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.
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.
Whereas once a comedian would break out by performing stand-up on Letterman or Leno, now you can reach a substantial level of fame purely through your Twitter presence. Alongside the likes of Chelsea Peretti and Megan Amram, one of the most promising prospects who’ve taken this route is the disgustingly young and talented Shelby Fero. The comic was barely in high school when she started writing articles for Cracked, before establishing a Twitter presence that gained over 100,000 followers, and remains one of the most consistently funny feeds around. After moving to L.A to attend USC (she’s subsequently dropped out to focus on comedy), Fero started gigging as a stand-up, and already feels like she’s been doing it for a decade, with a preternatural confidence and smart, sometimes button-pushing material. Fero’s currently focusing on writing, having penned an episode of FX’s animated series “Chozen,” and has a gig on the writing staff for late night show “@midnight,” but her relatively brief acting appearances (most notably a few appearances on “Key & Peele”) have suggested that it won’t be difficult to make the transition. As a former screenwriting major, we imagine she’s cooking up her own projects for herself, but it surely can’t be long before some canny studio executive gives wisely gives her a vehicle to call her own.
One of the benefits of a long-running show is that it gets to delve into and expand the supporting characters who at first might have been one-note or one-joke. Having unexpectedly made it to seven seasons, despite low ratings, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” has been particularly good at this, with everyone from disaster-area news anchor Joan Callamezzo to the incomparable Jean-Ralphio getting extra shading, but one of the finest beneficiaries of this is Donna, the “Scandal”-loving man-eater played by stand-up comic Retta. Born Marietta Sirleaf, she’s been successful on the live circuit for a few decades, and picked up small roles in the likes of “Fracture” and “First Sunday,” but she’s been present pretty much from the beginning of “Parks and Rec,” and has been more and more vital as it’s gone on, often walking away with scenes despite competition from the series’ killer ensemble. 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. There aren’t many leading ladies who look like her, admittedly, but in a time when Melissa McCarthy is arguably the biggest comedy movie star around, few would doubt that someone with her presence and skill could explode with the right role.
Speaking of shows that are unexpectedly still on the air, “Community” is coming off its fifth season firmly back on form after the return of Dan Harmon, and with a return looking remarkably likely, given its long-term status as the brilliant runt of NBC’s Thursday night litter. The fabled Six Seasons And A Movie approaches, which is great news, except for the fact that, short of someone doing a Donald Glover and bailing on the show, we’ll go another year without certain cast members becoming the movie stars they deserve to be. Alongside the great Alison Brie, the one we’ve been tipping for longest is Gillian Jacobs, whose inept campaigner Britta has gone from slightly bland love interest to inept social justice campaigner and show highlight. Jacobs picked up some impressive theater and TV credits after graduating Julliard, landing a substantial role in Clark Gregg’s “Choke” opposite Sam Rockwell, before signing on for “Community,” and her deft, somewhat fearless comic chops have been a huge asset to the series even in the Harmon-less fourth season. And more so than most, she’s managed to fit in movie roles in between other things, with “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and “Bad Milo!” among her credits, while coming up she has “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” Blumhouse horror “Visions” and indies “The Lookalike,” “Black And White” and “No Way Jose” coming up. She actually plays the second banana to Elizabeth Banks in “Walk Of Shame,” which has the unintended effect of making you wish she had a similar vehicle of her own…
There are some actors where it’s understandable that it takes them a little time to get the right foothold to the stardom, and there are some where it becomes a touch baffling that they’re not bigger than they are. Erinn Hayes is definitely in the latter category. The 37-year-old actress is ludicrously beautiful and even more talented, and has credits going back to the turn of the 21st century, but despite being seemingly omnipresent, has never quite found the one role that would launch her into the stratosphere. Early one-offs in “CSI” and “The West Wing” turned into a recurring role opposite Bradley Cooper in “Kitchen Confidential,” and then a regular in Seth MacFarlane sitcom “The Winner.” That was swiftly cancelled, as was the better-received “Worst Week,” but since then Hayes has turned up on everything from “Parenthood” to “Parks and Recreation,” but her own leading roles on TV have been on material that’s been somewhat beneath her. There’s been one major silver lining, though, with the great, and unhinged “Children’s Hospital,” in which Hayes really gets to let loose and show what she can do. On the big screen, she’s a big favorite of comics-turned-directors like David Wain, David Cross and Matt Walsh, and shone in the underrated “It’s A Disaster,” so she’ll surely soon end up with a bigger part worthy of her skills.
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.
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.
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.