In the grand scheme of things, stand-up comedy as an art-form is fairly new. Growing out of vaudeville variety shows, the set-up of one person, a microphone, and a stage only began to take shape around a century ago. That means it’s still vital, fresh, and exciting, and some absolute geniuses have become famous for making strangers laugh in pubs, clubs, and arenas. Here are 40 of the absolute best, in no particular order.
40. Eddie Murphy
In the 1980s Eddie Murphy released two era-defining stand-up specials: Delirious, in 1983, and Raw, in 1987. Unlike today Raw was released in movie theaters and grossed over $50 million. To this day it is still the highest grossing stand-up film of all time. By the end of the 1980s, Murphy had become a star in Hollywood. But his uproarious stand-up routines have always stayed in fans’ hearts.
39. Chris Rock
In 2016 Netflix paid a remarkable $40 million dollars for two Chris Rock stand-up specials. And it’s no wonder it did given Rock was ranked the fifth best stand-up comic ever by Comedy Central. Rock’s take on relationships is a belly-buster, “Girlfriends are always auditioning, always on their best behavior. Wives are like Supreme Court justices. They do whatever the **** they want.”
38. George Carlin
A whole generation of moviegoers know George Carlin best as Rufus, the time-travel guide in the Bill & Ted franchise. His stand-up comedy was legendary, though: his razor-sharp wit shot through with fierce intelligence, complicated wordplay, and political insights. As Rolling Stone put it, Carlin was, “The hippie sage, the M.I.T.-level linguist, the First Amendment activist, the undisputed champion gadfly of stand-up.”
37. John Mulaney
At the young age of 38, former SNL writer John Mulaney has already established himself as a talent. For example, in 2018 he won Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special at the Emmy Awards for his Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. David Sims of The Atlantic wrote, “He has the snappy poise of comedians of yore like Johnny Carson or Chevy Chase, mixed with just enough self-deprecation to ground him in comedy’s current era.”
36. Kevin Hart
Kevin Hart is everywhere these days. The diminutive funny man stars in hit movies, hosts award shows and films tell-all documentary series. But stand-up will always be what first made him, and it’s something he keeps returning to. Hart’s stand-up is so popular, in fact, that in 2015 he filmed his What Now? special in front of 53,000 people at the Lincoln Financial Field football stadium in Philadelphia.
35. Ricky Gervais
English comedy firebrand Ricky Gervais came to fame as the creator and star of The Office, the BBC sitcom that inspired the Steve Carell-fronted U.S. remake. He then crossed the pond himself, hosting the Golden Globe awards on five occasions and starring in movies and TV shows. But his caustic stand-up shows are where you see Gervais unleashed and taking aim at topics such as PC culture.
34. Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield was the unlucky everyman of comedy. Everyone and everything got more respect than him, and he would always tell the audience about it with his customary self-deprecating one-liners. “When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them,” and “I looked up my family tree and found out I was the sap,” are two of our favorites.
33. Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson virtually invented late-night television chat with his three decades as host of The Tonight Show. He constantly entertained audiences with his wit, impersonations, and recurring comedic characters. But he was also integral to the growth of stand-up in general, with his show being the launch pad for comics, including future The Tonight Show host Jay Leno.
32. Bob Hope
Without Bob Hope, there is a good chance stand-up comedy wouldn’t exist in the form we have today. Hope, who was once a vaudeville song-and-dance act, formulated the basis for stand-up on his weekly radio show, which began in 1938. As Vulture put it in 2014, “Hope’s topical monologues were the foundation stone for all modern stand-up comedy,” and he was, “America’s unofficial comedian-laureate for more than half a century.”
31. Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer got her break when she finished fourth on the Comedy Central reality show Last Comic Standing in 2007. Over the next decade, she rose considerably, translating into Hollywood leading roles in Trainwreck and I Feel Pretty, as well as her own sketch comedy series. Rolling Stone called her stand-up, “as fearless as it is fierce. She doesn’t mind shocking a crowd to make her points.”
30. Mitch Hedburg
A comedian whose on-stage persona was specific, whimsical, and weird, Mitch Hedburg’s legacy as a cult hero was cemented when he sadly died in 2005 at the age of 37. He left behind a body of work full of deadpan, random observations on the absurdities of life. Our favorites were, “I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long,” and “An escalator cannot break. It can only become stairs.”
29. Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce made only six appearances on U.S. network television during his career. And by 1966 he had been banned from performing in nearly every nightclub in the country. Because Bruce was branded a “sick comedian,” with material deemed too obscene and vulgar for polite society. But his provocative and revolutionary style made him a counterculture hero.
28. Jimmy Carr
A ubiquitous presence on U.K. television, Jimmy Carr regularly sells out stand-up shows. He has also begun to make a name for himself in America, with two Comedy Central specials to his name and six performances on The Tonight Show. His controversial, close-to-the-edge style is thrilling to watch, as is his near unparalleled ability to destroy hecklers in an instant.
27. Steve Martin
TIME magazine’s 2007 description of Steve Martin’s brilliant stand-up career, which he ceased in 1981 to concentrate on acting, is spot-on. Michael Grecco wrote, “His act was in part that of an entertainer at a kid’s birthday party – juggling, fashioning balloon animals… but the whole thing was set within ironic quotation marks. It was stupid-smart: a clever man playing someone with misplaced self-confidence who didn’t realize he was a buffoon.”
26. Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart didn’t win an Emmy Award until 2013 when he was 84. Admittedly, his cameo in The Big Bang Theory as Professor Proton is funny, but he really should have been rewarded before for his sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. His best work, probably, is his conceptual stand-up comedy, all delivered in that amazing deadpan-but-with-a-slight-stammer voice. 1960’s The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart is particularly special.
25. Roseanne Barr
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Roseanne Barr was television royalty. She was the star of her own hit sitcom, fittingly named Roseanne. But she’d landed the show on the strength of her stand-up, which was revolutionary in how it spoke to the sometimes ugly realities of motherhood and domestic life. Author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich dubbed Barr a working-class spokesperson for U.S. women.
24. Redd Foxx
Redd Foxx is best known to television fans as Fred G. Sanford on the classic 1970s’ sitcom Sanford and Son. But he first rose to fame as the “King of the Party Records” in the 1950s and 1960s. Rolling Stone wrote, “With a gravelly rasp, this comic delivered his sex jokes like someone’s flask-sipping, dirty-mouthed uncle.” He undoubtedly paved the way for other black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.
23. Jackie Mason
In 2006 stand-up legend Jackie Mason was interviewed by Metro. He was asked to name the best comedian he’d ever watched perform. His answer was vintage Mason, “To tell you the truth, compared to me, I can’t see anybody to get excited about.” An often-controversial comic, Mason sprung to fame in the early 1960s, but his prime was arguably his series of one-man shows in the 1980s and 1990s.
22. Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is what happens when a geek is funny. He once said his, “geekiness is getting in the way of [his] nerdiness.” The actor, who is well-known for lending his distinctive voice and/or hangdog face to various TV sitcoms, is also a highly acclaimed stand-up comedian.
21. Bill Burr
Bill Burr’s comedy style trades on anger. That pure, undiluted rage that needs to be let out, no matter how uninformed we truly are about a subject. He is wilfully politically incorrect, and there is no topic he won’t tackle headlong. So whether you agree with what he is saying, and regardless of whether his on-stage persona is “real” or not, chances are you will laugh at his loudly indignant rants.
20. Wanda Sykes
You may have heard Wanda Sykes’ distinctive vocal talents in animated movies like Over The Hedge and Ice Age: Continental Drift, or seen her in Curb Your Enthusiasm, black-ish and Broad City. But stand-up is where the LGBT icon made her name. Her 2019 Netflix special Wanda Sykes: Not Normal tackled subjects such as aging with hilarious self-deprecation.
19. Billy Connolly
One of the most influential and celebrated comedians in the United Kingdom, Billy Connolly announced his retirement from live stand-up in 2018 at the age of 76. The Scotsman’s observational comedy, filled with quips and hilarious one-liners, will always stand the test of time, though. His best jokes include, “There are two seasons in Scotland. June and Winter,” and “A well-balanced person has a drink in each hand.”
18. David Cross
David Cross is perhaps best known to TV viewers as Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development. He has been performing stand-up since he was a teenager, though, and has showcased his politically minded satire in HBO specials and comedy albums. He once told Den Of Geek that he aced his first ever open-mic at 17, then completely stunk up the joint for the next 16 shows.
17. Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah has been the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central since 2015. As a young mixed-race South African comedian, Noah’s perspective on American politics and news media is always fresh, incisive, and amusing. He got the job based partly on the strength of his stand-up comedy. And it won’t surprise you that he likes to examine the cultural differences of the United States.
16. Margaret Cho
A comedian known for pushing boundaries, Margaret Cho inspires fear and delight in equal measure. Her material covers the stereotyping of Asian-Americans, eating disorders, and drug/alcohol abuse. Plus Cho is openly bisexual, and in 2000 the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation awarded her their Golden Gate trophy for being a pioneer in “promoting equal rights for all.”
15. Bernie Mac
Transformers and Ocean’s Eleven star Bernie Mac tragically died in 2008 at the age of 50. But he left behind beloved film roles and a stand-up career that was up there with the best of them. Rising out of the Chicago comedy scene, Mac achieved instant notoriety for a customarily foul-mouthed, wide-eyed appearance on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam in the early 1990s.
14. Garry Shandling
Before his death in 2016, Garry Shandling had been introduced to a new generation of fans as the funny-but-villainous Senator Stern in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hopefully this inspired many to go back and check out his stand-up, which was intensely neurotic, self-analytical and darkly hilarious. At one time he was seriously considered to replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
13. Martin Lawrence
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Bad Boys was released in 1995, Martin Lawrence got top billing above Will Smith. Why? Because Lawrence was a massive star thanks to his incendiary stand-up and hugely popular sitcom Martin. In 2020, GQ magazine wrote, “To anyone alive and paying attention in the 1990s, Martin Lawrence is…a comedy pioneer in stand-up and television.”
12. Andy Kaufman
The bizarre “anti-comedian” Andy Kaufman would probably take umbrage at being included in this list. Because in 1981 he told Rolling Stone, “I am not a comic. I have never told a joke.” But given that Kaufman was famous for playing outlandish characters on stage and provoking confused, uncomfortable reactions from audiences, it’s hard to know whether he was being serious or not.
11. Sarah Silverman
Over the course of a three-decade career, Sarah Silverman has gleefully pushed people’s buttons with her stand-up comedy. In 2005 Slate magazine dubbed her a connoisseur of criticizing PC culture, making fun of the, “complex algorithms of taboo – who’s allowed to joke about what, to whom, using what terminology.” Her fearless style led to an acting career in film and television, including her own sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program.
10. Hannibal Buress
The laconic stoner delivery of Hannibal Buress’ best material is a key element of his success. In 2020 he told GQ, “At this point in the game, I have a solid idea of what a bit that will work feels and sounds like well before I take it to a stage.” A thinking man’s absurdist, we fully expect Buress’ mastering of the craft to continue to refine itself over the coming years.
9. Eddie Izzard
Eddie Izzard’s persona defies convention, and so does her stand-up comedy. She has described herself as “somewhat boy-ish and somewhat girl-ish. ” And she believes her unique style comes from the “sideways connections” she makes when going on rants. As The Guardian wrote in 2004, “In [her] stand-up routine, dust talks, elephants arrive on pogo sticks, dogs measure blood pressure and cats flick rubber bands.”
8. Norm Macdonald
Paste magazine ranked Canadian comedian Norm Macdonald at number 31 in their list of the 50 Best Stand-up Comics of All Time. With his trademark wry, deadpan delivery, Macdonald could make even the most nonsensical joke or short story into a laugh riot. Paste wrote, “Norm Macdonald puts the dry in dry humor.”
7. Joan Rivers
A pioneer for women stand-ups, Joan Rivers came out of the same 1960s’ New York Greenwich Village scene as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. But her vicious wit made her a controversial yet hilarious performer. In her later years, she transitioned her cutting jokes to the Hollywood red carpet scene, with her no-holds-barred interview style skewering the fashion choices of many celebrities.
6. Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld released his first stand-up special in 21 years in May, 2020, and it was a triumphant return. As NME wrote, “all his old gripes about cereal, aeroplane food and personal space make so much more sense coming out of the mouth of a 65-year-old.” Seinfeld’s comedy always appealed to a wide audience, as he avoided politics and swearing.
5. Don Rickles
Don Rickles rose to fame as Frank Sinatra’s roaster of choice. He became known as the “Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth” due to his savage jibes, which always hit their target but were incredibly funny in the bargain. Rickles even starred alongside the great Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 crime epic Casino. And he reportedly roasted De Niro every day on-set for the crew’s amusement.
4. Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks died tragically young at 32. Prior to this, the Texan comic was particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where his pitch dark and utterly furious material was embraced. Rolling Stone wrote of him, “This comic avenging angel stalked the stage, sneering and smoking feverishly, while delivering a raspy cackle or a pointed glare from under his glasses to punctuate particularly wicked punchlines.”
3. Richard Pryor
Jerry Seinfeld once dubbed Richard Pryor the “Picasso of our profession,” and he was voted the greatest stand-up comic of all time by Comedy Central. Rolling Stone wrote, “Swaggering and vulnerable, boastful and confessional, super heroic and all-too-ordinary, Pryor put everything he was on display.” The man was able to do a gut-busting bit about his own heart attack, for heaven’s sake.
2. Dave Chapelle
In 2006 Esquire magazine called Dave Chapelle, “the comic genius of America.” And over the years that statement has only seemed more apt. Of his 2017 Netflix comedy specials, Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated wrote that stand-up, “showcases Chapelle at his most poetically unfiltered, beautifully artistic, and socio-politically introspective.” Few comedians speak about society the way Chapelle does, and we are all the better for it.
1. Robin Williams
Rolling Stone wrote that the late Robin Williams was, “Part dervish, part comedian, all micro-impressions, free associations and countless riffs.” And this sums up the mercurial talent perfectly. The magazine added, “Give the man a microphone, and you never knew where he’d go. You just knew he was damn near unstoppable.” While Williams became a Hollywood icon, his brilliant stand-up was always an important outlet for him throughout his career.