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 #40-#31, but for now we begin with #50-41.
50. Laurie Metcalf
“Roseanne” might be remembered for delivering the titular standup comic's rancor with notes of sentimentality and family values, but the show wouldn't be an all-time great without the spastic, impeccably timed work of Laurie Metcalf as Aunt Jackie. Metcalf, a Steppenwolf Theatre alum who won an Obie Award for her performance in “Balm in Gilead,” was both cartoonishly grand and spastically real as the exhausted Jackie. She picked up three Emmys for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and it's not difficult to see why: All these years later there's no one as exasperated or as funny as Aunt Jackie. Metcalf now stars on what I promise is the most underrated comedy on TV, HBO's “Getting On.”
Funniest Moment: Aunt Jackie's season-five phone call to Barbara where she has to relay the news of her father's death. It doesn't go well.
49. Maya Rudolph
It's basically impossible to name Maya Rudolph's best character. As an “SNL” powerhouse she gave us such eccentric, searing versions of Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, and Donatella Versace that it's hard to quantify her immense and hilarious gifts. She could also transmit utter sweetness, as she did with her “Wake Up, Wakefield!” nerd girl Megan and in “Bridesmaids” as the justifiably annoyed bride-to-be Lillian. We still miss “Up All Night” because of her wacky character and hope she gets more opportunities to exercise her flair for vaudevillian grandeur in more variety specials.
Funniest moment: Too many to choose from, but her work as original prankster Maya Angelou is a notably insane.
48. Jessica Walter
If you had told Jessica Walter in 1971 that she would be considered one of the funniest women of the 21st century, she would've laughed in your face before heading out to the Golden Globes. Because that was the year Walter was nominated for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama for her role as Evelyn Draper in “Play Misty For Me.” Walter received praise for playing a woman with borderline personality disorder to falls for and ends up stalking the object of her affection. She was so convincing, even Roger Ebert called her acting “unnerving effectiveness.” But in 2003 she graduated to comic doyenne status in the role of “Arrested Development” matriarch Lucille Bluth, the foul-mouthed, cold-hearted, alcoholic mother of adult children. If this is type-casting, she doesn't mind at all. In fact, after “Arrested Development” was canceled in 2006, Walter specifically took on the role of Malory Archer on FX's show “Archer” because the character purposefully drew comparisons between Malory and Lucille. Unlike many of the women on this list, she came to comedy late in life but when she finally arrived, it was at full force.
Funniest Moment: All of this.
47. Joan Cusack
Perhaps the definitive comedic character actress of the '80s and '90s, Cusack practically set the template for the thankless “best friend” role that came to permeate the rom-com genre but nevertheless made the most of even the most thinly-drawn characters (and in many cases surpassed her more glamourous leading ladies in impact). A singular cinematic presence, Cusack's outsized delivery and deft character work resulted in Oscar nominations for her performances in both “Working Girl” (as straight-shooting secretary Cynthia) and “In & Out” (as the fiancee of Kevin Kline's closeted teacher), but her list of impeccable screen performances is long, from frazzled assistant news director Blair Litton in “Broadcast News” to murderous gold-digger Debbie Jelinksy in “Addams Family Values” to uptight private school principal Rosalie Mullins in “School of Rock.” To mention that she's under-appreciated is a cliche at this point, which doesn't make it any less true – then again, her sexy, invigorating, hysterical output is difficult to praise adequately.
Funniest moment: The moments that would qualify here are innumerable, but this wedding-night meltdown in “In & Out” showcases her trademark mixture of verbal hysterics and physical comedy to brilliant effect.
46. Jean Stapleton
Archie Bunker would be nothing if Edith Bunker weren”t there to constantly un-stifle herself. Jean Stapleton picked up three Emmys for pestering Archie with her squawks and quaint coos, but it was Edith”s serious backbone that made her such a fabulous character. On a show known for its progressive streak, Edith was the secret weapon who could occasionally subvert expectation and carve up Archie for his bigotry. Stapleton”s seemingly effortless performance made Edith more real than perhaps any other sitcom matriarch of the ’70s.
Funniest Moment: Listen as Edith tries to explain what happened with the — ahem — cling peaches at the grocery store.
45. Melissa McCarthy
An overnight success 14 years in the making, Melissa McCarthy flew under the radar for years playing the quirky sidekick. Her first appearance might have been on her cousin Jenny's show of the same name, but McCarthy quickly got out from under her more famous (at the time) relative's shadow when she scored a gig as Sookie St. James on cult classic “Gilmore Girls.” By the time “Bridesmaids” made her a household name, McCarthy was ready to parlay her success as a physical comedian into a lasting (and Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated) career. McCarthy plays loud women, rude women, conniving women, self-deprecating women, hygiene-challenged women. But above all she plays complex women that hold a mirror up to the audience and challenge us to look beyond the stereotypical boxes we've inadvertently been stuffing women into for years. McCarthy is just one of the latest comediennes to look at the cornucopia of role variety offered to her male peers and demand equal access to them. And if Hollywood won't create robust, complicated, unlikable women? Then McCarthy will create them herself.
Funniest Moment: Have you heard the Spanx story from her appearance on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show? Treat yourself.
44. Barbra Streisand
It's to Barbra's credit that she makes this list despite the fact that she's known for at least four other areas of expertise (singing, directing, Broadway cred, philanthropy) before she qualifies as a comedy icon, but make no mistake: Streisand has given us a handful of the most energized and hilarious performances of the silver screen. She essentially reinvented the concept of a musical heroine and invented quirkiness with her astounding, near-heroic performance as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” She thrilled us with her auctioneer speed and whizzbang timing in “What's Up, Doc?” And she was even the funniest part of “Meet the Fockers,” a movie teeming with comedy veterans. Her confidence was irresistible, and her comic genius is just one of a thousand reasons she's the definitive talent of the 20th century.
Funniest moment: The breathless way she stalks and outsmarts Ryan O'Neal in the opening moments of “What's Up, Doc?”
No one had ever quite seen a character like Sandra on “227.” She was brash, ridiculous, self-absorbed, confident, willfully annoying, and the world's best cooer. She is bristling with nerve and vivaciousness, and that's all thanks to the legendarily saucy Jackee, who was the first African-American woman to pick up the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a comedy series. She also blew us away as Tia and Tamera Mowry's no-nonsense mother in “Sister, Sister” and as Rodney Dangerfield's assistant coach in “Ladybugs,” but the image of Sandra batting those eyelashes and purring “Maaaaary” at Marla Gibbs is eternally scream-out-loud funny.
Funnest Moment: In “Far from the Tree,” the episode that won Jackee her Emmy, she discusses her dubious family situation. Try not to die in a fit of crazed laughter when she brings up “morbid Mark the mortician.”
42. Bonnie Hunt
A former member of Chicago's famed Second City, Hunt's warm, gently-acerbic brand of comedy feels so lived-in that it's easy to overlook the craft involved. Her deft improvisational skills have been put to great use in a number of different arenas, from her critically-acclaimed 2002-2004 sitcom “Life with Bonnie” to a string of memorable '90s film appearances (loved her perplexed, overprotective older sister in “Jerry Maguire”) to short-lived daytime talker “The Bonnie Hunt Show.” True to her un-showy “working stiff” persona, she's never enjoyed a breakout success built solely around her talents, but her low-key charms have nevertheless left an indelible mark on the popular culture over her three decades in the business.
Funniest moment: Hunt's humor is so dry and organic it's hard to come up with a single moment, but any of her numerous appearances on “David Letterman” are a great showcase for her deadpan wit.
41. Janeane Garofalo
By the early '90s we'd been inundated with deadpan male comics who didn't mind alienating us with their constant eye-rolling, but Janeane Garofalo marked a new version of that old pro: She was more sardonic than the average female comic, yes, but she was more informed and readily political than almost any other comic, period. Her mocking tone informed her role as Paula the talent booker on “The Larry Sanders Show” and her classic turns in “Reality Bites,” “Romy and Michele's High School Reunion,” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” but to us Garofalo will always be an essential standup, a knowledgeable skeptic who'd rather disarm and thrill you with intelligence than suffer you with stodgy joke-telling.
Funniest Moment: Off-the wall choice here, but she was hilarious on MTV's special “25 Lame,” a countdown of the network's worst videos. At one point she says she'd love to be a celeb superfan on MTV's “Fanatic” but only if Sal Mineo were still alive.