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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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17

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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16

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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15

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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14

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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13

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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12

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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11

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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10

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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9

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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8

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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7

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.