Growing up during the 90s in India, I was always interested in comedy. I would try to watch all the comedy shows that are there on Indian TV during those times. Those days, stand up wasn’t that popular in India — very few people were doing it and even they would also be used as a filler “item” or as an opening act for a popular singers/bands etc. Comedy art form in India was mainly restricted to mimicry, parodies, funny poetry (which has a long rich tradition in India). There were not many western channels being televised and internet was not in mass reach. So my introduction to a formal stand-up was rather late.
First time I realised that I love stand-up comedy was while watching Seinfeld-the TV show, during my undergrad. I didn't like the show that much at that time but I watched all the stand-up bits at the start of the show for all 9 seasons, in one night. Then one day, I discovered George Carlin on Netflix (at that point all his specials were on the streaming service). There was no looking back then. Soon, I was watching everything related to stand-up that i could get my hands on.
I have come a long way since not knowing what a real stand -up would look like to watching anything and everything on stand-up comedy and comedians in last 10 years. In this post, I would try to put together a list of all my favourite comics, their style and why I like them. It was tough creating this as I had to exclude a lot of comedians whose comedy I absolutely love.
Nevertheless, here is the list of my favourite comics:
Why do I watch comedy ? Because of this guy. When I was going through a rough patch in 2013, George Carlin was my medicine. I would watch his shows on repeat for hours and he would be funny every time. In a career spanning five decades, he has dealt with every subject possible- politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and everything that is a taboo. His material would be a commentary or maybe mockery of all the societal norms. A lot of comics do that now but he was the first one and paved the way for them.
7 Dirty words is what he is best known for and there are several bits of him which are absolutely brilliant but if I have to pick one, I would go with ‘A Modern Man’. It is so much more than a stand up act- its carefully selected words put into the rhythm to make it ironic, sarcastic and funny. It is a poem, it is a social commentary. To write it would have been an achievement in itself but to also memorise and perform it on stage with that unique delivery, was absolute genius. And that is the reason why he was so special.
Towards the end of his career, he became more of a cynic in his material. But in his own words
Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist — George Carlin
which he was and also one of the best to ever performed on the stage.
An astute observer and a living encyclopedia for African- American racial issues, he was my introduction to racial comedy. And to me, no one does it better than him.
His love for the art form is unparalleled, where he would just sometimes set up in a park and start performing. To walk away from a 50 million dollar Comedy Central deal during the Chapelle show because he didn’t feel right working in restrictions, shows the respect he has for the art. He is more of an introvert but when he is on stage, he owns every bit of it which is also reflected in his ability of doing 6–7 hour long shows.
Sometimes you gotta be a lion so you can be the lamb you really are— as told by Dave’s mother
Since his return into the comedy, after being away from attention for almost a decade, he has released 6 Netflix specials which are all good. However, ‘Killing them softly’ is the one I would pick if I were to pick one. In fact, it is my favourite comedy special of all time.
Also, the master of weird premises as evident in ‘baby in the ghetto’ bit in the ‘Killing them softly’ and the blind black klan guy sketch in Chapelle’s Show
He is the king of angry comedy. How would I describe his comedy ?
-Taking things that everyone considers sacred and then shredding it to pieces with a flawless logic while maintaining that I am just a stupid aura.
He came into prominence with the famous/infamous Philly rant where he took the stage with rude unruly audience, went on to destroy everything that they are known for and in the end manage to win them over.
And this is what he does in a way that only he can do. What do you consider sacred — Motherhood ? No fat shaming ? Oprah ? Michelle Obama ? He can destroy all your beliefs with his ‘no holds barred’ approach in seconds with amazing logic and yet would be able to make you fall in love with him. This is the magic he creates on stage.
Let’s go to Brunch. What a great idea! Why would you want to sleep in on a Sunday when you can go pay $18 for eggs.— Bill Burr on being taken to brunch by his girlfriend
There are several bits of him that I like, so it would be a bit difficult to pick one. However, “You people are all the same” is my favourite special of his.
Controversies aside, he is the kind of comedian who knows how to take the audience to the very edge and then play around for a while. He has had quite a journey so far. He started as a comedy writer and went unnoticed for years and then, at some point started to tell real honest stories from his life and then it worked. And when it worked, he was the name of the game in the business until it all went down crashing again with the controversies.
But just taking the comedy as an art form, he is one of the best in the business. Some of the most insightful and brutally honest joke writing on human emotions.
I finally have the body I want. Its easy actually, you just have to want a really shitty body — Louis CK
Watching him, sometimes, was as if you are taken to India- Pakistan border. You will see the line that shouldn’t be crossed. You get the thrill of being in the dangerous territory where any wrong move can be fatal. But then, he would bring you back safely. Every time.
I would pick ‘Hilarious’ as my favourite special of his . However, stand-up bit wise, the SNL monologues are my favourite.
One of the most important things in a joke is setting up the premise. The punchline only works if you have created a solid premise. He is a master in doing that. Repetition of the premise would mean a bigger payback on the punchline which he gets, all the time. The content majorly is relationships and race. Race because of his experience while relationships as in his own words ‘That shit never gets old’.
Very astute social observer as well. Twenty years before Jon Oliver did an episode on underpaid US college athletes (most of whom are Afro-American), Rock said on an episode of Politically Incorrect- “My people are responsible for sending white kids to college” alluding to the fact that most of the US college athletes are black but the millions they rake in for the school are given as scholarships to white students. I prefer his content on the race more just because of the unique observations and point of view that he brings to the table.
My favourite special of his is ‘Bring the Pain’ and my favourite bit is ‘black people vs n****s’
The purest comedian. The master of dead pan delivery. He has more laughs/minute than any other comedian. The content would be sometimes ironic, sometimes philosophical, many times nonsensical but every time funny.
His joke writing is so good that they don’t depend on delivery or persona or anything. You can take his jokes, repeat them verbatim in a social gathering and you would be funny. And probably that is the reason that he is often attributed to many jokes on the internet that he never made. Sometimes even bad ones.
Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy — Steven Wright
He along with Rodney Dangerfield was the first ones to do this kind of comedy and they paved the way for other one-liner comics after them. ‘A Steven Wright Special’ would be my favourite special of his.
The guy who invented roast/insult comedy. There are comedians who are hardworking and create their set meticulously with every move written and rehearsed. Then, there are people like Mr. Rickles who are naturally funny. Most of the times he would just improvise his set on stage and still kill it.
Roast Comedy is considered normal now but in 60s and 70s going in and roasting all the celebrities require some sort of courage as anyone could get upset and that might be career limiting move. But that wouldn’t stop Don Rickles. He was a headline performer at Las Vegas hotel-casinos for the longest time and the only person people would pay to insult them.
Who picks your clothes — Stevie Wonder ? — Don Rickles
The roast of the president Reagan was considered highlight of his career.
He is comedian’s comedian. One of the most underrated comedian on this list, or on any list. He is surely the greatest off colour comic alive (according to Patton Oswalt and Bill Burr, not just me). He is mostly known as the creator of the show ‘Insomniac with Dave Attell’
The thing that set him apart is his distinct joke style, rhyming voice and a whole lot of unique premises. As the story goes, a lot of upcoming NYC comics would try to replicate his style because that’s how powerful his presence is. He would go really dirty at times but the writing would still be gold.
Yeah, I know, some people are against drunk driving, and I call those people “the cops.” But you know, sometimes, you’ve just got no choice; those kids gotta get to school! — Dave Attell
My favourite special from him would be ‘Skanks for the memories’
People often say Jerry Seinfeld is the best observational comic. Don’t get me wrong, Seinfeld is good but to me, Jim Gaffigan is a bit better. Like Seinfeld, he does not use any profanity in his act. Clean comic, so much so that he once opened for the Pope. What a gig. A lot of his material is his observations on laziness, food, fatherhood etc.
Usually when people go to watch some comedian, they want new material. He is one of the few comics who are requested for repeat material- Hot pockets.
I come from a very big family… nine parents. — Jim Gaffigan
He is also known for his exceptional free flowing delivery and the high pitch, self deprecating inner voice which he uses amazingly as a running commentary on his act. Also, I have never seen anyone doing as many tags on a punchline as evident in this video :
He has a lot specials on possibly every streaming service. My favourite out of them is ‘Cinco’.
I remember her arguing Guy Aoki on an episode of Politically Incorrect on some racial joke she did and not backing down. I was immediately a fan.
Her comedy addresses social taboos and controversial topics, such as racism, sexism, politics, and religion. Weird observations, sometimes dirty, actually mostly dirty, she relies on the shock value of how can someone who is so sweet, can say those horrible things.
A powerful voice on many issues surrounding comedy. Unapologetic, she once started her show with the joke:
“ I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”
‘Jesus is Magic’ is my favourite specials of her
Hands down one of the best joke writer in the business. The material is mostly dark, observational and political satire.
He is one of the few comics that are naturally very funny. My introduction to him is through one of the several compilation videos on youtube of him being just a laugh riot on different variety talk shows.
If you’re watching a comedian on television and he’s making a political point, I would say he’s gotten too serious. — Norm MacDonald
Also, I have not seen anyone doing longer jokes than him. The 12 minute joke bit is one of the funniest and is also an excellent satire on the state of news media today.
He also has this unique ability of making simple punchlines way funnier by adding words and changing the delivery.
My favourite special from him is ‘Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery’
He, like Steven Wright, is also known for short jokes or one liners. But unlike Wright, his jokes mainly worked due to his exceptional delivery style. Again more laughs per minute than other comedians which are atypical of comedians of this style.
He had a stage freight so he would always be wearing shades during the performance. He had gained such a following that sometimes during the show the audience would shout out his punchlines before he could say it. Not sure if that is a good thing but talk about a rockstar.
Rice is great if you’re really hungry and you want 2000 of something.- Mitch Hedberg
Hedberg’s stand-up was distinguished by the unique manner of speech he adopted later in his career, his abrupt delivery, and his unusual stage presence. My favourite special from him is ‘ Do You Believe in Gosh ? ‘
Another underrated entry on this list, Mike Birbiglia is one of the best storyteller out there. Also the comedy writing translates well into the books as evident from his NYT bestseller — Sleepwalk with me.
His content is mainly his personal life stories bubble wrapped with humour and presented in a free flowing, carefully woven layers held together by a central theme.
I have not seen as many layers in the stories and so efficient use of the callbacks and digressions as I have seen in all his specials.
I used to think I was a little unstable, and then I met every girl I have ever dated- Mike Birbiglia
‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’ is the best stand up special I have seen in the story telling art form and it is easily one of the best specials streaming of Netflix right now.
Jack of all trades. Best selling author, a prominent TV show host and one of the most well read comics on the list. I am much bigger fan of Trevor Noah, the stand up comedian than Trevor Noah, the Daily Show host. Actually, I am even a bigger fan of Trevor Noah, the writer. I have been following him since 2013 long before he was a familiar face on TV. He is one of the youngest on the list but his achievements can put to shame any seasoned comic.
His content is mostly racial comedy and personal stories. But that doesn’t mean that you would get the repackaged old material from previous racial comics. What you would get is novel unparalleled observations, enriched with so many rich life experiences of growing up in apartheid Africa.
We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. — Trevor Noah
He also has this gift of being able to do several accents which he uses very efficiently in his material.
My pick amongst his several specials is ‘African American’. I would also highly recommend his book “Born a Crime” preferably as an audio book. Why ? Because he narrates it himself in his usual delivery style.
I am not claiming that these are the absolute best comedians, for its hard to arrive at an objective scaling, but these my favourite ones. There were also a few who I have found to be very funny on many occasions and I would like to give a shout out to them:
Richard Pryor, Eddy Murphy, Bill Hicks, Patrice O Neal, Sam Kinison, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Doug Stanhope, Aziz Ansari, Demetri Martin, Anthony Jeselnick, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Jeff Ross, Joe Rogan, Ellen DeGenEres, Jim Jefferies, Bo Burnham
Written while listening to all of the above