If there’s one genre of entertainment I would consider myself a real fan of, it would be comedy, and in particular stand-up comedy. A career as a stand-up comedian has always secrectly appealed to me, but I just don’t have what it takes. Unlike virtually every other form of entertainer, the stand-up comedian can expect a soul destroying barrage of abuse if the audience doesn’t find him funny. It takes real guts to be a comedian, and a unique way of looking at the World to be a good one, comedy can be a serious business.
After years of watching comedians I believed that compiling a list of the greatest comedians ever would be a relatively simple task, but oh how wrong I was. After a few hours of compiling a list of great comedians I’m left with something resembling a telephone directory, and I’m still leaving some of the funniest jokers of our time out, so with that in mind I’ve gone back to basics and compiled a list of ten of the most influential, controversial and popular comedians of our time, although based on the subjective nature of comedy, no two people would ever agree on the same ten names to be included. So if you’re disgusted that I’ve left out the funniest human alive in your opinion, then let me know in the comments, I’ll take it on the chin, after all nothing can be as bad as being shouted at by a room of hecklers, although for the first comedian on our list, that exact event made him a legend in his own lifetime.
#10 – Bill Burr
William Frederic ‘Bill’ Burr was born in Canton, Massachusetts in 1968 and moved to New York City in 1995 when his career was just taking off. His observational comedy with a dark twist soon saw him making regular TV appearances with his anti political correctness stance on modern life, but it was in 2006 in Philadelphia that he became the undisputed king of rage-fuelled humor. Many comics from The Opie & Anthony Show were on The Travelling Virus Comedy Tour, performing at large venues nationwide and the tour was a huge success, until Philadelphia. The crowd were drunk, unruly, loud and disruptive, and every comedian had been booed from the stage after their performance. Bill was last in line for the abuse, and after Dom Irerra had left to a crescendo of jeers, he decided to give the crowd a taste of their own medicine. He tore apart the city, blasting it’s sports teams, it’s icons, and it’s food and culture during his 12 minute set. Every minute he would countdown the time remaining before launching into another profanity laden jibe at Philadelphia. Surprisingly Bill not only survived unscathed, but he left to a standing ovation from at least part of the crowd. The event became known as the Philadelphia Incident and it made Bill one of the heroes of comedy.
#9 – Robin Williams
Although known later in life primarily as an actor Robin Williams is single handedly credited with beginning the San Francisco comedy renaissance of the 1970’s. After moving to Los Angeles he became well known after he began getting TV appearances on HBO and Rowan & Martins Laugh in. After a guest appearance as the alien Mork in a 1978 episode of Happy Days, during which Robin improvised virtually everything, and also reduced the crew to fits of hysterics, he soon found himself in the hugely popular Mork & Mindy, which ran for five years until 1982. HBO stand-up specials followed, including the massively well-received ‘An Evening with Robin Williams’ in 1982 and Williams was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1979. The Stand-up work continued throughout Robin’s life, alongside his large number of credits for film & TV work until his untimely death in 2014.
#8 – Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy first came to national attention on Saturday Night Live during the early 1980’s. He is generally recognised as being one of the primary performers who revitalized the show after the temporary departure of Lorne Michaels, and his diverse range of parodies propelled him to stardom. Eddie’s portrayal of an adult Buckwheat from the Little Rascals proved so popular that Eddie insisted the show kill him off, literally, because he was so fed up of fans insisting that he ‘Do Buckwheat’ wherever he went. Amongst the huge number of hit films and TV appearances two of Eddie’s stand up performances from the time have become synonymous with the edgy alternative humor of the time. ‘Delirious’ from 1983 was so successful that a follow up, ‘Eddie Murphy Raw’ was filmed in 1987 at Madison Square Garden and received a full theatrical release, grossing over $50 million at the box office.
#7 – Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks was one of those comics with an overwhelmingly cynical attitude towards civilization. As much a political satirist as he was a comedian, Bill would go places that no-one else did at the time, and often places that no-one would ever dare to go. His act would be an exploration of the evils of consumerism, Government control and the hypocrisy of drug laws, but his laid-back delivery and perfect timing showed the surreal side of such serious issues and the audiences loved it. Bill died prematurely of pancreatic cancer in 1994 aged just 32, and it was after his death that his controversial themes became widely known throughout the World. A number of posthumous releases of his work soon led to a cult following, and Bill Hicks remains today more popular than he has ever been, more than twenty years after his death.
#6 – Jerry Seinfeld
Bill Hicks found his material in the big questions about life, but by comparison Jerry Seinfeld found the funny side of the smallest encounters that we all experience every day. His razor-sharp observational comedy covered human behavior, social awkwardness and everyday life, and it was that down-to-Earth quality that made Jerry the star of his own hugely successful show for almost a decade. His wide ranging appeal has led to Jerry becoming arguably the most financially successful comedian of our time, with a net worth of at least $800 million, mainly earned from the Seinfeld show and Worldwide reruns. As he has grown older Seinfeld has been prepared to take on a slightly edgier attitude to serious issues than previously, most notably in 2014 when at an Advertising industry awards ceremony he stated that he loved advertising because ‘I love lying’.
#5 – Chris Rock
Chris Rock started his stand-up career in 1984 at New York City’s Catch a Rising Star club, the venue that elevated numerous singers and performers to eventual stardom. While performing there he was spotted by Eddie Murphy, who mentored the young comic and eventually gave him his first film role, in ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’ in 1987. Chris’s edgy but incisive wit gained him a place on Saturday Night Live by 1990, where he stayed until 1993, but it was his award winning HBO comedy specials that gained him the reputation as one of the most controversial and admired comedians of the time. The 1994 special ‘Big Ass Jokes’ brought him huge recognition and much critical acclaim, particularly for his exposition of black culture in contemporary America, but not only that, the show also won him two Emmy awards. More HBO comedy specials cemented his place as one of the most respected comedians in the business, with Time magazine calling him ‘The funniest man in America’. The Chris Rock show followed and gained an Emmy award for writing, and the HBO special ‘Kill the Messenger’ won Chris his third Emmy award for comedy in 2008.
#4 Louis C.K.
Louis Szekely, or Louis C.K. as he’s more commonly known, began writing for chat show hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, as well as Chris Rock before he starred in the semi-autobiographical drama show ‘Louie’. He has since appeared in many TV and film roles but it is his stand up comedy that has gained him the most ardent followers. Louis released his first stand up show ‘Live in Houston’ in 2001, it met with critical acclaim, and gained him a growing band of fans. He has since released a further eight comedy specials all of which have been equally well-received. His style of often surreal observational comedy has earned him a total of six Emmy awards throughout his career, and he also received a Peabody Award in 2012.
#3 – Richard Pryor
From an unsettled and troubling childhood, Richard Pryor developed into one of the most influential comedians of our time. Seinfeld called him the ‘Picasso of comedians’ for his ability to seamlessly weave tragedy and comedy so well. Richard told stories rather than joked, and his tales always carried a personal connection that made you care, he sucked you in and then he delivered a killer punchline which always hit it’s mark. His comedy albums, mainly released in the 1970’s were a huge success, although the extremely explicit subject matter covered drugs, sexuality violence and caused a fair amount of controversy at the time. He will perhaps be best remembered for his partnership with Gene Wilder in classic comedy movies such as ‘Silver Streak’ and the ludicrous yet brilliantly played ‘See no Evil, Hear No Evil’. Richard died in 2005 aged 65 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
#2 – Dave Chapelle
Dave Chappelle earned his stripes in the tough amateur comedy circuit at New York’s Apollo Theater, he was booed off stage during his debut performance but he only gained more courage on-stage because of the experience. After several small parts in TV and movies, including a role in the Mel Brooks comedy ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ he eventually hit the big time with ‘Chappelle’s Show’, which began in 2003. Critical acclaim for Dave’s quick-witted satire and characters flooded in, Esquire called him the comic genius of America, but a heavy work load soon saw him break under the pressure. Dave walked off stage during a show in Sacramento in 2004 after complaining that ‘Chapelle’s Show’ was ruining his life, he then abruptly left for South Africa just before the new series was due to begin airing, citing concerns over the direction the show was taking. Rumors of drug abuse and mental illness flew around but Dave only heaped further scorn upon the way black entertainers were treated in the industry upon his return. In 2016 Dave is now back to the top of the heap, he has just announced a $60 million deal for three new stand-up specials to be aired on Netflix in 2017.
#1 – George Carlin
George Carlin died in 2008 aged 71, but his influence and popularity have only continued to steadily grow since his death. During his lifetime he had an early career in mainstream 1960’s comedy shows, but he later shed his clean-cut mainstream image, and became one of the most revered political satirists of our time. During his career he gained a huge amount of admiration, not only for his polished timing and intelligent subject matter, but also his uncompromising view of the World in general, and politics in particular. George was the King of the counter culture comedians, and his unabashed dissection of taboo subjects often left him mired in controversy. His political commentary made him few friends and likely a few enemies in Washington, and his expose of the hypocrisy of religion certainly didn’t gain him sainthood, but his unflinching ability to see the funny side of often uncomfortable, and usually unspoken issues, gained him many loyal fans who found his straightforward honesty a breath of fresh air.