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10 Comic Actresses Who Deserve A Big-Screen Leading Role

by Oliver Lyttelton
April 28, 2014 2:15 PM
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Happily, we can say something in 2014 that we haven't been able to for a long while: it's a good time for comedy actresses in movies. What once was a barren, bromance-filled wasteland, has filled up somewhat with the success of "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat," among others, convincing studio executives and indie financiers that there's a sizable audience for female-led comedy out there.

The last year or so has seen deserved showcases for Kristen Wiig with "Bridesmaids," Kathryn Hahn with "Afternoon Delight," Lake Bell with "In A World" and Aubrey Plaza with "Safety Not Guaranteed," while right now, "The Other Woman" sits atop the box office, a few weeks sees Rose Byrne get the killer role she deserves in "Neighbors," Jenny Slate should break out later in the summer thanks to Sundance hit "Obvious Child" and filming is now underway on Judd Apatow's "Trainwreck" starring Amy Schumer.  

The latest in this run, "Walk Of Shame," opens this week, and while we can't vouch for its quality, having not seen it yet, it's notable in that it finally gives a lead role to Elizabeth Banks, who's been a secret comedic weapon in plenty of other pictures before now but has never really gotten the limelight to herself. With that in mind, we decided to mark its release by picking out ten actresses with comedic leanings who deserve to follow in the footsteps of Banks and co. with their own big-screen lead roles. Read our picks below, and you can suggest your own in the comments section.

Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson
The concept of a half-hour sitcom about young women in NYC is hardly a blazingly original one—our screens are already graced by the excellent “Girls” and the less-excellent “2 Broke Girls”—but Comedy Central’s “Broad City” has already amassed a cult following despite the generic premise, and that’s mostly down to the terrific work of creators/stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The pair met taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade (the legendary improv group part-founded by Amy Poehler), and within a few years had produced a “Broad City” web series and live show, following fictionalized versions of themselves as they get laid, smoke weed and generally make a mess of things. It came to the attention of Poehler, who developed a TV pilot with them, and while FX rejected the show, Comedy Central picked it up, and it debuted to stellar reviews at the start of this year. The way that Abbi and Ilana’s adventures roll out—a little low-key, grounded in truth but capable of surreal flights, not necessarily gendered but with a quiet feminist undercurrent—feels genuinely fresh even against the substantial competition. The pair are both winning presences, and share palpable chemistry: surely if we can get a buddy movie starring half of the cast of “New Girl,” we can find a big-screen vehicle for Glazer and Jacobson before too long.

The SNL Cast
Late-night stalwart “Saturday Night Live” is in something of a transition period, and it’s shown over the last season. But we’re confident that it can return to former glories, partly because this happens every few years, and partly because there are a lot of very funny women on the show right now. The longest-serving hands, Nasim Pedrad and Vanessa Bayer, have long since become utility players, while newcomers Noel Wells and Sasheer Zamata are promising, but haven’t yet made a huge impact. But it’s the trio of hires made in 2012, in the shape of Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, who look to dominate for years to come. Strong initially made an impact with characters like the spaced-out former porn star and The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, before landing the Weekend Update anchor chair, which helped launch Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to stardom (she’s had an awkward start, but is fast finding her feet). Bryant and McKinnon, meanwhile, already feel like part of the furniture in Studio 8H, carving out their own particular niches and shining both together and apart (their “Dyke & Fats” sketch was one of the highlights of the current season). Few have made much movie impact right now (Bryant can be seen briefly in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” McKinnon had a couple of indies at Tribeca), but they have leading lady charisma in a way that, say, Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah don’t necessarily seem to. It’s a strong enough line-up that the 'SNL' cast could have made up half this list, and frankly, the show could dump most of its interchangeable white guys and be stronger for it.

Jessica Williams
It’s not quite an institution of the same legendary status, but “The Daily Show” is fast becoming just as much of a proving ground for big-screen comic talents as “Saturday Night Live”—arguably no 'SNL' veterans have broken out in movies in the last decade in the same way that Steve Carell did with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and Ed Helms did with “The Hangover” (with Josh Gad, Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry and Rob Riggle among those also doing well). Of the show’s current line-up, we’d suggest that the most likely to head for future stardom is the youngest correspondent, 24-year-old Jessica Williams. She kicked off her career as a child actress in the Nickelodeon soccer comedy-drama “Just For Kicks,” before heading to college, and was approaching finals when she was asked to audition for a new spot on “The Daily Show.” Williams landed the job, and has made a real impression since her first appearance at the start of 2012: she specializes on sharp, pointed racially-focused material, lending the show a voice it’s been missing for too long, but she can seemingly take on whatever material they need her to. But she’s clearly more of a Carell or Helms in terms of her aspirations than a Jason Jones/Samantha Bee-style lifer—Williams last cropped up as one of Lena Dunham’s co-workers in the last series of “Girls,” and did an excellent job there too. She may well stick with “The Daily Show” for a while to come, but whenever she does leave, expect some very big things.

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  • Dennis | May 15, 2014 3:52 PMReply

    That fat colored girl from Parks and Recreation in no way, shape, or form deserves a leading role. She single handedly ruins that show for me. Scenes that she is in are completely unwatchable. She is an eyesore and the whole "strong, black woman" attitude is disgusting.

  • Elway | May 17, 2014 1:41 PM

    Colored girl? What is this the 60's.

  • frnk | May 15, 2014 5:43 PM

    Damn, racist.

  • laughtrack | May 13, 2014 6:48 AMReply

    I love this article , and I fully support the love for Kate McKinnon ( she does the best SNL impressions since Bill Hader ) , Krysten Ritter ( absolutely brilliant in Don't Trust The B… In Apt. 23 ) , the very charming and likable duo of Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham , and great scene stealers Michaela Watkins Eliza Coupe . But , you forgot to mention , the always terrific Lucy Punch . She owns every film that she is in .

  • scott | May 11, 2014 10:41 PMReply

    I would love to see the actress brandy norwood get a lead role. She's more of a julia roberts/meg ryan type. She also plays a great straight man too.

  • huh | May 7, 2014 4:04 PMReply

    Isla Fisher.

  • Mike | May 7, 2014 12:50 PMReply

    Alison Brie. Gillian Jacobs, no offense to her, seems like Judy Greer. Yeah, they're great, but just not leading role potential.

  • Patrick | April 30, 2014 5:24 AMReply

    Kristen Schaal, Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz

  • Nichelle | April 29, 2014 12:30 PMReply

    Great list! I like to add Judy Greer, Michelle Buteau, Helen Hong, Livia Scott.

  • Carlos T. | April 29, 2014 11:21 AMReply

    I thought you'd forgotten my two faves, but they're in the "postscript" at the end: Krysten Ritter! Ellie Kemper! Like Alison Brie, they're both hilarious and smokin' hot.

  • Blip | April 29, 2014 1:52 AMReply

    I guess they just got a TV show, but hope to see Garfunkel and Oates in a movie some day.

  • Annie | April 29, 2014 12:50 AMReply

    Re: Gillian, check out Life Partners. Re: Eliza, look up The Last Time You Had Fun. The indie filmmaking crowd is ahead of the curve :)

  • NewYorker | April 28, 2014 9:48 PMReply

    10 funny actresses i love to see get a lead role in films are
    1-Ari Graynor
    2-Wendi Mclendon Covey
    3-Casey Wilson
    4-Chelsea Peretti(from Brooklyn Nine Nine)
    5-Kate McKinnon
    6-Beth Behrs
    7-Alia Shawkat
    8-Whitney Cummings
    9-Jennette McCurdy(shes just super funny on sam & Cat, and yes im 21 and still like nickelodeon, shes just such a funny person)
    10-Kate Simses(shee steals alot of scene to me on Mixology)

  • Kolio | May 7, 2014 11:10 AM

    laughed so hard when I read jenette mccurdy, it made your entire list a complete joke

  • Lucille | April 30, 2014 8:59 AM

    A film with Alia Shawkat as the lead would be a dream, she is great as supporting in Whip It and The To Do List, not to forget her excellence as Maeby in AD. Ari Graynor, as well I think, is severely underrated!

  • Gina | April 28, 2014 5:45 PMReply

    Gillian Jacobs & Alison Brie ftw!; the whole cast of Bridesmaids, Parks & Rec, Sarah Silverman, they all deserve to star in more movies and I'm glad is happening more often

  • Tommy Do | April 28, 2014 5:24 PMReply


  • lexie | April 28, 2014 4:56 PMReply

    Livia Scott!!!!!!!!! UCB and Comedy Rock Star!!!

  • Jonathan | April 28, 2014 4:50 PMReply

    Where is Marina Franklin on this list?

  • H | April 28, 2014 4:34 PMReply

    Maria Bamford

  • amy | April 28, 2014 3:27 PMReply

    shelby fero sucks

  • Adam | April 28, 2014 4:37 PM


  • Joe | April 28, 2014 3:06 PMReply

    "Indeed, the last few episodes, which have finally seen her enter a real relationship with Keegan-Michael Key’s schoolteacher, have been a reminder that Retta isn’t just a comic force, but capable of some real emotional range." Nice try, Oliver, but you just completely made that up. Key was in ONE episode of P&R, at the end of which they decided to go out on a date. In no way have we seen her "enter a relationship" with anyone, and so that non-event did not give us a reminder about Retta's emotional range. It seems like you just watched that one episode and just Mitch Albom'd the rest of that capsule, pulling assumptions about their relationship out of your a** so you could make a point about Retta that could have been made with a whole host of other subplots she's actually been involved in. and which were not made up by you.

  • Y | April 28, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    "The longest-serving hands, Nasim Pedrad and Vanessa Bayer, have long since become utility player..."
    You're gonna eat those words when Nasim Pedrad becomes the only star of this cast in post-SNL years.

  • Y | April 28, 2014 6:13 PM

    The article's supposed to be about talent not screentime. EW, Vulture...and bunch of other entertainment websites have already covered all of these names(except perhaps some bizarre choices like Shelby Ferro who-the writer admits-doesn't have any acting credit).
    Anyway, that particular comment is asinine because some of the best talents on SNL are the ones that getting sidelined.

  • Mongoosecmr | April 28, 2014 4:46 PM

    That doesn't change the fact that Pedrad is barely on the show most episodes. I would expect her to be cut if NBC wasn't scared to lose more "older" talent

  • DArtagnan | April 28, 2014 2:24 PMReply

    Alison Brie!

  • Elway | May 17, 2014 1:52 PM

    Agreed with Alison Brie. Mad Men should drop the Don Draper character and focus on Alison Brie's Trudy Campbell character. Now that would be a show worth watching!

  • tomwrotethis | May 3, 2014 12:20 AM

    Agreed. Not to go too far into a Brie vs. Jacobs argument, but I think Alison has the better screen presence and is funnier.

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