30. Amy Schumer
Image Source: Variety
Amy Schumer’s wit is as fearless as it is fierce. Schumer’s early stand-up comedy always had her playing coy and self-deprecating — with a smattering of smutty. Since then, she’s blossomed as a physical comedian, a feminist and a body-positive icon without losing that innocent charm. While her range came out more in her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, her stand-up stings the most when she looks at how women are punished for seeking pleasure (in men, in liberation, and in life).
29. Kevin Hart
Image Source: TIME
Hart draws some of the largest crowds of any comedian in history because, simply put, he is a joy-making sparkplug of a performer. He’s entirely willing to be confused, doubtful, and hurt when not bouncing around the stage. Digging into tales of family, his failed marriage, and fatherhood, Hart just seems intent on making sense of things. He has sold out Madison Square Garden twice in one night, and became the first comedian in history to headline a show at an NFL stadium (Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia).
28. Aziz Ansari
Image Source: Variety
There are few working comedians today that are as infectiously enthusiastic on and offstage as Aziz Ansari. The Indian-American comedian’s early routines focused on the simple pleasures of pop culture. Ansari’s own overriding sense of joy and silliness informs all of his comedy. The audience sees it with the ridiculous neologisms of Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford — to the foulmouthed comic Randy in Funny People. Ansari is currently staying busy as ever. Aside from performing stand-up comedy all around the world, Ansari also wrote and starred in his own Netflix show, Master of None.
27. Margaret Cho
Image Source: Philly Voice
If you’ve never heard of Margaret Cho, think the crude comedy of Joan Rivers, the politically-charged jibes of Bill Hicks, and the quick witted improvisation of Robin Williams. Think back to Cho’s first HBO comedy “Half-Hour.” The then-young comedian had material ranging from how she might get laid after two years of celibacy, to growing up with a loud, Korean mother. Her willingness to candidly talk about sexual escapades makes her the sort of funny, sex-positive feminist and LGBT activist younger comics continue to look up to.
26. Patton Oswalt
Image Source: Realtor
Patton Oswalt has more than a little to do with the triumph of dork culture in the new millennium. His obsessions with comic books gave nerds a champion in the world of comedy. Oswalt helped to elevate obscure arguments to an art form. Over the last few decades, Oswalt has steadily become one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation — and one of the most successful ones at that. With a lineup of incredible specials, film/TV roles and bestseller books, Oswalt has found success in a myriad of mediums. He shows no sign of slowing down.
25. Sarah Silverman
Image Source: Daily Beast
Sarah Silverman has a superhuman ability to push irony to its breaking point. She touches on issues ranging from sex to the Holocaust. All the while, she relies on a naughty child’s wide-eyed innocence to sell the outrageous statements. While Silverman’s most famous comedy routines do indulge in their share of pushing (buttons, envelopes, boundaries, whatever else can be pushed with risqué jokes and matter-of-fact delivery), her actual telling of jokes tends to be sharp and concise. Not all of her routines are pure one-liners, but her instincts for them are killer.
24. Phyllis Diller
Image Source: Danny Turner/Corbis
This housewife-turned-superstar began her career at age 37. One of the ultimate pioneers for female comedians, Diller fearlessly put herself on the chopping block with her sharp satirical criticism of gender roles. With her garish, glittery outfits and hair standing on end, Diller’s freaky fabulousness made her audiences sit up in their chairs. In her career, she convinced legions of early stand-up audiences that women comics were not a novelty, but rather a forced to be reckoned with.
23. Albert Brooks
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Albert Brooks is among the most innovative and respected comedians of his generation. As a stand-up, he made a name for himself on the talk-show circuit — appearing on The Dean Martin Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and others before settling in for a semi-regular stint on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After producing two groundbreaking comedy albums (Comedy Minus One and A Star Is Bought), Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in his first feature, Real Life. This was a prescient black comedy that anticipated the current reality-show craze.
22. Jonathan Winters
Image Source: Getty Images
Using just a single prop or a bit of costuming, Jonathan Winters could use his imagination, voice and the elastic mask of his face to create solo vignettes with well-defined characters. A revered comic genius, Winters wove improv, impersonations, and a deep reservoir of oddball homemade characters into his stand-up routines and TV appearances for decades. His career spanned more than 50 years. It included many memorable roles, from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to playing Williams’ dad on Mork & Mindy.
21. Ellen DeGeneres
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Comedian and talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres has been a beacon of hilarity and heart. Her legacy will undoubtedly be championing kindness in comedy. DeGeneres was a groundbreaking comedian. She emerged from the 1980s comedy boom as one of the most reliably funny headliners in the country. In the process, she paralleled the career track of peer Jerry Seinfeld. In her new Netflix special Relatable (DeGeneres’ first stand-up special in 15 years), the comic does her own impression of herself: The stand-up star she once undeniably was.
20. David Letterman
Image Source: Variety
David Letterman spent 33 years (longest tenure in talk show history) hosting innovative late-night TV for America’s delectation before turning over Late Show to Stephen Colbert in 2015. Notoriously self-flagellating and compulsively anti-romantic, Letterman was never truly comfortable unless he was seething with unhappiness at something. Irreverent, offbeat, and entirely original, Letterman’s ironic, ‘everything-is-stupid’ style helped usher in a new approach to comedy that is the norm today.
19. Bob Newhart
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With a deadpan delivery, a trademark stammering and stuttering, and those painfully good pregnant pauses, Bob Newhart always did more with silence and a stare than most comics can do on full blast. A lot of comedians try to knock their audiences out; Newhart told them to lean in. His debut album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, famously went to #1 (knocking Elvis Presley out of the top spot,). After that, Newhart become of the biggest sit-com stars of all-time.
18. Bob Hope
Image Source: PBS
You never will finish watching a Bob Hope special without laughter-induced stomach cramps. He was unquestionably one of the elite icons of comedy in the 20th century. By the time Hope died in 2003 (at age 100), the special figure had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, recordings, live concerts, radio, films and, from its infancy, TV (where he remained a welcome presence into his 90s). Whether he was performing for the troops or in the films, Hope entertained America for an astounding eight decades — providing an always reliable source of laughs.
17. Rodney Dangerfield
Image Source: LifeDaily
Meet the frazzled, rumpled and eternally downtrodden every-man that Rodney Dangerfield played to a tee. With his bug eyes, head twitches, and a never-ending arsenal of one-liners that skewered his looks, sex life, and wife, Dangerfield was a guaranteed riot every time he was onscreen or stage. He wasn’t the most versatile of comedians. However, he played the one note (a self-deprecating loser) perfectly.
16. Bill Burr
Image Source: Star Tribune
Rolling Stone once described Bill Burr as “the undisputed heavyweight champ of rage-fueled humor.” They’re absolutely right. He’s angry about a lot of things in the world. He pretty much goes on stage and yells about it, but there’s an art to it. Where most comedians start a joke out nice and easy, explaining the context and getting everyone on-board, Burr does the equivalent of throwing the audience into the deep end — and then trying to pull them back safely. That combination not only has allowed Burr to come across as a normal guy, but also one of comedy’s most-revered stand-ups among comedians working today.
15. Andy Kaufman
Image Source: Medium
Kaufman’s career was the country’s first major introduction with what’s sometimes called anti-comedy. When on stage, Kaufman would intentionally have a bit fall flat. He loved when the audience got pissed off. To him, comedy was less a vocation and more a vehicle through which he could highlight the absurdity of the human condition.
14. Don Rickles
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Don Rickles was a rare comic who found his voice by actually ignoring his material. In the late ’40s, Rickles discovered that his audiences connected more to the ad-libs he used to shut down hecklers rather than the jokes he’d written. For more than half a century, Mr. Rickles made outrageously derisive comments about people’s looks, their spouses, their jobs or anything else he could think of. His hilarious unpleasantness was aimed even at the biggest stars in show business (Frank Sinatra was a favorite target).
13. Bill Hicks
Image Source: AV Club
Dark, jaded, and hyper-critical of popular culture, religion, government, and often his audience, Bill Hicks never had mainstream appeal. He was completely fine with that. He’s clearly angry about the things he talks about. However, Hicks isn’t taking a malicious stance, he’s just laughing at them. Hicks’ delivery in this style is so perfect that we can’t help but laugh along with him. He tragically died at the age of only 33 (just as he was achieving the astronomical success he deserved). However, the comedy he left us with is timeless.
12. Robin Williams
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Robin Williams made his audiences’ heads spin — largely on the basis of micro-impressions, free associations, and countless riffs. Full of frenetic energy and an almost otherworldly ability to improvise, Williams had more comedic talent than perhaps any other comedian to grab a mic. His stand-up specials in the late-’70s and ’80s were full of hysterical impressions. These performances paved the way for a hugely successful film career. Give the man a stage, and you never knew where Williams would go. You just knew he was damn near unstoppable.
11. Jerry Seinfeld
Image Source: YouTube/The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Of course, most comedy can be categorized as observational. Jerry Seinfeld elevated the art form to new heights through his decades of dedication to the craft. Seinfeld focuses on the real world — making spot-on observations about everyday life, relationships, social situations, cultural differences, and human behavior. Even now in his 60s, with a sitcom-fueled fortune underneath his fanny, Seinfeld is still doing sets. Can anyone say “What’s the deal with…” in anything but Seinfeld’s classic nasal tone?
10. Eddie Murphy
Image Source: Consequence of Sound
Eddie Murphy was a teenage phenomenon. Inspired by both Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, Murphy was performing in New York City as a teenager. He landed a gig on SNL by age 19, and delivered one of the funniest stand-up specials ever (Delirious) at just 22 years of age. Murphy joked about everything from his alcoholic stepfather to his mother throwing a shoe at his head when he did something bad. In his magic moment, Murphy saw transformed stand-up comedy into rock-star art.
9. Johnny Carson
Image Source: Hollywood Reporter
For 30 years, Johnny Carson was America’s warm glass of milk before bed. That may sound tame, but it’s simply a testament to his endearingly irresistible charm and poise in front of The Tonight Show curtain. His comedy was so natural and witty. Nothing ever felt uncomfortable. Carson was effortlessly likable, quick on his feet, and always present. Simply put, Carson’s comedic monologues and great interviews remain a long-lasting staple of the American cultural diet.
8. Steve Martin
Image Source: AV Club
Martin is best-known as a movie star. A few of his most notable comedies include The Jerk and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Martin has come to be known as the lovable funny old man with white hair. As a stand-up comedian, he was an absurdist weirdo. Whether he was establishing catchphrases (Excuuuse me!), playing some badass banjo, or dancing the King Tut, Martin totally earned his arena-filling rock star status.
7. Dave Chappelle
Image Source: Telegraph
Billboard called him “the best.” Esquire called him “the comic genius of America.” Glancing at his career before and after the groundbreaking Chappelle’s Show makes one thing clear: Stand-up is his first (and perhaps only) love. Chappelle talks race, celebrity, and politics in a way that belies the incisive and ferocious nature of his observations. After a pair of stunningly good specials on Netflix, Chappelle has not only reasserted himself in the game– but put himself right back on top.
6. Joan Rivers
Image Source: BBC America
There wasn’t exactly an excess of women around when Joan Rivers was coming up in West Village joints. The bold and brash comedian did more than just stake her claim to a spot in the boys’ club. With her acid-tongued raspy voice and self-deprecating jabs, Rivers rose to the elite rank of Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host for The Tonight Show. In the process, she grew a multimedia empire based on her unique brand.
5. Louis C.K.
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Louis C.K. is by far one of the greatest stand-up comedians of this generation. It might be because he’s ever-evolving as a natural side effect of his changing life. C.K. went from telling random, absurdist jokes as a teenager to talking cynically about marriage and fatherhood. Starting with his 2007 special Shameless, C.K. has challenged himself to deliver on an unprecedented scale. The self-deprecating social critic has crafted many hours of new material — including one massive special almost every year.
4. Lenny Bruce
Image Source: LA Times/Museum of Television and Radio
Over fifty years after his death, it’s difficult to separate Lenny Bruce the comedian from Lenny Bruce the icon. Bruce’s penchant for saying whatever came to his mind on stage earned him genius status. His brilliance was paired with a career-wrecking level of controversy in the ’50s and early ’60s. But more importantly, Bruce almost single-handedly transformed stand-up into an outlaw occupation.
3. Chris Rock
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Chris Rock is a comic who knows how to punch premises for rhythm as much as substance, and drop punchlines that provoke unconventional thinking. Rock’s crackling voice, energetic stage presence, and stinging social commentary helped carve out his own unique path in the ’90s. Bring the Pain — his 1996 HBO special — was one of the decade’s finest.
2. George Carlin
Image Source: NBC
George Carlin is one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all-time. Between his brilliant social and political commentary, genius-level observational skills, and legendary command of the English language, Carlin was a true master of the craft. No stranger to obscenity, Carlin could be crass and juvenile one minute, then deeply philosophical and wise the next.
1. Richard Pryor
Image Source: BBC News
Richard Pryor went through an evolution in his life and work. He survived a disturbing childhood. Colorful personalities from his youth shaped the basis of his early act. Pryor worked through a clean-cut phase before finding cocaine. Eventually, he burst out of a staid Vegas lounge act. Pryor went to San Francisco with the goal of turning stand-up on its ear. One of the most influential comics of all time (regardless of race or style), Pryor’s body of work is beyond reproach.