Wonderwall.com is rounding up some of the most groundbreaking female comedians to emerge over the years, starting with the one and only Tina Fey, who celebrates her 51st birthday on May 18, 2021. In 1999, she became the first female head writer on “Saturday Night Live,” a position she held by herself during season 25 and later shared with male colleagues as co-head writer of seasons 26 through 31. When Amy Poehler replaced Jimmy Fallon as Tina’s “Weekend Update” co-anchor in 2004, it was the first time two people of the same gender had co-hosted the popular “SNL” segment together!
Keep reading to take a look at some of our other favorite groundbreaking female comedians…
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Carol Burnett is one of the biggest names in comedy regardless of gender. The iconic funnywoman told The New York Times in 2015 that a vice president of CBS once told her, “You know, Carol, variety is a man’s game. It’s really not for girls.” And yet her eponymous sketch comedy show aired for more than a decade and racked up countless Emmys over the years.
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In 2016, Melissa McCarthy won the Comedic Genius Award during the MTV Movie Awards and became the first woman to be honored with the distinction. She became a comedy powerhouse thanks to her six-year run on “Mike & Molly,” which earned her a Primetime Emmy Award in 2011 (the same year she starred in the hilarious movie “Bridesmaids’!). She also spearheaded the female “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016 and won a Primetime Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series in 2017 for her work as a host on “Saturday Night Live.”
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Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer didn’t just create the concept of “Broad City” — a critically beloved show that earned raves for its hilarious portrayal of women at their crudest and most ridiculous. They also wrote, produced and starred on it. The popular show ran from 2014 until 2019 and helped launch both women’s careers.
Queen! The late Lucille Ball developed and starred on “I Love Lucy” — but she also broke barriers when she became the first woman to run a major television studio, Desilu Productions, which she shared with husband Desi Arnaz until she ultimately bought him out and ran things on her own. When she sold the studio in 1967, it changed its name to Paramount Television, the TV branch of Paramount Pictures — which eventually became CBS Television Studios. You might have heard of it.
In 2016, Forbes reported that Amy Schumer had banked $21 million the previous year, which made her the fourth highest paid comedian in the world. It was the first time a woman had made the mag’s list of the world’s top-earning comedians. She came in fifth in 2017 for her 2016 earnings, and in 2019 she landed seventh with $21 million in earnings.
In October 1986, the late, great comedian Joan Rivers became the first woman to host a late night talk show when “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted on FOX. It lasted just one season, but its legacy lives on!
Only one-fourth of the 16 EGOTs — individuals who’ve won a competitive Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar and Tony Award — are female, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg is one of them! The actress-host is also the first Black star to earn the distinction.
In 2017, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” scored an Emmy nomination for best variety talk show — and became the first female-fronted series to earn a nomination in the relatively new category, which was launched in 2015. She’s also the first woman to host a late night satirical news show.
Phyllis Diller, who died in 2012 at 95, is often credited as the first female stand-up comedian to star in a solo act — not as part of a duo or as a male comedian’s sidekick.
Moms Mabley is also often cited as one of the first female stand-up comedians. Though white audiences discovered the former vaudeville star during the ’60s, her career actually started way back in the 1930s! The funnywoman, who’s considered one of the first openly gay comedians, was reportedly the first woman to headline the iconic Apollo Theater. (She died in 1975 at 81.)
When Kate McKinnon joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 2012, she became the first openly lesbian comedian to appear on the sketch-comedy series. She won an Emmy in 2016 for her work on “SNL,” making her the first cast member to win an award in either the best supporting actress or actor in a comedy series categories. She also won in 2017. (During the early days of the show, performers were nominated in a different category: best individual performance in a variety or music program.)
Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman are the grand dames of “Saturday Night Live.” The trio were part of the original cast of the sketch-comedy series, who were known as “The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players” when “SNL” debuted in 1975 — and it was no easy task playing ball with the boys. Jane revealed in 2011 that original cast member John Belushi was especially hard on the ladies: “He said, ‘Women are just fundamentally not funny,'” she revealed. “He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women.” Gross!
In 2003, Wanda Sykes became the first Black woman to create and star on her own comedy show with the short-lived “Wanda at Large.” The funnywoman won an Emmy in 1999 for her work as a writer on “The Chris Rock Show” and has since earned 11 more Emmy nods, most recently in 2020 for playing comedian Moms Mabley on an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Ellen DeGeneres has won 23 People’s Choice Awards, making her the most celebrated individual in the award show’s history. She was also the first woman to score an interview with the host after performing her stand-up routine on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Ellen recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 2008, “I was the first woman ever to be called over to sit down next to him. It was a big deal, because he’d only done that, at the time, with a few men in the history of the show.”
Kathy Griffin starred on her 20th comedy special, “Kathy Griffin: Record Breaker,” in 2013. It was an apt title: When Bravo aired the special, she broke the record for most stand-up comedy specials by a comedian — male or female!
After she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in 2012, Tig Notaro underwent a double mastectomy. The stand-up comedian made headlines and inspired women everywhere when she decided to perform topless as part of her 2015 HBO comedy special. “I think it’s funny that I take my shirt off,” she told Vogue. “I think it’s funny that I don’t acknowledge it. I think it’s funny to talk about air travel while my scars are on display.”
Margaret Cho’s short-lived 1994 ABC sitcom, “All-American Girl,” was the first American sitcom to focus on an Asian American family. Though the show lasted just one season — and received plenty of criticism from Asian audiences at the time — it still opened the door for Asian comedians in Hollywood. It paved the way for another ABC sitcom, the critically adored “Fresh Off the Boat.”
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus won the Emmy for best lead actress in a comedy for her work on “Veep” in 2016, she broke the record for most lead actress wins. (She’d previously been in a three-way tie with Candice Bergen and Mary Tyler Moore.) By 2019, she’d amassed 11 Emmys, and six of those were for her role in “Veep”! She might not be a writer or stand-up comedian, but anyone who’s ever seen an episode of “Seinfeld” knows that Julia is one of the funniest people (male or female!) around.
Elaine May shot into the spotlight as one-half of the improv-comedy duo Nichols and May alongside Mike Nichols. They won the Grammy for best comedy performance for their 1960 album “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” a recording of their Broadway debut. Their comedy troupe The Compass Players eventually became The Second City Theater.
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