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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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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.

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6

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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5

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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4

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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3

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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2

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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1

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 "Picasso of our profession" – by no less than Jerry Seinfeld – will ever be topped.

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