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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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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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