Comedy is an entertainment art form that many strive to perfect, but very few do. Unlike acting, comedy cannot be learned by attending classes and having the right look for a part. Sure, you can perfect your act but even with smooth delivery and perfect timing, if you’re not funny, no one is going to laugh. We’ve all seen that poor comedian who plays to a silent audience and then is practically booed off stage. That’s another thing about comedy, it takes guts.
Comedy became a popular form of entertainment thanks to iconic comedic legends such as George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar just to name a few. With the onset of radio shows and then later, television comedy shows, such as I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, these early comedians paved the way for what is now one of the most popular forms of comedy, the “stand up.” Many believe it was in the 1970’s when true stand up comedy was born. This new comic was a little edgier and tended to include bits about social and political events in their act, delivered in a more casual manner. This was different from the comedians of the past who delivered one liners and jokes that ended with a punch line.
The 70’s also introduced the comedy club and the art of comedic improvisation in front of a live audience. Below is a list of stand up comedians who have made their mark on comedy in the last fifty years and set the bar for those who have come after them.
10. George Carlin
Possibly one of the most renowned comedians of our lifetime, George Carlin began his career in the 60’s performing on television variety shows and then later numerous times on The Tonight Show, with Jack Paar, and then Johnny Carson. In the 70’s he decided he wanted to change his image and hired talent managers to help reinvent himself and project a younger and more hip image. It was during this time that Carlin introduced his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” routine, which got him arrested in Milwaukee in 1972. He became famous for his dark comedy and for expressing his thoughts on politics, religion and other taboo subjects. He was referred to by one newspaper as “The dean of counter-culture comedians.” Many of today’s comedians say that it was Carlin who inspired them to pursue comedy. George Carlin passed away on June 22, 2008.
9. David Brenner
David Brenner made his television debut in 1971 on The Tonight Show. Before becoming a beloved comedian, Brenner produced 115 television documentaries and won almost 30 Emmy’s for that work. Brenner stood out during this time because, as opposed to other comedians who were challenging social mores and political ideology, he did not use profanity and focused on everyday humor or as he said, “the dumb things that we say and do,” as material for his routines, perhaps paving the way for Seinfeld. He later became The Tonight Show’s most frequent guest with 158 appearances and was the author of five books. He passed away from cancer on March 15, 2014.
8. Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers began her career as a broadway actress, but quickly decided she was in the wrong field and began focusing on stand up comedy. She was a new breed of female comic, tough and edgy, not worried about offending her audience and paved the way for women in the field. According to Joan, “screw kindness. You have to tell the truth, that’s what comedy is all about.” In 1965, she appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” which began a close friend relationship between the two of them, in fact she became his permanent guest host. In 1986 she had her own late night show that ran against his, he broke off the friendship and never spoke to her again. Joan is still working today and has won an emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host and also has a star on the Walk of Fame.
7. Rodney Dangerfield
Best known for his tag line, “I don’t get no respect,” Rodney Dangerfield began writing for comedians at the age of fifteen and began performing when he was twenty. In the sixties, he performed at hotels in the Catskill Mountains but was making little headway. He then took the name Rodney Dangerfield, which was the name of a faux cowboy star of Jack Benny’s, who also received no respect. This was of great inspiration to him. In 1967, Rodney became a last minute replacement act on The Ed Sullivan Show and this gave him the kickstart he needed. He became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and was a regular on The Dean Martin Show. In 1969, he built The Dangerfield’s Comedy Club which is still operating today and has launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr to name a few. Rodney Dangerfield died on October 5, 2004.
6. Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor said his early years of comedy performances were inspired by Bill Cosby. Certainly these early comedy routines were much tamer than the ones that brought him into the limelight in later years. Pryor became famous for his use of racial epithets and over the top profanity while still being able to make people laugh. Certainly he brought a new edge to stand up comedy and walked a fine line between humor and vulgarity. He was also a gifted actor and appeared in several films, among them The Silver Streak with Gene Wilder whom he collaborated with on many projects and Blue Collar in 1978. He was the first winner of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and is listed as number one on Comedy Central’s list of all time great stand up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld calls him “The Picasso of our profession.” Richard Pryor died on December 10, 2005.
5. Steven Wright
Known for his nasally voice and deadpan delivery, Steven Wright became almost a cult figure in the mid eighties with a divisive mix of fans, from the totally hip to the totally bookish. His 1985 comedy album, I Have a Pony, was nominated for a Grammy. His HBO special, A Steven Wright Special, is one of HBO’s most popular and longest running comedy specials ever to air on the network. He is a regular on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and in 2008 became the first inductee into the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame.
4. Eddie Murphy
Ranked number ten on Comedy Central’s List of the 100 Greatest Stand Up Comedians of All Time, Eddie Murphy‘s early work was heavily influenced by Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. His successful television special Delirious was released in 1983 and contained some of his most racy and over the top material. This was followed by his concert film, Eddie Murphy Raw. Murphy may be best remembered for his controversial portrayal of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live as well as for his hilarious rendition of Gumby on that show. He is also a successful actor and has appeared in many films including Dream Girls, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor.
3. Steve Martin
Steve Martin began his career in the sixties, writing for variety shows such as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He then went on to stand up comedy and released several comedy albums that went platinum. “Let’s Get Small” was wildly popular, followed by “A Wild and Crazy Guy,” which along with “Well excuuuuuse me,” became Martin’s most famous catch phrases. A favorite of SNL fans, he has hosted the show over fifteen times. Since then he has gone on to star in a number of films and in 2010 he created the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass hoping to bring more attention and notoriety to bluegrass performers, of which he is one.
2. Andrew Dice Clay
Andrew Dice Clay began his career as an actor but turned to stand up comedy in the late eighties. His big break came when he did a set at Dangerfields during Rodney Dangerfield’s special, Nothing Goes Right. This led to his first HBO special and eventual movie roles. Controversy has always surrounded Clay due to what some consider his disrespect towards women and his vulgar delivery. At one time he was banned from MTV. Clay received rave reviews for his portrayal of Augie in the 2013 film Blue Jasmine.
1. Jerry Seinfeld
Perhaps the comic who best represents the art of every day observational humor, Seinfeld is a name recognized all over the world. He continues to do stand up today, where he can still pack the house and make audiences of all ages laugh. His NBC show Seinfeld, became the voice of a generation with catchphrases such as; “Yadda Yadda Yadda,” “Shrinkage,” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The show ran for nine seasons and is now in syndication with a new generation of loyal followers. Seinfeld says his comedic influences were George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno and Robert Klein.