Being a stand-up comedian is an inherently daunting task: You risk failure and mockery in a very public way, night after night after night. For women who have broken into this historically male-dominated industry, the challenges are often even more layered. Not only do they have to tackle the nerve-wracking mission of making an audience laugh, but they also have to contend with the inherent gender bias of the comedy world.
In April 2021, Hulu released the documentary Hysterical, which cracked open the messy, wonderful, complicated reality of being a woman in comedy, and how it has changed and continues to change through the years. “Comedians are by nature trying to reach the sun — as close to the sun as possible without getting burned, but the sun is lower for women then it is for men, so when they reach to push the outer boundaries, those boundaries are more limited still,” Hysterical director and executive producer Andrea Nevins said in an interview with SPIN.
But on the upside, Nevins noted, there is a sisterhood among female comedians that has sprung from their shared frustrations. The documentary highlights a litany of women who are paving the way for future generations — including Margaret Cho, Rachel Feinstein, Amy Schumer, Sherri Shepherd, Bette Midler, and Ali Wong. Below, we’ve picked 15 of the best quotes from female comedians through the years, a testament to the hilarity and talent of countless women in comedy.
Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn’t.
— Sarah Silverman
It’s your outlook on life that counts. If you take yourself lightly and don’t take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find the humor in our everyday lives. And sometimes it can be a lifesaver.
— Betty White
As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.
— Amy Poehler
I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?
— Mindy Kaling
I said "Somebody should do something about that." Then I realized I am somebody.
— Lily Tomlin
While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die — whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.
— Gilda Radner
If you feel like there’s something out there that you’re supposed to be doing, if you have a passion for it, then stop wishing and just do it.
— Wanda Sykes
I think if anyone tells you the odds are slim, just keep walking. Just do whatever the hell you want to do, because they don't know what they're talking about. When you love something, and you work really really hard at it, you can do it.
— Melissa McCarthy
I will speak and share and fuck and love and I will never apologize to the frightened millions who resent that they never had it in them to do it. I stand here and I am amazing, for you. Not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.
— Amy Schumer
I love tattooed women, maybe because they are uncontrollable, they are themselves to the point of drawing symbols of their power on their skin. Talk about owning your own body, being in your body, claiming yourself. I love it. When the world is in an uproar over whether women should have a choice or not when it comes to their own bodies, being tattooed is one of the most visible choices of all.
— Margaret Cho
I learned the enormous power of writing for yourself, especially now that people seem to be receptive to the fact that women can write.
— Maya Rudolph
When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way.
— Tina Fey
There are so many funny women in the world, and there have been for so many years, so I’ll be happy when people can just move on from that, and things can just be “comedies” and not “female” or “male,” and everyone gets an equal opportunity.
— Kristen Wiig
I’m gonna play this game the way I want to. It might be serious, it might be a comedy, it might be a dramedy, it might be variety, it might be a talk show, whatever. There’s no box.
The answers to making it, to me, are a lot more universal than anyone's race or gender, and center on having a tolerance for delayed gratification, a passion for the craft, and a willingness to fail.
— Ali Wong
Photo credit: Kameleon007/ iStock