Let's take a look at the 25 greatest stand-up comedians of all time, presented in no particular order, because laughter is not a competition.
Robin Williams was a force of nature on stage, combining the improvisational style of Jonathan Winters with frenetic energy and an uncanny knack for impressions and accents. Some comedians try to play it cool on stage; Williams went a hundred miles a minute, mouth moving almost as fast as his whirling brain.
Bill Hicks' humor was extremely dark, like his bit where he told people in marketing to kill themselves, which in our current social media age feels ahead of its time. He only lived to age 32, struck down in his prime by pancreatic cancer. But before that he made 11 appearances on Letterman's shows, opened for the band Tool and experimented with every drug known to man, which led to telling "positive drug stories" on stage. For the record, there's no truth to the rumor that he's really Alex Jones.
Garry Shandling created and starred in two all-time great sitcoms, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show," but before that he was a stellar stand-up comic. His neurotic, self-deprecating persona was so refined that it felt completely conversational, with jokes appearing almost organically without obvious punchlines. Shandling is another performer whose stand-up career would have been even greater had he not been so good at making TV shows.
Phyllis Diller was 37 years old before she started her stand-up career, though she'd done comedic segments for local TV before that. Her first two-week booking at the Purple Onion in San Francisco turned into a nearly two-year run, and from then on there was no looking back. Diller was one of the first female comedians to become a household name, and she was known for her wild hair, crazy outfits and stage props (including a wooden cigarette) on her way to a long career — and status as one of the first gay icons in stand-up.
Tig Notaro has been correctly celebrated for her album "Live," taken from a set at Largo in Los Angeles, where she somehow made her recent cancer diagnosis and the death of her mother funny, albeit heartbreaking. But Tig can make anything funny – chance meetings with Taylor Dayne, or even just dragging a stool across the stage on "Conan."
Another fearsome comedic talent who died too soon, Patrice O'Neal was a fearless, truth-telling comedian who almost delighted in taking extreme positions and winning an audience back. There's a great example at the beginning of his final special, "Elephant In The Room," where O'Neal contrasts the different reactions when a white woman or a woman of color goes missing. Patrice was also a superstar when it came to roasts, but after a stroke he died at the young age of 41.
There are comedians who talk about politics, and then there are comedians like Dıck Gregory, who live them. Gregory participated in protests, from marching in Selma to going on a hunger strike to protest hostage-taking in Iran. Along the way, Gregory became one of the first black comedians to cross over to white audiences and was the first black comedian to get invited to the couch on "the Tonight Show."
Don Rickles is simply the greatest insult comic in history. There'd be no Comedy Central roasts at the Friar's Club without Rickles, the master of the putdown. But he's a nice guy, he'd plead, after shredding various audience members from the stage and calling them "hockey pucks." He became synonymous with Las Vegas and insult comedy and even memorably voiced Mr. Potato Head late in his career.
Bob Newhart recorded his first album before he had his first real nightclub gig, but doing things unconventionally was part of his charm. Newhart pioneered the one-sided phone conversation bit, where he'd have imaginary chats with people like Abraham Lincoln and Sir Walter Raleigh. It was no surprise that Newhart became such an adept straight man on his later sitcoms, because he managed to deliver hilarious routines by only providing the straight man's side of the chat already.
Best known for his role on "Sanford and Son," Redd Foxx was a stand-up pioneer. In 1956 he recorded what was the first real stand-up record, the first of over 50 that he'd put out in his career. Not only was he a comedy legend, but he also was friends with Malcom X, who called Foxx "the funniest dishwasher in Chicago" back when Foxx was known as "Chicago Red."
Some comedians like to work clean. Dave Attell revels in the dirty, writing the most elegant, well-crafted filthy jokes of anyone in the business. His show "Insomniac" was a cult classic for Comedy Central.
When Shakespeare wrote, "brevity is the soul of wit," he could have been talking about the comedy of Steven Wright. Wright's sleepy, deadpan delivery is iconic, and his sparse jokes deliver huge punchlines with zero wasted words. Plus he delivered an incredible, minimalist performance in "So I Married An Axe Murderer."
Mort Sahl is a legendary political comedian and satirist, known for literally taking comedy right from the headlines, as he often had a newspaper with him on stage to mine material. It was a unique style that didn't tell stories and build a routine as much as it zipped from topic to topic, creating a collage. Sahl started comedy in the early '50s, and at nearly 92 he still does a weekly show in Marin County.
His personal behavior is inexcusable, and no one will ever be able to watch "The Cosby Show" or listen to his albums the same way ever again. But Bill Cosby was one of the absolute giants of stand-up comedy, breaking ground for African-American performers and collecting Grammys on a yearly basis. His storytelling, sweet childhood remembrances and even his microphone sounds are legendary, though his comedy will be forever overshadowed by his decades of criminal abuse.
What's the deal with putting Seinfeld on this list? It says a lot about Seinfeld's craftsmanship and success that his style became synonymous for what stand-up comedy was, memorably parodied in a Seinfeld-hosted game show "Stand Up and Win," on "Saturday Night Live." "Seinfeld" was one of the biggest sitcoms of all time, but Seinfeld has kept performing even after that monster success. No comic in history had gotten more material out of "nothing" than Seinfeld, and no one has gotten coffee in more antique cars.
Hundreds of comics have tried to emulate Mitch Hedberg's inimitable style, but no one comes close. Hedberg's extreme stage fright led to him adopting a wholly unique stage presence: one in which he wore sunglasses and hid behind his long hair and then delivered perfect, so-dumb-they're-brilliant observations like, "Rice is great if you're really hungry and you want 2,000 of something" and "An escalator cannot break. It can only become stairs." Sadly Hedberg died of a drug overdose at age 37, but at least we have his memorable Dr. Katz appearance to remember him by.
Steve Martin claims that he did stand-up for 18 years, and only four of them were a "wild success." That's dubious, since he was a huge star in the '70s before giving it up for the world of movies. Martin had a knack for the absurdist one-liner — "I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy" — and he incorporated every element of his disparate performing career, including magic tricks, banjo playing and dancing. He also did bits that verged on performance art, like when he took his entire audience out to McDonald's after a gig. And then he walked away at the height of his success, though we guess he's done all right with his movies, novels, TV, plays, music and art curating since then.
Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking female comedian from an era when there weren't many of them. After 10 years of semi-anonymous grinding in the clubs of New York, Rivers had a star-making appearance on "The Tonight Show" and went on to guest host the show for two decades. Rivers was frank and ruthlessly honest about her body, her career, even her plastic surgeries, and eventually she built an extended TV career and even authored 12 books.
Not many comedians are brave or crazy enough to walk away from a massive hit show and tens of millions of dollars, but that's exactly what Dave Chappelle did during the third season of "Chappelle's Show." He left television but kept touring relentlessly and is known for his marathon sets and laid-back persona, punctuating jokes by slapping the microphone against his thigh. Now he's back with a massive Netflix deal and a role in "A Star Is Born," though it's hard for anyone to top the greatness of his first HBO special, "Killin' Them Softly." Even though it feels like Chappelle has been around forever, he's still just 45 years old, meaning he's got a ton of career still ahead of him.
Chris Rock had some of the greatest stand-up specials of all time with "Bring The Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker," his own HBO show, and he was the only person to star on both "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color." Plus he's Michael Scott's favorite comedian!
Had the world of comedy been less segregated, Loretta Aiken, aka "Moms" Mabley, would have been even more of a household name. Nonetheless, she came out of the world of vaudeville and had wild success at the Apollo Theater and the rest of the Chitlin' Circuit" before eventually breaking into television in the 1960s. Her stage persona was a toothless old woman in a flowered dress, which allowed her to do edgy material about sex and racism. Mabley was also one of the first openly gay comedians, coming out as a lesbian in the 1920s, and her career lasted so long that she still has the record for the oldest person to ever have a top 40 hit when a song she recorded hit No. 35 on the charts when she was 75.
Lenny Bruce is a legendary comic who is often more remembered for his arrest and blacklisting than his actual comedy. Bruce was constantly harassed by the police, banned from performing in venues and even in foreign countries for obscenity, and he struggled with drug addiction that eventually killed him at 40. But his jazz-inspired, free association style was groundbreaking, as was his willingness to talk about any controversial subject, even at the risk of prosecution.
Eddie Murphy was a phenomenal comedian whose stand-up career ended early because his talent was too vast to be contained on a nightclub stage. He had the ability to mix in the rawest, dirtiest material with stories about childhood. Eddie's uncanny impressions and ability to create characters led him to the point where his movie success greatly eclipsed his stand-up work, but "Raw" and "Delirious" remain pantheon stand-up specials, particularly when he points out the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby, 30 years before everyone else got wise.
George Carlin put out more than two dozen specials over his 50-year career, making him the Cy Young of comedy. He started out, like a lot of these comedians, as fairly mainstream, doing characters like "The Hippy Dippy Weatherman," before becoming decidedly more countercultural. Carlin's great ability was to dissect any subject, like football vs. baseball, using his smarts and clear love of language, including the seven words you can't say on TV.
Richard Pryor had one of the longest, most influential careers of any stand-up out there. Pryor started as a safe, middle-of-the-road comic but eventually got more political, raunchier and soul-baringly honest. "Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip" is a masterpiece, in which Pryor seamlessly plays characters ranging from mafia gangsters to water buffaloes and delivers a mesmerizing and hilarious account of his drug addiction and freebasing accident.
Sean Keane is a comedian residing in Los Angeles. He has written for "Another Period," "Billy On The Street," NBC, Comedy Central, E!, and Seeso. You can see him doing fake news every weekday on @TheEverythingReport and read his tweets at @seankeane. In 2014, the SF Bay Guardian named him the best comedian in San Francisco, then immediately went out of business.