Hot take: I don’t care for straight male comedians. It’s not that they’re not funny, they’re just … I don’t know, boring? Maybe that’s reductive of me, but I never seem to leave a straight male comedian’s set feeling particularly inspired. And though some may argue that it’s not important for a set to “inspire” its audience, I’d actually argue that the opposite is true. For me, I want to see a comedian use humor to address real issues and say real things about the world, even if they do it in a completely goofy way.
Therefore, I tend to prefer female and female-identified comedians. They’re sharp, tough, and have often seen shit that makes their comedy feel raw and true. Undoubtedly there are male comedians who do this, too, but to a much lesser degree, in my very humble and very personal opinion.
So, let’s celebrate these amazing women, shall we? Below, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best female comedians of all time. It’s an incomplete round-up for sure, but should give you plenty to laugh about.
I wanted to start things off with some of comedy’s most impressive foremothers. These women paved the way for generations of female comedians by challenging antiquated, gendered, and highly problematic notions of who could and could not be funny.
Talk about busting down doors! Not only was Moms Mabley a female comic of color at a point in history when that was practically unheard of, but she was also one of the first openly queer comedians of all time. Add to that her formidable talent and you have a recipe for one of the most influential comedic voices of the 20th century.
No list of all-time great comedians (female or otherwise) would be complete without one Ms. Phyllis Diller. Bedecked in zany wigs, over-the-top makeup, and tacky jewels, Diller was a pioneer of the absurd, skewering feminine stereotypes one deranged housewife character at a time.
Perhaps best known for her eponymous hit variety show of the 1970s, Carol Burnett is as essential to modern American comedy as just about anyone. She is charisma personified, able as she is to light up any screen, stage, or room she’s in. There’s no comedian I’d rather watch and no person I’d rather hear laugh at their own utterly ridiculous jokes.
Though some folks might deride Joan Rivers as nothing but a “mean queen,” there’s no denying that she was a capital T Trailblazer. At a time when women were told to be quiet, she spoke her mind, slaying critics and fans alike with her acerbic wit, self-deprecating humor, and tell-it-like-it-is chutzpah. Gone, but most definitely not forgotten.
Oh, Gilda Radner! A bright star extinguished far too soon, Radner lit up the world with her megawatt smile and utterly delightful personality. She committed hard, leaving everything on the table in service to a good bit, premise, or character. There will never be another Gilda, but that’s okay — the one we got was pretty darn incredible.
The New Guard
The next grouping is dedicated to the pioneers that came after the pioneers. These comedians were highly active in the late 70s through the early 90s and established a modern female voice on the stage. This list could be much, much longer, but, again, I’m only really including personal faves here (sorry, Ellen and Monique and Paula Poundstone and Rosie and so many others).
With her unique dynamo energy, Wanda Sykes attacks every set she does. It’s an aggressive approach that suits her material well, whether she’s dragging conservative politicians, addressing social justice issues, or simply complaining about her day. A mainstay for decades, there’s no doubt she’ll continue working it out on stage for years to come.
Margaret Cho has kept audiences in stitches since the early’90s when she first burst onto the comedy scene. Known for a bawdy style that leans political and racy, Cho always keeps it at 100. This has garnered her some controversy in the past, but I personally love how fiercely she tackles issues of race, sexuality, and gender.
God love Sandra Bernhard. She’s quirky, strange, and defiantly herself, attributes that have long served her well on the stages of New York City. Whether bringing down the house in a one woman show or slinging wits at a cabaret, Bernhard never shies away from the political, especially when advocating for the LGBTQ+ community, of which she is a proud member.
Kathy Griffin is probably the closest heir apparent to Joan Rivers on this list. Active for decades, Griffin has built an empire on celebrity gossip, snappy barbs, and wry observational humor. She’s not everyone’s fave, but she’s continued to work (and prosper) long after other comedians of her generation threw in the towel. And I personally adore her.
The 21st Century Gals
And finally, I wanted to include some of the most exciting new voices on the scene. These comedians have already started to make their mark, but still have plenty of time to shake things up, break things down, and, ahem, fully and royally f*&% things up.
Though Ali Wong has been in the biz for years, her star rose dramatically after the successes of her Netflix specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. She’s brash, hilarious, and sharp as a tack, which makes her observational humor both incredibly biting and heartfelt.
I am obsessed with Patti Harrison. She’s got a sinister edge that I find utterly delightful, whether deployed on stage, social media, or the big screen. Recently, she’s been stealing scene after scene on Shrill, which uses her morose, deadpan style to excellent effect. Definitely one to watch.
Catherine Cohen has been lighting up the New York City cabaret scene for the past few years, and for good reason: she’s electric, hilarious, and, per her own description, absolutely gorgeous! She’s a little bit campy, a little bit glamour, and a whole lot of funny, a delightful mix that’s definitely got staying power. Plus, the lady sings!
With a surrealist style and oddball sensibility, Ana Fabrega is truly unlike any other comedian I’ve ever watched. I encountered her for the first time on HBO’s fantastic show Los Espookys and was immediately hooked. Her commitment is unreal and she makes every line reading feel fresh and deliciously absurd. Expecting big things from this one.
Well, that about does it for this guide! For more comedy fodder, check out our roundup of the absolute best comedy podcasts to listen to right now.
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