We’ve already rounded up the funniest New Yorkers and recent additions to the comedy A-list, but now we present the list of best comedians…ever. Going from stand-up in grungy basement comedy clubs to hosting the Oscars, these 20 funny people have provided hit TV shows, tackled controversial topics and crafted sidesplitting jokes for decades. Cue laughter.
Best comedians ever, ranked
This wild-eyed, ferociously eloquent comedy mainstay used his experiences as a black student targeted by bullies in white schools to build a style of stand-up that challenges American race relations without finger wagging. Appealing to many audiences with his raw observations, unflappable intelligence and gravel-dipped voice, Rock transforms his comedy into a higher form of social discourse without compromising his opinions, whether he’s tearing up the Apollo or the Oscars.
Photograph: Jake Chessum
Performing nonstop until her death, Rivers defied age and gender expectations from her industry and flipped the bird to the Hollywood elite that tried to silence her. Rivers fought to be heard throughout her entire career, and her razor-sharp, bullet-speed bits on reproduction, beauty and celebrity made the battle worth it.
Sweating bullets and ricocheting around the stage, Williams redefined the physicality of stand-up. His remarkable frankness about substance abuse and depression made every set a spectacular combination of slapstick and pathos. Few comics work as hard as Williams did to earn laughs.
Photograph: Courtesy Susan Schneider
No working comedian can deny that they stand on ground broken by Pryor during his streak in the 1970s. Pryor wasn’t the first comic to speak about race, but he was the bravest, refusing to sell out even if it meant walking out on packed houses.
This acid-tongued genius and comedic darling of the counterculture movement changed the rules of what stand-ups could pull off. Half a century (and one Supreme Court obscenity case) later, not many comics have the guts to go as far as Carlin did—but they enjoy the freedoms he won for them.
Photograph: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock
Stripped down, acerbic and totally frank about the grimness of human life, C.K. has made art out of the quotidian—from the horrors of parenthood to disgust with his own body. His gimmick-free incisiveness makes him one of the defining comedic voices of the century.
Photograph: Eric Leibowitz/FX
Infusing stand-up material into his astonishingly popular series and broadening esoteric comedy for a large audience, Seinfeld proved that the stand-up boom of the 1980s was no fluke and has kept the culture alive on TV screens since.
Photograph: Courtesy John Shearer
Ripping apart conventions with his knack for anticlimactic jokes, outrageous physicality and joyful absurdity, Martin redefined what a comedian can (and should) do with a microphone and a stage.
This housewife-turned-superstar began her career at age 37 in 1955 and kept performing into the next century. One of the ultimate pioneers for female comedians, Diller fearlessly put herself on the chopping block with her sharp satirical criticism of gender roles.
Photograph: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com
Anyone who watched stand-up in the 1980s will probably tell you that the first time they ever cried laughing was watching Murphy’s Delirious. His risky, aggressive material made him an unstoppable and often controversial force.
When Silverman broke out with 2005’s Jesus Is Magic, nobody knew how to handle her catchy songwriting, highly articulate potty mouth, and savant-level joke construction. Now we can’t get enough.
Photograph: Robyn Von Swank
With a discharge from the army and multiple arrests, Bruce made it clear to the world that good comedy and bad behavior are often one and the same, and he gave generations of stand-ups free use of the words he’d fought to liberate.
While the alt-comedy movement was taking shape in small bars, the delightfully demented Barr led her own revolution in suburbs and outlet malls, bringing issues of class and gender to a broader audience with off-putting, subversive genius.
Photograph: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com
Surviving a horrific childhood as a teen orphan, coming out as a lesbian in the 1920s and later establishing herself as a female comedian of color couldn’t have been easy, but Mabley made joyous humor out of her circumstances like no one else ever has.
The perennial underdog made a career out of self-deprecation, whether he was attacking his looks or his bad luck in bed. Dangerfield taught generations of stand-ups to stop looking outward for humor and start by making fun of themselves.
Photograph: Jim Smeal/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock
This hustler blurred the boundaries between stand-up and intimate conversation and has often risked her career to deliver a juicy story. A longtime activist for the rights of her LGBT fans, Griffin has redefined the relationship between a star and her audience.
Photograph: Courtesy New York Comedy Festival
Adapting the unrelenting insults that helped him survive a Yiddish dinner table into comedic gold, Rickles made everyone his targets—and they all left begging for more. His reflex-quick speed made him an audience favorite to this day.
Photograph: Brad Barket/Picture Group
Bawdy, brave and fabulously confident, Schumer has created a hilarious persona that parodies the ways women are perceived in our culture. You can’t help falling in love with her, even when she’s at her most unlikeable.
Photograph: Courtesy Justin Stephens
Since 2009’s I’m a Grown Little Man, Hart has attained near-ubiquity with his self-deprecating, hyperactive personality. He’s currently selling out theaters and even football stadiums with What Now?, the highest-grossing comedy tour in history.
Photograph: Courtesy Hannibal Matthews
The big-eyed, no-nonsense Sykes has proven untouchable when it comes to opinions about the personal and political. And having Sykes on a stage to deliver her merciless judgment made the Bush years nearly bearable.