“There’s nothing more gratifying than to step on stage before a quiet crowd, and with my comedy, slowly turn them into an unruly mob.” -Norm MacDonald
I’ve been a huge fan of stand-up comedy since as far back as I can remember. I recall being in kidnergarten and getting a cassette of “Bill Cosby: My Father Confused Me…What Must I Do? What Must I do?” then hurrying home daily to listen to it, indeed letting “My tape rock til my tape pop.” Since then I’ve always had stand-up on my radar. To this day, whenever I’m flipping channels and I see a comic I don’t know, I always give them a few minutes just on general principle. Sometimes they suck; sometimes they’re future legends. The following list is dedicated to the legends:
1a. George Carlin – Easily the most prolific comic of all time, Carlin was at the forefront of the evolution stand-up comedy. Although he never strayed into discussing his personal life, he touched on every controversial and hot-button subject imaginable, from abortion, to politics, to religion. He was also a master of simple yet brilliant observations, bits like “Stuff,” “Baseball vs. Football,” and “Cats And Dogs” are absolutely timeless. He’s probably best known for his “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say On TV,” and that’s kind of a shame because he had literally dozens and dozens of funnier and more though-provoking material. A lot of his fans expressed unhappiness in the unabashed contempt for humanity he displayed in his final years, but honestly I love the old, angry, hate-spewing version of Carlin the most. When he coined the term “Pussification of America,” talked about his love of natural disasters and suicide, and expressed glee at the idea of the extinction of the human race, he took his comedy in a direction no one has been able to duplicate before or since.
1b. Richard Pryor – The reason Carlin and Pryor are 1a and 1b is because nobody can really be considered better than either of them. Because of substance abuse and later health problems, Pryor didn’t have the body of work Carlin had, but he left a collection of the most personal material ever conceived. He would explore topics like growing up in a whorehouse run by his grandmother and staffed by his mother, homosexual exploits, his descent into freebase addiction, and his suicide attempt—not exactly the standard comedic fare. Pryor also went from the personal transformation of naming albums things like “That Nigger’s Crazy” and “Bi-Centennial Nigger” to retiring usage of the word all together. The scenes from his early life that he would vividly re-create—like the ill-fated time he tried to stick-up a mafia-owned club—were perhaps his best material, and the bit “Junkie and Whino” is my favorite ten minutes in the history of stand-up.
3. Bill Cosby – Cosby’s always been a hero of mine—if not for his comedy than certainly for his dating prowess. But it’s easy to forget America’s Rapist was once one of the most brilliant comics of his or any era. The consummate clean comic, Cosby weaved an original and particular story-telling style with hilarious sound effects (ala “The Dentist”) and underrated physical comedy (ala “Snowballs”). Besides the recent gag he pulled on the entire country, my favorite bit of his was “My Father Confused Me.” Ironically, the Cosby kids are now saying the same thing.
4. Chris Rock – The most quoted comic of a genertion, Rock has often been compared to contemporary Dave Chappelle, but that comparison’s not really accurate. Rock is like Richard Pryor to Chappelle’s Eddie Murphy—both brilliant stand-ups, but Rock and Pryor touched much more on social and controversial issues, while Chappelle and Murphy never strayed far from whimsy during their routines. Rock burst onto the scene twenty years ago with one of the best comedy albums ever, Bring The Pain, and has continued to if not re-invent the art form, then certainly be at the forefront of it ever since. The irrefutable logic he wields during his routines is perhaps his best weapon, and shines especially on his material about O.J. (“I’m not saying you should kill her, but I understand”), relationships (“To a woman a male friend is like a dick in a glass case, ‘In case of emergency break open glass.'”) or even insurance (They should call it, ‘In Case Shit.'”) What also should be duly noted, is that still in his comedic prime at only fifty years old, Rock’s the only comic on the list with potential for advancement.
5. Patrice O’Neal – If you haven’t heard of him, the best thing I can say about Patrice is that if every comic that ever lived were playing simultaneous shows, his is the one I’d go see without hesitation. One of the most brilliant and insightful comics ever, Patrice passed away in 2011 following a stroke at just forty-one years old, and coupled with his legendary defiance, is the biggest reason he doesn’t have the body of work as the other comics on the list. But believe me it doesn’t matter. When Chris Rock, Louis CK, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Joe Rogan, Jim Norton, Dane Cook, Nick DiPaolo, Colin Quinn, Bob Kelly, Keith Robinson, Rich Vos, etc all call you the funniest guy ever, it tends to resonate. Not only was his material top-notch, especially on race and relationships, but I’ve never seen a comic who could play the audience like Patrice. Watch his bits on Natalie Holloway or how a woman would keep her man without a pussy, and be amazed at his puppet mastery. Even more impressive, unlike every other comic on the list, Patrice was even funnier live and in-person than on-stage. While his early demise may have left his routines unfortunately sparse, his over one hundred appearances on the Opie and Anthony show only re-affirm his legendary status. His humor, logic, and insight were always something to behold. Although it’s not necessarily a showcase of his humor, listen to his prison story on O & A from a few years ago to hear some of the most captivating radio imaginable, or better yet, watch the fan made documentary “Brutally Honest” for a perfect encapsulation of Patrice’s epic talents.