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50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time

From old-school nightclub veterans to alt-comedy legends, Patton Oswalt to Pryor, our picks for the greatest to ever grab a mic

Cavemen whacked one another in the nuts for cheap yuks, and Medieval fools jabbered in a flop sweat to keep from being beheaded. But the idea of getting onstage in front of strangers, just one person and a spotlight, and talking until they crack up – that’s new. Stand-up comedy grew out of minstrelsy and then vaudeville, which only makes it about a century old, tops. Some of the best practitioners of the form are still alive … or at the very least, haven’t been in the ground all that long. And even as the medium has morphed from one-liner artists to political satirists, from social-taboo tweakers to didja-ever-notice observational humorists, from the club-comic bubble of the 1980s to the the alt-comedy boom of the 1990s, it usually boils down to a fairly simple set-up. A man or woman walk into a bar (or a club, or a theater, or an arena …) . They eventually exit stage left and leave a lot of laughing folks in their wake.

So you’d think assembling a list of the 50 greatest stand-ups of all time would be easy right? Riiiight. Ha!

In coming up with our version of a comic canon, we weighed artistic merit, technical proficiency and sense of timing, quality of their written material, their delivery and degree of influence — and often, their sense of what makes something, anything, funny. No disrespect to the foundational figures who shaped the earliest incarnations, but this list tiptoes past some of the early craftsmen and focuses on the unique voices who have helped to push stand-up forward in more recent days. These 50 stand-ups best embody what we have come to expect of our modern-day comedians: Someone who can wake us up to the weird, wonderful possibilities of the world around us, impel us to think differently about our own lives – and most of all, make us howl like blithering idiots.

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Bernie Mac

"I ain't scared of you motherfuckers" – it was the large-and-in-charge line that launched a career and turned Bernie Mac's appearance on the original Def Comedy Jam into a flashpoint. His legendary set solidified the Chicago native as a big, braggadocious comic with a peculiarly magnetic delivery and a habit of squeezing every last bit of air from his lungs to make a point … especially if that point was embedded in one of his exasperated stories of child rearing. "See, I'm from the old school. I'll kick a kid ass," Mac would explain in Spike Lee's The Original Kings of Comedy concert movie, before imagining the boxing match he'd have with his sister's two-year-old. Politically correct he was not. But the late, great Mac's wide-eyed, foul-mouthed charms spoke directly to black audiences – and anybody savvy enough to catch on – in a way that put him head and broad shoulders above his peers.

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Garry Shandling

Watch any of Garry Shandling's specials (we recommend Alone in Vegas), and you'll see a charming neurotic burrowing into his looks and his failure with women in an attempt to let his audience breathe easy. On his Late Show debut, his typical self-deprecation came through while considering the end of a date: "This is where I start to wonder if there's going to be any sex, and if I'm going to be involved." His observational anecdotes could be so breezy that even a story about performing with President Bush (the first) could seem like a strangely everyday occurrence. Before he died in 2016, he had been working on a new act: “What I want to happen is that I talk for an hour and the audience doesn't realize it is funny until they're driving home," he told GQ in 2010. That we never got to see that last Zen-like set is a tragedy.

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Moms Mabley

Clad in bright, flowery mumus and floppy hat, Jackie "Moms" Mabley painted a picture from the moment she stepped onstage – an elderly every-grandmother. Then she opened her mouth, revealing a set of toothless gums and belting out a one-liner ("Ain't nothing an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one") … and all bets were off. Born on the cusp of the 21st century, the "Original Queen of Comedy" made her mark on the Chitlin Circuit before slaying TV viewers on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She recorded 20 plus records; she played both the Apollo and Carnegie Hall. She straddled the divide between the old world of vaudeville and the new, emerging realm of innuendo-laden stand-up, inspiring everyone from LaWanda Page to Whoopi Goldberg. 

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Roseanne Barr

Before she became the sitcom antidote to perky, middle-class moms like Carol Brady, Roseanne Barr broke that image of the chipper, wholesome matriarch over her knee via her blistering stand-up routines. "I hate that word, 'housewife,'" she'd whinge, "I prefer to be called domestic goddess." Her gripes about married life and child-rearing were delivered in that unmistakable nasal tenor; you knew her act wouldn't be a cup of warm milk and a lullaby. Watching her debut set on The Tonight Show, you can already see her mining the ground she'd end up colonizing and outright owning: speaking for a populace of average Americans unused to seeing themselves on TV. Every blue-collar comedian owes her a debt.

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Sam Kinison

Oh Oh OHHHHHHHHH! The former Texas evangelist found what would be less a simple comedic tool than a soul-baring, supernatural gesture that would define his entire onstage persona: A furious, earsplitting banshee wail. Before opening his mouth like a snake about to swallow an antelope, Kinision could look almost stately in his trenchcoat and his flowing locks spilling out from under a beret. But as religion, love and marriage had all failed him, the primal scream was inevitable. Though his material pushed into misogynistic territory, he would occasionally acknowledge why he never groused about the evils of men: "Because a man never broke my heart," he'd say. “A man never made me want to drive me car into a fucking wall.”

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Daniel Kitson

Fusing stand-up and theater into carefully structured solo ventures, this British comic scrutinizes bits of his biography while contemplating bigger issues the nature of time, memory and individual perception. Kitson's incredible command of language and craft is apparent whether mulling the death of an aunt or a scathing review of his act, as he swirls in and out of odd tangents. And his rumpled presence remains riveting – from that charming little titter to his ability to play with a crowd's "Pavlovian" responses to a bit. Watch the man's live sets on his website, and you can see how he both laid the groundwork for talented storytellers including Mike Birbiglia and Christopher Titus and lays out any potential competition.

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Tig Notaro

Long before her justifiably celebrated "I have cancer" set at Largo in 2012, Tig Notaro was simply a laconic, soft-spoken Southerner with a genuine love for deadpan absurdity. She might spend five minutes doing nothing more than pushing a stool around a stage; if you were lucky, she'd deliver a lengthy exegesis of a Spanish phrase printed on a hotel's "Do Not Disturb" sign or imagine the thought process behind someone telling her "you have small titties" on the street. But even after Notaro had her gamechanging moment, she's continued to blend the confessional and her subjectively cracked outlook on things. More recently, after a double mastectomy in 2014, she got onstage and did her act shirtless – once again transforming her misfortune into mirth with a sharp tongue, a strong point-of-view and a genuine sense of fearlessness.

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Patton Oswalt

A man who once confessed that his "geekiness is getting in the way of [his] nerdiness," Patton Oswalt has more than a little to do with the triumph of dork culture in the new millennium. His obsessions with comic books, genre films and literature gave nerds a champion in the world of stand-up, helping to elevate obscure, semantic arguments to an art form. Line for line, Oswalt is one of comedy’s best image constructors, making his raves or pans into lofty odes or profane little limericks. Take his touchstone bit about the KFC famous bowl; people still holler for it at shows just to hear him talk about the "light brown hillock of glop" he would prefer to eat "like a death row prisoner on suicide watch."

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Janeane Garofalo

Genial, self-deprecating and smart as a whip, Garofalo took on the casually incisive vibe of Mort Sahl while excoriating conservative politicians and making snide asides about bits of pop culture – from the "brilliant thespians" of Beverly Hills, 90210 to baffling Mentos commercials. Even now, Garofalo puts her sensibility and genuine feeling front and center, rather than create some regimented set that times punchlines as if on a metronome. Her comedy was never about dazzling the masses, even when she was the poster child for the then-in-vogue Nineties alterna-sensiiblity; she engages her crowd as though they’re all close friends wrangling with big issues and the latest Kardashian kerfuffle. Her intellectual chops and timing are peerless; her influence on turning the alt-comedy scene into a bona fide renaissance can't be underestimated.

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Patrice O’Neal

There are comedians who are fascinated with by how far limits can be pushed – and then there's Patrice O'Neal. Political correctness, vows of monogamy and everyday social niceties were roasted on a spit when he took the stage; faced with a fearful but sensitive white dude afraid to seem racist when in Harlem, he responded "Get home, feel guilty, but be alive!" He was a thrilling live performer, prodding members of the crowd to expose some underbelly of desire or prejudice; his gap-toothed grin and little wheeze-laugh could make his most egregious, disturbing notions come off as almost innocent. O'Neal may the true heir to Pryor's legacy. Had he lived another 20 years, he might have been the greatest comic ever.

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Sarah Silverman

"I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl" – it's a joke that requires just the right tone to get the audience to go along. And Sarah Silverman has a superhuman ability to push irony to its breaking point, touching on issues ranging from anal sex to the Holocaust and relying on a naughty child’s wide-eyed innocence to sell the outrageous statements. Her best bits ask audiences to confront their own prudishness, selfishness and ignorance – she can take a bit about diamonds that sit on the tailbones of Ethiopian babies and imagine her own sort of Swiftian "Modest Proposal" for American consumers. Her filthy-cute persona is just the tip of the social-commentary iceberg.

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Woody Allen

Years before he'd grab a camera and refine the personal comedy-drama into an art form, Woody Allen channeled his obsessions and neuroses into irresistible, intellectually wonky one-liners, delivered offhandedly in an endearing, Brooklyn accent ("I cheated on my metaphysics final in college, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me"). He couched little jokes in the larger ones, as when he nonchalantly mentions attending a "surprise autopsy" or being a "history of hygiene" major on his way to bigger punchlines. After making his name in the downtown NYC nightclub scene of the Sixties and making a few albums, Allen started focusing on other pursuits. And though aspects of his personal life have forced moviegoers to reconsider their loyalties, his contributions to bridging the Borscht Belt and Greenwich Village are undeniable.

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Dick Gregory

Since breaking out while working at the Playboy Club back in the day, Gregory has been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights in his comedy and in life: He was jailed in Selma, shot during the Watts riots of 1965, ran for president in 1968 and always, always brought the struggle to the stage. Even his earliest jokes tackled racism, segregation and the march toward equality: Confronted by a Southern waitress who told him “We don’t serve colored people here,” his reported response was, "I don't eat colored people nowhere! Bring me a whole fried chicken." He's grown steadily more irascible in his appearances as the years go by, but his insights as potent and his thoughts about resistance and as clear. And touring with outspoken compatriots including the stingingly political Paul Mooney has helped introduce this club veteran to younger, Chappelle-loving crowds.

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Robert Klein

Do you like observational and autobiographical stand-up? You have Robert Klein to thank. His first album, Child of the '50s (1973), wasn't just about the details of air raids and school dances – it painted a picture of the Eisenhower era in all its prosperity and paranoia. And when Watergate happened, he fused political commentary into the mix without losing his distinctive voice. When he recorded his first special for HBO in 1975 – the very first stand-up concert the premium cable channel ever aired – he enjoyed his linguistic freedoms ("It's subscription … Shit!") while employing a conversational rhythm that would highly influence comics like Jerry Seinfeld.

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Redd Foxx

The Chitlin Circuit allowed black audiences to connect to black performers in their raw and unhinged states – and without it, the world might not know Redd Foxx. With a gravelly rasp, this comic delivered his sex jokes like someone's flask-sipping, dirty-mouthed uncle. Foxx could sling one-liners like, "The definition of indecent: When it’s in long, and it’s in hard, and it’s in deep, it’s in decent," or "If the pilgrims have been chasing bobcats instead of turkeys, we'd all be eating pussy on Thanksgiving." The so-called "King of the Party Records" made dozens of records for several labels, jump-starting the production of comedy albums by making them something both naughty and hip. But for all the profanity, Foxx was also a crusader for racial equality; his breaking down walls between black and white culture made way for Richard Pryor, who benefited from the older comedian's fight against prejudice. That, and his peerless way with the word "motherfucker."

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Rodney Dangerfield

Meet the frazzled, rumpled and eternally downtrodden everyguy – a disrespected-to-the-max role that Rodney Dangerfield played to a tee. His wife, his boss, his uncle, his shrink, his parents, the homeless guy he passes on the street, even the necktie he was constantly struggling with: no one was going to throw him a bone. Dangefield essentially took a page out of the Henny Youngman one-liner playbook and threw out self-deprecating bombs one after the other. "I looked up my family tree and found out I was the sap." Boom. "I dropped out of show business once, but nobody noticed." Boom. His cartoonish features (made even more over-the-top when Dangerfield bulged his eyes from their sockets) and broad New York accent only reinforced the idea that he had never and would never, ever get any you-know-what.

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Eddie Murphy

In his magic moment, Eddie Murphy saw stand-up comedy transformed into a rock-star art. Sure, some comics were cool, but this stratospherically confident SNL breakout star strutted, preened and doused the audience in sex like Let It Bleed-era Mick Jagger. And those outfits?! The leather suits from famous concert films Raw and Delirious were so ostentatious, vivid and unbelievably tight that the specials are sometimes referred to by the color of suit he was wearing. Listen to the crowds in these films: They're not at a comedy show, they’re getting lit at a party at which pants may be optional. Some of Murphy's act from those days hasn't aged well, e.g. the homophobic theatrics and lady-bashing, but there's no doubt of his seductive charisma in those days. And certain bits, like the one about the ice cream man and the price of taunting less fortunate kids, will remain evergreen.

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Eddie Izzard

Whimsical but not frivolous, erudite but not snobbish, polished but never above a proper bit of silliness, Eddie Izzard makes intelligent comedy, U.K. division, entirely accessible. With a smirk always at the edge of his lips, Izzard lets his monologue spill downstream, swirling from eddy to eddy as he examines humankind's achievements, patterns and foibles. You might leave an Izzard show with a history lesson or a new vocabulary word; you also might also just find out Darth Vader's favorite cafeteria dish (penne alla arribiata, for the record) or how the Church of England roamed the countryside asking "cake or death?" And you almost definitely get some tips on how to turn glam-rock fashion tips into an "executive transvestitism" look that complements Izzard's one-of-a-kind turn of phrasings. 

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Don Rickles

Don Rickles is a rare comic who found his voice by actually ignoring his material. In the late Forties, the man also known as "Mr. Warmth" and the "Merchant of Venom" discovered that his audiences connected more to the ad-libs he used to shut down hecklers than the jokes he'd written. Since then, the quick, sharp and unpredictable Rickles has plowed into his audiences, picking up on cues large and small and delivering little barbs ("It's over, I'm a friend") to his targets. Eventually, his wicked wit hit their most important target in Frank Sinatra, who championed the comedian to famous friends and got him started in Vegas. With that wide, jack-o-lantern mug and a torrent of rapid-fire gags, Rickles created a template that insult comics have referred to since the 1950s. This is how you do it right, hockey pucks.

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Jonathan Winters

Using just a single prop or bit of costuming, Jonathan Winters could use his imagination, voice and the elastic mask of his face to create solo vignettes with well-defined characters and exchanges with actual punchlines. Playing a pilot or bass fish, impersonating Bing Crosby or JFK, or revisiting crowd favorites such as saucy Maude Frickert or hayseed Elwood Suggins, he was full of playful mischief and capable of delighting all ages of viewers. He was also an incredibly prolific comic who produced more than 20 albums and was nominated for a Grammy 11 times; unlike other legends of improvisation like Vegas staple Shecky Greene, Winters left a trail of performances that can testify to the talent that so inspired comics like Robin Williams.

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Bob Newhart

A lot of comedians try to knock their audiences out; Bob Newhart told them to lean in. The calm, mannered, imminently polite comic created a new sort of stand-up by envisioning himself the deadpan straight man in theatrical, two-sided conversations of which the audience is only able to hear one side. he created highly conceptual worlds in which Abraham Lincoln has a press agent or Walter Raleigh tries to convince English noblemen the value of tobacco. Characters at the other end of his conversations – like the madwoman behind the wheel in his driving instructor sketch – become abundantly clear. ("The flashing red light on the car you hit blinded you …? Yes, officer, she was just telling me about it.") From the first-ever No.1 Billboard album The Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart to all the sitcom success that followed, it’s easy to see why audiences connect with him.

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Mitch Hedberg

In many ways, the late Mitch Hedberg was inimitable. Giggling and happy-go-lucky, his genial stoner-dude persona was entirely charmed by the whimsical little absurdities he stumbled upon. Jokes like "When I was a boy, I laid in my twin-size bed and wondered where my brother was." or "Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read" gave you only a sense Hedberg's wonderful efficiency. He also paid a high degree of attention to syntax, and while some of his jokes bordered on dad material ("Is a hippopotamus … just a really cool potamus?") but it was all just a way for him to show his audiences that they should be looking through the groovy, rose-colored lenses he had on, seemingly all the time. And his hit-to-miss-ratio was off the charts.

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Albert Brooks

Back when he was a stand-up, Albert Brooks was as interested in how comedy works as he was whether it worked. But more often that not, he was just as interested in giving some of the biggest laughs to you (yes, you) sitting at home. His record Comedy Minus One was just half of a routine with lots of dead air for you, the listener, to perform other half with the lines printed in an insert provided. When he popped up on the Tonight Show or the Flip Wilson Show, he'd do a set about a lack of material, hock a kit to encourage viewers doing impressions at home or play a ventriloquist who poured a glass of water over his dummy while he sang "Lady of Spain." His obsessively self-referential bits still resonate with comedy connoisseurs.

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Kevin Hart

He draws some of the largest crowds of any comedian in history – including his sell-out at Lincoln Financial Field in Philly for the 2015 "What Now?" Tour – because Kevin Hart is, simply put, a joy-making sparkplug of a performer. Digging into tales of family, marriage, fatherhood or memorable social interactions in the wider world, Hart just seems intent on making sense of things. He's entirely willing to be confused, doubtful and hurt; when he's not bounding around the stage repeating an earworm of a catchphrase ("Alright alright alriiiiiiight!"), he's facing the audience with a doe-eyed stupefaction. He has five specials, is busy being a movie star and the man still feels like he's got to hear the road every few years with stadium tours. Don't lose that hunger, Kevin.

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Bill Burr

Motherhood isn't that hard. Fat shaming has its place. The planet needs a good plague. The wicked wizardry of Bill Burr's comedy begins with his outrageous premises; if his initial, egregious notions were all that a logical crowd heard, they'd understandably hate him. Perfect. He loves coming across like the clueless meathead ranting in the corner of the bar who – to the horror of the faint-at-heart – makes more and more sense as he rants into the night. Even when the subject matter seems too sensitive, he gives a cockeyed grin and wades in. Case in point: The night that made him a comedy legend was one in which he faced a hostile crowd in Philly, defying waves of boos while insulting everything from the Liberty Bell to the town's Rocky statue. Guess who he'd won over by the end of the evening?

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Billy Connolly

It's easy to imagine walking out of the rain into some dark, grubby Scottish pub to find Billy Connolly in the back corner, entrancing curious onlookers who've all peed themselves after laughing too hard. Though he has amassed a number of excellent one-liners over time ("There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter") the giddy Glaswegian is the master of the wee winding yarn. The journey of an epic airplane fart, an old woman thrown from a speeding bus, a visit to his father after a stroke or a fearful scuba dive in the Caribbean becomes – in his hands, these things become three-act adventure. Though the Big Yin has been battling Parkinson's of late, he's still going strong – his comedy output rivals the likes of Carlin and he's the patron saint of stand-up in the U.K.

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Steven Wright

The undisputed king of the deadpan one-liner, Steven Wright's ability to distill his imaginative notions into economic little parcels of language has never been rivaled. Once audiences bought into his grumbly tone, his just-awoken-from-a-R.E.M.-cycle cadence and his bumbling character, even his set-ups made them titter ("One time I went to a drive-in in a cab") because they knew that the punchlines would come at them from an unexpected angle ("The movie cost me 95 dollars"). His best jokes often offer the contemplative qualities of a good zen koan ("What do batteries run on?"), and Wright remains one of his generation's great minimalist joke writers.

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Andy Kaufman

Even if Andy Kaufman hadn't wrestled women for the “Inter-Gender Wrestling” championship; hadn't entrusted his three, grown adopted black sons to David Letterman on-air; hadn't created abusive, overtly hacky alter-ego Tony Cilfton; and hadn't took his entire audience at Carnegie Hall out for milk and cookies, he would still be a legend. Kaufman's career was the country's first major introduction with what’s sometimes called anti-comedy: An audience-baiting bit of performance art that shuns the simplicity of the set-up/punchline dynamic. One needs to understand the rules in order to break them, naturally, and Kaufman could titillate crowds with his grand Elvis impression or his famous Mighty Mouse bit when the moment was right. More than his routines, though, he stripped down and remade stand-up in his image, asking audience members to push past discomfort and recognize a loopy, dadaist meaninglessness in comedy and life. To which we can only say, in our best Kaufmanesque "Foreign Man" voice: Tank you berry much.

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Bill Hicks

Relentless – it's not only a great title for a special. But Bill Hicks’ first hour, recorded at the Just for Laughs festival in 1991, was an incredibly apt way to describe the comedian himself. Whether spewing venom about consumerism, vapid pop culture, evangelicals’ cosmology or the disconnect between what governments say and what they do, Hicks opened up the throttle and did not quit. 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. Few comedians have been endowed with this sort of eloquent, emphatic fury. Some bits, including a quiet but savage one about soldiers firing missiles somewhere in the gulf, feel as prescient today as they did during the first gulf war.

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Robin Williams

Part dervish, part comedian, all micro-impressions, free associations and countless riffs – Robin Williams' routines made his audiences' heads spin. Yes, there were potent and telling scripted lines in his act ("Cocaine is God's way of telling you you have too much money"), but the larger thrill was watching the sheer ferocity onstage as his brain buzzed and whirred and his body tried to keep up. His specials in venues small (San Francisco's Great American Music Hall) and massive (the Metropolitan Opera) come close to capturing the instants of inspiration, the wacky what-if scenarios – What if a ballet impresario coached a football team? What if a pack of dudes stood under the Golden Gate Bridge waiting for people to jump? – and the giddiness of a crowd being kept on its collective toes. Give the man a microphone, and you never knew where he'd go. You just knew he was damn near unstoppable.

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Steve Martin

For a time, Steve Martin's brand of giddy irony made him the single most in-demand comic in the country. Wiggling and jiggling, a banjo on his belly and a fake arrow through his head, this wild-and-crazy guy made arena crowds lose their minds. In his cartoonish man-boy persona, Martin swung from gag to gag, playing with props, getting "happy feet," and dipping into topics like travel ("It's like those French have a different word for everything!") and relationships ("I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks"). The results were big, call-and-response parties, an escapist whimsy not unlike the balloon animals he'd try to make onstage. As his excellent memoir Born Standing Up attests, Martin found it difficult to keep up with the demands of fans and arena tours – but his work remains a high-water mark for sweet, wacky, playful absurdity with a lot of showmanship behind it.

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Mort Sahl

When Mort Sahl was playing the hungry i in San Francisco during the 1960s, he brought a new informality to weighty issues. Casually clad in red cardigan and button-down shirt, a newspaper folded under his arm, he riffed on politics in a way no one had head before. Just imagine a comic digging through the headlines (sometimes in the middle of a set) looking to expose hypocrisy with the right piece of journalistic evidence – and scoring in a big way. A lot of his best bits can feel dated due to subject matter, some pithy thoughts retain a bite: "Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen." He made himself the most valuable political voice since Will Rogers.

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Dave Chappelle

Glancing at his career before and after the groundbreaking Chappelle's Show makes one thing clear: Stand-up is his first (and perhaps only) love. After a pair of stunningly good early specials, his beloved Comedy Central show and a much ballyhooed visit to Africa, Dave Chappelle has not only reasserted himself in the game but put himself right back on top. He talks race, celebrity and politics in a way that belies the incisive and ferocious nature of his observations; he is also a precocious child who can't keep himself from using "pussy juice" as a punchline. He relishes the fuzzy line between truth and fiction, and delights in keeping the audience on the hook until they’re scratching their heads about whether a baby could sell weed and how one could masturbate to their own sex tape.

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Bill Cosby

[Deep sigh] No, Bill Cosby is not likely to perform again; listening to his records will never have that gentle, sweet sense of nostalgia for anyone; and while it is impossible to disconnect the performer from the man, scrubbing his name from the annuls of stand-up would be impossible. As a comic and storyteller, he advanced the art of stand-up by leaps and bounds – inspiring so many others that it's impossible to keep count. His long-winded yarns about his childhood, marriage and fatherhood painted impressive pictures that were always perfectly punctuated with emphatic proclamations, bits of mime, mugging, silly mouth sounds and those idiosyncratic speaking patterns. Cosby was the uncontroversial champ of Sixties/Seventies stand-up; the best of his impressive collection of albums and Bill Cosby: Himself put him in the hall of fame on sheer chops. His legacy is beyond tarnished now, but there'd be no Pryor, no Chappelle, no Louis C.K. without him.

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Jerry Seinfeld

Whether he's pondering the miracle of Pop Tarts, how long one can look at cleavage or the fallacy of "family fun," Jerry Seinfeld is a man trying to crack the code. Taking cues from observational comedy pioneers like Robert Klein and David Brenner, he carefully dissects the minutiae of Western life in an offhanded way that seems almost thoughtless. Clean and incredibly precise in his language, Seinfeld finds ways of approaching topics that will appeal to the most people possible. And though he is essentially apolitical, his acute reflections on the micro level might encourage audience to step back and see things in macro: 98% of human endeavor is killing time, sports fans are rooting for laundry, and there’s no such thing as a "happy" birthday. The sitcom is legendary and canon-worthy, but the stage is where you get the uncut, no-filter Seinfeld experience. He's a stand-up first, last and always.

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Joan Rivers

There wasn’t exactly an excess of women around when Joan Rivers was coming up in West Village joints. Yet the bold, brash and canny comedian did more than just stake her claim to a spot in the boys’ club, she built her own addition. Her dishy invocation – “Can we talk?” – was a call into Rivers’ special little gossip circle; if her naughty digs and blue talk ever became too much for her audience, she’d admonish them, “Oh, grow up,” and she meant it. Though she recorded relatively little of her material, she was a prolific writer who wrote more than a dozen books and a busy performer always willing to make room for a gig. In addition to being viciously funny, Rivers was a work horse, a survivor and a hero to many younger comics who followed her lead. She could talk, hilariously and then some.

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Chris Rock

Onstage, Chris Rock comes across like a boxer, a preacher and a poet all in one. When he paces the stage, whipping the mic cable and grinning maniacally, audiences now know what’s coming: This is a comic who knows how to punch premises for rhythm as much as substance, and drop punchlines that provoke unconventional thinking. His technical skills in terms of working a crowd (and a concept) are damn near flawless. More importantly, his thoughts on race, relationships and politics have challenged fans to reimagine issues they might otherwise take for granted: A black man is "born a suspect"; guys are nothing but "dick in a glass case" to their platonic lady friends; and there would be no need for gun control if there was "bullet control." Some of his most daring bits, like an (in)famous one about "n••••s vs. black people," will remain impressively funny and undoubtedly controversial for a long time to come. 

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Louis C.K.

The tall redhead had been working comedy clubs across the country for decades, making his bones along with countless other stand-ups. But somewhere around the time he called his four-year-old and asshole and imagined his wife giving him the "saddest handjob in America," the next-level artist we now know as Louis C.K. was reborn with a vengeance. Staring with his 2007 special Shameless, he turned a guy slinging dick jokes and absurdist one-liners into a guy slinging dick jokes and rigorously honest stories about his life and those closest to him. Since then, C.K. has challenged himself to deliver on an unprecedented scale: The self-deprecating social critic has crafted many hours of new material, one almost every year, and let the material go after recording it. In these specials, he not only mapped the mind of a lazy, horny, gluttonous dude who happens to be a dad, but a culture of entitlement in which "everything is amazing and nobody is happy." This is what a comic genius looks like.

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Lenny Bruce

Fifty years after his death, it’s difficult to separate Lenny Bruce the comedian from Lenny Bruce the icon. During his short career, the fast-talking hep cat constantly broke obscenity rules, fought the police and battled for his right to speak profane truth to power in the courts. But more importantly, he almost singlehandedly transformed stand-up into an outlaw occupation. Matching the rhythms and vernacular of jazz with feverish smarts and a filthy imagination, Bruce tumbled headlong into a series of improvisational riffs on whatever was on his mind: Jesus, JFK, touring or, when he wanted to offend the censors, the "nice tits" on Eleanor Roosevelt. Most importantly, Bruce pushed past fear and pursued his truth in the moment; it was messy, meandering, sometimes ungainly and without a perfect punchline, but his act was unlike anything that had come before it. The revolution started here. He was both the John the Baptist and the Jesus Christ of modern comedy.

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George Carlin

The hippie sage, the M.I.T.-level linguist, the First Amendment activist, the undisputed champion gadlfy of stand-up – George Carlin was all this and much more. Like Pryor, Carlin went through an early "square" phase that seemed mainstream-friendly to a fault. Then he grew a beard, found drugs and then found his voice, crafting brainy polemics that poked and prodded listeners out of their socially complicit comfort zones. Watch Jammin' in New York or Carlin at Carnegie – hell, watch or listen to nearly any one of his nearly two dozen specials – and you'll witness rapid, virtuosic rants full of sophisticated wordplay and potent hypotheticals. Carlin was the ultimate thinking man’s comic, demanding that his audiences fight from underneath the mountain of bullshit heaped upon them by clergymen, politicians and advertisers. And his defense of free speech and his contempt for those who would abuse words led to legendary bits including the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which, changing norms or not, still feels remarkably relevant today. 

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Richard Pryor

As is the case with all great artists, Richard Pryor went through an evolution in his life and work: He survived a disturbing childhood whose scary and colorful personalities shaped the basis of his early act; worked through a clean-cut Cosby phase; found cocaine and eventually burst out of a staid Vegas lounge act, fleeing to San Francisco and becoming the outspoken, unfettered spirit that turned stand-up on its ear. At his acme, which was caught on tape in specials including Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor was untouchable. Slipping effortlessly from puerile to provocative, the comic might confess to shooting the tires on his car as an act of spousal revenge, widen his lens to consider police brutality before talking about what's it like to, you know, get a monkey's penis in your ear. Swaggering and vulnerable, boastful and confessional, superheroic and all-too-ordinary, Pryor put everything he was on display. Even his darkest moments, including a heart attack and self-immolation that followed a freebasing binge ("When you're on fire and running down the street, people will get out of your way"), were fodder for his high-wire comedy. His personal life was a mess; onstage, however, he was fluid, versatile and hypnotic. If Carlin is the brain and conscience of comedy, Pryor is its guts and heart, and it's unlikely the man referred to as the "Picas