Greatest Standup Comedians of All Time
Since court jesters were free to make fun of their kings, comedians have always existed somewhere outside the rules of cultural norms. They can broach illicit subjects and serious philosophical questions with vulgarities that we wouldn't use in everyday speech.
Because in between the one-liners and punchlines, the best comedians can force us to look at uncomfortable truths, and we've come to expect it. Comedy isn't just a performance. It's evolved into high art. And if we can laugh at something horribly taboo together, we all feel that much closer without having to actually do anything.
And sometimes we just need to hear a really good d--- joke. These comedians are the greatest of all time. Don't agree? That's to be expected, but we have the mic.
25. Norm Macdonald
Born: Oct 17, 1963
Birthplace: Quebec City, Canada
Net worth: $2.5 million
Funny words: "It's a very odd thing with Hollywood, where you do standup, you're good at it, then they go, 'How would you like to be a horrible actor?' Then you say, 'All right, that sounds good. I'll do that.'"
Bottom line: If you don't think Norm Macdonald is one of the best comedians of all time, you simply haven't heard enough Norm Macdonald.
Macdonald rose to fame as an anchor on the "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live" for six years during the 1990s.
His deadpan delivery is perfect for odd jokes like The Moth. He's an underrated comic, but if you asked working comics for their own "greatest" list, Macdonald would be on there.
24. Mort Sahl
Born: May 11, 1927
Birthplace: Montreal, Canada
Net worth: $20 million
Funny words: "My life needs editing."
Bottom line: Before there was Jon Stewart (and really, any political standup comedians), there was Mort Sahl. Sahl was a contemporary of Lenny Bruce, but was largely a mainstream comic.
Wielding a newspaper in one hand, his political comedy was digestible to a wide audience — but even though his comedy is about as risqué as a Jimmy Fallon monologue, it was groundbreaking stuff. Hell, people didn't even want you mentioning big names back in the 1940s and 1950s.
"There was a lot of resistance," Sahl said in a 2015 interview with The Comedy and Magic Club. "There were a lot of people that didn't want you to talk about important people, to bring up the black list, to talk about Senator Joe McCarthy in an unfavorable way."
23. Eddie Izzard
Born: Feb 7, 1962
Birthplace: Aden, Yemen (English nationality)
Net worth: $20 million
Funny words: "If there is a God, his plan is very similar to someone not having a plan."
Bottom line: Eddie Izzard's comedy is just as much a performance as it is a history lesson, only infinitely more entertaining.
The United Kingdom comedian has been part of the standup world for nearly four decades, using a stream-of-consciousness style that blends facts with jokes and political comedy. Her 1998 "Dress to Kill" tour (her preferred pronoun) was a breakthrough performance that set Izzard on the global stage.
Which was fitting, given its topic of world history.
Cake or death!
22. Andy Kaufman
Born: Jan 17, 1949
Birthplace: New York City, New York
Died: May 16, 1984 (35 years old, Los Angeles, California)
Net worth: $3 million
Funny words: "The more they hate you, the better you're doing."
Bottom line: Andy Kaufman didn't do standup in the traditional sense, as it was more performance art. But whatever you may call it, Kaufman's effect on the comedy world can't be understated.
The man blended reality and fiction like nobody else. In the late 1970s, he began wrestling (and quickly pinning) women during his act, declaring himself the "inter-gender wrestling champion of the world." This stint bled over into actual professional wrestling and a match with Jerry Lawler, who gave him a finishing move that supposedly broke his neck.
Wearing a neck brace, he "confronted" Lawler on "Late Night with David Letterman" where the two staged a fight. The whole thing was a ruse, but Kaufman was so good that he managed to convince people that professional wrestling might actually be real, at least to a point. He was that good.
21. Bill Burr
Born: Jun 10, 1968
Birthplace: Canton, Massachusetts
Net worth: $12 million
Funny words: "Did you ever spell a word so bad that your spell check has absolutely no clue what you're trying to spell? What do you end up getting, you end up getting, like, a question mark. You got a million dollars of technology just looking back at you like, 'You got me, buddy. Which is pretty amazing because I have all the words.'"
Bill Burr is so damned good he famously turned a hostile Philadelphia crowd into a cheering one by relentlessly excoriating them (search "Philadelphia incident" on YouTube and make sure you're not in the office if you're interested).
Burr's biting, rage-fueled rants are the stuff of legend, and his ability to insult is unparalleled. He's also surprisingly intelligent and insightful, which brings his comedy to another level.
Plus, his podcast is great.
20. Phyllis Diller
Born: July 17, 1917
Birthplace: Lima, Ohio
Death: Aug. 20, 2012 (age 95, Brentwood, California)
Net worth: $15 million
Funny words: "Burt Reynolds once asked me out. I was in his room."
Bottom line: Phyllis Diller was the first female comedian to become a household name. Her work ethic was incredible. Even though she began as a comedian at the age of 37, she performed up until she was 85 years old, 10 years before her death in 2012.
She appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, with one of her last roles being Peter Griffin's mother on "Family Guy" in 2006.
Diller was also one of the first gay icons, and she paved the way for female comedians.
19. Bob Newhart
Born: Sept. 5, 1929
Birthplace: Oak Park, Illinois
Net worth: $65 million
Funny words: "I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down.'"
Bottom line: While working as an accountant in Chicago, Bob Newhart broke up the monotony by calling his co-worker to perform a kind of improvised comedy routine. Someone overhead them and advised them to record the conversations and syndicate them to radio.
It actually worked, and a few stations were interested, but Newhart — who, again, was working as an accountant — didn't know how much to charge and the cost of recording the bits ended up costing them money in the end. But it was a start.
Newhart released "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" in 1960, which earned him a Best New Artist award at the 1961 Grammys, the first and only time a comedian has won that award.
18. Redd Foxx
Born: Dec 9, 1922
Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri
Death: Oct 11, 1991 (age 68,
Net worth: -$3.5 million (owed taxes at the time of his death)
Funny words: "Beauty may be skin deep, but ugly goes clear to the bone."
Bottom line: Redd Foxx's bawdy humor has influenced several generations of young comedians.
They include Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx (check the professional surname) and especially Richard Pryor, whom he let perform in his nightclub and open for an established act.
Redd Foxx is best known for playing Fred Sanford on "Sanford and Son," but during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, he was selling out crowds and making millions with his foul-mouthed sets.
17. Steven Wright
Born: Dec 6, 1955
Birthplace: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Net worth: $2 million
Funny words: "If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving definitely isn't for you."
Steven Wright is a paraprosdokian master, and his dark comedy and lethargic, deadpan delivery make you both laugh and think.
But it's difficult to think too much, because just about every line in a Wright special is a weird joke that seems to come from another dimension.
Some notable examples:
- "I went to a tourist information booth and said, "Tell me about some people who were here last year."
- "We lived in a house that ran on static electricity. If we wanted to cook something, we had to take a sweater off real quick. If we wanted to run a blender we had to rub balloons on our heads."
- "I was Caesarean born. Can’t really tell, although whenever I leave a house I go through the window."
16. Bill Cosby
Born: July 12, 1937
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Net worth: $400 million
Funny words: "Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it."
Bottom line: Yes, Bill Cosby is a monster. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that Cosby's standup and acting career did not only influence an innumerable number of comedians, but culture itself.
In 2008, The New York Times ran an article about Cosby's yet-untarnished legacy, writing that "The Cosby Show" "had succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible." True or not, that the discussion was worth having speaks volumes.
Cosby's show and standup are virtually unwatchable now, and it makes him difficult to place on this list, but his effect on the comedy scene is inarguable.
Also, his first meal in prison was Jell-O.
15. Mitch Hedberg
Born: Feb 24, 1968
Birthplace: Saint Paul, Minnesota
Death: March 29, 2005 (age 37, Livingston, New Jersey)
Net worth: $4 million
Funny words: "I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later."
Bottom line: Mitch Hedberg was another comedian who died far too young and from a drug overdose.
Mix dad humor, deadpan delivery, a dash of George Carlin's obsessiveness on wordplay and a bit of Jerry Seinfeld's observations and you get Hedberg. But even that description doesn't really do the man justice.
Hedberg only released two albums when he was alive, and one posthumously. See seven minutes of his best bits.
14. Joan Rivers
Born: Jun 8, 1933
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Death: Sep 4, 2014 (age 81, New York City, New York)
Net worth: $150 million
Funny words: "I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio."
Bottom line: Joan Rivers followed in Phyllis Diller's steps, but she ratcheted up the rebukes and scathing jokes.
She became a frequent guest on Jonnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and became his favorite replacement host. But she burned that bridge in 1986 when she took on her own late-night chat show which competed with Carson's. He and even future "Tonight Show" hosts refused to book her.
Like Diller, Rivers became a household name. Her voice and style of comedy are often imitated, but never replicated.
13. Eddie Murphy
Born: Apr 3, 1961
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Net worth: $200 million
Funny words: "I wish people would stop making fun of fat people. They have enough s--- on their plates."
Bottom line: Eddie Murphy was an absolute force in the 1980s, exploding on stage with "Delirious" after a successful few years on "Saturday Night Live." Three of his films were the 1980s' highest-grossing movies and ended up being Hollywood's biggest box-office star of the decade. "Delirious" is still considered one of the best comedy albums of all time.
While Murphy did more film work than comedy routines, it's important to note that a lot of Murphy's lines in his films were ad-libbed. Many of the classic lines from "Beverly Hills Cop," like the "supercops" bit, wasn't even in the script.
In his prime, Murphy wielded his wit like a scalpel. But he later decided to do only family-friendly films, returning to the R-rated field only once for the Netflix biopic "Dolemite Is My Name," which was hilarious.
12. Rodney Dangerfield
Born: Nov 22, 1921
Birthplace: Deer Park, New York
Death: Oct 5, 2004 (age 82, Los Angeles, California)
Net worth: $10 million
Funny words: "I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous — everyone hasn't met me yet."
Bottom line: Rodney Dangerfield was the king of self-deprecating humor. His act was a carefully crafted persona that was relatable to the everyman — a guy who felt treated wrong and wasn't respected.
Once a failed comedian turned salesman, Dangerfield decided to get back in the game at the age of 40. With 20 years of jokes to tell, Dangerfield ended up killing it on the nightclub circuit and then made his way to late-night television shows. Later, he went on to make several comedy films, like "Caddyshack" and "Back to School."
Most comedians' catchphrases are forgettable and short-lived. But "I don't get no respect" seems to be timeless.
11. Robin Williams
Born: July 21, 1951
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Death: Aug. 11, 2014 (age 63, Paradise Cay, California)
Net worth: $50 million
Funny words: "The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, 'Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.' She's got a baseball bat and yelling, 'You want a piece of me?'"
Bottom line: No one will be able to match Robin Williams' manic, stream-of-consciousness joke-telling, no matter how much cocaine is involved.
Williams honed his act as a young man in San Francisco and nabbed a starring role on "Mork & Mindy" in 1978. Equal parts comedian and actor, Williams lit up the stage and is easily the most beloved comedian on this list.
Even comic greats thought Williams was a genius. Watch him at the Comedy Store with Richard Pryor (Williams comes on at 7:27 mark in the video) for a sense of how much laughter he brought to the world.
10. Don Rickles
Born: May 8, 1926
Birthplace: Queens, New York
Death: April 6, 2017 (90 years old, Beverly Hills, California)
Net worth: $30 million
Funny words: "Show business is my life. When I was a kid I sold insurance, but nobody laughed."
Bottom line: Don Rickles' career as a legendary insult comic began in the early days of his act, when he heckled his hecklers and discovered that the audience enjoyed that more than his routine (he liked to call his hecklers "hockey pucks").
Nicknamed "The Merchant of Venom" and "Mr. Warmth," Rickles' politically incorrect career extended into both comedic and dramatic acting roles. He worked up until his death in 2017 at the age of 90.
Some classic Rickles insults and one-liners:
"Room service is great if you want to pay $500 for a club sandwich."
"Is that your wife, sir? … What was it, a train?"
On Frank Sinatra: "When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I don’t mind, but he has it in his back pocket."
On Clint Eastwood: "Clint's idea of a good time is sitting on a pickup truck watching a dog bark."
"Bob Newhart made the claim that I am his closest friend. I have never met Bob Newhart."
9. Steve Martin
Born: Aug. 14, 1945
Birthplace: Waco, Texas
Net worth: $140 million
Funny words: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."
Bottom line: Props, musical instruments, lyrics, funny faces. It's not the type of stuff you'd expect outside of an amateur set. But Steve Martin incorporated them all and more during his standup years and made them work.
It's difficult to categorize Martin's comedy. He has a weird, absurdist comedic style delivered with excited giggles, like a kid who just became the center of attention.
He's a just wild and crazy guy with happy feet.
8. Louis C.K.
Born: Sept. 12, 1967
Birthplace: Washington, D.C.
Net worth: $35 million
Funny words: "What happens after you die? Lots of things happen after you die. They just don't involve you."
Bottom line: Louis C.K.'s reputation has been severely tarnished due to five women alleging sexual misconduct (claims which he confirmed). While his work might be difficult to watch now, C.K. was one of the most popular comedians in the world for a decade, and at one point, probably was the most popular comedian on the planet.
"Louie," which C.K. wrote, directed and cut was an Emmy award-winning show that furthered his mainstream success.
He's still touring (or will be in the future) and is releasing specials on his website.
7. Jerry Seinfeld
Born: April 29, 1954
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Net worth: $950 million
Funny words: "I am so busy doing nothing ... that the idea of doing anything — which as you know, always leads to something — cuts into the nothing and then forces me to have to drop everything."
Bottom line: Take on a nasally, say "What's the deal with..." and complete the last part of the sentence with basically any object or subject of your choosing, and it will be instantly recognizable as Jerry Seinfeld impression.
It's difficult to gauge Seinfeld's contributions to comedy. His clean, family-friendly comedy stood out from his foul-mouthed colleagues in the 1990s, as did his ability to dissect even the most mundane bits of life with a cosmic bewilderment.
And, of course, there was "Seinfeld," one of the most influential shows ever made.
6. Chris Rock
Born: Feb. 7, 1965
Birthplace: Andrews, South Carolina
Net worth: $60 million
Funny words: "Only dumb people try to impress smart people. Smart people just do what they do."
Bottom line: Chris Rock's 1996 HBO special, "Bring the Pain," made him one of the most popular and successful comedians of his time.
One bit on that special, "N****s vs. Black People" is considered to be one of the best and most controversial bits in comedy and established Rock as a leading comedian. (Rock later retired the bit, saying that "some people that were racist thought they had license to say n----. So I'm done with that routine.")
Rock followed up "Bring the Pain" with "Bigger and Blacker" in 1999 and "Never Scared" in 2004, both of which were instant classics. The man has an unmatched rhythm to his performances.
5. Bill Hicks
Born: Dec. 16, 1961
Birthplace: Valdosta, Georgia
Death: Feb. 26, 1994 (age 32, Little Rock, Arkansas)
Net worth: $6 million
Funny words: "It's always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it's just hilarious."
Bottom line: Bill Hicks was equal parts philosopher and comedian. His tirades against consumerism are timeless, while his philosophy on life — "It's just a ride" — combined his vitriol at the world with a detached viewpoint that somehow made him even angrier.
Hicks died far too young, at the age of 32 in 1994, from pancreatic cancer. While popular at the time (especially in the United Kingdom), it wasn't until posthumously released albums and the help of mediums like YouTube that Hicks became solidified as one of the greatest comedians who ever lived.
4. Lenny Bruce
Born: Oct. 13, 1925
Birthplace: Mineola, New York
Death: Aug. 3, 1966 (age 40, Hollywood Hills, California)
Net worth: $48 million
Funny words: "I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: What I'm going to be if I grow up."
Bottom line: Lenny Bruce is the forefather of modern comedy. All the bitterness that comedians spew at politics, religion and the state, the critical thinking on race and sex, the wanton vulgarity — all of it can be traced back to Bruce. Did he invent the style? Who knows, but he sure as hell refined it and popularized it.
Bruce was one of the first comedians to go on stage and philosophize about the current state of affairs with an unfiltered, filthy mouth.
"If somebody was given a free-association test today and they didn’t know Lenny’s work, just his image, they’d say, 'Oh, he made it easy for comics today to use profanity,'" Paul Krassner, editor of Bruce’s autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People," told Rolling Stone.
"But what Lenny did as a performer was break through the traditional targets of humor and talk about things that really mattered. Everything from teachers' salaries, racism and sexism to abortion rights and atomic testing – all different forms of injustice."
3. Dave Chapelle
Born: Aug. 24, 1973
Birthplace: Washington, D.C.
Net worth: $50 million
Funny words: "The language you are about to hear ... is disturbing."
Bottom line: Dave Chappelle's "Chappelle's Show" catapulted Chapelle into worldwide fame seemingly overnight. That show was everywhere. Its skits were quoted by everyone to an obnoxious degree ("I'm Rick James, b---!").
Chapelle, finding himself cornered and panicked by fame he didn't bargain for, abruptly quit the show in the middle of its third season and then took off on a soul-searching journey to South Africa.
He appeared on and off the comedy scene for several years, until he made a career comeback in 2015. A new Chappelle was born: Older, wiser, more philosophical and even funnier than before.
2. George Carlin
Born: May 12, 1937
Birthplace: New York City, New York
Death: June 22, 2008 (age 71, Santa Monica, California)
Net worth: $10 million
Funny words: "I think people should be allowed to do anything they want. We haven't tried that for a while. Maybe this time it'll work."
Bottom line: Seven dirty words. It's the most infamous bit (NSFW) in standup history, and it tells you almost everything you need to know about George Carlin, who was arrested for disturbing the peace after performing that routine in 1972.
Carlin was the most nihilistic comedian to have gained so much popularity. Some of his bits, like "Why I Don't Vote" (which comes with the tagline, "f--- hope") aren't exactly the thing we need to hear now — but when the material was new, it was cathartic. Carlin was the voice of the everyman who was disaffected by the continual stream of political and commercial B.S.
Carlin died in 2008. Gee, he was here just a minute ago.
1. Richard Pryor
Born: Dec. 1, 1940
Birthplace: Peoria, Illinois
Death: Dec. 10, 2005 (age 65, Encino, California)
Net worth: $40 million
Funny words: "I'd like to make you laugh for about ten minutes though I'm gonna be on for an hour."
Bottom line: It always comes down to one of two comedians for the top spot: either Richard Pryor or George Carlin. And really, whichever one you pick, you'd be right.
We're giving the slight edge to Pryor here just because he managed to light himself on fire while drinking 151-proof rum and freebasing, then turned around and made a legendary skit out of it. ( "When you're on fire and running down the street, people will get out of your way. Except for one old drunk going, 'Hey, buddy? Can I get a light?'")
Pryor's personal life suffered many demons, but on stage, he was a god.