In her floppy hat and frumpy grandma’s housedress, the woman widely regarded as America’s first female comedian, Moms Mabley, cut a delightfully curious figure touring the storied Chitlin’ Circuit. Her hilarious stage act raised the roof off the most iconic theaters of the African-American vaudeville scene. Like a bawdy, off-color Sojourner Truth, Mabley – from the roaring twenties ’til her death in 1975 – wowed audiences with the wit and wisdom of her words; her folksy sets often cutting and satirical, touching on everything from race to sex.
The first comedienne to take to the stage at the legendary Apollo, Mabley remains an eminently influential figure. Her impact as a giant of 20th century comedy is still keenly felt today. The fierce, openly gay comic paved the way for acts as famous and varied as Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes and Whoopi Goldberg, and the latter’s 2013 documentary, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, spotlights the enigmatic entertainer’s genius.
In Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, an effusive Anne Meara describes Mabley as a “trailblazer,” Quincy Jones calls the comedian a “pioneer” and the late Joan Rivers a “truth-teller.” In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Bambi Haggins, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University, sums up Mabley’s importance, explaining how the matronly icon “set the trajectory not just for black female comics, but for all female comics.” Having left an indelible imprint on the comedy landscape, inspiring with her life story and legacy, she continues to set the trajectory.
Mabley’s role in chipping away at the glass ceiling for funny women everywhere has been brought into sharp relief in recent years, with the success of comedic leading ladies like Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham. Although more and more female acts are breaking through, the likes of Schumer and Dunham remain the exception, not the rule.
As confounding as this is, the amazing array of side-splittingly funny women breathing new life into improv, stand-up and big and small-screen entertainment provides much cause for optimism. Just this month, Pamela Adlon’s new sitcom, Better Things, premiered on FX. Co-created, written and produced by Adlon, the show has already come in for considerable praise, garnering rave reviews. Adlon, a veteran with over 33 years’ experience in the funny business with acting and writing credits on shows like Louie, King of the Hill and The Redd Foxx Show, is finally taking centre stage and getting her just deserts with her surreal dramedy.
Following the premiere of Better Things, we wanted to shout out some more hilarious comedians deserving of their own center stage. Here are 10 female comics, like Adlon, everyone should be paying attention to:
Phoebe Robinson & Jessica Williams
Recorded live in Brooklyn, Two Dope Queens is the whip-smart and riotously funny offspring of young comics, Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams. Joined by a revolving door of equally talented and colorful guests, the ebullient duo chop it up and crack wise about sex, romance, race and hair.
Sharp, acerbic and delightfully digressive, the show tackles the most important and timely subjects of the day, including dad bods, Billy Joel concerts and philosophical trips to strip clubs. The perfect platform for the brilliant twosome’s whimsy and musings, the show highlights just how funny Robinson and Williams are, burnishing their reputations as two of the best comedians around.
In addition to co-hosting 2DQ, Williams is a regular at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre; the 27-year-old having initially turned heads and caught the eye as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show. Robinson, on the other hand, moonlights as a journalist, penning pieces for Glamour, Vanity Fair and the New York Times. She is also the sole host of her very own podcast, Sooo Many White Guys (with Broad City’s Ilana Glazer serving as executive producer), and has appeared on a number of TV shows, including Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Night Train with Wyatt Cenac.
Racking up the views and going viral following the release of its very first episode way back in 2011, Rae’s web-series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, transformed the infectiously funny Stanford alum into an online star; her humorous and affecting portrayal of J – the eponymous star of the popular short – resonating not just with awkward black women, but all internet-savvy lovers of good comedy.
Teaming up with Larry Wilmore (the Larry Wilmore of The Nightly Show and Pjs fame), Rae has created a new series called Insecure, which will be premiering on HBO next month. Addressing many of the same issues as Awkward Black Girl, Insecure looks set to add some much needed diversity to the TV calendar, touching on a range of prescient, topical issues with its creator’s signature playfulness. With Beyoncé favourite, Melina Matsoukas, on board to produce and direct, Insecure, like Issa Rae, is certainly one to watch.
Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham
Scott Aukerman and Jeff Ulrich’s much-loved comedy podcasting network, Earwolf, is home to some of the funniest comics in the world. For over a decade, the LA-based company has consistently created the best digital content around; comedy’s biggest, brightest and most iconic acts listed on the network’s impressive roster of hosts and guests.
Of the network’s 33 podcasts, flagship shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! and How Did This Get Made? immediately come to mind. As popular as both shows are, neither are as ingenious or entertainingly ridiculous as WOMP It Up!
A Comedy Bang! Bang! spinoff, WOMP It Up! features comedian Jessica St. Clair reprising the role of her popular character, Marissa Wompler – an “obnoxious, secretly horny tween” originally employed by Aukerman as a Comedy Bang! Bang! intern. Joined by her teacher/mentor/co-host/former sniper, Charlotte Listler – played by Lennon Parham – Wompler is a laugh a minute on WOMP It Up!; the podcast a big, wonderful, gut-busting mess – an uproarious exhibition of improv comedy at its finest. Long-time collaborators Parham and St. Clair are incredible on the show, the brazen duo bringing out the best in one another with their sisterly camaraderie.
Rising star Aparna Nancherla is fast-becoming one of the most in-demand acts in the business. Having opened for a variety of comedians ranging from Maria Bamford to Kristen Schaal over the course of her career, Nancherla recently celebrated ten years as a comic with her very own Comedy Central Half Hour show, impressing once more with her off-beat observations.
Host of the underground New York show, Whiplash, Nancherla is renowned for her absurd brand of levity. The Queens-based comedian has most notably lent her writing talents to Late Night with Seth Meyers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, often performing on the latter. In addition to appearing on The Jim Gaffigan Show and Inside Amy Schumer, the 34-year-old recently joined forces with Tig Notaro, releasing a comedy album – Just Putting It Out There – earlier this summer on the latter’s label.
As with all great comics, Nancherla is known to mine her sorrows for laughs, telling GQ in a recent interview, “A lot of comedy comes from a shared suffering or pain that people can relate to.” Taking her depression head on, the New Yorker routinely turns the tables on her neuroses and anxieties when performing, becoming something of a mental health advocate – a role she fulfills with relish, especially when hosting (alongside Jacqueline Novak) her intimate and informative podcast, Blue Woman Group.
28-year-old Melissa Villaseñor has accomplished the remarkable feat of making SNL history without even taping a skit for the iconic sketch show. One of three new comics hired by Lorne Michaels to replace the outgoing Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah and Jon Rudnitsky, Villaseñor is the first ever Latina SNL cast member; her addition ending the variety show’s 41-year run without a Hispanic performer on its books.
An actress, musician, graphic artist and impressionist, the multitalented Villaseñor is best known for appearing as a finalist on America’s Got Talent, wowing audiences with her celebrity impressions; her hilarious take on Owen Wilson a particular highlight. Despite being a relative unknown, the Californian has over ten years’ experience as a comic and performer, appearing as a voiceover actress on Family Guy and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time; and headlining over a hundred colleges and clubs across the States.
Jessica Chaffin & Jamie Denbo
As with the aforementioned WOMP It Up!, Ronna & Beverly is a lively, side-splitting Earwolf podcast pairing two of the funniest comedians working today. Ronna Glickman and Beverly Ginsberg – created and portrayed by Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo respectively – are the best-selling co-authors of You’ll Do A Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage and Re-marriage for Jewish Singles.
Developed by Denbo and Chaffin ten years ago for UCB’s all-Jewish “Kosher Christmas Show”, Ronna and Beverly, the comediennes’ colorful characters, are “outspoken fifty-somethings from Boston”. The straight-shooting odd-couple use their biweekly podcast to interview and interrogate celebrity guests and dispense their sage, politically-incorrect relationship advice; offering some truly inspired moments of improv brilliance. As crotchety as they are wise, Denbo and Chaffin’s foul-mouthed Golden Girls are the internet’s funniest and most charming agony aunts.
With close to 500,000 followers on Instagram and over 280,000 on Twitter, Jenny Slate is not without her admirers. Having starred on acclaimed series such as Parks & Rec, Bob’s Burgers, and Bored to Death, the extremely likable actress is hardly an unknown.
A bright and irrepressibly funny on-screen presence, the amiable 34-year-old has a knack for catching the eye and delivering scene-stealing performances, whether playing the larger-than-life Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks or Liz B. on Comedy Central’s Kroll Show.
As well regarded as she is, Slate is yet to fully cross-over as a mainstream A-lister. Her considerable talent there for everyone to see on shows like Lady Dynamite and Girls, this is all set to change: the success of the endearing Obvious Child and her excellent turns in the major box-office hits, Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets, hinting at an even brighter and starrier future.
In case you missed it, watch Michelle Obama explain to Stephen Colbert what “swag” means.
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