Dispatches from the Creation Wars

10 Greatest Stand Up Comics

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.

Comments

  1. #1 flatlander100
    May 9, 2004

    Mostly right in your selections [though there were four whose work I am not familiar with]. Wrong in one selection… Klein, whose appeal as a comic has managed to escape me over his entire career. Though I gather other comics think highly of him.

    Your omission is Buddy Hackett, the king of blue standup in my book. Or is he one of the “older” set with which you are not very familiar?

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    May 9, 2004

    Mostly right in your selections [though there were four whose work I am not familiar with]. Wrong in one selection… Klein, whose appeal as a comic has managed to escape me over his entire career. Though I gather other comics think highly of him.

    He’s very popular with comedians. That was probably the toughest one on the list for me. You could justifiably replace him with a lot of others.

    Your omission is Buddy Hackett, the king of blue standup in my book. Or is he one of the “older” set with which you are not very familiar?

    You know, Hackett never crossed my mind. I don’t know that I’d call him the king of blue standup, but he’s undoubtedly the best joke teller in comedy. He could take a 15 second joke and turn it into a 4 minute joke and have you laughing before the punchline got there. Very funny.

  3. #3 Paige
    May 9, 2004

    Two of my favorites that did not make your list are Henny Youngmann and Rodney Dangerfield. I don’t think I ever heard a Henny Youngmann skit that didn’t leave me in stitches.

    Dangerfield is more of an acquired taste, but after I got used to him, I began to think he was truly brilliant.

    I’d like to add two comics that I never liked one bit: Don Rickles and Alan King (who passed away today). My parents found them hysterical, and I doubt I ever laughed once to their humor.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    May 9, 2004

    Two of my favorites that did not make your list are Henny Youngmann and Rodney Dangerfield. I don’t think I ever heard a Henny Youngmann skit that didn’t leave me in stitches.

    Henny Youngman has never elicited anything from me but bewilderment that anyone finds him funny. Dangerfield I like very much, and I’m shocked at how many people don’t think he’s funny at all.

    I’d like to add two comics that I never liked one bit: Don Rickles and Alan King (who passed away today). My parents found them hysterical, and I doubt I ever laughed once to their humor.

    I very nearly put Don Rickles on this list. I love him. The master of insult comedy. Alan King I find relatively funny, but I like him more for his history of helping younger comics. I know there are a lot of young comics who have gotten involved with the Friar’s Club who are very sad about his passing. Guys like Jeffrey Ross owe him a lot.

  5. #5 Lynnie
    May 9, 2004

    I wish to add Bob Newhart to your list Ed and LIly Tomlin too :-)

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    May 9, 2004

    LOL honey. I was going to add a little postscript on the conversation we had about this.

    For everyone else, I was commenting that I couldn’t think of a single female comedian I would put in that group, or even close to it. There are lots of very funny women comics – Ellen Degeneres, Kathleen Madigan, Wendy Leibman, Paula Poundstone – but none I thought were anywhere near the top ten. Then Lynnie said, “What about Lily Tomlin?”, causing me to smack my forehead. She surely deserves to be mentioned in this group. Lily Tomlin is brilliant.

    The other woman who had the potential to be one of the greats is Whoopi Goldberg. Her first big break, the HBO special on Broadway, was truly brilliant. Unfortunately, she pretty much stopped doing stand up after that. Had she kept at it, she certainly could have been one of the greats. She also had real talent as a dramatic actor. She may deserve to be on the list anyway, but she sold out that very promising career to make a hundred horrible movies.

    Bob Newhart came very close to making my list as well. I love his deadpan humor, especially in contrast to Don Rickles. Their appearances on the Tonight Show were amazing. Rickles would be doing his type A on acid schtick and Newhart would just be sitting there quietly. Then he’d throw in one short line and put Rickles on the floor. Great comedian.

  7. #7 DS
    May 9, 2004

    Hicks was incredible. I was lucky enough to get my share of chances to see him a lot in Austin, and I picked up a few shows here and there on trips to Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.

    Hicks varied a lot in quality of comedy experience over that span of time. But there were several sets I got to watch here and there throughout his career in which he was so very, very, good, that I really did get muscle soreness from laughing too hard and too long.

    Red-in-the-face, howling, explosive laughter. The best antidepressant known.

    ~DS~

  8. #8 Jon Rowe
    May 9, 2004

    Like your inclusion of Kinison. A lot folks I come across think that he was all screams — but if you could get past the shouting, he had some really, really funny and brilliant social comentary.

    I remember one line where he talked about Pat Robertson running for President because “God told him too.” Kinison’s line was, “yeah, then God must want to make you look like a f*cking assh*le in the political arena.” Then he has God joking in Heaven with the Angels: “Hey I just told Pat Robertson to run for President and he’s fucking doing it! Now I am going to tell him to check his tire pressure at 2:00am in the morning. Time to wake up and check your tire pressure Pat; this is the Lord speaking.”

    Then he did an impression of Robertson driving home in his car, after bowing out after his humiliating showing, looking up, talking to God: “Thanks a lot. Thanks for making me look like a fucking ass.”

    My words, of course, capture nothing of the delivery. I think it was from his HBO special.

    One major err in your list: I would have put Eddie Murphy as # 1. Yes, he was in many ways, a Richard Pryor type and as such doesn’t get the points for innovation that Pryor gets. But, to me, Eddie Murphy is to Richard Pryor what Stevie Ray Vaughn was to Henrix: Vaughn could play every lick that Hendrix could and then some.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2004

    Like your inclusion of Kinison. A lot folks I come across think that he was all screams — but if you could get past the shouting, he had some really, really funny and brilliant social comentary.

    Totally agree, and this was particularly true on religion. With his background as a preacher, he was in the perfect position to satirize religion and he did so brilliantly. The Pat Robertson routine was great, but even better than that was the one with Jesus explaining the crucifixion to his wife.

    “I knew that Jesus was never married because no wife would buy the resurrection story in a million years. Think about it, he leaves on Friday morning with 12 of his buddies. He’s gone the whole weekend, he doesn’t call, he doesn’t come home, then he shows up Monday morning looking like shit. And she’s outfront in the yard in a housecoat, pacing back and forth…well, nice of you to show up, Mr. SAVIOR. Where’s your 12 loser friends who won’t get a job? Disciples, my ass, they’re LOSERS.”

    Absolutely brilliant. And if you like Kinison but haven’t heard Hicks, you have to find some. If you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll burn you a CD or two. He and Kinison started out together in Houston with the Comedy Outlaws and Hicks took that kind of brutal social satire to a whole new level.

    On Eddie Murphy, I just don’t think I could possibly disagree more. The problem I have with him is that there was nothing at all innovative about his comedy, it was all style and no substance. I can’t think of a single routine he had that actually mattered, that said anything real about anything. I think my tastes here go back to my own comedy days a bit. I remember when I first started doing comedy, another comic saying to me that young comics typically fall into two categories – guys who are better performers than they are writers, and guys who are better writers than they are performers. I was the latter, predictably. Eddie Murphy is a great performer. He has charisma and he’s a naturally funny guy. But he wasn’t a writer at all. And worse than that, he spawned an entire generation of guys with even less substance than he had, which I didn’t think possible. He had a million imitators that all sounded exactly alike and didn’t say a damn thing. It took black comedy well over a decade to recover, and in many ways it still hasn’t. But with guys like Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, we finally have some black comics with their own voice. I blame Murphy for the temporary downfall of black comedy, which has such a rich tradition and I’m really glad to see it coming back now.

  10. #10 Kurt Haslbauer
    May 10, 2004

    In my opinion, any top ten list like this would have to include Phyllis Diller. She was the only woman to break into the comedy “boys club” (in a big way, certainly) for many years; and she held her own against the best of the men, at that. And she certainly paved the way for the many female comics after her.

    I also have to second (or third, or whatever) the Bob Newhart sentiment. I’d have to throw Jerry Seinfeld into the top ten, too.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    May 10, 2004

    In my opinion, any top ten list like this would have to include Phyllis Diller. She was the only woman to break into the comedy “boys club” (in a big way, certainly) for many years; and she held her own against the best of the men, at that. And she certainly paved the way for the many female comics after her.

    While I give her credit for paving the way for women, I left her off the list for one reason – I’ve just never found anything she said to be the least bit funny.

    I also have to second (or third, or whatever) the Bob Newhart sentiment. I’d have to throw Jerry Seinfeld into the top ten, too.

    Both Newhart and Seinfeld are tough calls for me. As I said, I very nearly put Newhart on the list and he’d certainly be in my top 20. Seinfeld I’m a little more mixed on. His TV show, as far as I’m concerned, is the best sitcom in history. I loved every moment of it. As far as his stand up goes, I recognize that he’s really good at what he does, and I much prefer his style of intelligently written, well crafted lines to the high energy stupidity of a Jim Carrey. But when I see him do stand up, I tend not to really laugh. My response is more, “Oh, that’s pretty clever.” It’s very well done, but it’s empty for me. So that’s why I left him off. I admire him as a comedy craftsman, but he doesn’t really make me laugh. Except his TV show, which still kills me in reruns every time.

  12. #12 Tom T.
    May 11, 2004

    How about Steve Martin?

    As for Lenny Bruce, I’m too young to be familiar with his work, but everything I’ve seen written about him focuses on how he broke down barriers with his angry topical satire; no one ever talks about his humor. Looking back on his work from today’s perspective, then, is he still funny?

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    May 12, 2004

    How about Steve Martin?

    This is strictly a matter of personal tastes. I recognize that he was a big star at it, but it just never did anything for me. I’ve never liked “whacky” comedy. I have liked many of his movies, but not the ones where he’s acting stupid. I’m at complete odds at this with the love of my life, by the way, who thinks The Jerk is just about the funniest movie ever made. I finally got around to watching that movie last year with a friend who also thinks it’s the funniest thing ever, and I just didn’t get it. There were a few moments where I chuckled a bit, but my friend was roaring with laughter the entire time. Ah well, that’s why they call it a “sense” of humor. It’s not a science or an algorythm, it’s just a sense of what we each find funny.

    As for Lenny Bruce, I’m too young to be familiar with his work, but everything I’ve seen written about him focuses on how he broke down barriers with his angry topical satire; no one ever talks about his humor. Looking back on his work from today’s perspective, then, is he still funny?

    Before he started getting in trouble with the law, he was extremely funny. It was really biting satire and it definitely holds up well. After he got arrested, he stopped even trying to be funny. He would go up on stage and read from the transcripts of his trials. It ruined not only his life and his career, but his ability to be funny as well.

  14. #14 Pete
    May 13, 2004

    Andy Kaufman. He should’ve made that top ten. Tisk tisk.

  15. #15 Jeff Faria
    May 19, 2004

    Good list. I wasn’t fond of Rock early on but as he matured he really blossomed, and does some truly inspired work today. I’m rather fond of Gilbert Gottfried’s eccentric (even for a comic) stand-up club routine, although he has done most of the same material for years. (He does not deserve to be on the list, but he’s on MY list.) Glad Seinfeld did not make the list, he’s actually a mediocre stand-up. (I liked his show just fine, but we’re talkiing stand-up -not ensemble- and we’re talking groundbreaking, right?) Bruce was important because of the circumstances in which he struggled, but if you listen to him today, the stuff does not hold up the way, for example, Cosby’s early stuff does. Dangerfield was one of the footsoldiers that prepared the way for the comedy ‘industry’ we have today, and deserves a nod for that. Likewise, Martin did some things no other comic before (or since) ever did, and deserves some notice for that. Good list overall, hard to quibble.

    But geez. Doesn’t ANYONE want to acknowledge the seminal, cutting-edge contributions of Steve Allen? The Comedy Channel ran some sort of 50 all-time great comedians list recently and he didn’t even make THAT list!! What is it about this guy that, after his death, it’s like he never existed? Did he so alienate his peers that he became personna non grata (he was a bit of a prude, especially in his later years)? What about The Answer Man? The Man in the Street? Smock smock???

  16. #16 Lynnie
    May 19, 2004

    I may be wrong but wasn’t Steve Allen better known as a Talk Show Host? I know he did comedy, from old clips and reruns I have seen he did what I call “slap stick” comedy. He never really made me laugh much. But I am no authority on comedy.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    May 20, 2004

    I’m rather fond of Gilbert Gottfried’s eccentric (even for a comic) stand-up club routine, although he has done most of the same material for years.

    Oh man, Gilbert Gottfried has to be seen live. His live show is hilarious just because it is so abrasive and weird. He’s a lot funnier than most people realize.

    But geez. Doesn’t ANYONE want to acknowledge the seminal, cutting-edge contributions of Steve Allen? The Comedy Channel ran some sort of 50 all-time great comedians list recently and he didn’t even make THAT list!! What is it about this guy that, after his death, it’s like he never existed? Did he so alienate his peers that he became personna non grata (he was a bit of a prude, especially in his later years)? What about The Answer Man? The Man in the Street? Smock smock???

    I never even considered him for this list because I’ve never seen him actually do stand up. But you’re talking to a major Steve Allen fan. Not only a comedic genius, but a regular genius as well. A brilliant man who wrote innumerable books.

  18. #18 Jeff Faria
    May 20, 2004

    A lot of what Steve Allen did was, essentially, improv stand-up comedy. The man-in-the-street stuff for example was strictly winging it. And then he did ‘prop’ comedy where he would be put into various precarious situations. He was pretty fearless, and in his best years his sense of humor was pretty unerring.

  19. #19 Father Luke
    July 7, 2004

    Mort Sahl.
    Mort came out with the first ever Comedy Album.

    I’m enjoying your writing and observations.

    Thanks,
    Father Luke

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