Celebrities have always fascinated Kelley, particularly ones who have made the earth a more compassionate, equitable and healthy place.
Laughs are endless with these 23 very impressive female comedians
Since the middle 1800s, American women have performed comedy in the theater, radio, television, films, videos, CDs, records or the internet, and this list suggests which women are the best in American comedy. But it doesn’t include women who have passed away or have retired from performing.
Now let’s begin the countdown!
I guess I prefer to see the dark side of things. The glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth!
— Janeane Garofalo
23. Janeane Garofalo
Janeane Garofalo began her entertainment career by doing stand-up comedy in the 1980s, and then in the early 1990s she began appearing in movies such as Reality Bites (1994) and the Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996). She also appeared in TV shows such as The Ben Stiller Show (1992) and The Larry Sanders Show, the latter for which she won two Primetime Emmy Awards for acting.
She also performed on SNL for the 1995 to 1996 season, but didn’t like the sketches, calling them “juvenile and homophobic.” In fact, she hated the experience of being on the show! In 2001, Garofalo’s career “tanked,” as she called it, and then she quit drinking. Nevertheless, well into the 2020s, she’s landed many movies roles and TV appearances and continues to hit the comedy scene in the Big Apple.
My dad has some depressive issues, and he’s really tough on himself. So sometimes he can say things that are not super supportive. Like once I did a set, and he says, ‘Sheesh, no wonder you’re still single,’ and I was like, ‘eight ball corner pocket, dad.’
— Maria Bamford
22. Maria Bamford
Maria Bamford has her share of mental issues: bipolar II disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and something called unwanted thoughts syndrome; she’s also suffered from at least three nervous breakdowns. Bamford uses her experiences to produce a zany, surreal comedy, which she accentuates with her talent for impersonations and voice characterizations.
She began her career in comedy in 1998, doing stand up and appearing in numerous TV shows, movies and internet series, highlighted by her appearance in Arrested Development, an Emmy Award winning sitcom on Fox and Netflix. And then she starred in Lady Dynamite (2016 – 2017), a Netflix series in which Bamford played the leading role of—Maria Bamford.
To be a trophy wife, you have to be a trophy. I’m more of a commemorative plaque.
— Ali Wong
21. Ali Wong
Can Asian women be funny? If Ali Wong’s comedy is any judge of that, they sure can! Ali Wong, comedian, actress, writer, began her stand-up career at 23; she moved to NYC and performed as much as nine times a night. Then, in the 2010s, she began appearing and acting on TV shows such The Tonight Show, Dave Attell’s Comedy Underground Show, Are You There, Chelsea? and Fresh Off the Boat.
She’s acted in movies too: Savages (2012), Dealin’ with Idiots (2013) and Always Be My Maybe (2019), in which she acted and helped write the screenplay. For Netflix, Wong has done three stand-up comedy specials, two of which while obviously pregnant; she cracked jokes about being pregnant and having c-sections! And from 2016 to 2021, Wong starred as Doris on the sitcom, American Housewife.
I’m a black gay woman. I think the only way the GOP would hate me more is if I sent them a video of me rolling around on a pile of welfare checks.
— Wanda Sykes
20. Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes began her comedy career in the late 1980s, doing stand up in Washington D.C. Then Sykes moved to NYC in the early 1990s, appearing on Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. In 1997, she joined HBO’s The Chris Rock Show, for which she made appearances and joined the writing team, and for this writing she won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1999. From 2001 until—whenever she’s needed—Sykes appears on the series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
In 2006, she appeared on the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. Notably, she did the voice of Granny in two Ice Age movies. Also, in 2018, she was the head writer for the final season of Roseanne. And, in 2021, she played Rita in the movie, Breaking News in Yuba County.
I want to feel like I can dance or party all night and not be worried about people stepping on my dress.
— Aidy Bryant
19. Aidy Bryant
Aidy Bryant has been studying improvisational comedy since she was in middle school. Then, after graduating from Columbia College in Chicago, she performed with the comedy group, Baby Wants Candy; she also acted with Chicago’s Second City and the Annoyance Theatre. In 2012, Bryant joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in 2018.
She’s also performed on many other TV shows, including Shrill, Girls, Shrink, Danger & Eggs and Broad City. She’s also appeared in many movies: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Brother Nature (2016), the Big Sick (2017), The Star (2017) and I Feel Pretty (2018). On SNL, she’s played many recurring characters, including former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Senator Ted Cruz. Regarding SNL,anybody who’s performed on the show for ten years, deserves to be on this list! Sadly, though, Bryant left SNL in 2022.
As a housewife, if the kids are still alive when my husband gets home from work, then I’ve done my job.
— Roseanne Barr
18. Roseanne Barr
Roseanne Barr initiated her comedy career by doing stand up in parts of Colorado. Then in 1988 Barr starred in Roseanne, a sitcom based on what Barr calls the life of a “fierce, working-class, domestic goddess,” as she often refers to herself and other women like her. The show won many awards, including a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe Award. The show lasted for ten seasons and then was revived in 2018 but soon cancelled because she wrote controversial remarks on Twitter. Barr has always been outspoken, audacious and hypercritical, which often gets her into trouble.
Notably, Barr has written three books, including Roseannearchy: Dispatches from the Nut Farm (2011). Famously, Barr ran for the US presidency in 2012, garnering 70,000 votes, and in 2016 made a documentary about this campaign.
All my relatives and friends have been pretty aware of my brand of humor for a while, so none of them have been shocked.
— Nikki Glaser
17. Nikki Glaser
Known primarily as a stand-up comedian, Glaser performed her first stand-up routine at 18. While in college, Glaser liked to study people in the dorm cafeteria and write jokes. In an interview with Revue magazine, she said, “I tried to think ‘what would Sarah Silverman say about these people?’ ” Glaser has done her stand-up routine on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Conan and The Last Comic Standing.
In 2019 on Netflix, she did Bangin’, her first stand-up special. From 2011 to 2014, she hosted a podcast with Sarah Schaefer titled You Had to be There. On radio in 2018, she hosted You up? With Nikki Glaser, a daily show on Sirius XM. Glaser also appeared on Not Safe with Nikki Glaser on Comedy Central in 2015 and had roles in two films starring Amy Schumer: Trainwreck (2015) and I Feel Pretty (2018).
“Normal” is just a cycle on the washing machine.
— Whoopi Goldberg
16. Whoopi Goldberg
Not known primarily as a comedian, though the stage name “Whoopi” would seem to indicate otherwise, Whoopi Goldberg is also an actress of great renown. Astonishingly, Goldberg is one of only a few actors who’ve won an Emmy Award, an Academy Award, a Grammy Award and a Tony Award. In Goldberg’s first big career break, she costarred in The Color Purple in 1985, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and at about the same time also appeared in the Broadway production of Whoopi Goldberg.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Goldberg appeared in HBO’s Comic Relief with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Then Goldberg really hit her stride from the 1990s through the 2000s, appearing in numerous hit movies such as Ghost, Sister Act, How Stella Got Her Grove Back and Fatal Beauty. Incredibly, Goldberg has appeared in over 150 motion pictures.
I went to Hobby Lobby this morning and bought the cutest little wicker basket to hold all my morning-after pills.
— Cecily Strong
15. Cecily Strong
Cecily Strong grew up watching sketches and commercials on SNL; she particularly enjoyed the comedy of Phil Hartman. Strong studied acting at the California Institute of Arts, majoring in theatre and earning a BFA. Then she performed at the Second City in Chicago and later joined Virgin Daiquiri, an all-female improvisational troupe. Strong debuted on SNL in 2012, eventually appearing as recurring characters such as “The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party” and played Kyra on “The Girlfriends Talk Show.”
On SNL, she’s also impersonated scores of people—Stormy Daniels, Dianne Feinstein, Tulsi Gabbard, Khole Kardashian, Ivana Trump, Kate Middleton, Liza Minnelli and Melania Trump. She’s also had acting roles in the movies, Ghost Busters (2016) and The Female Brain(2018).
I like being a funny lady. I think there’s nothing sexier than a funny lady.
— Maya Rudolph
14. Maya Rudolph
Maya Rudolph began her comedy career in the late 1990s when she joined The Groundlings Improv Troupe, and then in 2000 she became a featured player on Saturday Night Live, on which she performed impressions for scores of celebrities: Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and many more. Rudolph left SNL in 2007, and then, while birthing four children, appeared in numerous TV shows, including Up All Night, The Awesomes, Maya & Marty, Big Hero 6: The Series and Bless the Harts.
She’s also acted in or provided voices in many movies, such as Shrek the Third (2007), Grown Ups (2010), Bridesmaids (2011), Chips (2017), The Lego Movie 2 (2019) and Hubie Halloween (2020). And in 2020 Rudolph won two Primetime Emmy Awards, one for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, and the other for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance.
Kids do have to learn that life is a humiliating charade of endless disappointment and tragedy ultimately culminating in pain, decay, and death. My parents used to sing me to sleep with that one.
— Samantha Bee
13. Samantha Bee
Having joint citizenship in Canada and the US, Samantha Bee, at 26, began her performing career by playing the title role in the stage production of Sailor Moon. Then she progressed dramatically by joining the cast of The Daily Show with John Stewart in 2003, appearing for 12 years as a female correspondent, one of the first such performers on the program.
Then, moving up the comedic ladder, in 2016 Samantha Bee starred in TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, a satirical late-night, news and talk show, the first of which hosted by a female comedian. She’s also appeared in many other TV shows: Sesame Street, Bob’s Burgers, Game On, Creative Galaxy and Good God. She’s also appeared in numerous movies: Ham and Cheese, Furry Vengeance and Sisters. And, in 2010, she published the book, I Know What I Am, But What Are You?
I had all the intention of being the next Eddie Murphy.
— Leslie Jones
12. Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones’ comedy career has been a long and rocky one. She did stand-up during her college days in the 1980s, and then she moved to Los Angeles, where she appeared at various comedy clubs. Then one night she opened for Jamie Foxx and was badly booed by the audience, so she quit performing for three years. But in 2013, Jones auditioned for Saturday Night Live and snagged a job as a writer and soon began appearing in sketches, though her material was at times controversial. Since then, Jones’ career has grown to a stellar degree; she’s appeared in numerous TV shows, as well as movies such as Christmas in Compton, Trainwreck, Ghostbusters and Masterminds.
Unfortunately, Jones’ pain-in-the-butt factor has been high in her show biz career. In 2016, she had to quit Twitter because of racially charged attacks, and her personal website was hacked, after which she had it removed. And there’s nothing funny about that!
I went home with this French guy because he said something adorable like, ‘I have an apartment.’
— Amy Schumer
11. Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer claims she isn’t an observational comedian. “I like tackling the stuff nobody else talks about,” she says, “like the darkest, most serious thing about yourself. I talk about life and sex and personal stories and stuff everybody can relate to, and some can't." Schumer began her comedy career by appearing Off-Off Broadway in Keeping Abreast in 2003; then she did stand-up at the Gotham Comedy Club. Over the following years, Schumer appeared on many TV shows, including NBC’s The Last Comic Standing in 2011.
Then Schumer starred in her own sketch comedy series, Inside Amy Schumer, on Comedy Central in 2012. Notably, Schumer starred in Trainwreck, a film she had written, which the Film Critics Association nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Not winning that award, Schumer has nevertheless won numerous comedy awards. And in 2016 Schumer published her memoir entitled The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.
I've been a big astrophysics nut since I was 12. I have always had a real soft spot for the bizarreness of quantum mechanics.
— Kate McKinnon
10. Kate McKinnon
Kate McKinnon’s professional comedy career began in 2007 when she appeared for three seasons on the The Big Gay Sketch Show, which featured humor relevant to the LGBT community. In 2012, McKinnon debuted on Saturday Night Live, soon becoming the most popular female comedian on the show. She’s particularly talented doing impersonations of people such as Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Sessions, Justin Bieber, Ruth Bater Ginsburg, and numerous others.
Her list of appearances in movies is also impressive; she starred in Ghostbusters (2016) and The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018). She’s worked on countless TV shows as well, voicing characters on Family Guy, The Simpsons and Moonbeam City. And in 2016 and 2017 she won Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. But, on a tearful note, McKinnon jumped into a spaceship and left earth and SNL in 2022.
I quit smoking the day I found out I was pregnant. But I still smoke in a movie. I have other vices, you know, like potato chips and chardonnay—but not together.
— Jean Smart
9. Jean Smart
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Jean Smart began her acting career in 1981; she played Marlene Dietrich in the Broadway play Piaf. Her career in TV comedy began when she starred in Designing Women (1986 – 1991) and then in Frasier (2000 – 2001), and later Fargo (2015). In the 1990s and recently, Smart starred in movies such as The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), Forever Fabulous (2000), Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and Senior Moment (2021).
In the HBO Max TV series Hacks (2021), Smart stars as a jaded comedy diva who tries to revive her career by hiring a young head writer played by Hannah Einbinder. The part for Smart seems written just for her, a veteran comedy legend in the ilk of Lucille Ball, who never wants to retire and is willing to change in order to succeed. Notably, Smart has won seven awards for acting, five of which Primetime Emmy Awards.
There's power in looking silly and not caring that you do.
— Amy Poehler
8. Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler began her professional comedy career in the 1990s, helping form the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisational comedy group, which eventually became a sketch-based comedy series on Comedy Central in 1998. Then Poehler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001. Like many other comedians on the SNL, Poehler excelled at impersonations of such notables folks as Hillary Clinton, Kelly Ripa, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Kim-Jong-il, Dolly Parton, Madonna and Sharon Stone.
Then Poehler starred in Parks and Recreation, a sitcom that tried to show the positive side of American politics (she was also a writer on six episodes of the show). Poehler has also appeared in many other TV shows, as well as movies such as Sisters (2015), The House (2017) and Wine Country (2019). And in 2013 she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series Musical or Comedy.
(Speaking of Britney Spears’ comeback performances), Wow, she is amazing. I mean, she is 25 years old, and she has already accomplished everything she's going to accomplish in her life.
— Sarah Silverman
7. Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman’s sarcastic, deadpan comedic style rubs some people wrong. She began her comedy career by doing stand-up at 17, which he described as “awful,” and then she performed in Greenwich Village, presumably doing somewhat better. Thereafter, she joined Saturday Night Live in 1993, working as a writer and featured player. Unfortunately, SNL aired none of her sketches and fired her after one season.
Silverman was devastated but came back a much tougher performer—as controversial and smartalecky as ever. Airing on Comedy Central from 2007 to 2010, Silverman starred in her own sitcom, The Sarah Silverman Program, which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. Astonishingly, at the awards show, she wore a fake moustache. It seems safe to suggest Sarah Silverman is truly one-of-a-kind in the realm of contemporary American comedy.
I used to carry my dad's empty guitar case around the neighborhood because I wanted people to think I played the guitar. I would put Flintstones vitamins in it in case I got tired, so I could pop some and keep walking.
— Kristen Wiig
6. Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wigg didn’t always want to be a performer. But while in college she took an acting class and her teacher told her she should continue acting. So she moved to Los Angeles, of course, and joined the Empty Stage Comedy Theatre and then The Groundlings, a comedy group. Feeling improvisational comedy would hone her skills the best, she appeared on Spike TV’s The Joe Schmo Show in 2003. Brimming with confidence, she auditioned for Saturday Night Live and joined the show in 2005.
Including various impressive gigs on TV, Wiig has also appeared in numerous movies: Bridesmaids, The Martian, Unaccompanied Minors, Despicable Me, Knocked Up, Ghostbusters, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Masterminds and Zoolander 2. Interestingly, in 2011, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo from The Groundlings co-wrote the screenplay for Bridesmaids, for which they received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
I dropped out of college my junior year of college to do Saturday Night Live, and I didn’t even consult my parents. They were supportive because they had no choice.
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus
5. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Born in New York City, Julia Louis-Dreyfus began her comedy career by joining The Second City, a famous Chicago-based, theater improvisational group. Then in 1982 she joined Saturday Night Live at the age of 21, one of the youngest cast members for SNL ever. Thereafter, Louis-Dreyfus appeared in many movies such as Hannah and Her Sisters, Soul Man and National Lampoon’s Vacation. In the early 1990s, she joined the cast of Seinfeld, considered one of the most popular sitcoms off all time. Afterward, she starred in the CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine from 2005 to 2010.
Then she starred in HBO’s Veep, playing the Vice President of the US, and then eventually runs for the presidency, a role for which she won a succession of Primetime Emmy Awards. In fact, Louis-Dreyfus is one of the most award-winning actresses in the history of American TV. She also won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2018.
What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?
— Ellen DeGeneres
4. Ellen DeGeneres
Raised as a Christian Scientist, Ellen DeGeneres became a kind of social scientist by beginning her comedy career specializing in observational comedy, as shown by the cast on the sitcom, Seinfeld. Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, DeGeneres toured the country doing stand-up comedy, eventually being named Showtime’s funniest person of the year in 1982. Then from the 1990s into the 2000s, DeGeneres starred in her own sitcom, Ellen and then The Ellen Show.
Interestingly, on an episode of the The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997, DeGeneres played a character that came-out as lesbian, the first time such a character had been played by an openly lesbian woman. Also, astonishingly, DeGeneres has been a host (multiple times for each show) on the Academy Awards, the Grammy Awards and the Primetime Emmy Awards. (She also hosted Saturday Night Live in 2001.) And DeGeneres has appeared in many movies, including Mr. Wrong, Goodbye Lover and The Love Letter.
To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.
— Tina Fey
3. Tina Fey
In 1997, Tina Fey began her comedy career by performing with The Second City, after which became a writer on Saturday Night Live. Fey excelled at writing comedy scripts for SNL; in fact, she became the show’s first female head writer. Then Fey began performing in sketches on SNL in 2000, joining Jimmy Fallon on Weekend Update. Specializing in self-deprecating humor and a deadpan delivery, Fey has reminded many of Phyllis Diller. After leaving SNL in 2006, Fey developed the sitcom 30 Rock and also starred on the show, which received numerous accolades and is often considered one of the best TV series of all time.
In 2015, Fey created, produced and starred in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, also garnering much critical acclaim. Fey has also starred in many comedic films: Mean Girls, Date Night, Sisters, Baby Mama and Admission. And in 2010, Fey won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (the youngest person ever to win the award).
As a teenager I went all Goth, but I wasn't mopey enough. I would pretend to be, but I'd end up making people laugh.
— Melissa McCarthy
2. Melissa McCarthy
Excelling in the physical comedy as done by such masters as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Melissa McCarthy began her comedy career in the late 1990s, appearing in TV shows such as Jenny, Gilmore Girls, Samantha Who?, Mike and Molly and Nobodies. She’s also appeared in countless movies, including Charlie’s Angels, The Nines, Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, Spy, The Hangover Part III, The Boss, The Heat, Central Intelligence and Ghostbusters. (McCarthy worked as a screenwriter/and or producer on many of these films.)
Her tally of awards for her work on these shows and movies is truly astonishing: over 50 awards and 80 nominations! Presumably a record of some sort, one would think. McCarthy is also one of the highest paid—if not the highest paid actress—in Hollywood today. It seems safe to suggest that Melissa McCarthy may be the funniest woman in America. And if she isn’t, who is?
I used to dress up and impersonate our next-door neighbor, Miss Cox. She wore rubber boots, a wool hat, and her nose always dripped.
— Tracey Ullman
1. Tracey Ullman
Having joint citizenship in America and Britain, Tracey Ullman developed an interest in comedy at nine, when she realized she had a talent for mimicry while watching herself in the mirror. But, before she became a comedian, she had a career as a pop star, her singing described as “retro before retro was cool.” Soon growing tired with singing, Ullman appeared in the British comedy program, A Kick Up the Eighties. Ullman broke into America TV in 1987 when she starred in The Tracey Ullman Show, which featured sketch comedy highlighting Ullman’s remarkable range of impersonations.
Since those early days, Ullman has appeared on stage and network TV, HBO and Showtime, as well as movies, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Bullets over Broadway. And Ullman’s list of praise, honors and awards is completely off the charts. Simply put, Tracey Ullman seems able to impersonate just about anybody—and make people laugh.
© 2018 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 30, 2018:
I'm a Democrat, and that's all I'm going to write. Later!...
Brad on May 30, 2018:
What are those several reasons for Barr?
At least you didn't put Wanda Sykes on your list!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 30, 2018:
Thanks for the comment, Pat Mills. I never considered putting Roseanne Barr on this list - for several reasons. As for Beth Littleford, I've never heard of her, but I will educate myself very shortly. Thanks!
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 30, 2018:
Thanks for the comment, Paula. It agree about Whoopi Goldberg. I put her on her on the list because she's been very funny for many years and has the awards to prove it. But in recent times she's not been very funny. As for what she's done on "The View" I don't watch the show. At some point in time, I may pull her from the list and replace her with, uh, I'll have to think about it.
Suzie from Carson City on May 29, 2018:
I love, LOVE Kristen Wiig. IMHO, the woman is a comedic genius~actress......I have an excellent sense of humor, enjoy laughing and making people laugh...so honestly, I KNOW FUNNY when I see it. ( Whoopi has destroyed her once "funny woman" reputation since being such a total jackass on "The View!" She is unbearable and basically stupid!)
This is a great article!
Brad on May 29, 2018:
What did you do tap the anti trump list for these people.
They may be amusing, but they aren't funny.
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on May 29, 2018:
Sam Bee wasn't the first lady on TDS. During the Craig Kilborn and early Jon Stewart era, Beth Littleford served as a correspondent on the show. Bee is obviously one of the best known has had, and she certainly took her style to Full Frontal. Still, a good list.
PS - Aren't you glad you didn't include Roseanne Barr now?
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on May 29, 2018:
Thanks for the comment, Haley Kieser. This list was lots of fun to write. Regarding Ellen DeGeneres, I'm sure many people would pick her as numero uno. Later!
Haley Kieser from Arizona on May 29, 2018:
Love all of these women! My favorite - Ellen D., hands down. Fun article! Thanks for sharing.