HBO’s acclaimed comedy Veep returns this month for its sixth season. That means next year its star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, will be the odds on favorite to take home an unprecedented sixth straight Emmy award for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her portrayal as the in-over-her-head, frustrated, foul-mouthed, and hilarious politician Selina Meyer.
Considering her past work on Seinfeld, Veep’s upcoming new season has us wondering if its female lead is already the funniest women in television history–even though she still has many years ahead of her to build an even stronger case–or if there are other women still more deserving of the title.
To figure that out, we took a look at the careers of dozens of comedians, and came up with the 15 Funniest Women in Television History, Ranked.
15. Kristen Wiig
Saturday Night Live has been the home to many of the funniest, most successful women on television. None of them were ever tasked with carrying the heavy burden of the show the way Kristen Wiig was, as she became the focal point and anchor of the show in a way no other woman previously had.
If you were trying to create the perfect SNL cast member in a laboratory you’d want them to to create memorable, original characters, do a wide range of impressions, be able to make us laugh while being completely silly or totally strange, crack us up with nothing more than a look or a deadpan delivery, and also play the straight character when a sketch called for it. So basically you would want to create Kristen Wiig.
Her meteoric rise is the only reason she isn’t higher on this list, as her talents had Hollywood calling her very quickly, but with a long career ahead of her she has the chance to move way up this list.
14. Tracey Ullman
Quite possibly the most under-appreciated comedic female actress of all time, Tracey Ullman is one of the most versatile and talented impressionists and sketch performers ever. Her comedy chops and skills go well beyond that, though, as she is also a prolific comedy writer responsible for creating a cadre of incredible original characters.
Through her long career, which has seen her win six Emmys, she has anchored numerous sketch comedy shows and specials, including her latest series, Tracey Ullman’s Show. Besides even more new characters, her spot-on impressions include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and famed actress Dame Judi Dench.
It’s possible that she’s so underrated because often people don’t realize it’s Tracy Ullman doing all of these extremely different people.
And while her old variety series on Fox, The Tracey Ullman Show, will always be remembered for spawning The Simpsons, Ullman’s performance on the show would have earned it–and her–a place in television history among the funniest women ever.
13. Maya Rudolph
How funny is Maya Rudolph? How much do people genuinely love and appreciate her work? She’s so hilarious and charming that she’s the only person to ever impersonate the Queen herself, Beyonce, and not have the Beyhive set out to destroy her. How many other humans on the planet could pull that off?
With a myriad of impressions, impeccable timing, a powerful stage presence, and the ability to be either the silliest person in a sketch or the straight man…err, woman, she is unquestionably one of the funniest female cast members in the long history of Saturday Night Live, and certainly one of its most multi talented.
In fact, she’s so talented that after her and Martin Short’s sketch together during the star-studded mega event that was the SNL 40th Anniversary Show, NBC gave the two of them their own variety show, Maya and Marty, a format that had long been dormant on network television. She is a standout among standouts.
12. Tina Fey
Liz Lemon was the heart and soul of 30 Rock, one of the best and most beloved joke-for-joke sitcoms in history, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Tina Fey as the lead.
Always a funny cast member during her time at Saturday Night Live, her greatest accomplishment on the late night variety series came off camera in 1999, when she was named the first female head writer in the show’s history. At least, that was her greatest accomplishment while she formally worked on the show, because her most memorable work on the show came after Fey had left, but a bespectacled governor from Alaska entered the national picture as the Republican nominee for Vice President.
There was literally no one else America wanted to see play Sarah Palin, and it is arguably the single funniest political impression in the long history of a show famous for them. “I can see Russia from my house” will be funny forever.
11. Jane Curtin
The one person on this list you might be surprised to see here is Jane Curtin, because she might not be as famous as the other women on this list, but even just a quick look at her long and impressive resume shows why she easily belongs in any group of the funniest women in television history.
Not only was she one of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live, where she, Gilda Radner, and Laraine Newman made up arguably the show’s strongest group of female cast members ever, she has continued working in television to this day, including on Kate and Allie in the 80s, where she won two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
However, even with both of those shows and all the acclaim she still receives for them, her single funniest role might have been as Dr. Mary Albright on 3rd Rock From the Sun, where she played the human female love interest to Jon Lithgow’s alien researcher. The history of television is full of Jane Curtin being hilarious.
10. Gilda Radner
While everyone else on this list got to make their mark for decades, sadly Gilda Rander was television’s shooting star, passing away from ovarian cancer at the far too young age of 42 in 1989.
But during her short time her talent burned brightly, as one of the original–and still, over 40 years later one of the unquestioned best–cast members of Saturday Night Live. Her over-the-top, often obnoxious characters, like the big-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna, or her screeching and oblivious nerd Lisa Loopner, made her a standout on a show with an all star cast. And she was one of the first great impressionists the show ever had too, as her mock up of newscaster Barbara Walters, who Radner played as “Baba Wawa,” still stands as an all-timer from the show.
It’s sad to think about what could have been if she had not died at such a young age, but it’s a testament to her supreme talent that she still rightfully earns a spot among television’s funniest females.
9. Amy Poehler
The charming and lovable Amy Poehler might have made this list just based on her sketch comedy work on television, because beyond her stint at Saturday Night Live, where she proved to be one of the most versatile and consistently great performers to ever grace its stage, she also had a short but amazing run on the Upright Citizens Brigade, a show with a small but loyal audience.
She also might have made this list just for her starring role on NBC’s Parks and Rec, where her Leslie Knope was one of the warmest, most caring, and of course funniest bosses in television history. It’s no coincidence this was another show of hers with a passionate fanbase.
But put all of her work together and she already earns a spot in the top 10 of the funniest women in TV history, even though she has decades to continue adding to her already amazing resume. With her comedic talent, ability to lead a series, and undeniable likability, she could end up a lot higher here one day.
Few comedic performers of either gender have ever had as strong and unique a voice as the woman so talented she can just go by her first name forever and not be confused for anyone else.
While television had mostly required women to be beautiful and demure as a prerequisite to be funny, the larger-than-life Roseanne threw that all out the window with her eponymous sitcom, where she played loud-mouthed and strong-willed Roseanne Connor, a woman that sounded and behaved more like someone you would know in real life, and not a typical , polished TV facsimile, only if that real woman also happened to be unbelievably hysterical. Because for as different, original, and honest as Roseanne was from previous sitcoms that tried to show real American home life, it was also laugh-out-loud funny.
7. Bea Arthur
While the rest of the women on this list often made us laugh with big, broad performances, or by creating absurd and unique characters, only Bea Arthur could bring down the house with nothing more than a steely-eyed glaze. If deadpan and gravitas were the only measuring stick for being funny, she’d be the most hilarious person to have ever lived.
While most television viewers today remember the two-time Emmy winner for her role as Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls, where she was tasked with being the anchor for the show while still being hilarious, she also starred on the ground breaking Maude, where she played a liberal woman, married to her fourth husband, and unafraid to say what she really thought, a premise that would be noteworthy even today.
Her Maude Findlay originally appeared on All in the Family, where Bea Arthur’s two guest cameos were so funny and so memorable, legendary TV creator Norman Lear decided she needed her own show. He was obviously right.
6. Betty White
No one on this list has had as long and prolific a career as the beloved Betty White, but what makes her resume even more impressive is that no one else has ever managed to do so in such dramatically different types of comedic roles.
The seven-time Emmy winner and living national treasure was taking home the award for her supporting role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70s, as the sharp-witted and often mean Sue Ann Nivens, and then she won again in the 80s for her leading (and arguably most famous) role on The Golden Girls, for her portrayal of Rose Nylund, a wonderful but simple-minded woman.
But remarkably, and unlike almost everyone else on this list, her fame has only grown as she has gotten older, and she became a comedic hero to an all new generation of fans, whose love for her resulted in 2010 in her getting to again host Saturday Night Live, for no reason other than they demanded it.
5. Carol Burnett
Television does not have the best track record of giving funny females a worthy platform, but one area where women have had a chance to shine is on sketch comedy shows, and six-time Emmy winner Carol Burnett still stands as the best of the best in that particular form.
For 279 episodes from 1967 to 1978 on CBS, The Carol Burnett Show was a beloved and important part of the cultural landscape, and still stands as one of the best series ever, thanks to its original sketches and characters, as well as its famous movie parodies, like the iconic “Went With the Wind,” which will forever pop up in any montage of TV’s funniest moments.
4. Joan Rivers
For an entire generation of TV viewers award season was synonymous with Joan Rivers, since no night of glitz and glamour was complete without her sharp-tongued commentary from the red carpet, where she would knock everyone down a peg or twelve. Often ruthless but always hilarious, Joan Rivers might have been the funniest and purest female comedian of all time.
She was so talented that not only was she named the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, a monumental achievement for anyone, she became the first woman ever to get her own network late night talk show in 1986, with The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.
Incredibly (and shamefully), no other woman has had her own major network, late night talk show since. Joan Rivers was so unrelentingly funny she was able to break down barriers that they then immediately put back up and haven’t taken down more than 30 years later.
3. Mary Tyler Moore
One of the true heavyweights in the history of the medium, the six-time Emmy winner and title character of the classic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the hilarious heart of one of the great ensembles ever, and on a show full of truly outstanding characters and moments, it’s her ridiculous and untimely outburst during the funeral for Chuckles the Clown that is often cited as the single funniest moment in television history.
But long before she was breaking ground as a divorced, working, female lead character (unthinkable at the time), she played the enormously funny Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Fifty years later and she can still make viewers laugh just by crying out “Oh, Rob!”
2. Julia Louis-Dreyfus
By the time Seinfeld was wrapping up its final season, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, whose work on the show as Elaine Benes earned her six Emmy nominations and one win for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, was already considered by many to be one of the two or three funniest women in television
That was in 1998.
All she has done in the nearly two decades since is go on to win an additional six more Emmys, each time in a leading role, and she did it on two very different types of shows. The first win came for traditional three-camera sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine on CBS, and the last five–all in a row, which set a record–have been for her incredible and all-time memorable performance as politician Selina Meyers on the single-camera and very vulgar Veep on HBO.
Few people in television history have been as consistently funny on so many different series for as long she has, and some day when people look back on her entire career she might rightfully be at the top of this list.
1. Lucille Ball
If you were making a list of the funniest people in television history, man or woman, Lucille Ball would still be worthy of holding the top spot. She wasn’t just talented enough to be the lead on three separate, long running sitcoms, she was talented enough that her own name was in title of all three. Beyond her most famous series, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy combined for over 300 episodes.
But her performance as Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy would be enough to earn her the crown as funniest woman in television history.
Her red-haired, shameless fame-seeking wife of bandleader Ricky Ricardo is arguably the most iconic, most famous character in all of TV, and her antics–whether on the chocolate factory line, trying to meet celebrities in Hollywood, or hawking alcoholic health tonic–are as hysterical today as they were when they first aired. Timeless, hilarious, and ground breaking, Lucille Ball still stands as the funniest woman to ever grace our television sets.
Before getting to the top 15, here are a few funny females that deserve a nod for their contributions to television.
–Jackée Harry: She’s not only funny, she’s so unique most people don’t even know she has a last name; her talent is worthy of single name recognition.
–Sofia Vergara: Her beautiful, superstitious, absurd Gloria on the hit Modern Family is one of the funniest and most memorable TV characters on TV today.
–Melissa McCarthy: Already such a big film star it can be easy to forget that McCarthy has a great TV resume, both for her work on The Gilmore Girls as well as Mike and Molly.
–America Ferrera: The star of the beloved Ugly Betty has moved on to a new sitcom, NBC’s Superstore, and has shown that she can make us laugh in many different ways.
–Kate McKinnon: Her brief run on Saturday Night Live already has her just on the outside of this list.
–Amy Schumer: One of the best standups working today, her sketch comedy show Inside Amy Schumer is critically acclaimed.
–Ilana Glazer: One of the purest, funniest women here, it’s only her relatively short career keeping her out of the top 15.
–Jean Stapleton: All in the Family’s Edith Bunker is one of the best, most hilarious characters in TV history, and her omission from the top 15 is the hardest of them all.
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