10 of the Greatest Living Standup Comedians
There are many good comedians and choosing ten out of them all is not easy. One needs good criteria to maintain standards. The most important criterion for this list is that all comedians chosen practice what I call pure comedy. Many excellent comedians, such as George Carlin and Jeneane Garofalo, have made serious points in their comedy--political, religious, social, etc.. These points please the crowd, but are not properly comedy. They dilute the act. Seriousness is antithetical to comedy. I have therefore left out some very good comedians simply for devoting stage time to non-comedic causes.
The second criterion is originality. I do not demand 'alternative' comedy, as I think that category is misleading and vaguely elitist. However, a list of greatest comics is bound to have an elitist tinge of its own. There is a whole slew of blue collar comics who tell the same domestic jokes over and over again, and while these comics please some crowds they have no place on this list.
The third criterion is a generational limitation. I am of the opinion that comedy has evolved considerably from the forties on and has only recently become an art of its own. This space is unfortunately too limited to argue for this position, so I can only state it. While there are some funny comedians who did earlier work, such as Jonathan Winters, they are by and large no comparison to the more recent comedians influenced by them. Although their place in comic history is important, this is not a history lesson. You will therefore find few comedians spanning back even to the seventies on this list.
Of course, all of these criteria amount to one supercriterion: that the comedians be funny. Those chosen are naturally those I consider to be the funniest. Yet I've titled this article "10 of the greatest" to leave room for issues of taste and also in light of the number of comedians just as deserving of a place on this list as those ultimately chosen.
Somewhat lacking in much-deserved respect in his native Britain, Carr is the master of the one-liner. This vaudevillian form, considered dated by many practitioners of 'alternative' comedy, is doubtless the cause of Carr's underestimation. Working within the form of the one-liner Carr is able to deliver more punchlines per minute than perhaps any other comedian. While relying primarily on verbal and conceptual humor, Carr nevertheless injects all the irreverence of Louis C.K. into his act, usually steeped in his own brand of irony. One might describe his act as Rodney Dangerfield and bad taste brought into the post-modern era.
Carr has a few DVDs released, Jimmy Carr: Stand Up, Jimmy Carr: Comedian, Jimmy Carr: In Concert.
Louis C.K. is perhaps best characterized by the title of one of his specials, Shameless. Unlike many comedians who try hard to push the barriers of taste, Louis C.K.'s strength is that he doesn't have to try--or at least, he gives that impression. He is effortlessly tasteless and seemingly a genuinely shameless person. There is no indication that he might be ashamed of the things he's saying or even that he ought to be ashamed. Whether he's discussing the possibility of little boys having sex with his nose or the pleasures of hating random people, his breezy way of discussing what should be taboo topics gives his comedy a truly unique edge.
Louis's standup shows include a 30 min. One Night Stand segment for HBO, as well as Shameless, Chewed Up and most recently Hilarious.
Another comedian sadly dismissed, perhaps for being too safe or perhaps for the expectation that she has nothing to say other than that she's a lesbian. Yes, it's an unfortunate fact that Ms. Degeneres' being a lesbian eclipsed her gift for comedy and also frightened away potential audience. Ironically she deliberately leaves any discussion of homosexuality out of her shows. It is this aspect of her standup that initially earned my admiration: that she is a practitioner of pure comedy. No moments of seriousness punctuate. Everything is taken lightly, not least of which is herself. While not an innovator Eddie Izzard is, her style, which consists largely of vignettes with related observations and digressions critiquing aspects of modern psychology, is always entertaining and effective for the material. Unfortunately, she'll probably be too old to perform when her work is suddenly rediscovered and reappraised forty years from now.
Degeneres' most recent standup performances, The Beginning and Here and Now, are shows of which any comedian could be proud. Her One Night Stand segment from the '90s is not to be scoffed at either.
It seems as though nothing Ricky Gervais attempts fails; he truly has a golden touch when it comes to comedy. No exception is made for his three standup shows, which he calls 'lectures,' each dedicated to the titled theme, Animals, Politics and Fame. He has a way of presenting each of the 'lectures' as if he is indeed educating the audience but at the same time presenting before them things he's just discovered. It's a comedy show-and-tell that succeeds on every level. The exhuberance carries into the subject; he's as amused by these discoveries as you are. To appreciate in full, one must watch for the little mannerisms, the inflections in the voice; Gervais' best work is certainly in the details.
There is no escaping Eddie Izzard. If there is a living center of gravity for contemporary comedy, it's Eddie Izzard. His rambling, largely improvised style opened up whole new vistas in the realm of standup; his absurd, Python-influenced subject matter brought the surreal, the knowing, the postmodern to the standup routine more strongly than any before him. There's no overestimating the influence he's had. Yet, he continues performing new standup routines and they continue to be fresh and stimulating. Of course, not every joke works--after all, he just makes up most of them on stage from what he's seen on television--but if it doesn't, he's certain to write on his little invisible pad, 'Not funny,' and the pad--well, the pad is always funny.
Izzard has several standup shows to choose from: Live at the Ambassadors (1993), Unrepeatable (1994), Definite Article (1996), Glorious(1997), Dress to Kill (1999), Circle (2002), Sexie (2003), and Stripped (2008).
Canada's comedy master Norm MacDonald developed a slurred, rambling style of unleashing some well-constructed jokes mixed with subtler humor based on some of the odd statements he casually tosses out, extreme understatements, or his stock of folksy, jocular expressions uttered without the slightest selfconsciousness--it would seem. Deadpan and sly, he'll often play with the audience, seeing what he can get past them, playing stupid and purposely using awful jokes and non-jokes. As a comedian who admits he doesn't care when he bombs, it's no surprise he's willing to take chances with material audiences might not get; all the better for those who do.
MacDonald unfortunately has little output available on CD or DVD. However, the interested party will find youtube full of media from disparate sources uploaded by devoted fans. His recent interview with Letterman and his roast of Bob Sagat are highly recommended.
Dylan Moran is primarily a stylist. It doesn't take long to realize his points of discussion are commonly trod comedy grounds. He spends a surprisingly long time on the differences between men and women in one of his shows, a subject one would think absolutely exhausted by the history of comedy. Thankfully we have Moran to prove us wrong by finding whole new ways of making the familiar ridiculous. Simultaneously annoyed with the world and laconic--perhaps through sheer disappointment--Moran has a lilting and pitch-perfect manner of expression that enhances the innate humor of his observations as he tears into the subject matter with a vivid comic imagination that evokes surreal visual metaphors, always strong on imagery.
At the time of writing, Moran has two tour albums available on DVD, Like, Totally and Monster I and II.
Ross Noble is what you get if you push Eddie Izzard's style of comedy to the farthest extreme. Absolutely astounding in the swiftness of his comic imagination to make anything and everything a joke or weird image, Noble comes on stage with no prepared material. He develops the show out of interaction with the audience and many of the digressions his overactive mind wanders down in the midst of this interaction. Despite being a comedian who, in his words, just "talks rubbish," he brings just as much wit and much more energy to his shows than the others on this list.
Incredibly hard-working, Noble has several of his tours available on DVD, most of them running over two hours in length: Unrealtime, Sonic Waffle, Randomist and Fizzy Logic.
Mixing the banter of Ross Noble with prepared and even themed material, O'Briain's uniqueness arises first and foremost for his Izzard-influenced self-consciousness. Always aware of his performance, the way he's expressing himself, and of his previous comedy work, it is quite typical for O'Briain to begin making fun of his own performance midshow; or occasionally to reference amusing events from previous shows. He will even compare his audiences for comic effect. While his prepared material, almost entirely observational comedy and cynical recommendations, is sharp and on sometimes surprising and sometimes truly Irish subject matter, his improvisational skills are impeccable. Seemingly meandering discussions with the audience somehow manages to tie into the theme of his written material, quite seemlessly.
O'Briain has a two DVD releases, Live at the Theatre Royal (2006) and Live in London (2008). Much of O'Briain's work is buried in the various panel shows he hosts and appears on in Ireland and the UK, such as The Panel, Mock the Week, and QI. He has also made several stand-up performances Live at the Apollo.
Poor Mr. Pinette tends to get overlooked as a comedian, often classed with the lower eschelons of blue collar comedians. The reason for this unfair classification is without doubt the safeness of his comedy. The polar opposite of Louis C.K., Pinette could be enjoyed by the whole family in principle. However, the subtleties of his approach require a mature mind. He treads a very narrow path between absurd hyperbole and realism that very few comedians are able to do. He tells the audience things that can't quite be true, but one wants to believe are true he says them with such conviction; and once one has given in, the subject seems so preposterous one must laugh. The energy and perfect comic timing he puts into his observations and stories elevate what could be mundane material to new heights.
Pinette has a few standup shows available: I Say Nay Nay, Making Lite of Myself, I'm Starvin' and Show Me the Buffet.