Make people laugh and they won't even realize you're making them think. Over the past 50 years, women have broken through the glass ceiling time after time, shattering stereotypes and thumbing their noses at the old chestnut that “Women aren't funny.” Fact: Anybody who says women aren't funny doesn't want them to be funny.
We're looking back on the 50 funniest women of the past 50 years, their contributions to comedy, and their enduring legacies that inspire men and women alike. These are the 50 women who have helped (and are helping) to introduce the next class of hilarious women, which will inevitably include Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Tig Notaro, Chelsea Handler, Maria Bamford, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate McKinnon.
Keep in mind this list only includes women who are primarily performers in movies, television, and standup comedy. That's why you don't see legends like Nora Ephron, Anne Beatts, and Elaine May here. Also note that this list chronicles the last 50 years; women who dominated prior to 1965 like Lucille Ball, Moms Mabley, and Elizabeth Montgomery miss the cut for that reason. We'll be counting down 10 new women every day this week. Come back tomorrow for #20-11. Today we've got #30-21.
30. Paula Poundstone
Much as been said about Paula Poundstone's ability to blend traditional (yet very, very salty) standup material with audience interaction, but that doesn't get to the heart of the matter: She is brilliantly informed, observational, and attitudinal. Her meditations on Pop Tarts and cat behavior are downright quaint, but she balances lighthearted banter with serious defiance in the way she skewers everything from politics to Daryl Hannah. (Witness her uproarious special “Cats, Cops, and Stuff” for that diatribe). Poundstone is a card in a cravat, and she's still the funniest part of NPR's weekly news quiz “Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me!”
Funniest Moment: “You tore your face open on a lube rack?… I don't even feel like being here anymore.”
29. Jennifer Saunders
In retrospect it seems impossible that one person could be in both “French and Saunders,” a 20-year-running comedy act on the BBC, and “Absolutely Fabulous,” the legendary sitcom starring Jennifer Saunders as the insane fashion PR agent Edina Monsoon. Though “AbFab” was based on a “French and Saunders” sketch, Saunders has spent her career proving she's willing to be as batty or as deadpan as a scene requires. Though Dawn French is also a legend, Saunders makes our list for winning three BAFTAs.
Funniest moment: She's a scream even when she's reading an old Madonna interview translated from Hungarian.
28. Goldie Hawn
Goldie Hawn has come a long way since being the ditzy, self-professed dumb blonde on “Laugh-In.” For one thing she collected an Oscar almost immediately after catapulting to stardom, and then she starred in a handful of the most beloved, hilarious comedies of the past 40 years including “Shampoo,” “Private Benjamin,” “Death Becomes Her,” “The First Wives Club,” and (the ultimate) “Overboard.” She's played everything from a JAPpy naif to the bitterest of faded actresses, and she does it all with uproarious charisma.
Funniest moment: Perhaps more sweet than funny, this scene in “Everyone Says I Love You” could only work with the graceful and comic Goldie.
Long before she took home an Oscar for her searing portrayal of an abusive single mother in “Precious,” Mo'Nique was a mega-successful standup known for her brash, R-rated humor and commanding stage presence. As a performer on such series as “Def Comedy Jam,” “Showtime at the Apollo” (which she later became the first female to host) and “Snaps,” she took on topics like sex, divorce, gender politics and body image with unapologetic candor, and later scored a spot on the top-grossing “Queens of Comedy” tour alongside fellow comics Laura Hayes, Adele Givens and Sommore. She dialed down her raunchy stage persona for a five-season run on UPN comedy series “The Parkers,” but she's at her best when she's given free reign to be real – and almost nobody does “real” better than Mo'Nique.
Funniest moment: When she calls her ex-husband a “leprechaun” (about 4:40 in) I die every time.
26. Diane Keaton
If it wasn't enough that Diane Keaton gave us the single most beloved performance in a romantic comedy, she has a career full of winning, lovely turns in very funny movies. I'm partial to her pseudo-philosophical streak in “Love and Death,” her bourgeois glamor in “Manhattan,” her amateur sleuthing skills in “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” her radiance in “Father of the Bride,” and her kickass performance in “Baby Boom.”
Funniest Moment: There's really a lot going on here. Hard to take it all in. And yet it's a classic.
25. Molly Shannon
Of the late '90s and early '00s stable of “SNL” cast members Shannon was the most impressive physical comedian, barreling into characters like over-the-hill dancer Sally O'Malley (those high kicks!), shakily exuberant “joyologist” Helen Madden (“I love it I love it I love it!”) and her most famous recurring role, deranged Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher, who spun off into her own film, 1999's “Superstar.” Though she was also adept at playing down her outsized persona in sketches like “Delicious Dish” opposite Ana Gasteyer, she fared best when her awkward, infectious energy was given room to roam. It may sound strange given their wildly different body shapes, but she was essentially the female Chris Farley – often literally throwing herself into a role with an almost frightening level of commitment. What makes her a dynamic performer is the undercurrent of pathos she brings to her comedy – an energy she brought brilliantly to bear with her underrated performance in Mike White's 2007 dark comedy “Year of the Dog.”
Funniest moment: Watching her seduce a tree in “Superstar” is always a scream.
24. Phyllis Diller
After settling in to a life as a homemaker and mother, Phyllis Diller found her true calling as a brassy comedienne. One night she stepped onto the stage at The Purple Onion do to a stand-up routine and the next thing she knew, she'd been performing there for 87 weeks straight. After securing her place as an icon of comedy, she moved on to the Bob Hope show and other TV appearances (including a very special animated appearance with Scooby Doo). Without Diller paving the way, the likes of Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin might never have seen the light of day.
Funniest moment: This standup appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” is distilled Diller. Fang approves.
23. Amy Sedaris
Though “Broad City” is being hailed as the funniest new show on TV, we're all lying to ourselves if we can't agree that Amy Sedaris' appearance as Pam, the neckbraced real estate broker who parks her SmartCar in the middle of the street, was the funniest thing about season one. Unlike most character actresses, Amy Sedaris is not slyly kooky. She is spastically bizarre and never, ever considers reining it in. On “Strangers with Candy,” perhaps the funniest show ever put on Comedy Central (I said it!), she could incite a riot with one twitch of Jerri Blank's ridiculous scowl. Funniest moment: All of “Strangers with Candy,” but this clip is a nice introduction to the lunacy of Jerri Blank.
22. Bette Midler
Bette Midler is a true triple threat: She can act, she can sing, and she's funny as hell. From Broadway to late night television to dominating the charts with her music, Midler has flitted from comedy to drama and back again with ease. In the process, she's made certain that generations of aspiring comedic actresses will have a role model to look up to.
Funniest moment: This self-deprecating rendition of “Fat As I Am” on Johnny Carson is typical of her give-no-cares style.
21. Sandra Bernhard
A fierce, one-of-a-kind talent, Bernhard got her start on the L.A. comedy circuit, where she carved out a niche with her trademark blend of standup and performance art before landing a spot as a cast member on the mega-short-lived “Richard Pryor Show” in 1977. Her edgy, confrontational stage presence helped her land the role of emotionally-unbalanced stalker Masha in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film “The King of Comedy,” but her film career never really took hold. Which wasn't a surprise – Bernhard is the classic performer whose mercurial unconventionality makes her too difficult to pin down for Hollywood's liking. No matter: her string of brilliant one-woman shows like “I'm Your Woman” and “Without You I'm Nothing” (the latter of which was made into a film) are legendary, and she was reliably energizing in her recurring role as Nancy Bartlett on the last several seasons of “Roseanne.” Her close friendship with Madonna for a few brief years further cemented her place in the mainstream consciousness, but her underdog spirit and fierce independence are at the core of her enduring appeal.
Funniest moment: Maybe not her funniest, but I've always gotten a kick out of watching her air-humping antics in this wild clip from her 1992 HBO special “Sandra After Dark.”