The 411 Top 5 07.04.08: Week 120
Posted by Trevor Snyder on 07.04.2008
The Top 5 All-Time Best Stand-Up Comedians
I'm never opposed to taking requests here at the Top 5, and I couldn't deny the perfect timing of JLAJRC's request in last week's comments section that we spend this week looking at the world of stand-up. With the recent unfortunate passing of comedy king George Carlin, it does in fact seem like a great time to take a look at the career he loved, by offering our takes on:
THE TOP 5 ALL-TIME BEST STAND-UP COMEDIANS
First off, let me freely admit that my list is based purely on what I know, and and have heard. I understand that guys like Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor almost certainly deserve a spot on this list, but I have not experienced enough of their material to feel honest including them here. So I'll stick with the comedians I have seen a lot of.
Rodney Dangerfield - You want to know how to take one simple gimmick and make the most of it? Take a look at Dangerfield. His was essentially a one-idea act, and yet he stood on top of the comedy world for years doing it. Perhaps it's because we all have those days where we feel like the whole world is against us, and could therefore see ourselves in his "No Respect" persona. Or perhaps it's because the mannerisms he came up with - the nervous tie-pulling, the bug-eyes - were made to be iconic. Whatever the case, his self-deprecating humor is sure to be some of the most repeated material for years to come.
THE TOP 5
It's almost too bad that, when all is said and done, Ellen will be more remembered for her talk show and the whole "coming out" thing then she will for being the funniest female stand-up ever...which she is. I'm a hge mark for her "tangent" style of comedy, in which she will continue to go further and further off the topic she started on, until finally wrapping it all up and somehow coming back to what she was originally talking about almost 40 minutes ago. Like Seinfeld, Ellen's comedy is based in the same sort of everyday observations that we all have, which makes her material incredibly relatable. But it's her delivery that makes it classic.
Considering he played such a prick on his classic sitcom, it's interesting that Seinfeld's stage persona is pretty much the ultimate everyman - pointing out the ridiculousness in everyday situations that we all know on some level, but never thing to verbalize in a way as funny as he can do it. Whether it be the Olympics, the expiration date on milk, or just a trip to the pharmacy, Seinfeld can find the comedy in pretty much everything, and then create a classic joke about it. A lot of people criticize the "did you ever notice..." style of comedy, but even these naysayers would probably admit that Seinfeld mastered it in a way that will probably never have an equal.
Most of my generation might prefer Mitch Hedberg - and don't get me wrong, I love Mitch Hedberg - but he was pretty much just doing a stoner riff on the same angle that Wright had already been doing for years. Oh, sure, Wright didn't create the one-liner style of joke-telling, but he damn sure perfected it, adding a touch of surreal absurdity to the proceedings. Plus, his monotone delivery obviously added to it, but lest you suggest his stuff is only funny because of his voice, just think about all those times you've probably been e-mailed a page of Wright jokes, or just come across them on some website. His stuff is just as funny when you read it as when you hear him doing it. Well, maybe not just as funny, but still pretty darn good.
I have watched "Dress to Kill," Izzard's Emmy-winning HBO special, probably a dozen times, and I still laugh out-loud nearly everytime I see it. Like my number one choice, Izzard is, above all else, a comedy writer. He perfects his act over time, until it is a lean, mean, laugh-inducing machine. A completed Izzard act is a thing of beauty, a collection of jokes so tight and funny that you actually forget you're watching a transvestite on stage. Oh, that's right, I almost forgot to mention that part about him being a transvestite, didn't I? That's because it doesn't matter. Some might accuse him of relying on that as a gimmick, but it has absolutely nothing to do with why Izzard is on my list. The fact that he's F'N hilarious does.
This is not a sympathy choice, it's just common sense. Carlin is one of the few stand-ups to transcend the art-form (and yes, it is an art-form) and become a bonafide cultural icon, as evidenced by the huge outpouring of emotion that met his recent death. Some of his best bits - like "Seven Dirty Words" or "Football Vs. Baseball" - are just as fondly remembered and repeated as classic songs. And there's obviously something to be said for his longevity. Fourteen HBO specials? Three bestselling books? The guy was a machine. One super pissed-off machine. I know he didn't believe in God, so I'll instead refer to someone I know he did pray to, according to one of my favorite bits of his, and just say: Joe Pesci bless you, George.
Owain J. Brimfield
I'm going to have to preface this list, I just know it. Now, I thought about ranking stand-ups by factoring in their reputation, legacy, importance to the industry, cross-demographic appeal, comedic brain, etc. But then, I figured the only thing I really care about is whether a stand-up makes me laugh. So, these are the comedians who make me laugh the most with their stand-up material. Nothing more, nothing less.
Mark Thomas - I'm usually not a fan of political-activist type comedians, but this guy's stand-up is a top-notch mixture of guerilla polemic and storytelling.
Rich Hall - I'd better have one Yank in here for the sake of international diplomacy. Frighteningly intelligent despite his redneck persona.
Frankie Boyle - just a really, straightforwardly witty and cynical guy.
THE TOP 5
Truly an "indie" comedian if there ever was one. Kitson appears, on the face of it, the least likely stage persona you could imagine. Ginger-bearded, thick-spectacled, stuttering and often dressed in a horrendous tracksuit, he manages to charm by being one of the most self-effacing comics you're likely to witness, as well as a damn funny guy. He has the aura of a nerdy friend who'd have you in stitches if you went for a drink, and judging by the stories he tells he's also got a great taste in music too. I've had the privilege of seeing him live just the once, and it's probably the second-best stand-up show I've seen, mixing equal parts self-deprecating wit and heart-warming appeal.
The thinking man's comedian, probably best known for his relentless pastiche Jerry Springer: The Opera that had thousands of Christians calling for his head. Lee tends to fly under the radar quite frequently, and while his stand-up acts aren't quite as riotous and bizarre as his early 90s outings with compatriot Richard Herring, they're incisive and articulate and at times surprisingly thought-provoking. His mannered delivery is pleasingly unexpected, too, as you can witness in a brilliant segment on YouTube in which he quietly dismantles hack comic Joe Pasquale. Although I'll always remember him best for the wonderful "consider the lily" skits from This Morning with Richard not Judy, he's certainly got a high standing in my appreciation of pure stand-up material.
Although Moran perfected the disheveled, shambling misogynist in his TV show Black Books, that doesn't stop him from appropriating a facsimile of that persona for use in his stand-up sets. Rarely seen walking the stage without a glass of wine in his hand, Moran's one of the few comedians who has managed to perfect his stage character, to such an extent that you really believe that the outrageous cynicism and drunken surrealism that spews forth from his mouth would be pretty much the same if he was just chatting to you in the pub. He's also superb at making planned material sound ad-libbed, much in the vein of greats such as Eric Morecambe, and the fact that most of the time he looks as though he's stumbled in from a cardboard box in a back alley only adds to his charm.
I imagine Izzard is probably the most well-known comedian on this list, and with good reason. His comic styling is so idiosyncratic and unique it's really quite difficult to describe his act without uttering the phrase "you have to see for yourself". Moderate transvestitism combined with rambling and at times dreamlike, almost stream-of-consciousness anecdotes and flights of fantasy make Izzard a force to be reckoned with on the comedy circuit, and watching one of his routines sends you as much into uproarious laughter as it does giggling bewilderment. The only real criticism that I can levy his way is that he's somewhat of an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, be prepared to chortle your socks off.
Bailey leads the list by a country mile in my book. Nevermind the fact that he's an obscenely talented musician, and much of his act involves musical humor - which always tickles my funny bone - and nevermind his reliance on props, the guy is just a comedic mastermind, leaning mostly towards the surreal but equally adept in a number of comic styles. His "Collection" DVD set, featuring three gigs from various stages of his career, is an absolute must-buy, as evidenced by the fact I've had to buy it twice after lending the discs out to people and never being able to extricate them from their grasp ever again. Bailey can do absolutely nothing wrong as far as I'm concerned, and I can't remember ever laughing quite as hard as when I saw him live on the acclaimed 'Part Troll' tour. Legend.
As you are going to see, I'm sticking with the iconic, more well known comics. But again, my list are of comics that I'm familiar with, ones I've seen, ones who I find funny and you probably have heard of. If I put T-Rex (Hilarious guy who I happened to catch performing at American University to a crowd of stiff...STIFF!...white folks.) on here, no one outside of people in Maryland would know who he is! And let it be know, I respect anyone and everyone who takes that plunge, climbs on stage and tries to make people laugh, night in and night out. Even Carrot Top.
Mitch Hedberg - "Vending machines are big part of my life, I like when you reach into the vending machine to grab your candy bar and that flap goes up to block you from reaching up, that's a good invention, before that it was hard times for the vending machine owners, "What candy bar are you getting?", "That one, and every one on the bottom row!"
I was lucky enough to see him twice, right before he died. This is purely a personal choice and he stands out as the funniest stand up I've seen live. I'd still say that if he was alive today. Has the Mitch-love grown a little out of control over the years? Sure. But even as he stood on stage telling jokes I had already heard, I found myself laughing.
Sam Kinison - "Folks, I've been straight for seventeen days... Not all in a row."
What can I say about Sam? His style and delivery was like comedy rock & roll. As a kid growing up I was in awe of his skills. Still am. Plus, I can't tell you how many times I would go hoarse trying to imitate Kinison. Or how many times my mom would tell me to shut up as I did it at the dinner table.
Jonathan Winters - "If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it!"
Ahead of his time. I think a lot of people sleep on Winters because they didn't "get him". Plus, he never had that one joke, show, movie, or event that really summed up who he was. Still, when I see or hear some of his old stuff I'm surprised at his ad lib and his presence on stage. His unique style of comedy wasn't appreciated then, and still isn't now.
THE TOP 5
"A girl phoned me the other day and said... Come on over, there's nobody home. I went over. Nobody was home."
Rodney, Rodney, Rodney. Any comic that can make my dad laugh has to be somewhere on my list. His "No Respect" riff is genius in its longevity and an influence on every self depreciating comic out there. I have an old VHS of clips of his stand up and it kills! From one-liners to going after the crowd, he could work a room. Even before he "hit it big" he was a master at controlling the audience, bringing them in and making them laugh at his pain.
"I never told a joke in my life."
I don't even know where to begin. Was he a typical stand up? Never. But he could put on a show like no one else. From eating mashed potatoes on stage, to taking the audience out for milk and cookies afterwards, Andy was an entertainer. I own several of his specials and just about every book on his life. I know this selection will get hated on but I'm sticking to it!
"If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses."
Lenny was Lenny. If you didn't like his brand of comedy, his religious takes, then you'll spit all over this. Still, he was doing the religious stick, and doing it well, back when it was really risky to be doing that shtick.
"I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now; relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren't coming after me!"
Yes, it's cliché to have Pryor here, but it's true. He has to be in the top 5 judging from his material, his delivery, and his influence. Why number 2 instead of 1? It's tough to say. Growing up I was hooked on Mr. Murphy. It was almost the changing of the guard. But I can't deny the greatness that is and was Pryor. Plus, the dude set himself on fire! C'mon!
"White people can't dance. I'm not being racist it's true. Just like when white people say black people have big lips, it's not racist it's true. Black people have big lips, white people can't dance. Some brothers will be in the club and white people are like, ‘What are those n*****s doing in here?' They watchin' y'all dance. And they're like, ‘Look at these crazy m*********s.' Y'all be stepping on people's feet and hitting one another."
Growing up, Eddie was king. My friends and I would quote every tape, every joke...and I even would sing My Girl Likes to Party All the Time alone in my room! Sike. Ok, I really did. Whatever. I still watch his live acts on occasion, still enjoy them, and since he just announced he's going back to stand up, I'll be curious to see how he does. All I have to do is see the picture of him in the red leather outfit and start laughing as the memories flow back. Saying all this, I can't wait for the comments below! Let it begin!
Louie Anderson - The great thing about Anderson is his low key yet wacky delivery. He has his normal voice, then shoots over into that grouchy, angry voice usually attributed to his father. And while he's always done funny observational stuff (I don't remember the whole routine but he used to do a long joke about the homeless and how homeless people have nine coats on but no shoes and they always get the best shopping carts) his best stuff has always been about his "family." Again, the stories about his father, about his mother, it's just great stuff. For some reason you can relate to his family stories, even if your family isn't like his. "Look at that wrench!" And any comedian who performs in bowling shoes is a-okay with me.
Steve Martin - He never really wanted to be a stand up comedian. He apparently saw it as a way to break into movies, which is what he wanted to do from the very beginning of his quest to achieve showbusiness stardom (or so wikipedia claims). But, to some degree, despite the fact that he hasn't done stand up in dang near decades, people still remember his albums and his HBO specials. Martin's routine was just insanity. It was completely ridiculous from the very second he hit the stage. As I remember it, his act was like a low key version of a bugged out Robin Williams act (without the bits of fast talking). And he was just plain fun. Few stand up comedians have been able to match that kind of energy.
Eddie Murphy - Had Eddie Murphy not abandoned stand up comedy for the movie world, he'd probably be the fourth part of the John Stewart "Holy Trinity of Comedy" idea: that every stand up comedian owes Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin a debt of gratitude because everyone has been copying them for years. I don't know what that new idea would be referred to as (maybe the "Four Kings of Comedy," or the "Four Crown," something like that), but he really was that good. Yeah, his act was incredibly homophobic, but (and this is just my perception) his act wasn't really about hate. It was about general male attitudes and how men think. Eddie was all about machismo and being aggressive. But he wasn't a jerk or a dick (Andrew "Dice" Clay was the jerk and the dick, and I mean that lovingly because that, too, was just an act. He was a funny dick). And, come on, his Ralph Kramden-Ed Norton as gay guys routine is classic. And the bit where he does the same thing with Ricky Ricardo and Fred Murtz. "Hey, Fred, how would you like to fuck me up the ass?" Why wasn't that ever on a shirt? "Hey, Elvis, we have to win this race!" "We gotta win this race!" Murphy has hinted at a stand up comeback. If it's true, I can't wait. I'm sure it'll be a blast.
THE TOP 5
During the 1990's, I went through three tapes of Robin Harris' "Bebe's Kids" album, wearing them out after playing them repeatedly. It's still the best single comedy album I've ever heard. Harris was another attitude comic, where his whole act was about presence and delivery. When you hear him start off his routine with (and I'm basically paraphrasing here) "I went down to the Mercedes Benz place and bought me a 1989 Mercedes Benz windshield wiper blade! And now I can wipe my black ass off" and you can't stop laughing, you know you're in the realm of a great mind who can make anything funny. Anything. I mean, he's talking about buying a windshield wiper blade. How can that be funny? Go find "Bebe's Kids" and listen. Sadly, Harris died too young, and while his stand up act has sort of passed on into mildly remembered history, at least he had a cartoon made out of his most famous act. Bebe's kids.
I think the great Whoopi Goldberg said it best when describing why Rodney Dangerfield was hip and funny: he was all about jokes. Just jokes, jokes, jokes. He wasn't a "story" comic. He was the story. He was all about jokes. He was all about self deprecation, about getting "No respect" and always striking out at life. No matter what he did nothing ever worked out. And then there was that red tie that he always wore. What the hell was up with that? And it somehow all worked. Dang near every joke he told was funny. That's hard. It's still hard. The only one who has come close to matching Rodney in that sense is Steven Wright. Watch them both. It's like they're doing the same essential act, but one of them is talking slowly and in a low montone.
The next three are really tied for first because they're all sort of extensions of one another. Bruce was the first one of the three to use his stand up platform to do an act that was more than just jokes. Bruce's act was about something, about ideas, and about challeging taboos. And about profanity. His arrests for obscenity are now legendary. If he didn't do what he did, no one currently working would have a job. And, really, as he pleaded with the judge at trial, "Pleas let me do my own act." You just have to hunt his stuff down and hear it. You still have to listen to it these many, many years later.
He's probably best known, besides the "freebasing incident," as the comic who talked about race, who frequently used the word "nigger" to great effect, but then stopped using it after a trip to Africa. He then just used profanity. But why was he talking about race? Because he had to and because he could. He had that comic timing gift that made it possible for him to talk about race and the world and get away with it. Watch "Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip" to see him at his best (in my opinion, anyway). He was a master craftsman on that stage, with that microphone in his hand, just talking. I'm still in quiet awe of him.
Carlin gets to be first on the list because he was the one who lasted the longest, and, of the three, he's my personal favorite. He never stopped working at his act, always taking it somewhere else, always trying new things. And up until his death he was still relevant. Sure, as he got older he wasn't as quick as before, sometimes he stumbled a little in his delivery, but he was still better than most everyone else. And Carlin always made it a point to take absolutely no prisoners in what he was talking about. He attacked, with humor right up until his dying day, everything that's wrong with the world and humans and society. And, probably the best part (at least to me, anyway) is that he never really offered any solutions to anything he was talking about because, deep down, he didn't care and he didn't really trust anyone to come up with a solution. He knew and understood just how bad people could be and how harsh and awful the world is. "Undisputed heavyweight champion. If it's undisputed, what's all the fighting about?" And his last great idea, which most definitely should be on a T-shirt, "Fuck Lance Armstrong." It's an idea we should all take to heart. He can go fuck himself.