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.
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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.
yellotail on December 27, 2017:
my top 2 are chriss rock and patton Oswald
Joe on February 02, 2012:
Sorry but dropping norm would be an absolute sin. He is to other comics, a living legend and truly one of the funniest people ever
Rob on July 24, 2011:
Thanks for the list. I like a lot of your choices like Louis C.K., Carr, and Gervais. I'm a pretty big fan of absurdism, so I have to agree with putting Patton Oswalt on the list (I'd say drop McDonald; can't say I'm a fan). I also recommend Todd Barry and Eugene Mirman. Mirman is probably my favorite comedian right now. Also, any thoughts on Mitch Hedberg? Once again, thanks.
Arthur Windermere (author) on December 15, 2010:
Yes, Patton was an oversight. I'm a huge fan.
What about them? ;)
jackie rabinowitz on December 15, 2010:
what about jeffrey ross, nick dapaolo and r.i.p greg giraldo
quicklysilver from wexford, ireland on December 12, 2010:
i like most there, but jim carr is too much one liners for me, although i do appreciate they are well done, i would have patton oswalt in there and aziz ansari, i'm going to look up norm as we seem to have similar tastes here.
Keith on November 21, 2010:
If this list had was going to have anybody funny on it, it would include Chris Rush. Some of you may know who he is, the ones that don't go look him up and then let us know.
Arthur Windermere (author) on October 22, 2010:
Sorry, I totally forgot you'd commented on this hub.
I'm afraid Carlin is omitted because his late work is all political rabble-rousing and not even, in my view, comedy at all. At least it won't make anyone laugh so much as cheer, and only those who already hold his ideological standpoint. I love his work in the '70s, though.
If there's any comedian on this list you're going to check out, make it Norm MacDonald. His interviews with David Letterman and Conan O'Brien are brilliant.
csquaed on October 18, 2010:
Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on October 07, 2010:
George Carlin is not to be omitted! Ellen is OK but quite subtle. Easy to miss her humor. Kathy Griffin is too brassy to be really endearing. And many comics today aren't "standup" comics, so that their humor is sprinkled over some kind of sitcom story or some other type of presentation. I sort of prefer the standup situation if I'm looking to laugh, unless the person is so adept at inserting humor here and there that it comes though as a burst of fresh air. Otherwise, I must confess I recognize none of your list, but then I seldom watch the boob-tube or ferret out comedians on the u-tube, so my exposure is meager. The Human Comedy is quite a show in itself, is it not?
By the way - I just posted a little hub featuring a George Carlin video.
Chris on August 09, 2010:
Daniel Tosh has been my favorite stand up comedian for years. His show is also funny.
Good list though, I'll have to check out a couple people on there I haven't heard much from.
Arthur Windermere (author) on July 15, 2010:
Really? Have you seen Here and Now? I thought she was brilliant in that. Not quite as innovative as Eddie Izzard, of course. Dressed to Kill and Definite Article are just amazing. His latest works I don't find quite as good. Almost seems like he's trying to get back to his original spirit and failing to do it. Of course, even subpar Eddie Izzard is better than most other comedians.
Becca Hubbard-Woods from Outside your window. on July 15, 2010:
You do have a great list here, though I disagree with Ellen Degeneres. She's on my "10 People I Wanna Kick in the Nuts" hub. Her comedy is so bland to me. I could fall asleep in the audience during her acts. Other than that, great list. I don't know many people who know who Eddie Izzard is, and they don't know what they're missing. I LOVE his stand up. Dress To Kill was one of the funniest stand up act I've ever watched to this day.
the pink umbrella from the darkened forest deep within me. on June 07, 2010:
haha, dont worry you'll like him. although some of his earlier stuff is kind of stupid....But his more recent stuff is funny.
Arthur Windermere (author) on June 07, 2010:
I'll do that! And if I don't like him, oh, you will pay. But seriously, thanks for the recommendation.
the pink umbrella from the darkened forest deep within me. on June 07, 2010:
you should check out john lajoi.
Arthur Windermere (author) on March 08, 2010:
Hi Riley. Ellen Degeneres is on the list, dude. I limited myself to 10. So the ones you listed are simply below the top 10. Doesn't mean they suck. Although I'll say this: Lewis Black is too political and most of his punch-lines are just shouts. Jim Gaffigan has been using the same hot pockets act for years. Jerry Seinfeld is fairly pedestrian upon analysis. Jon Stewart just has hipster appeal.
Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn are two I would seriously consider putting up, though. Who to dethrone--that's the question.
riley on March 08, 2010:
ellen degeneres? jerry seinfeld? jon stewart?
riley on March 08, 2010:
lewis black? dave chappelle? brian regan? jim gaffigan?
Arthur Windermere (author) on February 01, 2010:
I haven't seen that film yet, but I saw his work from the previous year, Ghost Town, which was very funny. He seems to succeed at whatever he tries, comedically. Pretty remarkable.
drbj and sherry from south Florida on February 01, 2010:
Interesting information about comedians I'm not too familiar with except for Ellen Degeneres and Ricky Gervais. He was very funny in the film, The Invention of Lying," with Jennifer Garner. Still chuckling as I think about him.
Arthur Windermere (author) on September 11, 2009:
Thanks for the comment, NYMiskovic. I'll check out your hub.
I've certainly seen Jeff Dunham. Hard not to. He's quite prolific, isn't he? His jokes are a bit hit-and-miss for me--I think it's the interaction with the dummies that throws me--but I do like what I've seen.
Kara Leigh Miller from Oswego, NY on September 11, 2009:
Great Hub! I wrote a similar one in which I picked 10 of the funniest comedians -- my criteria was simple: they had to make me laugh until I cried. Which isn't an easy feat.
Anyway, my all time favorite comic is Jeff Dunham. He's original, talented, and funny. Have you ever seen his work? If not, you should check it out.
Arthur Windermere (author) on August 31, 2009:
Thanks for the comment, WaffleCheese. Yeah, I thought about putting Demitri Martin on the list, but I'm not familiar enough with his work. So many comedy albums so little time.
I agree with you about Calliendo. I think I've seen him do his John Madden bit in a dozen different ways. It's funny, but he needs something new.
WaffleCheese on August 31, 2009:
I love Demitri Martin. You want to talk about original, that man is a genius. I also love John London and Brian Reagan. Also because of their originality. Frank Calliendo is funny the first time you see him, but he hasn't changed his act in years. It's getting old.
Arthur Windermere (author) on August 30, 2009:
Thanks for the comment, livelonger. Glad you liked it.
I'll be honest with you: I really don't like Kathy Griffin at all. But I have friends who do like her. Maybe I'm missing something.
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on August 27, 2009:
Great list. I'd add Kathy Griffin and Lisa Lampanelli to the list - they have unique, well-honed styles that work for them.