EnVi highlights seven Black women redefining comedy and bringing life and diversity to the industry. Most of these women are known for their acting and comedy careers, but they do it all. From voice acting to executive producing, these women are forces in the entertainment industry and have worked hard to make their presence known through their comedic projects.
Historically, racist caricatures of Black people such as the Mammy, Jezabel, or Sapphire were the only representation that Black women had in the media. Black women were depicted as one-dimensional figures whose only purpose was to act as comedic effects or be of service to their white counterparts. They had no depth or backstories to explore. This erasure has had immense effects on the psyche of Black girls and women who are either negatively depicted or invisible in the media.
These women are defying these limits and providing authentic representation for all Black women. Whether it’s discussions of mental health, navigating predominantly White spaces, or simply figuring out their love life, these women are declaring that their stories deserve to be told.
Rising from her humble beginnings on YouTube, Issa Rae is an eight-time Emmy-nominated actress, writer, producer, and comedian. She began her career with her viral YouTube web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl (2013) and gained a large following for her relatable and unusual persona that was uncommon for Black women in media. She paved the way for a few of the other mentions on the list by showing that Black people are all unique and express themselves in unique ways. Prior to Issa’s work, the unusual or awkward Black woman and explorations of Black identity within predominantly White spaces were not as commonly represented in media as they are today.
In 2016, Issa created and starred in her own HBO series Insecure, which follows the protagonist Issa, a character based on Issa herself, and follows her as she navigates her career and relationships as a young Black woman. In the show, Issa is often uncomfortable around others, especially her White coworkers, and finds talking and rapping to herself to be an escape. The show was a smash hit and ran for five seasons, receiving eight Emmy nominations. When asked about the vision behind the series, Issa said “I honestly just wanted to create something that showed Black people as relatable and something that was for us and by us.” This sentiment resonated with viewers who longed for Black representation and a show about Black people’s everyday lives.
Since Insecure ended in 2021, Issa has honored her mission to make content centering on Black people and their lives. She has producer credits for A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019), Sweet Life: Los Angeles (2021), and her most recent show Rap Shit (2022) on HBO Max. Rap Shit follows two high school friends who reunite to form a rap group as they navigate their friendship and the music industry as young Black women.
Fulfilling her childhood dreams, comedian and musician Ziwe is taking the world by storm with her signature vibrant pink moniker. Growing up in Massachusetts, she always had an aspiration to be either a pop star or the first Black president of the United States. She always desired to be in the spotlight and found comedy to be the way. Ziwe started out in the industry as an intern on The Colbert Report (2005) and then became a writer for The Rundown with Robin Thede (2017). She developed her craft and cultivated the disorientingly iconic and absurd persona that is Ziwe. “The brand of comedy is consistent. Again, this is my personality. It’s a hyperbolic character but there’s a kernel in there,” she explained.
During the pandemic, Ziwe began interviewing celebrities such as Rose Mcgowan and Caroline Calloway on Instagram live in a series called Baited with Ziwe. The series quickly went viral and eventually became the SHOWTIME original Ziwe in 2021. The show consists of the original uncomfortably hilarious interview format with celebrities like Chet Hanks, Julia Fox, and Drew Barrymore. These interviews tackle controversial topics such as race, class, and politics and find humor in the absurd answers guests give under pressure.
Ziwe’s amazing chemistry with her guests makes the show a must-watch. She is very personable and effervescent but doesn’t shy away from controversial topics such as Amber Riley’s experiences with racism on the set of Glee (2009) or comedian Hannibal Burress’ controversial stance on landlords. She instead leans into the discomfort of the situation and enables the guests to be their unapologetic selves. ”I celebrate icons, and I enable icons to say icon things,” Ziwe reflected in an interview with Trevor Noah.
Though tense, Ziwe’s use of silence often leads to hilarious moments and quotes from her guests such as when Chet Hanks was confronted about his cultural appropriation. The star admitted to not understanding Patois, a dialect native to Jamaica, after claiming he was the “first person to get it in the conversation in recent times.” Ziwe’s silence and blank stares in response to the hypocrisy of her guest are the cherry on top.
The youngest on our list, Ayo Edibri, is a comedian, writer, producer, and actress. She is the child of first-generation immigrants and was raised in a religious Pentecostal household. Although she overcame her shyness as a child, Ayo has opened up about her struggles with anxiety in adulthood. Ayo discovered her passion for entertainment and comedy in eighth grade when her drama teacher encouraged her to try improv. “It’s not just the loud people who are good at stuff. It’s also the quiet people and people who listen” Ayo recalls her teacher explaining. She then pursued improv and comedy in high school and college developing her uniquely awkward persona, often disclosing her anxious nature and recounting the chaos of her inner monologue. Ayo began her career in entertainment starring in Big Mouth and Abbott Elementary as well as writing for Craig of the Creek (2018) and Dickinson (2019).
Ayo’s most noteworthy role was Sydeny Adamu in the hit FX comedy-drama The Bear (2022). Sydney is an ambitious and passionate young cook who is down on her luck after her catering business failed and left her in substantial debt. Ayo portrayed this character with such charisma, depth, and realism contrasting her usual odd and standoffish comedy style. Her performance earned her several nominations in 2022 and 2023, snagging an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Performance in a New Scripted Series.
Ayo is set to star in the comedy film Bottoms (2023), which recently premiered on March 11 at SXSW to much critical acclaim. The film follows a duo of queer teenage girls who start a fight club at their school to hook up with the popular girls. She will star amongst Rachel Sennott, who Ayo previously starred alongside in the pair’s Comedy Central web series Ayo and Rachel Are Single (2020).
Janelle James is a comedian, actress, and producer that has toured with legendary comedians Chris Rock and Amy Schumer. She also runs the Janelle James Comedy Festival, formerly known as the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, in Brooklyn, New York. The festival is a three-day event that has featured performances from comedians Ayo Edibri, Jaboukie Young-White, Janelle herself, and many more. Janelle is known for her raunchy and laid-back style of comedy that encourages the audience to fully engage with her sets. “I speak in a way that people tend to pay attention. You speak softer so that people have to lean in to listen rather than yelling,” Janelle explained in an interview with the Little Village.
In addition to being a stand-up comedian, Janelle is a writer and actor. She has writing credits for the animated series Central Park (2022) and comedy show Black Monday (2019). Her most recent role as Principal Ava in the award-winning show Abbott Elementary (2021) has brought Janelle tremendous success, including an Emmy nomination, and hosting the 75th Annual Writers Guild Awards. The character is loved for her brass and irreverent persona and highlights Janelle’s wit and cheeky style of comedy.
Along with the rest of the cast, Janelle won the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding performance by an ensemble in a Comedy Series. She and Quinta Brunson stole the show during the ceremony’s trademark “I Am An Actor” opening segment. Contrasting the typical earnest and heartfelt speeches from their fellow actors, the duo showed off their chemistry and comedic charisma pretending to be unprepared.
Janelle is currently promoting her podcast You In Danger Gurl on Spotify. “I do a lot. Get into me!” The actress boasts.
A staple from millennial YouTube, Quinta Brunson has evolved from her days of relatable skits becoming an Emmy award-winning writer, actress, and comedian. She began studying comedy while in Chicago and then started her own web series in 2014 called The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date. After going viral, she began working with BuzzFeed for which she is most recognized. Quinta was known for her cutthroat yet casual delivery that made her standout amongst the millennial brand of comedy BuzzFeed was known for. In one of her most popular videos, The Perks of Being Straightforward, Quinta’s brutal honesty and rejection of polite social norms showcased her humor and unbothered persona. The honest and straightforward attitude rang true to a generation taken over by nihilism and absurdity.
Recently, Quinta has received an incredible amount of praise and support for her critically acclaimed series Abbot Elementary (2021). Quinta is the showrunner, executive producer, writer, and actress for the show. The premise of the show is quite personal and came from her mother’s experience working in education for over 40 years. Quinta turned this premise into a mockumentary-style comedy series that retains her blunt and realist brand of comedy.
Quinta plays Janine, an optimistically naive and sweet teacher who wants to make significant changes at Abbott. The role showcases her range and greatly contrasts the confident and unbothered persona Quinta had early in her career. The show explores the shortcomings of the public school system and finds humor in them. It also features Quinta’s fellow colleagues such as Ayo Edibri & Janelle James.
The only British star on our list, Michaela Coel, is an Emmy award-winning actress, writer, and producer representing Black Women in the UK. Her debut series Chewing Gum (2017) cemented Michaela’s signature brand of self-deprecating humor that also charms you with relatability and sentimentality. Michaela highlights the protagonist Tracey’s naivety, charming the viewers as she explores sexuality in her mid-20s. Despite failing miserably to fit in time and time again, Tracey persists in her quest to find herself. The show tackles the fetishization of Black women, religious and sexual trauma, and the struggles of being lower class in the UK.
Three years after the success of Chewing Gum, Michaela created her Emmy award-winning show I May Destroy You (2020). Similar to Chewing Gum, Michaela portrays the main character who is a 20-something trying to get her life together. Maintaining Michaela’s signature style of self-deprecation and uncomfortable scenarios, this show takes a look at more serious topics such as sexual assault and healing from trauma. The plot of the show is loosely based on Michaela’s personal experiences with sexual assault. “Part of my heart hopes that people who have had experiences that are traumatic watch this and feel less alone,” Michaela told Screen Daily.
Michaela is currently focusing on acting and starred in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022). She is set to appear alongside Donald Glover in the reboot series based on Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) on Amazon Prime Video.
Known for her infectious laugh and larger-than-life presence, Nicole Byer is a comedian and actress most known for hosting the Netflix baking competition show Nailed It! (2018). While working in New York as a waitress, she discovered her natural talent for comedy when interacting with restaurant patrons. Nicole decided to pursue acting and comedy and received a Dramatic Academy Certificate in Professional Performance.
Her first claims to fame were her appearances on several MTV shows from the 2010s such as Girl Code (2013). Nicole then starred in her own MTV show in 2016 titled *Loosely Exactly Nicole. She has also done voice acting for several series including Tuca & Bertie (2019), Rugrats (2021), and Velma (2023). Through all of her projects, Nicole showcases her loud boisterous persona that leans into absurdity and retrospection. This strength was shown in Nicole’s 2022 self-titled comedy special Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo) on Netflix where she explores her dating life and struggles with being vegan.
Interested in more Black stars making waves in entertainment? Check out our list of Black actors and actresses to watch in 2023 here!