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The 10 best stand-up comedians of all-time

By / 05.10.10
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best stand up comedians

Comedy is a tough business to become a part of. You either start writing it, hit the stage to perform it, or you do both. Stand-up is the cruelest of all the forms that comedy manifests itself. Being a stand-up comedian can be very difficult, as it takes just the right mixture of writing, timing and delivery. Add a live audience that sometimes wants nothing more than to make your life miserable and you can see why being a stand-up comedian is no laughing matter. Unless, of course, you‘re as exceptionally gifted with a microphone in your hand as these ten people are.


Photo Credit: YouTube

He was easily the angriest man in the entire world for a few years in the '80s and '90s. While he still may be angry, his recent TV performances can't hold a candle to his old stand-up. He was so bitter and angry during his routines that it seemed like he was going to jump off stage and punch you in the face. You know how many people have fallen asleep during Leary routines? None, OK. That's right. ZERO! The man screams like a banshee and smokes like a chimney, OK? Stand-ups were never more acerbic and they rarely got louder than Leary. His album Lock 'N Load (released in '97) was a comedy tour de force. Leary spit jokes out with such vitriol that it looked and sounded like the was going to have a brain aneurysm on stage. He basically went all-in during every performance, and that's what made him so awesome. That and the Asshole Song.

There probably isn't a more honest comedian on the today's stand-up circuit. He doesn't stand there and pretend like he enjoys kids-- he tells you that he thinks they're dumb creatures and he fully despises them. He lives to go out and screw with people and that's why people love him. He's the guy that does and says what most of us wish we had the balls to on a daily basis. He rants on why everything about why being white is great, why the banking system is flawed, and why it's just ridiculous to hate gay people. The guy is just naturally bitter and that manifests itself into his half-awkward, half-threatening presence on stage. He just seems like the guy that would take extreme pleasure in saying, “I told you that was going to happen…” Everything is amazing, and nobody's happy. Truer words have never been spoken.

Dangerfield was a late bloomer when it came to comedy. He didn’t get any respect until he got his break when he was almost 50. His jokes were corny, his suits could be atrocious, but his delivery was perfect. And his stage persona and arsenal of one-liners opened the door for a fairly lucrative film career. But every character he played on screen was Rodney Dangerfield. Same timing, same delivery, and the same results. His act worked everywhere and proved that a little self-mockery and pristine delivery can save even the hokiest of jokes. "I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don't tell 'em you're Jewish, okay?"

There are people who use cocaine recreationally and there are people who make a living off of being on cocaine. Robin Williams falls into the latter grouping of people. Watching Williams on stage back in his early days was like watching the missing link tell every joke that popped into his head, as he paced around the stage in a sweat-fueled frenzy. The energy he had (manufactured in a lab) was off the charts. He was a mile a minute comedian who just spit out thoughts and never looked back. Insane energy coupled with insane talent has turned the once fervent stand-up into a still fervent comedic icon.

The renaissance man of comedy was once known for his silliness and irreverent stand-up shows. Martin has a unique timing and quirkiness that meshes well with whatever you would categorize his stage act as. He can make you laugh with magic, he can sing you a song he wrote on the banjo, or he can just stand and tell jokes. His shtick is to be silly and so that’s what he goes out and does. Big picture thinker that gets big picture laughs. And he always has that one final joke in the routine that brings the house down.

He was the stand-up who took comedy to another level. He didn’t just touch on controversial subjects -- he was controversy. And from that controversy came some very raw and real emotions, that at the time, America really wasn’t ready to deal with quite yet. He was well-known for his stand-up, but during his prime, he was also known for simply pushing the limits to see what he could get away with. A bit about sex got him arrested and brought up on obscenity charges in 1961 and the same happened again a few years later. This guy was so adamant about people hearing his routine, that he was ready to go to jail for his art. Because of that kind of determination, he tore down the great wall of comedy and in doing so, and led future generations into the promised land: A place where comedians don’t have to worry about offending the masses... A freedom that Lenny Bruce was unable to enjoy during a somewhat brief and tumultuous career.

It's too bad that the current generation only knows Eddie Murphy as that doctor guy who can talk to animals or as Norbit. Back in the day, Eddie Murphy was the funniest motherf**ker on the planet and it wasn't even a close race. Murphy killed on SNL, he killed in films and he still found time to kill on stage in movies like Delirious. Not even the red leather Michael Jackson and Prince go shopping-looking outfit can ruin that performance. Eddie was skilled at impersonations and always worked them into his routine. I mean, watch him do stand-up and you realize that Eddie didn't need time in the comedy minors. He was talented, hilarious and ready for the spotlight at the age of 18. And he took it and ran with it until he lost his comedy roots and started doing any movie with a spaceship and a giant check. These days he's more Bill Cosby than Richard Pryor... sorry, I just died a little inside after typing that.

There are dark comedians and then in a league all by himself is George Carlin. He looked like a hippie nobody, but he spoke like the scholarly prophet of a doomed future. Carlin was brilliant at picking up on the little things in our lives and how those supposed “little things” would end up coming back to destroy civilization. Wars were killing people for no good reason. Religion was decaying society. Death was always right around the corner. He was an eternal pessimist, but that seemed to stem from some deeper understanding of the darker side of humanity he seemed to posses. He was like that weird psychology teacher that you had in college, who was always hilarious, but you just knew he was going to snap under the strain of society one day. And on that day you knew you’d probably hear all seven of the dirty words and a few gunshots. Let’s hope it’s peaceful wherever he ended up. He deserved some downtime.

Lenny Bruce may have set the stage, but nobody brought it quite as raw as Richard Pryor did. Pryor basically fed off hotbed issues like race relations and personal demons. Nothing was off-limits to Richard, which meant he always got huge laughs on stage, but often at the cost of his personal life. Jailed for tax evasion, he nearly burned his face off freebasing cocaine, and even when he helped pen the classic picture Blazing Saddles, he was removed from casting consideration because of concerns over being able to insure him. He was also married seven different times. Yeah, the guy had some pretty f'ed up stories and had no problem telling them in public. He was probably one of the best pure story tellers to ever set foot on a stage. In spite of (or fueled by) all his shortcomings, Richard Pryor will go down as one of the greatest comedy minds of all-time.

The man in black was the most profound and ingenious comedian that the world has ever seen. Hicks was a vicious satirist that attacked his audience for being tied down by senseless consumerism and pointless rules. He wanted to break free of the strains of financial conditioning and evolve into a a society based on love and compassion. Illegal drugs were to be fully experienced in order to gain a greater understanding for your mind and the endless possibilities around you. Music was supposed to be about your heart and not about your bank account. Religion was corporate and corporations were keeping society from reaching maximum potential. Hicks challenged his audience through relentless white hate and ended up collapsing under the weight of the world’s ignorance and stupidity. He was trying to save us from ourselves… and from the looks of it, he was the one who got the last laugh.

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TAGSArbitrary RankingsBill HickscomediansDennis LearyEddie MurphyGeorge Carlingreatest comediansLenny BruceListsLouis C.K.Richard PryorRobin WilliamsRodney DangerfieldSteve MartinVideo
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