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
By Matthew Love
February 14, 2017
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.
48. Margaret Cho
Think back to Margaret Cho's first HBO Comedy Half-Hour, and the young comedian whose material ranged from how she might get laid after two years of celibacy (answer: cover her vagina with leaves and hope somebody falls in) to life growing up with a loud, Korean mother running a bookstore that sold gay porn ("What is ass master?!"). Since then, Cho has grown even more comfortable in her skin, and even more candid about her preoccupations. Recent tours (with names like "PsyCHO," "Cho Dependent" and "Mother!") prove the San Francisco native hasn't become shy or squeamish with age. Her willingness to talk periods, colonics and her life as a "dick widow" – a woman whose friends are primarily gay men – make her the sort of funny, sex-positive feminist and LGBT activist younger comics continue to look up to.