Today’s entertainment world is packed with brilliant female comedic minds. But it wasn’t always so easy for women to make their mark in the boys’ club of comedy. Comediennes of today stand on the shoulders of many hilarious women that came before them. Here’s a look at just a few of the ladies who made an indelible mark on the American comedic landscape.
1. Fanny Brice
It’s fair to say that without Fanny Brice there might very well never have been a Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. Born in 1891, Brice left school at an early age to become a burlesque performer, which is how she was eventually discovered by legendary entertainment impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. After skyrocketing to stardom in his Ziegfeld Follies, Brice went on to star on Broadway and in numerous motion pictures. She has been referred to as “America’s first female comedy superstar.” Years after her 1951 death, Brice was portrayed in the Broadway and film productions of Funny Girl, the latter of which won Barbra Streisand a Best Actress Oscar in 1969.
2. Lucille Ball
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lucille Ball (along with her then-husband Desi Arnaz) deserves much of the credit for the television sitcom as we know it today. No television program before I Love Lucy, which ran from 1951 to 1957, had ever used a three-camera setup or filmed in front of a live studio audience. So those crowd reactions during iconic moments like the candy conveyor belt or grape-squashing scenes? Those are actual human audience members screaming out in laughter for one of the first times in television history. I Love Lucy was also one of the first TV shows ever to be sold into syndication, which is why you can still regularly catch reruns of the iconic sitcom today, over 60 years after its premiere. Back in 2012 it was reported that CBS was still making around $20 million annually from I Love Lucy syndication deals.
3. Phyllis Diller
Central Press/Getty Images
Long before Roseanne ever made the jump from housewife to comedy superstar, Phyllis Diller did the exact same thing—and blazed a trail for every female comedian who followed. Often cited as the very first female standup celebrity, Diller was widely known for her trademark wild hairstyle and off-the-wall outfits. But when it came to her material, Diller was serious business. Rather than performing song-and-dance routines or other flashy gimmicks like many other female performers of the day, Diller simply told jokes. And she told them so well that Guinness once recognized her comedic volume by conferring on her the world record for most laughs per minute. Countless fellow comedians, like fellow icon Joan Rivers, list Diller as an influence, which explains why she’s often referred to as the “Queen of Comedy.”
4., 5., and 6. Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Anne Beatts, and Rosie Shuster
Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Anne Beatts, and Rosie Shuster’s names may not ring an immediate bell, but their work certainly does: They were the lone three female writers during the first season of Saturday Night Live, helping to shape the formative first year of what would become a comedy institution.
In addition to SNL, Miller also wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the award-winning Lily Tomlin television special, Lily. On Saturday Night Live she helped created the Festrunk Brothers (a.k.a. “two wild and crazy guys”) and some of Gilda Radner’s most popular characters. Beatts also spent time writing for National Lampoon magazine, one of the most revered publications in the history of American humor. Miller, Beatts, and Shuster helped pave the way for later SNL scribes like Tina Fey, who in 1999 would become the show’s first female head writer.
7. Whoopi Goldberg
Brian Ach/Getty Images for Variety
Don’t let The View be the thing that springs to mind when you hear the name Whoopi Goldberg. She began as a masterful live stage performer, using character-based monologues to simultaneously generate laughter and introspection about modern society. After starring on Broadway she was recruited into the world of motion pictures by none other than Steven Spielberg to star in his 1985 film adaptation of The Color Purple, and earned an Oscar nomination for her work in the film. In 1991, Goldberg became the first African American woman in more than half a century to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Ghost. That award serves as just one component of her lifetime honors; she is one of only 12 people to ever “EGOT” (a.k.a. to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award) and she was the first woman ever presented with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
8. Mitzi Shore
By The Comedy Store [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Though she isn’t a performer, Mitzi Shore has helped launch the careers of some of the most famous comedians of the last 50 years. As the co-founder and operator of the Los Angeles standup club The Comedy Store, Shore has helped introduce the world to the likes of Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Sam Kinison, and dozens of other A-list names. She also worked to break the comedy glass ceiling by creating a special standup venue that only allowed female comics on stage, and launched comedy nights designed specifically for LGBT performers.
After the club’s frequent acts banded together to go on strike requesting to be compensated for their performances, Shore began paying performers $25 per show. The decision had a nationwide impact on the standup comedy profession. An article in TIME noted that:
The strike's impact was far-reaching. Comedy clubs in New York City began paying their comics as well. Clubs that were springing up around the country were then forced to boost their fees too, to lure more top comics out on the road—launching the comedy club boom of the 1980s.
As of a few years ago, Tom Hanks’s film production company was working on a film based on Shore and her famous Comedy Store. (Yes, she is also Pauly Shore’s mom.)