With legends like George Carlin, Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, and Rodney Dangerfield long gone the world of comedy has evolved. There are always luminaries in the field who come and go, or more often than not, move to other mediums. The world of stand-up benefited from magnificent performers like Mitch Hedberg and Greg Giraldo, but they too left us too young. Steven Wright, Ron White, Jim Jefferies, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, Lewis Black, and many other lifers continue to do great work while others (Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Dunham, for instance) do more damage than good. Here are ten comedians in varying stages of success who deserve your attention.
Nick Nunziata on Anthony Jeselnik
Anthony Jeselnik is the definition of a polarizing comedian. His humor is dark as the dead of night and he isn’t interested in a joke that doesn’t touch on a taboo subject. Children, religion, and women are three choice targets. It’s very easy to see him as the guy just pushing buttons but his goal is to find the humor in the darkest corners of life. His style, heavily influenced by Steven Wright and Jack Handy, is quick and concise. He’s a very smart comedian and his onstage persona is just that, but he can still catch even his fans off guard at times. And there’s no one more vicious at roasts.
Danielle Ryan on Hannibal Burress
Hannibal Buress is perhaps best known for his joke about the Bill Cosby rape allegations that became a media firestorm. With a single joke, he destroyed Cosby’s reputation and career (which is fine, given Cosby’s alleged behavior). Buress also stars on The Eric Andre Show as a (possibly demonic) version of himself. While he’s funny there, he’s hilarious in his stand-up routines.
His jokes run the gamut from uses for extra pickle juice lying around the house to skin tone among African Americans. Buress is weird. He’s self-deprecating and awkward without letting that take over his routine. He used to have giant costumed characters run on-stage during his sets just to change things up. In his mind, comedy is a big performance. People go to comedy shows for a night out, and he wants to make sure they get their money’s worth. With Buress, they always will.
Part of what makes Buress’ stand-up so special is that he’s a giant weirdo who’s embraced that fact. He’s honest and up-front about who he is, and that’s refreshing. It’s not a schtick or an act, just a funny guy from Chicago telling stories about putting pickle juice on his sandwiches. It’s hard not to love that.
Brandon Marcus on Brian Regan
A lot has been made about the fact that Brian Regan doesn’t curse in his stand up. The truth is, too much has been made about that fact. Because there is so much more to Regan.
Like the best comedians ever, Brian Regan has the ability to sum up a quirk or fact of life you’ve always known but puts it in a new light. He highlights something you’ve already known deep down inside but turns it into a side-splitting, painfully funny joke. There will be times when you hear a Regan joke and think “Man, why didn’t I think of that?” Because you’re not a brilliant comedian like Regan, that’s why.
The best comics take what is universal and make it new and reliable and funny in ways no one had thought of. It’s like cracking a code. Regan does that better than anyone. He’s been called a comic’s comic, one of the best in the business. Why does he receive so many accolades? Simple, it’s because he’s one of the best alive.
Nick Nunziata on Doug Stanhope
If there’s anyone alive today who carries the torch of Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, it’s Doug Stanhope. Though acutely funny, Stanhope lives the life in ways other comics wish they could. He pushes his body to the limits of excess, tours relentlessly, and amasses stories that would be at home in a David Lynch film. Fiercely political and deeply critical of the world around him, Stanhope is a juggernaut whose loose and vicious style isn’t for everyone. To see him live is a game of Russian Roulette in the most delicious way. Make no mistake, the man is operating at a level most comics would kill for. His book about his mother’s assisted suicide alone makes him an all-timer.
Danielle Ryan on Louis CK
Louis C.K. is a divisive comic. His particular style of comedy is both self-deprecating and outrageously offensive, and the latter turns some people off. He makes the kinds of observations about life that other people are afraid of. While he has written for a number of great television shows and acts as well, it’s Louie’s stand-up that really shines. He tackles taboo subjects like pedophilia, race relations, the battle of the sexes, and 9/11 without breaking a sweat. (Actually, no, he always sweats. The man is a sweat machine.)
Many comedians believe you have to toe the line of good taste to be funny. C.K. just drives right through the line and proceeds to tell jokes from the other side. He’s not immune to criticism, but he fully embraces free speech and the power of a truly tasteless joke. His comedy isn’t for everyone, but for those who don’t mind the offensive, C.K. is a comedy legend.
Henry Gilbert on Paul F. Tompkins
Paul F. Tompkins has become a comedy institution, even if he doesn’t make a big deal about it. He came up in the same early ’90s alternative comedy scene as Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman where his comedy was defined by absurd premises about elegant balloons and fake peanut brittle cans. Like some of the best of his generation, he also wrote for and acted on Mr. Show, granting him a royal status with comedy nerds, but that was only the start of Paul F. Tompkins’ career. In the decades since PFT has appeared in many films and TV shows that are critical darlings, including his fantastic Mr. Peanutbutter on Bojack Horseman. His rise onscreen happened as he refined his stand-up material, crafting it into a more improvisational and storytelling style. His comedy is no less funny, but now it deals with real feeling, like a fear of failure and reflecting on his parent’s generation. PFT became an elder statesman of comedy while staying involved in the fringes whether onstage, in streaming series, and as a podcast luminary, and he continues to age like fine wine.
Travis Newton on Maria Bamford
Maria Bamford’s comedy is an acquired taste. She is also one of the most talented people working in comedy today. She’s a vocal chameleon with a cast of characters she can play at the drop of a hat. Her comedy may be a bit stream-of-consciousness for some, but the way she structures a joke creates punchlines that no other comedian could hope to imitate.
Whether she’s channeling her family onstage or lending her talents to shows like Adventure Time, Bamford is always a delight to hear. Her stand-up skirts the edges of discomfort, talking frankly about her struggles with mental health. She approached that subject without hesitation in her Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. Her rapid-fire sense of humor and effortless bending of reality translate surprisingly well to the Netflix show format. Bamford’s Lady Dynamite may be an acquired taste just like her stand-up. But I implore you — acquire it.
Nick Nunziata on Jim Gaffigan
Somewhere in the past ten years, Jim Gaffigan became an absolute monster. He’s always been funny, but his observations on food and clean style crossed over in a huge way. He finds humor in the benign and somehow takes his weird inside voices and little songs about Hot Pockets and makes them universally funny. Though he does a lot of commercials and television, he’s a stand-up first and as far as “Everyman” comics there are none better.
Travis Newton on Tig Notaro
In the fall of 2012, the news of Tig Notaro’s cancer diagnosis hit the comedy community. Almost overnight, she became the most “shareable” comedian in the biz. Her story was suddenly everywhere. In an epic set at Largo in Los Angeles, Notaro delivered the awful news to a stunned crowd. Her doctors had just diagnosed her with breast cancer… in both breasts.
But that wasn’t even the half of it. Earlier that year, Tig suffered from a devastating bacterial infection in her guts. Then, her mom died. Then, cancer. Hell of a year, huh? Throughout her set at Largo, she revealed that litany of bad news. And yet, she kept people laughing the whole way through. It was no small feat — hear it for yourself on the recording, Live. But before her personal struggles became something you could read on The Huffington Post, Tig Notaro was quietly becoming one of the best observational comics of her generation.
Nick Nunziata on Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer is one of the premiere live acts today, somehow managing to excel on the stage, screen, and television without a hitch. Her act is fast, fun, and filled with gear changes throughout. She’s fearless and self-effacing, and she throws an incredible amount of teaching in her punchlines. There’s going to be a generation of comedians influenced by her approach, and it’s a shame she’s experienced backlash due to her success and willingness to say the wrong thing whenever possible.
Ron Funches, Eugene Mirman, Pete Holmes, Demetri Martin, Bo Burnham, Pete Davidson, and so many others have helped make this era one of the best in comedy history. There’s nothing like catching a great comedian live and as we’ve seen too often, you never know when they’ll be gone. Or worse yet, on a sitcom.