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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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Eliza Coupe

Eliza Coupe
Though it started to become a little grating and self-absorbed by the time it reached the end, for most of its run, “Happy Endings” burned bright, taking the “Friends” formula that’s been copied a billion times and finding a fresh and genuinely funny approach to it. It’s done very well for much of its cast, with Damon Wayans Jr., Adam Pally and Casey Wilson all proving in demand since its cancellation, but we’ve been most keen on seeing the next move of the brilliant Eliza Coupe. The actress was previously probably best known for the last couple of years of “Scrubs,” and for starring in the unaired pilot of the American remake of “No Heroics” (the show created by future “Iron Man 3” writer Drew Pearce), but really showed what she could do as the gleefully deranged Type A Jane on “Happy Endings,” forming, with Wayans, one half of the best married couple on TV, and basically walking away with every episode. Coupe’s had some success on the big screen, with brief roles in “Somewhere” and “Anchorman 2” among others, and has worked constantly since “Happy Endings,” with a recurring gig on “House Of Lies,” while she’ll soon topline a series for USA Networks called “Benched.” But some smart indie comedy director with the right script wouldn’t need much effort to make her into a movie star.

Michaela Watkins

Michaela Watkins
For many, landing a big gig on 'SNL' is a career-maker, so it must be heartbreaking to get that far, only to have your run cut short after a single season. But for those in that situation in the future, someone like Michaela Watkins must be a balm, as she’s gone on to bigger and better things since leaving Lorne Michaels’ baby (alongside the equally successful Casey Wilson) in 2009. Watkins started off with various theater and TV gigs (including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Medium”), but after departing Studio 8H has only had better luck. On TV, she had a recurring role on the great “Enlightened,” and has appeared in “New Girl” and “Modern Family,” while on screen, she was almost inescapable, with prominent parts in “Afternoon Delight,” “Wanderlust,” "Enough Said” and “In A World.” The latter in particular allowed her to show real dramatic range suggesting she’s far more than a comedian, and the right people seemed to have been paying attention: Watkins has spent this year alongside Marcia Gay Harden, Malin Akerman and Bradley Whitford on the excellent, chronically underseen “Trophy Wife,” as hippyish second wife Jackie. Next up, Watkins will appear in Rob Reiner’s “Just Before I Go,” but it’s easy to see her following the path of people like Kathryn Hahn and Jenny Slate into a solo leading role in an indie at some point down the line.

Aya Cash

Aya Cash
Right now, Aya Cash isn’t especially well-known even by the standards of the others on this list, but after she’s kicked ass quietly in a wide variety of roles in recent years, we have a feeling you’re gonna be hearing a lot more about her soon. Cash, who is the granddaughter of a Wimbledon-winning tennis champion, started off with the familiar mix of Off-Broadway credits and “Law & Order” appearances before grabbing lead roles in short-lived Fox series “Traffic Light” and aborted Tony Shalhoub/Allison Janney pilot "Friday Night Dinner,” and also cropping up on the big screen in “The Oranges” and, more memorably, “Sleepwalk With Me.” More recently, she had a memorable guest appearance on “The Newsroom” as an Occupy Wall Street activist, managing to overcome Aaron Sorkin’s mansplaining, and also appeared in Tribeca pictures “Begin Again,” with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and “Loitering With Intent,” with Sam Rockwell. But she’s probably best known for a brief but highly memorable appearance as Jordan Belfort’s badass assistant in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” where she made a huge impression with very little. She just starred in the world premiere of Zoe Kazan’s new play “Trudy And Max In Love,” and next up is the lead in new FX series “You’re The Worst,” directed by “Kings Of Summer” helmer Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Will that finally be the big break she’s long deserved? We certainly hope so.

Honorable Mentions: Among the other names we'd like to see graduate to big screen leading roles, we could name Apama Nancherla, Phoebe Robinson, Mindy Kaling, Anna Chlumsky, Krysten Ritter, Ellie Kemper, Jessica St. Clair & Lennon Parham, Tig Notaro, Natasha Leggero, Kaitlin Olson, Claudia O'Doherty, Cariad Lloyd, Aisling Bea and Josie Long. Anyone else we've missed? Let us know in the comments.

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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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