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 counted down 10 new women every day this week.
10. Lily Tomlin
Lily Tomlin's cool self-possession gives all of her characters an edge. Even if you only know her movies like “Nine to Five” and “All of Me” (and let's not forget about “Big Business”!) you're acutely aware of her specific and irreplaceable gift for sarcasm. But it's her character work on shows like “Laugh-In” where we got to see her be everything from five-and-a-half-year-old raconteur Edith Ann to a bitterly powerful telephone operator Ernestine. There goes Peoria! Funniest moment: Any YouTube search of Lily Tomlin turns up gold, but let's take another look at Edith Ann's storytelling prowess and improvisational skills. You might burst into applause in your chair.
Funniest moment: Edith Ann's storytelling and improvisational flair are on point.
9. Gilda Radner
Gilda Radner was a sublime mix of sweetness and fearlessness. As one of the first-hired members of the original “SNL” cast, she is perhaps single-handedly responsible for making the Not Ready For Prime Time Players not just hilarious, but lovable. She made awkward characters larger than life, and their ebullience was awe-inspiring and emotional. Whether she was lovestruck nerd Lisa Loopner or showbiz-obsessed brownie Judy Miller, Gilda Radner catapulted her entire body and vulnerability into every ridiculous and utterly human caricature. She could also be pretty salty, as was the case with her Roseanne Roseannadanna bits and Baba Wawa impersonation. Her weirdness was glamorous and her goofiness was untouchable.
Funniest moment: Here's Gilda's NSFW tribute to Doctor Doolittle from “Gilda Live.”
8. Whoopi Goldberg
Though she won widespread accolades as a dramatic actor in Steven Spielberg's “The Color Purple,” Goldberg first came to attention for her satirical one-woman theater production “The Spook Show,” which saw her monologuing as a series of different characters including dope-fiend Fontaine, the Surfer Chick and the Cripple in a compelling mixture of theater and standup comedy. The unusual nature of that early production is a natural outgrowth of the woman herself, a unique and multi-faceted performer (she doesn't have an EGOT for nothing) who has the ability to move us one moment and have us doubled over in laughter the next. Her pitch-perfect, frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious performance as Oda Mae Brown in “Ghost” netted her a well-deserved Oscar, and she cemented her big-screen stardom with 1992's “Sister Act,” in which she milked the fish-out-of-water premise for all it was worth. While the trajectory of her film career has been inconsistent, her legacy as a singular performer and magnetic personality looms large.
Funniest moment: “Ghost” may have centered on the love story between Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, but Whoopi owned this movie. The bank scene is still a classic.
7. Mary Tyler Moore
Yes, she could turn the world on with her smile, but Mary Tyler Moore's talents extend well beyond a delighted expression. On “The Dick Van Dyke Show” she could thrill you with her perkiness or a well-timed crying jag, and as the star of the still hilarious, still trenchant “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” her exasperation made for constantly hilarious viewing. Every interaction between Mary and Lou Grant turned up an adversarial but loving repartee that Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy must've studied like hypnotized seminarians.
Funniest moment: Chuckles bit the dust and Mary is finally ready to laugh about it — at exactly the wrong time.
6. Betty White
From pin-up model to the Internet”s Grandma, Betty White has been entertaining us for over sixty years. There”s just something indescribable funny about having dirty jokes come from such a sweet and innocent-looking face. Self-deprecating and charming, White can – and has – played everything from a sardonic singleton masquerading as a “Happy Homemaker” to a hilarious world-wise widow hiding underneath the guise of naive country bumpkin. With her popularity surging at the beginning of the 21st century, White's legacy as one of the best and hardest-working comediennes is written in stone.
Funniest moment: Rose Nylund, we salute you.
5. Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen Degeneres has made a career of epitomizing the mantra of “Don”t punch down” while quietly breaking down barriers for women and LGBT people in comedy. From her earlier stand-up through bravely coming out of the closet during the height of her show “Ellen,” DeGeneres has found happiness and humor in just about everything. That optimism she shares with the world even today – whether it”s dancing on her talk show or passing out pizza at the Oscars – makes DeGeneres a one-of-a-kind icon.
Funniest moment: Ellen is so comfortable and cool when she's doing standup. Where did she learn (or how did she invent) that comic timing?
4. Tina Fey
The minute Tina Fey leapt forth from the “SNL” writers room to “Weekend Update,” she was an assured, essential presence on the show. Her authoritative anchoring would naturally lead to comfortable stardom on her self-penned series “30 Rock,” where as Liz Lemon she threw down — I'll say it! — many of the greatest jokes in the history of television. Tina Fey is informed, incisive, and always, always hilarious. The fact that she picked up the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the age of 40 is evidence enough that she is the definitive comedic talent of the 21st century. Plus she gave us “Mean Girls.” Suck on that!
Funniest moment: Hard to argue with her work as Sarah Palin. This little back-and-forth with Katie Couric is still unbeatable.
Roseanne's gum-chomping “Domestic Goddess” was brilliantly adapted to television for her groundbreaking ABC sitcom, which went against the grain of the half-hour comedies of the day by presenting a more kitchen-sink view of middle-class life. As Roseanne Conner she was brash, opinionated and relentlessly funny, her withering retorts and drowsy delivery a direct response to the scrubbed-up, obedient housewives that dominated television for decades. She's kept a lower profile since the show ended in 1997 (though let's not forget her very underrated talk show), but even if we never heard from her again, her legacy as a TV trailblazer would be secure.
Funniest moment: This is how you do customer service, folks.
2. Joan Rivers
Fearless until the very end, it's a testament to Rivers' vitality that her death came as such a shock despite the fact that she was 81 years old when she passed. Anyone who's seen the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” no doubt has an appreciation for the woman's work ethic – her filing cabinet of jokes alone is jaw-dropping – but the fact that she managed to remain funny and relevant long after most of her contemporaries reached the point of stagnation commands respect. The sheer amount of adversity she experienced in the course of her career would have cowed most performers, but not Joan: not only did she persevere, she came back twice as hard every time another roadblock was set up in her path. Matching her relentlessness was her scathingly quick wit, which served as the best counter against her critics – with that remarkable brain, she didn't need defending from anyone else.
Funniest moment: Watch her make short work of a heckler in this clip from “A Piece of Work.”
1. Carol Burnett
Sorry to start off our #1 pick with a sour note, but it must be acknowledged: There was once a time when TV executives believed a woman couldn't front a variety show. That was a real thing. And that's why “The Carol Burnett Show,” with its scads of Emmy nominations and wins, is such a triumph: Over its 12-year run, it gave us an endless supply of magnificent characters, wonderful song-and-dance numbers, and a towering comedy doyenne who was capable of wooing you with personable, self-deprecating, insane, over-the-top, wild, or intimate characters. (Did I mention she is also a fabulous actress? Have you seen “The Four Seasons” lately? Pick it up.) Carol Burnett is the definition of a national treasure. She's eternally cool, always hilarious, and forever herself.
Funniest moment: “Went With the Wind.” Scroll over to 13:20 for the legendary curtain dress.