Funny girls have been making audiences laugh since long before Fanny Brice had radio audiences in stitches back in the 1930s. Everyone still loves madcap TV pioneer Lucille Ball, and Mary Tyler Moore and all four Golden Girls cracked us up while breaking down social barriers in the 1970s and ’80s. Today’s funny women—such as Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling—are not only comedians but entertainment-world powerhouses creating top-rated TV shows and films.
In Funny Girl Barbra Streisand plays comedy legend Fanny Brice, who gets her first stage role when she fibs her way into a roller-skating vaudeville number. Though she totters on her skates and careens right into the scantily clad chorus line, she’s a hit with the audience and before long lands a role in the Ziegfeld Follies revue. The unconventional-looking showgirl realizes her delivery of lyrics such as “I am so beautiful” elicits only snickers. So she stuffs a pillow under her gown to appear pregnant and brings the house down with the line “I am the beautiful reflection of my love’s affection, a walking illustration of his adoration.”
Similar screwball antics are delivered by Jess Day, Zooey Deschanel’s whiskey-voiced character on the sitcom New Girl. While trying to be one of the guys she smashes a basketball through a TV screen, and her turn as a glamour girl goes awry when she must navigate a revolving stage in high heels. Both women are most effective when their strengths and smarts shine through their quirks. Brice channeled her slapstick verve into a landmark career in comedy, and behind all the nutty shenanigans, Jess is a likable, refreshing mensch.
Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl character, Jess Day, seems to have little in common with Mary Richards, the career girl from a small Minnesota town on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In fact, these two 31-year-olds seem a generation apart in age. Mary settles into a bachelorette pad in a Victorian house in the Twin Cities, while Jess moves in with three guys in L.A.; Mary is an ambitious professional at a television station, while Jess’s job record is spotty at best; and fairly straitlaced Mary would blush at some of Jess’s sexual misadventures. But it’s easy to imagine the two having a good time together over drinks (brandy alexander for Mary, rosé for Jess). They could bond over their failed romances and their fondness for grumpy cynics—Mary’s boss, Lou Grant, and Jess’s depressive, semi-alcoholic roommate Nick. They could also compare the virtues of their best gal pals, who are cut from the same cloth—Mary’s Rhoda, a wisecracking New Yorker, and Jess’s Cece, a street-smart fashion model. Both Mary and Jess navigate some pretty sticky situations, but all along we know they are, as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song promises, “gonna make it after all.”
Take an attractive, smart woman, put her to work alongside a tough but benign man, light a spark of romantic attraction, and you have an age-old formula for comedy. Think Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) matching wits with her newspaperman boss and ex-husband, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), in His Girl Friday. Or Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) sparring with Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) in Desk Set. Mary Richards and Lou Grant (Ed Asner) enacted this premise in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) did a more recent take in 30 Rock. Single women with some bad romances behind them, Richards and Lemon both work in television and competently keep their shows running smoothly, to the usually begrudging admiration of their bosses. Lou never manages to completely dampen Mary’s spirits, no matter how gruff he is. “You know what? You’ve got spunk,” he tells her. “Well, yes,…” she modestly beams. “I hate spunk,” he growls. Meanwhile, Liz suffers cynical network executive Jack, deflecting backhanded compliments often tainted with misogyny: “I like it when a woman has ambition,” he muses. “It’s like seeing a dog wearing clothes.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards takes the pill and fights for equal pay as she pursues a career. While this may have been typical for some women in the 1970s, such a lifestyle had rarely before been portrayed on prime-time TV. A decade later came another socially minded sitcom: The Golden Girls, about four women who share a house in Miami. Both shows feature Betty White, who played man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and naive Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. Rose and her roommates cope with things like menopause and widowhood, as well as encounter issues of homelessness, immigration and AIDS, all while remaining good-naturedly funny. When Blanche (Rue McClanahan) is scandalized because her brother is marrying a man, the Catholic octogenarian Sophia (Estelle Getty) makes a case for gay marriage that’s as straightforward as any commentary on the subject today: “Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?” Using an age-old technique, Sophia sweetens the message with a joke. “Why do men have nipples?” she wonders. “Do you think it’s because God has a sense of humor, and isn’t as uptight as the rest of us?”
The Golden Girls showed audiences that a house full of women in their purported “golden years” can be nearly as raucous as a frat house. While the women share an enviable intimacy, they also constantly engage in sharp and often bitchy banter. “I treat my body like a temple,” says the sexually aggressive Blanche. “Yeah, open to anyone, day or night,” rejoins the wisecracking Sicilian-born Sophia. The dynamic between these two wits in particular never disappoints. “There must be homosexuals who date women,” says Blanche. “Yeah, they’re called lesbians,” answers Sophia. For all the frank talk, the four funny ladies never descend to outright raunchiness. The film Bridesmaids makes that leap, taking female humor to new heights, or depths, depending on one’s opinion of public regurgitation and defecation. In the movie’s ultimate gross-out scene, the title characters lose control of their bowels while trying on expensive gowns in a snooty bridal salon. The mayhem that ensues is intimate (if not enviable) and could hold its own against the worst excesses of the male-oriented American Pie and The Hangover—a dubious accomplishment, to be sure, but a pretty big step for gender equality, and it’s side-splittingly funny, too.
For almost 40 years Saturday Night Live has introduced late-night TV audiences to some of America’s funniest comedians—many of whom have then brought their humor to hit sitcoms and films. With the possible exception of Sarah Palin, it’s hard to imagine anyone not loving brilliant and hilarious SNL alum Tina Fey. Her off-the-wall yet oddly insightful jokes—“See, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens when there’s no order, no planning. Hitler and Martha Stewart would’ve hated that wedding”—defined the seven seasons of 30 Rock, the NBC show she created. Fey’s SNL colleague Kristen Wiig got her big break with Bridesmaids, which she cowrote and starred in. The film reveals that women can be vulgar and foulmouthed, can drink and pursue sex with gusto and are often funniest when they misbehave. Wiig and Fey excel at humor at their own expense, as when Wiig, playing the broke and unhappily single Annie in Bridesmaids, drunkenly rebels against tyrannical flight attendants, and when Fey asks on 30 Rock, “Who hasn’t made mistakes? I once French-kissed a dog at a party to impress what turned out to be a very tall 12-year-old.”
Not coincidentally, Tina Fey pitched the critically acclaimed 30 Rock, about the quirky head writer of a TV show, while she was head writer at Saturday Night Live. Mindy Kaling, who played the dim customer service representative Kelly Kapoor on The Office, was also an executive producer and writer on that hit series. She too created her own show, The Mindy Project, in 2012. The sitcom follows a successful ob-gyn in her 30s whose personal life is a mess and, along with her weight and appearance, the fodder for many jokes. As one of the few women of color to create her own series, Kaling has said, “I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?” As she and Fey have proven, talented women with a flair for comedy these days are worth quite a lot.
Pushing the boundaries of good taste is a tried-and-true route to laughs—and traditionally a male prerogative. Think Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Louis C.K. But women are joining their ranks. In Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy plays a brash nuclear engineer with a marked lack of social filters. She accosts a fellow passenger outside an airplane bathroom, trapping him in place by propping her leg against the doorframe, and proposes, “So, you want to get back into that restroom and not rest?” Taking so-called unladylike behavior to extremes is Sarah Silverman, who has made jokes about rape, race and religion, claiming, “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.” She dismisses criticism with further banter: “I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” Silverman’s use of the slur chinks in a joke on Late Night With Conan O’Brien caused a stir. She later explained the experience had taught her that racism was bad. True to the comic art, she added, “And I mean bad, like in that black way.”