With its worn-in leather sofa and duct-taped-together flat screen, the loft set of Fox's New Girl exudes the vibe of lazy afternoons and beer-fueled late nights. A few feet away, Zooey Deschanel is cutting loose during a photo shoot. There's some emphatic twirling in a retro-chic, peony-pink party dress and some even more emphatic lip-synching into a toy microphone to a David Bowie track — all while rocking a rhinestone tiara. Refreshingly unself-conscious, the actress is impossible to ignore. "I was the kid on stage in the chorus that people were like, 'What's going on with that one?'" she reports with a throaty laugh. "Sometimes it was a good thing, like, 'I can't stop watching you.' Other times, it was, 'God, get off the stage!'"
It's safe to say Deschanel's hearing more of the former these days. Thanks in no small part to the singular talents of its leading lady, New Girl has become a buzzy, critically adored breakout hit. (Fox's highest-rated sitcom premiere in a decade: Check! First new series to be picked up for a full season: Check!) But Deschanel's Jess — a goofy charmer who, after a humiliating breakup, moves in with three guy roommates — isn't the only funny gal making a serious impact on the networks' fall schedules. From CBS' 2 Broke Girls, starring indie-film darling Kat Dennings and newcomer Beth Behrs as cash-strapped waitresses rich in (often raunchy) comebacks, to NBC's Up All Night, led by Christina Applegate as a new mom readjusting to the workplace, smart, female-driven comedies are suddenly the toast of prime time.
What's more, all of those series — as well as NBC's Whitney — were created or cocreated by women. "It's awesome and surprising," says New Girl creator Liz Meriwether. "You'd never [predict], 'Oh, yeah, all these new shows that are working will be ones starring women written by women.' That doesn't feel like what you'd expect from network television. It seems like a really good time to be here."
Of course, comedians have been part of the fabric of TV since the days of I Love Lucy. And, more recently, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mike & Molly's Melissa McCarthy and Modern Family's Julie Bowen and Sofía Vergara have all tickled our collective funny bone. But the sheer number of bold, winningly complex women currently populating TV screens is a welcome development. "Bridesmaids [proved] people are excited and comfortable with seeing women being ballsy and funny," says Up All Night creator Emily Spivey. "I also think it was just in the air that women want to see a more realistic, fun representation of themselves."
If these female-fueled shows ring true, it's because the women involved often draw from personal experience. New Girl was inspired by the close friendship that developed between Meriwether and a guy acquaintance after both went through difficult breakups — though she admits she initially worried whether a mainstream audience would warm to her off-kilter sense of humor. "I was fully expecting it to be a cult classic," she says. "Canceled after four episodes but, like, those four episodes were so good!" And Spivey drew upon her own struggles as a new mom returning to her gig as a writer on Saturday Night Live for Up All Night, which follows talk-show producer Reagan as she juggles her commitments to husband Chris (Will Arnett), newborn Amy and demanding boss Ava (Maya Rudolph).
Applegate can relate. Like Reagan, the actress — whose comedy career includes Married... With Children, and an Emmy-nominated turn on Samantha Who? — had spent much of her life focused on her high-profile profession. And like Reagan, she felt her priorities irrevocably shift after giving birth to a daughter, Sadie Grace, last January. "I'm so madly in love with her," says Applegate, in between checking to see if Sadie is taking her bottle. "It's beyond anything I'd ever imagined. I adore my job, but I think any [parent] would tell you we wanna be with our kids more than anything else. She trumps everything."
For more with the women of comedy and the complete Hot List 2011, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, November 10!