There are hundreds – nay, thousands – of comedians (well some were) around the world who have stood on a stage under a spotlight in front of a room full of strangers and spoken into a mic, desperately hoping that the strangers will laugh at their words and not at them. And of those thousands, many have failed. But dozens have broken through into the mainstream and found huge success. However, of those dozens, many of them have sucked. They’ve gone for cheap laughs and relied too heavily on vulgarity or idiotic jokes. These are the Dane Cooks and the Larry the Cable Guys of this world. But there is a small handful of comedians who have used the art form the way it should be used. Ever since Lenny Bruce opened himself up on the stage and took risks, standup has gone from sets full of two-dimensional one-liners to deeply reflective, personal, philosophical, political, or an otherwise thoughtful form of performance art. These fifteen comics are the greatest because they exemplify this and have made the world a better place with their humor.
15. Bill Burr
Rolling Stone once described Bill Burr as “the undisputed heavyweight champ of rage-fueled humor”, and they’re absolutely right. He’s angry about a lot of things in the world and he pretty much goes on stage and yells about it, but there’s an art to it. He’s not a grumpy old man; he’s complaining about things that we can relate to. He talks about sex, marriage, sports, religion, and other topics covered by just about every other comic in the world – but the thing that sets Burr aside is: he doesn’t really care what his audience thinks. A lot of comedians pander to their audience and desperately want them to like them, but not Bill Burr. He goes up on stage and he has some things to say and he says them and he really doesn’t care what anyone thinks. His fans love that style, and the people that don’t – well, he doesn’t care.
14. Woody Allen
Obviously, since his days as a standup comic in the 1960s, Woody Allen has become better known as the writer and director who made intimate comedy-dramas cool and paved the way for Noah Baumbach and Judd Apatow. Actually, he’s become better known as an alleged pedophile. But before any of that, he honed the neurotic persona he’s known for on the stage. Just like in his films, he would talk about his failure in relationships with woman and his professional struggles and his neurotic Jewish angst and his Freudian psychoanalysis, and it was comedy gold. Along with Lenny Bruce, he helped to revolutionize the comedic art form by making it a platform for deep personal reflection.
13. Marc Maron
Marc Maron has been round the block, to say the least. It’s hard to find someone working in comedy who he hasn’t at some point been friends with, lived with, or had a bitter, long-standing feud with. He may not be a huge celebrity, but he’s a legend in the comedy community, particularly the alt-comedy community. He started out with everyone (Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, David Cross, and Bill Hicks, to name a few) and watched his peers go on to superstardom, which wasn’t good for his jealousy problem, but he’s a hilarious neurotic Jew type with some truly inspired observations about the world around him. His hugely popular podcast WTF has brought him a second wind of success that has included a book deal and a brilliant semi-autobiographical sitcom on IFC, Maron. From Captain Beefheart to masturbation, he always brings something deeply personal to the subjects he jokes about. He’ll also be co-starring with Alison Brie in Netflix’s GLOW, due to premiere on June 23.
12. Jim Jefferies
Jim Jefferies has mastered the art of dark comedy. Hailing from Australia, he’s now huge in both England and America, selling out huge venues with his C-bombs and diatribes about gun control. He’ll talk about rape and Islam and how the Devil is “the bigger man” because he hasn’t written a counter-argument book in which he slanders God, and that’s attracted him a lot of criticism. However, he’s saying these things at a comedy show. And as such, he keeps insisting that he’s only joking when he says these things, and how he can say one thing and think another, and yet the naysayers still won’t listen. But that doesn’t matter, because he has a huge fan base and they all know exactly what he means.
11. Steve Martin
Now he’s best known as a movie star, changing the game for film comedy with movies like The Jerk, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and then selling out with safe family fare like Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. As an actor, he’s come to be known as the lovable funny old man with white hair, but as a standup, he was an absurdist weirdo. He’d come onto the stage with a banjo in his hand and an arrow through his head. You wouldn’t have any idea what to expect from Steve Martin at one of his shows, but he was always hilarious and ground-breaking. And he is sweet and lovable, so that added to it.
10. Robin Williams
Characterized by insane what-if scenarios and spot-on impressions mixed with all kinds of accents, Williams’ standup would go to really crazy places. There’s a melancholic hindsight involved with watching Williams perform now, as he jokes about suicide and drinking and drugs (“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money,” he once said), but that adds to its endearing quality. There’s now a tragic element, but it’s a testament to how ingrained in Williams’ DNA comedy was. He was a guy who was born to make people laugh, no matter what was going on in his life. It ended in tragedy, but he touched everybody’s lives along the way.
9. David Cross
David Cross’ delivery style is so gleeful and cheery that when he talks about the war on terror, he could be mistaken for a Bush supporter. But the content of his material make his political stance perfectly clear – he is anything but. Cross’ jokes are so deliriously funny that they’ll have you in tears laughing. And yet, he’s making real, thoughtful points. During his bit about the limbless Afghani orphans saying, “I love America! Thank you, America, for your delicious pudding!” you’re laughing really hard. But when it’s over, you realize that is all America gave them, after all they’d done. He’s making you think, and realize what’s wrong with the world (specifically the government, in Cross’ case). The nineties changed comedy completely across the board to go more and more ridiculous and against the norms of the genre, and if one project or team of performers in particular can be credited with it, it’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s seminal HBO sketch comedy Mr. Show. Mr. Show featured sketches filled with social and political commentary taken to its most absurd extreme, and that is the style Cross takes to the stage with him every time he performs. His humor is so delightfully dark, too. In his latest special, Netflix’s Making America Great Again, he jokes about Donald Trump and gun control and school shootings. A lot of people walk out of his shows because they can’t handle it, but the ones who stay recognize that they’re watching one of the greatest comedians who ever lived.
8. Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks’ specials and albums have titles like Relentless and Rant in E Minor, but you can’t hear the rage in his voice when he performs. He’s clearly angry about the things he talks about, about the military and the downfall of culture, but he’s not taking a malicious stance – he’s just laughing at them. And his delivery in this style is so perfect that we laugh along with him, substantially. He tragically died at the age of only 33, just as he was achieving the astronomical success he deserved, but the comedy he left us with is timeless. When he jokes about Debbie Reynolds, Rick Astley, and George H.W. Bush, he could just as easily be talking about Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Donald Trump. Hicks is the comedic mind we need in the trying times of 2017.
7. Dave Chappelle
Billboard called him “the best.” Esquire called him “the comic genius of America.” Dave Chappelle is a comedic powerhouse. His care-free delivery style, jumping from racial discrimination to drug use to marriage to politics to homophobia, is utterly engaging. Chappelle will crack up on stage, laughing at his own jokes, and we laugh along with him. With his brilliant specials For What It’s Worth and Killin’ Them Softly and his ground-breaking, immensely popular Comedy Central sketch show Chappelle’s Show (“I’m Rick James, bitch!”), Chappelle was on top of the world. But then, one day, he just disappeared. He was gone from the spotlight for a few years, moving to Ohio to live a simpler life, and after a long stint away from standup, he finally returned this year and, thankfully, he hasn’t lost it. He hasn’t lost any of it. He’s the same old Chappelle. This year, he released two back-to-back Netflix specials, Deep in the Heart of Texas and The Age of Spin, and within days, they’d become the most-watched comedy specials on the streaming service, a testament to Chappelle’s talent and endearing, timeless popularity. Welcome home, Dave.
6. Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld is the quintessential standup comedian. He wears a suit on stage and makes classical “So what’s the deal with…?” and “Did you ever notice…?” jokes about airline food and sex and he doesn’t need swear words or vulgarity to make you laugh. All he needs is his social observations and he’s good to go. Seinfeld doesn’t generally talk about politics – it’s not his style. He focuses on the real world, making spot-on observations about everyday life, relationships, social situations, cultural differences, and human behavior. Jerry Seinfeld has spent his life examining what we do and why we do it and for pretty much the whole time, he’s been routinely presenting it back to us on stage – or if not on stage, on NBC – and using it to make us laugh and feel good. Jerry Seinfeld is everything a standup comedian should be, and it’s comics like him that give the art form a reason to exist.
5. Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy is, quite simply put, a funny guy. Just thinking about him – his smile, his voice, his body language – will make his fans laugh. Then you add actual jokes into that equation and the enjoyment is endless. See, long before he let everybody down with Norbit and Tower Heist and disappearing into sellout-dom, Eddie Murphy actually cared about the comedy he was putting out there. He had standup films like Raw and Delirious produced in the 1980s, in which he joked about everything from his alcoholic stepfather to getting ice cream as a kid to his mother throwing a shoe at his head when he did something bad. He was a superstar, and he had the goods to back up his confidence and swagger.
4. Chris Rock
Chris Rock’s flair and on-stage enthusiasm elevate him from the rest. Everything he says is hilarious, and it’s partly because of how he presents it. His loud, energetic delivery style is influenced by his grandfather, a preacher. When he has an observation about race or society, Rock isn’t just telling it – he’s preaching it. Rock’s special Bigger and Blacker is pure genius from start to finish. So is the infamous “N*ggaz vs Black People” routine from Bring the Pain, even if it did stir up a storm of controversy. Obama liked that routine so much that he even used it when he was campaigning for the Presidential election back in 2008. Rock makes people of all races laugh hysterically, bringing them together, but he does more than just that. He’s making white people aware of the “everyday racism” they face black people with, and he speaks out about racial profiling, and he’s breaking taboos and changing society. Chris Rock is a trailblazer, not just in standup comedy, but in race relations.
3. Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor was pretty much the black comedian who started it all. Some of the greatest comedians of all time have continued his legacy and followed in his footsteps to solidify black people’s place in the world of comedy, and by extension, society. Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart all owe a debt to Pryor, who would come on stage and confidently talk about the abuse he faced from his father, his heart attack, his troubles with alcoholism, and he took it all in his stride. Pryor wouldn’t let anything get him down, because to him, it was all material. The laughter he got from his audience was his lifeblood, and they certainly delivered. Pryor was one of the first. He was a true game-changer. Here’s what Dave Chappelle has to say about him: “What a precedent he set. Not just as a comic, but as a dude. The fact that someone was able to open themselves wide-open like that. It’s so hard to talk in front of people or to open yourself up to your closest friends. But to open yourself up for everybody: I freebase, I beat my women, I shot my car. And nobody’s mad at Richard for that. They understand. Somehow they just understand. And when I was going through this thing this year, that is the example I would think to myself that gave me the courage to just go back on the stage.”
2. George Carlin
George Carlin would go from critiquing the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War to talking about farts and vice versa. It was mesmerizing. He was a true veteran of the form, performing comedy since the early 1950s right up to his death at 71 in 2008. Over his career, he recorded over 20 albums, and they’re all comedy gold. He was one of the greatest standups of every generation in which he performed, because he always changed with the times. In the seventies, he was a seventies comic; in the eighties, he was an eighties comic, and so on and so forth. He evolved, which is something very few standups are capable of doing once they develop a stage persona that their audience seems to like, but Carlin was daring enough to do it consistently over almost fifty years. And the influence Carlin has had on the world of standup comedy knows no bounds. Without Carlin, there would be no Seinfeld, no Chris Rock, Bill Burr, C.K., Colbert, Jim Jefferies, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg – the list is endless.
1. Louis C.K.
Louis C.K. is the greatest, funniest standup comedian of all time. It’s an indisputable fact. And it’s hard to say exactly why that is. Obviously he’s funny, but it’s not just that – he’s a living god. It might be because he’s ever-evolving as a natural side effect of his changing life, but he’s always been the same Louis. He went from telling random, absurdist jokes as a teenager to talking cynically about marriage and fatherhood. And then he got divorced and reached middle age and everything changed again. Suddenly he was a single father who had to face life alone and the most company he had were his two daughters when he had custody and his audience when he was performing. But he never changed the way he writes his jokes or the way he tells them, and that’s the key. His style is utterly unique, and thankfully, no matter what has happened in C.K.’s personal life or how old he’s gotten, it hasn’t changed. He’s always been as dark, uncaring, crass, vulgar, offensive, absurdist, shameless, and self-deprecating as he was when he broke out. From Chewed Up to Hilarious to Live at the Beacon Theater to Oh My God to Live at the Comedy Store to this year’s 2017, C.K. never fails to amaze with how he never has a bad special – his material or his energy is never in decline. He’s brilliant and he only ever seems to get better.