50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time – Rolling Stone
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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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Elayne Boosler

Imagine the prototypical female comic of the 1980s: Big hair, suit jacket with shoulder pads and the sleeves rolled up, the ubiquitous brick wall behind her. You’re imagining Elayne Boosler – but before that image became a cliché, it was just part of the stand-up act she had been honing for years. At a time in which women comedians were not talking about sex, Boosler addressed it head-on ("Men want you to scream 'You're the best!' while swearing you’ve never done this with anyone before," was an early, signature line). She was also key in convincing the industry to pay attention to women: In 1985, without a network to support a comedy special, Boosler financed the production of one on her own, titled "Party of One" – and when that became a hit, Showtime signed her for several more. She was the best at what she did, so much so that everyone kept copying her until the Eighties comedy boom went bust. Accept no substitutes.

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Reggie Watts

He's cited Monty Python and Bugs Bunny as seminal influences – which should surprise no one who's seen Reggie Watts’ combination of lighthearted, unpredictable lunacy. He riffs about space, time and why no one needs to eat a whole croissant; he creates hip-hop jams about boning and soul ballads about big-ass purses; he gets caught in fast-forward motion, holds forth in jibberish French and foppishly fumbles with his mic stand for minutes at a time. An impressive vocalist and musician, Watts has a knack for pushing past staid jokes to playing with the rhythm and sound of words; it makes his act both thrilling and impossible to categorize. And his special A Live at Central Park will help viewers imagine a freaky future in which stand-up, improv and music can all coexist under one anything-goes Absurdist sensibility and one angelic halo of an Afro.

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Freddie Prinze

A few years after dropping out of high school to work New York clubs, a cherubic 19-year-old Puerto Rican named Freddie Prinze exhibited his preternatural command of stand-up on The Tonight Show, and the rest was history. Though the charming, mustachioed kid had nothing but potential, he got caught up in the Seventies drug culture and had problems dealing with a dizzying rise to fame after Chico and the Man took off; he would commit suicide at age 22. But though he had only one album ("Looking Good") and one early HBO special, his legacy looms large. Take his ingratiating presence, casual tone, autobiographical subject matter and the gentle ribbing he gives himself—down to the introductory portmanteau he used to explain his biracial heritage, "Hungarican" – and you've got the template for half of the acts coming up in the backrooms of New York bars today.

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Russell Peters

Arguably the first truly global stand-up superstar, the Canadian-born Russell Peters jabs not only those of Indian descent – he ribs nearly every ethnicity you might rattle off on an intimate, country-by-country basis. His incredible eye for detail and gift for mimicry allow him to shout out to his dynamic, racially-mixed audiences ("Any Filipinos in the house?"); his broad characterizations play fast and loose with stereotypes, though how many other comics have a solid 10 minutes on the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese? He's virtually unrecognized in American showbiz, but YouTube clips of his act have connected him to an enormous audience around the world, he's been on the Forbes list of top-grossing comedians for years. More than a few of young comics from outside the U.S. have Peters to thank for their introduction to the art.

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Amy Schumer

She has trumped the sex talk of swaggering and sad dudes, making it the domain of anyone passionate or foolish enough to face it in all its awkward, sloppy and painful dimensions. But what distinguishes Amy Schumer – what makes her one of the most exciting comics working today – is that her wit is as fearless as it is fierce. She doesn't mind shocking a crowd to make her points, and couches tough notions in cute packages. (On taking Plan B and going to yoga: "Can these people tell I'm mid-aborsh?") And while her range (and her politics) come out more in her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, her stand-up stings the most when she looks at how women are punished for seeking pleasure – in men, in food, in hedonism, in feminism, in liberation, in life.

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Phyllis Diller

With her garish, glittery outfits ("I used to work as a lampshade in Las Vegas") and hair standing on end, Phyllis Diller's freaky fabulousness made her audiences sit up in their chairs. From there, she cracked clever jokes about her looks, her children, her husband "Fang," her mother-in-law, her domestic duties and eventually, her age. "You know you’re old," she'd quip, "when they discontinue your blood type." Many have tried to imitate her gruff guffaw; no one could duplicate her unmistakable look and or her way around a sharp, Vegas-ready one-liner. The first female household name on the list, she convinced legions of early stand-up audiences that women comics were not a novelty but a forced to be reckoned with.

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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.


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.