Comedy is one of the hardest and least respected art forms. Poetry is hard, but you can win an award if you write a few stanzas about a tree. Music is hard, but you can still be a terrible musician and make it in the industry if you get recognition from 13 year olds and hipsters who like you because you’re obscure. In stand-up, when you’re great, you’re a god. When you suck, you’re just a loser talking about how much of a loser-y loser you are.
I’ve loved stand-up comedy since I was a kid. But I don’t just enjoy it; I study it. I consider myself a comedy enthusiast. Seeing as how I love comedy and I have an opinion about everything, I have very strong opinions about stand-up. I will even judge people by the comedy they choose. If you say you like Bill Burr or Patrice O’Neal, I will say you know your comedy. If you say you like Ellen DeGeneres or Jerry Seinfeld, I’ll assume you have a squeaky clean lifestyle. If you tell me that Larry The Cable Guy is a comedic genius, I will probably have an aneurism. If you say anything positive about Carlos Mencia, I will highly disagree with you.
My love affair with the art goes deep. That’s why I want to talk about my top five favorite stand-up comics. Of course, this isn’t a list of the greatest. If I were to put in the top five most influential, it would be a much different list, but these are my top five favorite comics right now. This can change too. It might even change by the time I’m done writing this. As with any list, this is up for debate, but the comics on this list are hard to knock because they are all so talented. Let’s begin.
Number five: Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s stand-up is straight up flawless. Before he sold his soul to awful movies like Meet Dave, he was a damn good comic. More than a damn good comic, he was a child prodigy. Murphy was 22 years old when he filmed his first special, Delirious. Decked out in leather, Murphy broke the box office with his stand-up special Raw. Every single bit flows so nicely together and makes you bust a gut.
The great thing about Murphy is that he was a great comic actor and joke teller. Some people can only do one or the other. The difference lies in whether you act funny or whether your ideas are funny Murphy blended both perfectly, from observing how kids flip out when they hear the ice cream truck to imitating his father getting drunk at a party. Both jokes had substance and were performed well, which is why he went on to become a successful actor, in movie like “Coming to America” and “The Nutty Professor.” My favorite bit is when he compares Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, two comedy behemoths, then imitates them both. While Cosby calls Murphy to scold him for foul language, Pryor tells him to do whatever makes the audience laugh. “Tell Bill [Cosby] to have a Coke and a smile and shut the [expletive] up,” Murphy jokes, impersonating Prior. Murphy’s stand-up will always be a favorite of mine, seeing as how it helped me through many college hangovers.
Number four: Patrice O’Neal. Most people don’t know who Patrice is. That’s because he only put out one full-hour special with Comedy Central. But all he needed was one. O’Neal’s “Elephant in the Room” special is comic gold. I dare anyone who watches it to not bust out laughing at any moment. This man was a magician. He could construct a whole bit just vibing off of the crowd. He made all the uncomfortable jokes about race and relationships and didn’t care what anyone thought of him.
I love his bit about how white women’s lives are valuable. O’Neal asks who the woman Jordan Vander Sloot killed in Aruba was, to which the audience replied “Natalee Holloway.” Then he said that he killed a Peruvian chick and asked the crowd her name. No one said anything, to which O’Neal replied, “Exactly.” After an uproarious applause, O’Neal said the next time he goes sailing he’s going to have a white baby on a keychain just in case he gets lost. Bits such as Obama being president—“I thought it was vengeance day”–to the ASPCA commercials to his theory on why men cheat—“Because we love you.” It’s all just pure comedic genius. Sadly, Patrice O’Neal died in 2011.
Number three: Louis C.K. In a few years from now, I might place him higher on the list. The greatest living comedian at this moment is Louis C.K. Anyone who’s seen his specials knows this. In the new special, “Oh My God,” he completely crushes for an hour. Anyone who has seen Louie knows how dark and brilliant his comedy can be.
C.K. isn’t like every other comedian—he’s better. No one I’ve seen yet can deliver Seinfeld-like observational humor and weave in such a hilarious and dark spin. As said before, some people are good comic actors but terrible stand-up comics, like Adam Devine or Charlie Murphy. With Louis C.K., every joke is just so good that he doesn’t have to act them out. He can just say them and it will be hilarious. Louis C.K. is hilarious and he doesn’t have to have the Steve Martin antics. He can just be himself. That’s important because that shows anyone they can do it as long as they stay true to what makes them funny. He’s the classic underdog hero whose self-deprecating humor and common sense wit make viewers hunger for more material.
Number Two: Dave Chappelle. Chappelle is the Richard Pryor of my generation. Pryor himself said, before he died of MS, that Dave Chappelle had carried his torch. Many people would put Pryor in their top lists. If I grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s, I’d agree. But while Pryor was extremely talented, I don’t vibe with all his jokes as I do Chapelle. Pryor would joke about Nixon and Vietnam. Chapelle would joke about Michael Jackson, OJ and Ja Rule.
Chappelle was another comic who was a great actor and writer. Like Louis C.K., Chappelle could just make you laugh with his observations. His special For What It’s Worth was my personal favorite. I love when he analyzes the myth that AIDS came from a guy getting down with a monkey. “How long would you have to train a monkey to do that?” Or the difference between juice and “drank.” His stories were great too.
Who could forget the story of seeing a baby in the hood of D.C. at three in the morning? When he asked the baby what he was doing there he said, “I’m selling weed. I got kids to feed,” which scared off Chappelle. He was also someone who was a great social commentator. His show, Chappelle’s Show, allowed us to see the racism we all possess by bringing it to a safe place of laughter. Sadly, the pressure of fame and judgement were too much to handle and he’s since retreated from the comedy.
Number One: George Carlin. George Carlin is the greatest comedian ever. End of discussion. It just so happens that he’s my favorite. In an op-ed written after Carlin died, Jerry Seinfeld wrote “Every comedian does a little bit of George [Carlin].” That’s because he covered everything from small world observations to major current events, from farting in public to making fun of religion. No one escaped his scrutiny: Christian conservatives, greenpeace liberals, fat people, dumb people, rich people, poor people. Even children were targets of his acerbic wit. No one has a comedy resume that even comes close to this guy. In the 50-plus years he was on stage, he went from a squeaky clean mainstream comic to a pot smoking hippie to a biting social commentator to the cranky old man. He did it all. And he did it literally until the day he died.
I got to see Carlin perform live for his last special, It’s Bad for Ya, with my dad 20 days before he died. Even in his ‘70s he still brought the house down. He completely killed it. It was amazing to see him perform on that level. That’s what made it so great. Being so old, he held nothing back. Carlin will always be my favorite and will remain one of the most influential stand-ups in the game.
Brian Rabadeau can be contacted at