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 very reason. We'll be counting down 10 new women every day this week. Come back tomorrow for #30-21. Today we've got #40-31!
(Catch up with #50-41 here.)
40. Carol Kane
It takes a lot of confidence to play opposite of Andy Kaufman and speak a gibberish language with a straight face. But as Simka on “Taxi,” Carol Kane stood toe-to-toe with her co-stars. She even went so far as to win two Emmys for her work on the show. Over the years, Kane's particular brand of comedy crystalized into a sugary sweet persona with bite. Sure, she might sound like she's doing a little girl voice but underneath is comedienne with sass, impeccable timing, and most importantly, a willingness to look silly to sell the bit.
Funniest Moment: Her turn as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the modern day “Scrooged” shows off Kane's variety of comedic talents.
39. Cheri Oteri
Oteri's hefty contributions to “SNL” over five seasons can't be underestimated – she was one of a trifecta of women including Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon who helped the show reverse course after its disastrous 1994-5 season – with a laundry-list of hilariously manic recurring characters like prescription-addled cart-pusher Collette Reardon, angry Queens porch-dweller Rita DelVecchio, insipid morning chat-show host Cass Van Rye and, of course, over-enthusiastic Spartan cheerleader Arianna. Though her cracked-out Barbara Walters impression remains my favorite, she was less known for her celebrity impersonations than for her wacky recurring characters, all of whom were drawn from a wellspring of jacked-up energy (her through-line persona evoked a ditzy screwball heroine on uppers). Oteri's post-“SNL” career hasn't been nearly as high-profile, but her little-seen AMC web series “Liza Life Coach” saw her emerging in fine form years after her departure.
Funniest moment: There are so many, but watching her interview Barbara Walters as Barbara Walters is a scream. (and also a readily-available clip for embedding).
38. Candice Bergen
It's hard to know what we expected from Edgar Bergen's daughter at the beginning of her career, though she startled us with a mature, even heartbreaking performance in “Carnal Knowledge” and a tender turn in the James L. Brooks film “Starting Over,” but once Candice Bergen took the “V.I.P.” helm as Murphy Brown, she was the reigning doyenne of early '90s comedy. With five Emmys for Best Actress under her belt, Bergen established a character who was both clinically professional and wholly endearing — not to mention easy to root for in the face of dubious opposition like Dan Quayle.
Funniest moment: This moment alongside Aretha Franklin shows Bergen's sly gift for wacky humor.
37. Jane Krakowski
Krakowski may have risen to mainstream fame as Calista Flockhart's sultry, nosy assistant on the '90s water cooler comedy “Ally McBeal,” but she really hit her stride as sunnily narcissistic (and possibly sociopathic) “Girlie Show” cast member Jenna Maroney on Tina Fey's “30 Rock” – a role that netted her a total of four Emmy nominations and gave us some of the most hilariously vapid zingers in TV history (“Without the crew we'd just be two amazing people succeeding in a vacuum.”) A Tony-nominated actor long before coming to mainstream attention, she also used her musical theater chops to garner laughs, most famously with Jenna's “dance pop/techno hybrid” “Muffin Top.”
Funniest moment: “Everyone knows…the most delicious part of the muffin…is the top.”
36. Penny Marshall
One of the premiere comedic talents on television in the 1970s, Penny Marshall bounced around Hollywood in her early 20s until she landed a small recurring role on “All in the Family.” In incremental steps, Marshall slowly took over primetime with roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Happy Days” until producers finally realized they were squandering comedic gold. At which point “Laverne & Shirley” was spun-off into its own show, and a star was born. Marshall's tough-talking tomboy is still one of the most recognizable characters in sitcom history.
Funniest Moment: As a star in the 1970s, Marshall made the rounds to the variety shows, including this great bit.
35. Cloris Leachman
She may have earned an Oscar for a blistering dramatic role in “The Last Picture Show,” but Cloris Leachman's most notable award haul concerns her primary area of expertise, comedy. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” legend, who played the vain and irresistibly tart Phyllis Lindstrom, has more acting Emmys than any other performer in history. She was also a fixture in Mel Brooks' kooky coterie, playing the horrifying and bad-ass Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein” and the Hitchcockian Nurse Diesel in “High Anxiety.”
Funniest moment: Violins ready; Frau Blucher approaches!
34. Bea Arthur
There's an unspoken assumption about acting in Hollywood: if you haven't “made it” by your late 20s – especially if you're a woman – the window of opportunity has closed. But Bea Arthur either didn't know that rule…or more likely she just didn't care. After decades performing on and off Broadway, Arthur had a guest appearance on “All in the Family.” The throwaway role was supposed to be a one-time thing: she'd show up as Maude, be a liberal feminist foil to Archie Bunker, and ride off into the sunset. Except audiences loved her. At nearly 50 years old, she had her big break. Arthur would go on to bring her deadpan, acerbic, dry wit to serious issues such as abortion and drug addiction as Maude before moving on to “Golden Girls” where she helped normalize the idea that women don't become sexless crones after menopause.
Funniest Moment: Her perfect one-liners from her run as Dorothy on “Golden Girls.”
33. Rita Rudner
After 30 years in standup, Rita Rudner is still a marquee Vegas act whose one-liners remain unbeatable. Some of my favorites: “When I date a guy, I think, 'I don't know. Is this the man I want my kids to spend weekends with?”; “I used to a vegetarian until I started leaning toward the sunlight”; “When I eventually met Mr. Right I had no idea that his first name was Always.” Her twinkly-eyed kindergarten teacher sweetness often revealed a grim, hilarious sarcasm.
Funniest moment: This whole special.
32. Elaine Stritch
All rise for the woman who reinvented rancor in glorious one-woman shows, HBO specials, and appearances as the unforgiving Colleen Donaghy on “30 Rock.” Stritch made a career of announcing she was still here, but it's her livid truth-spewing that will continue to define her for generations. If you didn't honor her recent passing by watching “At Liberty,” we have nothing in common.
Funniest moment: Her Emmy speech is — I'm saying it right here — the best ever. The BEST. The best! “Thank God I won.”
31. Rosie O”Donnell
One of the definitive talents to come out of “Star Search,” O'Donnell springboarded from that early exposure to land a number of TV roles (she played Nell Carter's brash neighbor on several episodes of “Gimme a Break!”) before rising to fame in a string of '90s comedies including “Sleepless in Seattle,” “The Flintstones” and, most winningly, “A League of Their Own,” in which she played tough-talking third-baseman Doris Murphy. A total original from the get-go, O'Donnell also proved to be one of the most well-rounded performers of her era, able to veer from Northeast bruiser (“League,” “Beautiful Girls”) to ditzy stone-age housewife (“The Flintstones”) to nosy rom-com confidante (“Sleepless”) and, finally, casually-hilarious daytime talk show host on her legendary afternoon chat series “The Rosie O'Donnell Show.” She easily matched her male late-night counterparts by conducting some of the best celebrity interviews on television, but her media-driven “Queen of Nice” pigeonholing was reductive – her gregarious nature has always been underpinned by a caustic edge.
Funniest moment: Her monologue on the media's unrealistic depictions of the female body in “Beautiful Girls” remains a (NSFW) classic.