1. George Carlin.
Widely regarded as one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time, Carlin’s on-stage persona was a mix of hippie sage and cool professor. He was the anti-bullshitter, demanding his audiences think instead of simply accept the maxims piled on them by the culture of advertisers and religious figures. His passionate defense of free speech led to his legendary bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” which feels as relevant today as it did in when he wrote it in 1972.
2. Eddie Murphy.
On stage, he was pure magic – confident, preening, a wonderful combination of rock star and comedian. Even the parts of his act that have not aged well (homophobia and misogyny was par for the course) were delivered with such perfection that they still can bring a smile. His bit about McDonalds hamburgers still packs a punch.
3. Chris Rock.
Wolfish, at times skittish as a boxer, give Chris Rock a stage and the audience will come. Not only will they come, they’ll be utterly enthralled from the moment he appears. He knows how to work a crowd better than just about anyone, and his punchlines are hilarious. His comments on race are insightful and might speak to his nearly universal appeal (a black man is “born a suspect”, he says.) Sometimes tipping way, way over into controversial territory (such as the ‘N******* vs. Black People bit) remain evergreen despite the controversy.
4. Richard Pryor.
Outspoken, provocative, and yet with a light touch, Pryor had the ability to really surprise on stage. Switching between ordinary and superhero, boasting and confessing, he was sometimes untouchable. His entire life, including suicide attempts and his battle with multiple sclerosis, was fodder for his routine. Jerry Seinfeld called him the “Picasso of our profession”.
5. Jerry Seinfeld.
When the king of observational humor is on stage, you get the sense this is a man who is trying hard to figure out life. Trying to crack the code. Trying to dissect American culture from marriage to pop tarts. He talks about things in a way that makes him nearly universally understood and loved. While you get a taste of that on the re-runs of his tv show, you really understand him when he’s on the stage.
6. Robin William
Performed stand-up like a race – he was a dervish of impressions, rifts, free associations, and punchlines that made his audience’s head spin. One got the feeling he never even thought about his routine until he was on stage, feeding off the energy of the crowd. He had no ‘subjects’ he just bounced from topic to topic, from the Falkland Islands to salad. It was manic and surreal but not weird. Everything had its own internal logic. And that was his genius; you were in the hands of someone who wanted to get you somewhere, and after an hour or two on stage, you’d realize you were exhausted, but somehow, magically, you were there.
7. Lewis Black.
A comic who can be both angry and intellectual at the same time, his rants are fuelled with exasperation and intolerance of stupidity. He rails against Starbucks, Ireland, basically anything. And yet he does it in a way that makes you listen and laugh and even agree. He’s an everyman who takes on the world’s problems and transforms them into little rallying points of humanity. That’s why he’s a legend.
8. Elayne Boosler.
In 1986, Boosler became the first woman to get her one one-hour comedy special on cable when Showtime aired Party of One. John J. O’Connor wrote in the New York Times wrote: “How refreshing, a woman who doesn’t have to tear her own skin off for our amusement… an attractive human being simply standing there being funny, the first to feel she doesn’t have to be a grotesque….” Political, outspoken, and ballsy, she paved the way for other women like Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Amy Schuemer.
9. Jim Gaffigan.
While he had been around for years, Gaffigan seemed to really find his strength in the early 2000s when he became a father. His comedy focuses on fatherhood (his Twitter feed is hilarious), food, and ordinary pains of adulthood, always with a kind of bemused kind of lostness that makes him infinitely relatable. Unlike many comedians, he really does seem like a nice guy.
10. Steven Wright.
Minimalist and surreal, Wright’s ability to deliver strange and wonderful one-liners is unparalleled. His best jokes are like little Zen koans (“It’s a small world but I wouldn’t want to pain it.”). Completely unique, utterly charming he is one of the greatest minimalist joke writers.