From watching old-school nightclub veterans on old VHS tapes, HBO Specials, seeing them in person, or just watching their specials where they fill stadiums; stand-up comedy has been part of my life since I can remember. I have great memories watching Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Specials back in the 80s where I was introduced to the likes of Louie Anderson, Yakov Smirnoff, Harry Basil, and Bob Nelson. There was even a time when I was a kid that I laughed so hard at Howie Mandel’s HBO special that I woke my parents up. When I became an adult I would go see comedians live. I have been able to see comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Jim Gaffigan, and even Larry the Cable Guy.
Even though putting yourself through the ‘choice’ process is risky and sometimes arduous task, I want to do so since stand-up comedy and comedians have been such a large part of my life. So without wasting anymore of your time with rambling, lets get to the important stuff. I present to you (my choices of the) – Top Cat’s Tuesday Top 10: Stand-up Comedians:
Updated Honorable Mentions: Bruce Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Sam Kinison, Lavell Crawford, and Bill Cosby
10. Jerry Seinfeld – Most people recognize the name Seinfeld because of the “show about nothing”. The sitcom, Seinfeld, ran for almost a decade and showcased the mundane yet hilarious daily lives of George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the doting across the hall neighbor Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) and Jerry Seinfeld playing a fictionalized version of himself named Jerry Seinfeld; but long before the sitcom became one of the two top shows of its time (second only to ER), Seinfeld was a very popular comedian. Again calling back to my Rodney Dangerfield specials, I remember watching Seinfeld on Rodney Dangerfield’s HBO special early in his career. This stand-up career earned him the number 12 position on Comedy Central‘s greatest Comedians of all time list and even higher on mine.
9. Dave Chappelle – My dad took me to see the 1993 Mel Brooks movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights. It was so funny that I distinctively remember us both laughing so hard that we cried. A young Dave Chappelle starred as Ahchoo (yeah, I know) and over time, Chappelle would continue popping up. From the cult classic “Cheech and Chong-esque” stoner film Half Baked to starring as the insulting comedian in The Nutty Professor to his HBO stand-up specials to the immortally popular Chappelle’s Show; Chappelle was all over the comedy map. Heck, he was all over the comedy universe until he abruptly left the Chappelle Show due to ethical and personal concerns that he had. He took a journey to Africa and ‘found himself’ again. He would tour sporadically but his career resurged in 2013 when he began co-headlining tours with the Flight of the Concords. 2016 was a big year for Chappelle when he finally hosted Saturday Night Live and Released multiple stand-up comedy specials through Netflix.
8. Brian Regan – Even though the self-deprecating comic hates being known as a ‘clean comic’, the fact of the matter is that you can listen to Brian Regan with your 60-year-old mom and not be embarrassed by what she will hear. Regan’s material is mostly free from any profanity or off-color humor which is why we watched Brian Regan as a family. His eccentric body language, wild facial expressions, and atypically physical humor appeal to any age group. I know it appeals to 12-year-olds and people in their thirties because Brian Regan is one of the comedians that is played more than anyone at our home.
7. George Carlin – The aforementioned Comedy Central (as well as Rolling Stones Magazine) Greatest Comedians list placed George Carlin as second and it is a well-deserved location for this black comedian. Now when I say ‘black comedian’, I am by no means referring to the color of his skin. The term black humor, black comedy or dark comedy is a comedic style that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo. You know all that stuff that most people would pass over because it might offend someone? Well, black humor takes those topics and slaps in the face with them all while using all of the seven dirty words to curse you out. Widely regarded as one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time, the ‘dean of counterculture comedians’ almost worked as a shock comic after he reinvented himself in the early 1970s. He hired talent managers to appeal to a younger audience and even though his venturing into smaller clubs caused a drastic cut in his income; Carlin’s popularity was increasing exponentially. Carlin was bringing back the radical social commentary comedy that Lenny Bruce had pioneered during the 1950s. My first experience was his ever-popular HBO specials. Of course, at the time, I had to sneak to watch them because his comedy was undeniably inappropriate for a ten-year-old to listen to. But after watching Carlin playing Rufus, the time-traveling mentor of Bill & Ted in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure…I had to see more of this guy. His comedy became more relevant as I grew older and could understand the powerful wisdom that this man had pouring from his mouth.
6. Louie Anderson – You usually don’t start off the conversation about a comedian with the description ‘Emmy award-winning actor’. The author, actor, television host, and stand-up comedian has been making people laugh professionally for over 30 years. Ever since I watched Louie on that Rodney Dangerfield Comedy Special VHS tape, I appreciated his style of comedy. Not only is the comedian still touring on the comedy circuit but has won Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2016 and 2017 for his role as “Christine Baskets” in the critically acclaimed comedy Baskets aside funny-man Zach Galifianakis. He is one my top list as well as the Rolling StonesTop 100 comedian list.
5. Mitch Hedberg – Once you heard the unconventional, deadpan delivery of his non sequitur jokes one-liners or short absurd jokes…then you are hooked. He’s the comedian that you have to listen closely to because you just might miss something important. Millions of comedy fans, myself, and many big named comedians like George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Mike Birbiglia, and Lewis Black were huge fans of his comedy; and he was even dubbed the next Seinfeld by Time Magazine. Sadly he was found dead in a hotel room in 2005. It was only a few weeks before that I was watching him live in Athens, GA during one of his last performances. His impact is felt by the many comedians that were in attendance at that venue that night. It will be a show that I will never forget; just like the many up-and-coming comics that were in attendance have made it known the influenced that that one show had on them starting their career.
4. Rodney Dangerfield – In regards to the amount of people that give credit where credit is due; “(he) don’t get no respect, no respect at all.” Many successful comedians from the 80s and 90s can thank Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy and his Young Comedian’s Showcase of young comedians for their success. His HBO shows helped the careers of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen, Sam Kinison, Roseanne Barr, Robert Townsend, Bill Hicks, Rita Rudner, Andrew Dice Clay, Louie Anderson, Bob Saget and many more. Jim Carrey owes Dangerfield a special debt of gratitude due to Dangerfield signing Carrey to be his opening act for two years worth of shows after seeing his performances at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. His multi-decade stand-up career, Grammy award-winning comedy albums, popular Miller Lite beer ads, Tonight Show appearances, a string of movies (Caddyshack, Easy Money, Back to School, and many more), and his outrageous personality brought him to the forefront of comedy in my opinion; but earned him a coveted place in the Smithsonian Institute (his trademark white shirt and red tie are on display).
3. John Pinette – John Pinette might not be the most notable comic in the world but he is definitely one of my favorites. The comic got his start doing the comedy club circuit but got his big break when Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, asked him to tour with him. John’s acting credits are numerous but are not as important as his DVD sales and his being named Stand-Up Comedian of the Year by the American Comedy Awards. He received many awards during his life and at the time of his death, he held the record for the highest-selling one-person show in the history of Just for Laughs. We watch/listen to John Pinette in my house every couple of months and it never gets old.
2. Jim Gaffigan – What can truly be said about the palest man in comedy? What needs to be said besides his contribution to the comedy game cannot be denied. As one of the top-grossing comedians, Jim Gaffigan has risen to be more than just the “Hot Pocket” guy. Even though his funny catchphrases may be memorable; Gaffigan’s comedic style is what is truly unforgettable. His ‘connection with the audience’ voice is always a favorite part of his routine. His routine which normally centers around topics that we all can draw inferences to our own lives (i.e. food, being lazy, losing weight, parenthood, and other normal life experiences). His comedy could be deadly because I remember almost laughing so hard that I lost my breath a couple of times when we went to see him live. Guess that’s the price you pay to experience the best.
1. Robin Williams – Though Robin Williams is known in most circles for starring in award-winning TV shows and movies; Williams started his career as a stand-up comedian in the 70s. He rose to fame in 1978 as the quirky alien Mork on the TV show Mork and Mindy, his career as an actor skyrocketed parallel to that of his stand-up career. Williams would go on to star in everything from a live version of Popeye to the emotionally charged Dead Poet’s Society to offering his voice as the Genie for Disney’s Aladdin and even the heartbreaking, emotional roller coaster that was Good Will Hunting. His stand-up comedy had unprecedented success but the Julliard trained actor/comic was more than just a comedian or an actor; he was a light of hope and beauty into a dark and ugly world. He visited the troops overseas during USO tours countless times, gave emotional speeches about America while helping us cope with the hell in the world through humor. His work with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal had raised over $80 million as of 2014 for the homeless through their HBO televised benefit show Comic Relief USA. He donated huge amounts of money and time to the USO, multiple charities, the Red Cross, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital…just to name a few. After his suicide, the world stood in shock and greatly affected me and my family. Not that we knew him personally but because of the immense impact that this positive person had had on our lives. Billy Crystal called him the “brightest star in our comedy galaxy” and he truly is just that.