Inspired by a conversation this afternoon, prompted by the death of Alan King, I’d like to lay out my list of the greatest comedians of all time. If anyone bothers to read it, I’m sure there will be lots of debate over who is on the list that shouldn’t be, or who was left off the list that should be, and that’s fine. This is my list and it will probably reflect my own rather dark sense of humor. First, a couple notes about this list. I’m sticking, with one exception, to well known names. Having spent 4 years as a comic myself, I know of a couple dozen comics I consider geniuses that few people have ever heard of, but that won’t be terribly interesting to anyone. I’m also limiting the list to stand up comics only, so that leaves out sketch comics like Bill Murray or John Belushi. In addition, I’m going to leave out some of the older comics that aren’t terribly relevant to me – George Burns, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and the like. There will be a couple of older names on the list, guys who are at least partially contemporary with these names, but for the most part I’m not even considering them. I know they’re legends, and some of what they did was pretty funny. But I’m limiting this, for the most part, to comedians during my lifetime.
So with those caveats out of the way, here’s the list:
10. Steven Wright. If he had been more active as a comedian, he would no doubt be higher on the list. He is the king of twisted perspective comedy, leaving you in awe of how on earth his mind thought up the things it did. Lines like “I bought a box of powdered water, but I don’t know what to add” and “It’s a small world but I wouldn’t wanna paint it” are tiny little gems of weirdness.
9. Robert Klein. He was the first comedian ever to have an HBO special, which was enormously important for comedy and for comedians. There was finally an outlet for comedians to get TV coverage that wasn’t censored, where they could do the same act they did in the clubs without having to negotiate every word with censors before he could do it. Klein was a child of the 60s and while he wasn’t as overtly political as Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, he has a gift for social satire with an edge to it.
8. Sam Kinison. A very brief career cut short by his tragic death, but Kinison left his mark in a huge way. Kinison was loud, angry, bitter and very, very funny. Before his career was ended by a car accident, it was all but ended due to his addictions and excesses. I recall seeing Kinison live after his first CD came out and it was simply the hardest I’ve ever laughed. Two years later, after his second CD came out, I saw him again at the same theater. He was horrible. He was obviously drunk on stage and all he really did was talk about partying and scream a lit. He had just become the screaming guy, and had long since stopped writing. A short time before he died, he stopped drinking and got his life together, and had returned to his roots and started writing again. His time in the spotlight was short, but at his best he was a revelation.
7. Albert Brooks. More well known for his movies, but Brooks’ appearance on the tonight show in the 70s are the stuff of legend. In contrast to his movie characters, which tend toward major neuroses and self-doubt, Brooks’ stand-up act was brave and pointed. He had a great eye for social interactions and for casting people in types.
6. Robin Williams. Williams is relatively unpopular among stand up comics for his propensity to steal premises from lesser known comics and make them his own, but when those premises filtered through his warp-speed brain, it came out as something unique and unrecognizable. I’m not generally a fan of manic improvisational humor, preferring more cerebral humor as a rule, but no one ever did it as well as Williams. Billy Crysal, a great improv comic in his own right, said that being on stage with Williams was like riding a bull, you just hold on for your life because you never know where he’s going to go.
5. Lenny Bruce. Quite simply, there wouldn’t be a Sam Kinison or even a Richard Pryor if Lenny Bruce hadn’t broken through the wall first. It was Bruce who challenged the limitations placed on comics, so much so that in comedy things might as well be dated as Before Lenny and After Lenny. After Lenny, everything changed. The boundaries of comedy were crossed and there was no going back. Bruce was a comic poet and at heart, the ultimate idealist. He simply couldn’t believe that the world could be run by people of such ignorance, and he couldn’t believe that people went along with it. So he hammered away at every institution – the government, the family, the church, our own conceptions of race. And he was punished for it, hounded quite literally to death by prosecutors in New York and San Francisco who continually arrested him on obscenity charges. He broke through the wall and he paid the price, but he paved the way for everything that was to follow in comedy.
4. Bill Cosby. The master of universal observation. His classic albums of the 60s focused mostly on his childhood and he was already a comedy legend by the time he did his best work. In the early 80s, with the HBO special called simply Himself, Cosby made parenthood far funnier than it had ever been before. The genius of Cosby lies in two things – the universal accessibility of his comedy (is there anyone who listens to his routines about his wife and children who doesn’t see their own family in it?) and the incredible pacing of his act. He doesn’t do jokes, there are no setups and punchlines, he tells stories. Those stories come out slowly, with no concern that the audience won’t stay with him until the laugh gets there. Enormous confidence.
3. George Carlin. Carlin has probably had the largest, most diverse and most productive career of anyone on the list. His career stretches from the Ed Sullivan Show, where he did very funny but mostly goofy comedy like the Hippy Dippy Weather Man character, to his later career as an angry political satirist, to his unrivaled genius as an observer of cultural detritus. His comedy, for the last 30 years, has focused on observational humor dealing with three issues – our use of language, our common behaviors, and our hypocritical culture. He has an incredible ear for how language is used, and misused. He loves to point out how language is used to conceal motives and to hide reality, and he is especially brilliant uncovering euphemism. Some people think that he has become bitter as he grows old, but I have always thought that Carlin is at his best when he is at his angriest.
2. Richard Pryor. A brilliant storyteller, a wonderful observer of social convention – especially on the subject of race – and a man who turned his entire life into comedy fodder. There is a rawness and a realness to Pryor’s comedy that is very unique, and he manages to transport those in his audience who have never experienced the things that he did into his life. Unfortunately, far too many people who followed in his footsteps managed to imitate the style without any of the substance that gave his art depth. Eddie Murphy begat Martin Lawrence begat a thousand clones on Def Comedy Jam, with only Chris Rock emerging from that scene with a real voice of his own. But nothing can erase the achievements of Richard Pryor, who will always be one of the true giants of comedy.
1. Bill Hicks. It has now been 10 years since Hicks died of pancreatic cancer and most of the world remains blissfully unaware of the depth of this loss. If you haven’t heard Hicks’ comedy, go find it. Seek it out. After his death, Rykodisc put out 4 CDs of his stuff, 2 of them recorded after he found out he was dying, after which he got down everything he wanted to say about anything and everything. Hicks was not just a comedian, he was a primal force. As Eric Bogosian said of him, he played the role of witch doctor on stage, picking us up and shaking the poisonous crap that we’ve all been raised on out of us. His material was brutally funny, the kind of comedy that hits you in the gut, and I don’t mean a mild tap. Nothing and no one was safe from his assault. Underlying all of this anger and brilliant observation was his fervent belief in our psychic evolution and our ability to transcend the shallow and the stupid. He could do a routine about Rush Limbaugh or Jay Leno that was so vicious it leaves you in complete shock, then turn around at the end of his show and share with you his vision of a world of love and compassion, yet you don’t hear any conradiction in it. He would tell the audience that he wanted to share his vision “because I love you, and you feel it” – and there was not a hint of irony or pretension to be found in it. Hicks was raw and real and his comedy was fueled by equal parts anger and idealism. The result was, in my opinion, about as good as comedy can be done.
So there you have it, my top 10. There are many others I could have put on the list. Of the comics working today, the ones I woud put in this class would include Chris Rock and Doug Stanhope. I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks and who they would replace.