into Lucy’s predicaments made I Love Lucy one of the most beloved programs in television history. But she was also a smart businesswoman, becoming the first woman in television to head a production company.
Tina Fey (May 18, 1970) and Amy Poehler (September 16, 1971) — Many people think that the two women met while working on Saturday Night Live, but they actually met in improv class at Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, where their fearless complementary styles started a friendship that has lasted more than 20 years.
The two worked together constantly — both auditioned for Second City’s touring company and got the gig, but it wasn’t until they sat down at the “Weekend Update” desk on SNL that it really clicked that comedy was better with the two of them together.
Not that they needed each other. Both Fey and Poehler are talented in their own right, as is evidenced by the fact that Fey, who was the first woman named head writer of SNL, wrote Mean Girls and exec produced and starred in 30 Rock, while Poehler starred in Parks and Recreation and is executive producer of Welcome to Sweden.
But it is magic when they are together on screen, like in Baby Mama and the three Golden Globe award shows they’ve hosted. These women stand out from their predecessors because they not only play the funny parts, but they create them.
Carol Burnett (April 26, 1933-) — Burnett grew up in Hollywood with a love of movies, so she always wanted to act. But her true calling came when she discovered her niche in comedy sketches. Despite the fact that variety shows had lost their popularity, Burnett found success in that genre. The Carol Burnett Show, which featured her slapstick style of comedy, ran from 1967 until 1979.
Burnett’s show, done before a live audience, although rehearsed, still felt spontaneous and, in addition to the comedy sketches, featured musical numbers, weekly guest stars, and an opening segment with Burnett taking questions from the audience.
Ellen DeGeneres (January 26, 1958) — From the get-go, Ellen DeGeneres has been about clean, understated comedy. And it has paid off for her. She was the first woman that Johnny Carson invited over to join him on the couch to talk after performing her standup routine on the Tonight Show. He compared her to the thoughtful comedy of Bob Newhart.
Her down-to-earth approach resulted in two TV sitcoms: Ellen from 1994 to 1998, and The Ellen Show from 2001 to 2002. Many say it was coming out on Oprah in 1997, and her TV character coming out, that caused Ellen to be cancelled the following year.
True or not, DeGeneres rebounded with her hit chat fest, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, in September 2003, and has been going strong every since. Her comedy is still fun, involves a lot of dancing, and is upbeat, although she does have a penchant for pulling pranks. Just ask Matt Lauer.
Kristen Wiig (August 22, 1973) — Kristen Wiig, whose comedy was based on satire and shrewd social commentary, is one of the brightest stars to ever emerge from Saturday Night Live. She proved that by writing and starring in Bridesmaids, an all-female cast can get just as many laughs as an all-male cast and be a blockbuster hit.
Wiig has a very specific style of comedy, playing characters with quirks, but able to make them compelling. She also brings a lightness to her performances that endears her to audiences. And like Lucille Ball, Wiig seems to be up for anything to get a laugh, even if it means making herself unattractive and being physically uncomfortable. Her lack of inhibitions makes her a comedy star.
Joan Rivers (June 8, 1933 -September 4, 2014) — Joan Rivers will be remembered for her five decades of sass, biting wit, and her caustic tongue. When she hit the comedy scene in the 1960s, Rivers knew that being a nice Jewish girl wouldn’t fly. She opted instead to tell the truth as she saw it, and she didn’t spare the ire even when it came to herself, becoming famous for her self-deprecating jokes. This native New Yorker said what others were thinking but didn’t have the nerve to say.
Rivers’s new direction in comedy made her one of its queens, but she wasn’t one to rest on her laurels. She continued to work very hard, concerned that it might all disappear. So when Rivers took over the red carpet, she didn’t spare any feelings to get the laugh.
Gilda Radner (June 28, 1946-May 20, 1989) — When Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, she was only 42, but she had already left an indelible mark on the comedy world. Radner was the first hire when creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels put together the “Not Ready for Primetime Players” for the first season of Saturday Night Live. Michaels was familiar with Radner’s work as a member of Second City, so he knew she was perfect for the adventurous program he was creating, which was going to push the boundaries of TV.
On-screen, Radner was fearless, which helped her create such memorable characters as nasal-voiced broadcaster Roseanne Roseannadanna, nerdy teenager Lisa Loopner, Baba Wawa, a parody of Barbara Walters, and complainer Emily Litella.
It was through these brilliant creations that Radner easily established a bond with audiences that made her the leader of the pack of the three women on SNL at that time, the other two being Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. Radner was rewarded for her talent in 1978 by an Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music Emmy Award.
Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917-August 20, 2012) — Diller, born Phyllis Ada Driver, is best known for her self-deprecating humor that ridiculed her looks, (which she exaggerated), her distaste for housekeeping, and a fictional husband she named Fang, who she later admitted had been created in an ad lib. But most of all, she is known for her hard-hitting one liners, something that had been the specialty of men previously, and her infectious laugh.
Diller was a late bloomer. She didn’t take up comedy until she was 37, so she had years of domestic life to mine for her act. And despite her penchant for plastic surgery, the Lima, Ohio native had no compunction when it came to dressing ludicrously for the stage. Anything for a laugh. Her hair would appear as if she had just been frightened, standing up straight from her scalp, and she wore outrageous dresses that, in actuality, hid her figure, so she could make fun of her body without the audience being wise to the fact that she was in fine shape. And then there was the prop, jewelled cigarette holder, which she eliminated once smoking was ruled hazardous to health. But by then she didn’t need it. Her audiences found her hilarious whether she was dishing on marriage, sex, parenting, or old age.
Margaret Cho (December 5, 1968) — As far as Margaret Cho is concerned, nothing is out of bounds when it comes to her comedy. She is brash and bold in her standup routines, which cover everything from the minutiae of her everyday life to riffs on social and political problems. As a result, she often finds herself the center of controversy — and has actually been uninvited to perform on at least one occasion for fear of what she would say.
Cho is the only Korean-American comedian on this list, and she isn’t adverse to using material that uncovers the hardships she endured trying to get work in the entertainment industry as a result of her ethnicity. But that isn’t the only issue she tackles. Body image is another big one, as is her bisexuality, substance abuse, her relationship with her mother, and George W. Bush.
Most recently, Cho was taken to task for her impersonation of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un at the Golden Globes in January. Her response? She tweeted: “I’m not playing the race card. I’m playing the rice card.”
Mindy Kaling (June 24, 1979) — Kaling, born Vera Mindy Chokalingam, did try her hand at standup comedy, but felt it was too time consuming. She eschewed it in favor of writing and acting and is best known for her roles as Mindy Lahiri in the Fox sitcom The Mindy Project, and Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office.
Kaling, who has a B.A. in playwriting from Dartmouth, was only 24 when she was invited to join the writing staff of The Office, making her the only woman on the staff of eight at that time. It is her ability to create her own material that sets her apart, but she always knew that, as an Indian-American actress, unless she wanted to play the best friend to the blonde lead, she was going to have to create her own roles.
As a result, her resume now includes sitcom creator, actor, TV writer, screenwriter, director, author, blogger, and the first Indian woman to star in her own show, The Mindy Project.