There are over 200 legitimate candidates to make this list, and it is impossible not to miss someone who is deserving. The best (read: easiest) way to approach narrowing down the list was to eliminate contenders by who 1) have yet to establish themselves over time in comparison to the classic female comediennes. That means most of the younger comediennes did not make the list. Another criteria was media attention, which is really very unfair, but for the purposes of a list that people today can relate to it seems to make sense.
Most standup comediennes didn’t make the list because very few have established themselves elsewhere. There are far more TV comediennes on this list than any other broad category because in general they will be getting more media attention and a steadier stream of viewers – Internet or no Internet. Another note of unfairness is that comediennes who appear on long running shows such as Saturday Night Live have the difficulty of surpassing their previous talent – sometimes impossible by historical standards.
Some comediennes, made the list because of their versatility; their ability to play dramatic roles as well as make us laugh. The most basic criteria of all is exactly that – the ability to make us laugh. That makes any list of all-time female comediennes very personal and very fragile. So scream and shout to the rafters when I am certain leaving a particular, very popular and famous comedienne off the list will cause unlimited stress to the reader.
You have been warned. This list is in no particular order of preference or absolute authority.
1. Carol Burnett
She was host of the most popular variety show on television during her time, adding popular comedians such as Harney Korman, Tim Conway, and Vici Lawrence to a supporting cast that was a weekly family favorite. But her longevity on TV was almost cut short by TV executives at CBS who tried to talk her out of a contract extension, making the case that variety shows were the stuff of male celebrities, not women. Fortunately for Burnett, and her audience, her agent had put in the contract an automatic extension after the first 5 years, so she respectfully declined the network’s offer of doing an alternative comedy show of the non-variety type.
2. Betty White
What can be said about Betty White that hasn’t already been said? At age 95 she still finds the energy to make television appearances and is the creator and host of “Off Their Rockers.” Those under the age of 50 are more likely to associate her with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Golden Girls” which makes me wonder whether those stars (Mary Tyler Moore, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan) helped Betty’s long term career along or if Betty was responsible for their fame. The truth is, Betty had her own show decades before either of these two shows, and it is likely they acted as a propellant for the continuation of her career.
3. Gilda Radner
Undoubtedly the most tragic comedienne on this list, Radner, one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live” she was struck down by ovarian cancer at age 42. She has been compared with the popular Lucille Ball for her comedic talents, and despite her life being cut tragically short, she earned a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The final note in her career was during her battles with cancer she chose to write a book, “It’s Always Something” as a personal documentary so that others who were to face the same battles would have a voice who understood their challenges.
4. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Can you believe that Dreyfus was on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”? Yes, her entertainment career goes back that far and she is still going strong. Her recent announcement of having contracted breast cancer has saddened the entertainment world, but we expect to see her back at full strength soon. Her list of TV series includes “Seinfeld,” “Veep” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” As a side note, she has appeared on “Saturday Night Live” 57 times. Her largest body of work has been on television, which makes her one smart comedienne. She knows where her audience and popularity lies, and it sure has made for a long and successful career run.
5. Lily Tomlin
Largely known for her “Rowan and Marin Laugh-in” role as a telephone operator (back in the days when your phone calls were connected by switchboard operators who could listen in on your conversation) her unique voice could even make President Obama laugh. She is now playing Frankie Bergstein in “Grace and Frankie” which has been her longest lasting role since “Laugh-In.” For those old enough to remember, there is one role that she played longer, as Ernestine the Operator on “The Electric Company” that aired on PBS.
6. Phyllis Diller
Phyllis Diller may have had the most challenging start of any comedian, male or female, trying to find a way to take care of her 5 children while breaking into Hollywood as a full time comedienne. Of a career that began in 1961, the longest running show she appeared on was her own, “The Phyllis Diller Show” which lasted 30 episodes. Diller is the comedienne definition of tenacity and hard work, always finding a way to appear on shows and keep her career going. Easily recognizable as a standup comedienne or on TV as the woman with the long, vintage cigarette holder, she made being not glamorous popular, something that especially appealed to many housewives in the culture of the 1960’s.
7. Sarah Silverman
Many women on this list have had to overcome their pasts to overcome in order to arrive at stardom, but Silverman’s definitely ranks in the top 3. She was taking Xanax like it was Tic Tacs because it was prescribed by her doctor. Her career began at age 20, making appearances on “SNL” and like another name on this list, Phyllis Diller, she had only a single show, her own, that lasted more than 30 episodes. Her comedic style took no prisoners, going after Jews, blacks, religion, and just about anyone you could think of. Some people find her style vulgar, but compared to the large number of current comedians (male and female) she is tame by comparison.
8. Madeline Kahn
In every all-time list there is one person who makes the list that swims against the current of traditional qualifications, and makes it because they had tremendous success in a short period of time. Kahn is the choice for this list because Hollywood recognized her talent in 1972 by nominating her for the Golden Globe category Most Promising Newcomer – Female, for her performance in What’s Up, Doc? (She lost to singer Diana Ross, which tells you something about the awards committee). Her nomination was justified only one year later, when she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture for Paper Moon followed up a year later for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture in Young Frankenstein. The Academy also took notice, nominating her for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Paper Moon and again in 1974 for Blazing Saddles. She would transition over to television to do voiceovers and appear in The Cosby Show. Like another woman who made the list, her life would be shortened by ovarian cancer.
9. Mary Tyler Moore
Of any comedienne in the history of Hollywood, despite her constant successes on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,“ “Lou Grant” and her own “Mary Tyler Moore” show, she was the most underrated and under recognized of any woman. She was multi-talented and was stunningly beautiful, a brunette in a world of preferred blondes who were getting the lion’s share of the attention. She could sing, was an amazing dancer, and broke culture barriers by being the first woman to appear on television wearing pants (Capri slacks, to be accurate). She consistently was a voice for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, being diabetic herself. She won an Oscar for Ordinary People and while picking up the Emmy (only) twice for Best Actress, her competition during most of those years were 4 other women on this list.
10. Lisa Kudrow
Kudrow has gotten some recent attention for avoiding the possibility of any “Friends” reunion show, but her role on the shoe and being recognized alongside of two of Hollywood’s most attractive and popular stars – Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston – made her talent particularly difficult to come to the light. She was the consummate ditzy blonde who had both brains and a heart on “Friends.” She picked up a Primetime Emmy in her early years on “Friends” yet with all the hubbub about Cox and Aniston, both her female castmates managed only 3 between the two of them. So why the snub? If your guessing that maybe, just maybe, it was because Cox and Aniston were the focus of male libidos, you might be on to something. Good thing this is a list of comediennes. Here’s to the underdogs in life.
11. Beatrice (Bea) Arthur
Arthur starting making headway on TV by appearing as Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude on the long running and controversial comedy show, “All in the Family.” Her performances earned her her own spinoff show, “Maude” and was later one of the trio of “The Golden Girls” alongside Betty White. She was the icon of woman’s equality for the fans of “All in the Family” protecting Edith and staring down Archie. Her sass and sarcasm coming from a woman played well with both men and women in the audience. That carried over to her own show and “The Golden Girls.” It is hard to find another comedienne who could deliver stern warnings with a straight face and get laughs from it.
12. Jane Curtin
Another original member of the “Saturday Night Live” crew, Curtin’s and the performances of the original cast are well-protected by NBC because they are so unique and still highly in demand today for fans of the show. This is one woman on the list who, quite frankly, may have made a mistake by moving on from SNL. She did it to pursue her own TV show, “Kate and Allie” which was only a modest success by SNL standards. She took a shot at a couple of other TV shows, “Coneheads” in 1993 and “3rd Rock from the Sun” which didn’t fare particularly well either. But to be fair, maybe it is easy to lose perspective over time. Her decision to leave may have been best stated by co-star Chevy Chase: “When asked if he ever imagined SNL lasting 40 years, he said that if he had, he ‘wouldn’t have left!’”
13. Sandra Bullock
Bullock has been described as “America’s Sweetheart” at the peak of her career in such movies as Miss Congeniality. But she can hold her own in sci-fi roles such as Gravity, a role that required both physical talent and acting ability to pull off many of the gravity-free scenes in the movie. She can play dramatic roles such as her Oscar winning performance in The Blind Side. When looking back at her body of work, there isn’t much she is not capable of (though I don’t remember her ever singing). She came to be seriously noticed in Speed with Keanu Reeves, which is one of those amazing movies that is so well-paced watching it 10 years later is still a movie experience. Do you remember her in Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone? Her list of romantic comedies is huge.
14. Goldie Hawn
With undoubtedly the most contagious laugh in Hollywood, she is a natural for a comedy role simply by being able to make other people laugh along with her. As one of the featured cast members of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” in the 1960’s she continued her career in both TV and the silver screen, starring in movies such as Private Benjamin and Bird on a Wire. She picked up an Oscar and a Golden Globe along the way, having been nominated more than a dozen times for Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes. As a notable mother, Kate Hudson is her daughter through marriage to Oliver Hudson.
15. Vicki Lawrence
Vicki Lawrence, like Bea Arthur, was able to get the opportunity for a spinoff of her “Mama” character on “The Carol Burnett Show” and turn it into her own personal success. But she could also sing, having a hit single “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” in 1973 which only accentuated her comedic talents and abilities. She picked up an Emmy for her many versatile roles on “The Carol Burnett Show” and is known for being the first successful female game show host. She would move on from “The Carol Burnett Show” to spinoff one of its characters, Mama, and star in her own show “Mama’s Family.” Her comedic talents were not limited to television as she was also active in theatrical musicals.
16. Jean Stapleton
Stapleton has something few modern comediennes have today – a true sense of what the world “class” means. Throughout her television career she has been able to make audiences laugh through her sympathetic, yet ditzy “All in the Family” character, Edith Bunker. In fact, one of the saddest moments in television history came when she decided to move on from the show, and she was written out by dying. Her role earned her 2 Golden Globes and a number of Primetime Emmy nominations. Her high-pitched nasally voice is one of Hollywood’s most treasured trademarks.
17. Katey Sagal
Sagal is better known for her recent appearances on Sons of Anarchy but she actually was quietly popular with “Married with Children” long before then. Viewers can see reruns on TBS, but the TV show had a rough start because it was on Fox, a cable channel few people were paying much attention watching back in 1986. The show was an experiment back then, but her presence was key in the show’s success. She hung around for all 260 episodes of the show, and continued to find work, landing a voiceover role in “Futurama” as Turanga Leela
18. Bette Midler
While many people know Midler from her songs such as “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings”, there is clearly a place for her in the best comedienne list in part for her role as Barbara Stone in Ruthless People. What is interesting about Midler’s comedic performances is while they are funny, they don’t have you rolling on the floor laughing, which actually may be a better definition of comedy. But unlike most of the comediennes on this list she made her mark in the movies, though she has a number of television show appearances to her credit. She is clearly multitalented, having a ton of hardware to show for it, including 4 Grammy awards, 4 Golden Globes, a Tony Award, and 3 Emmys. There is no other comedienne on this list with the diversity and number of awards Midler has accumulated.
19. Gracie Allen
There must be room for one of the classic comedienne’s of the early age of television, and that place goes to Gracie Allen, the wife and sidekick of George Burns. Well-known to viewers of the Golden Age of Television, it can be safely asked if “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” would have lasted all 292 episodes without her. (It does say something about George Burns giving her equal credit during a time when men dominated the airwaves.) Gracie was the scatterbrained woman to contrast with the straightman Burns, and it worked to comedic perfection. She earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
20. Jane Kaczmarek
Though Jane Kaczmarek has a long television history, appearing on shows such as “Hill Street Blues” and “Paper Chase” her first solid role came as Lois in “Malcolm in the Middle” that went for 150 episodes. She actually became pregnant during the series, yet the filing went on as scheduled. (For “Malcolm” fans, there is enough evidence out on the Internet for you to track down the exact episode.) After that she went on to do some voiceovers for the “The Simpsons” and continue playing a number of different TV series characters.
That is correct, Lucille Ball did not make the list. She has had a resurgence in popularity in recent years, though there is no objective entertainment reason for this spike in popularity. She won a Golden Globe and a couple of Primetime Emmys, but most women on this list earned more hardware in less time. Maybe the fact that Julia Roberts was watching her in Pretty Woman was a starter, but it seems that as a woman who has undergone significant physical abuse from her first husband, Desi Arnaz, she became a symbol for the anti-abuse advocates. How that elevates her talent level as a comedienne cannot be understood by any reasonable person.
As for the women who deservedly made the list, most are multitalented, having been actresses, dancers, singers, standup comediennes, and performed in the theatre. Many have overcome personal or childhood traumas to begin their journey to success, and more than a few encountered obstacles alone the way – including simply being rejected because they were a woman in what the powers-that-be saw as a “man’s business.” That has changed too and continues to change. And we are all the better for it.
A final word about this list. Comediennes in general start from working standup in clubs where audiences can be cruel if you are no good. The next step is to get noticed and perhaps get the opportunity to land a minor role in a movie, which is actually the primary objective for most. Having your own show is often a middle step to the silver screen, but for those on this list who have movie credits to their list of achievements, they have gone as far as Hollywood will let them go.