Who are the 10 most influential Stand-up Comics working today?
Who is actually affecting the culture? Which comedians are altering the way we look at our world?
Stand-up comics are an important part of our lives, they can dramatically affect our culture. They always have been able to, and they do now more than ever.
Check out how many arenas and concert halls are full of comedians performing for ten and twenty thousand fans at a time, and more. Yet the real reason that stand-ups are so influential now can be boiled down to something Jim Carrey said a week or so ago in light of the Will Smith ‘Melt/Slap-down’. He was talking about all of the Hollywood A-listers who stood up and gave a standing ovation to a guy who had walked onto a stage fifteen minutes earlier and assaulted one of the greatest comedians of all time just because he didn’t like a joke. He said, ‘it just points out that we’re not the cool kids anymore’.
Woke-ism, political horse-shit-ism and elite double-speak has taken the Actor/writer/director celebrity class and knocked it down several serious pegs. Nobody gives a shit about what any of them say, who they screw, what they wear, think, or believe.
And Politicians? No one sees any of our politicians as having any sense of true north. Not one of them. Even worse are the media personalities. Reporters? Journalists? They’ve all sold their souls out for book deals and second homes on Martha’s Vineyards so badly they can’t even influence their gardeners not to use their leaf blowers outside their windows when they get home from “covering” Davos.
So yes, it’s only the comic on stage with the microphone and the jokes, talking any version of the truth that’s interesting and real nowadays that strikes any kind of an emotional chord in a moment craving authenticity.
So who are the top ten comedians in terms of influencing our culture today?
Starting at Number 1; I’d say, Ricky Gervais.
Why him? Well, he’s the guy that did the initial Golden Globe knee-capping that made all the A-listers not ‘cool’ in the first place. Not that they wouldn’t have screwed the pooch on their own, but Ricky was the first guy that stood there to their face and told them how unimportant their ramblings were.
Ricky was the first person to blurt out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, and he hasn’t stopped pointing it out. His stand-up specials and tours each get better and bolder. There’s a freedom to his style and his sting that can be illuminatingly merry, while at the same time medicinal. There’s no fear to his work. No limits. There’s a joy and a twinkle in his eyes when he knows he’s gone too far. You can say, well, isn’t that cruel? Not if it’s true and especially not if it’s funny, and for sure not if the reason that’s it’s funny is because it’s true, and with Ricky that’s pretty much a guarantee.
That leaves Number 2; Dave Chappelle.
Ask any working comic today who they think the most of and I’m pretty sure Dave would top every single one of their lists. I love his work and to me what’s genius about Dave, above and beyond his stage work and an ability to craft comedy from an opinion that isn’t always popular, but is always well thought out, is that it comes from a place inside himself that’s real enough that he’s never going to apologize for a joke he’s told. In fact, maybe my favorite moment of his is when the lady follows him out to the parking lot at the Target in The Closer and he politely listens as she tells him her problems with his routines until she takes it all too far and he’s had enough and let’s her knows he’s done. “Yeah? Well, good, because this ain’t the comments section, bitch. Ta-Ta.’
Dave Chapelle has been asked to grovel a few times publicly recently and he’s refused. That’s just one of the many reasons he’s so great. Too many of us are letting people who have no business asking anyone or telling anyone to do anything give out marching orders these days about what we can and can’t talk about, and if you think the end result is a nicer, politer, version of society, look around. He’s also grown into someone much deeper than just a comic. A philosopher? A national therapist? A modern-day Will Rogers? I’m not sure, but he’s an artist that’s stimulating deep and direct dialogue and discourse in the airwaves, chat rooms, and fart-feeds of social media, so where would we be right now without the guy? I’d say not well off.
Number 3; Big, Bad, Billy Burr.
I could have actually put Bill Burr number one or two on this list but he’s one of my best friends, he was in my last movie, and I’ve directed his last two specials so it would have come off a little cheesy and made it look disingenuous to some people. Yet if anyone else was making the list, no one would have batted an eyebrow having him at the very top. He’s truly amazing and, like Ricky Gervais, just keeps getting better and better. There’s also a level of candid clarity to what Bill does that makes him so important right now. He has a code about the work that you sense he needs to operate at a level of truth about himself and everyone around him which is unique and refreshing. You also have to remember when he was an unknown comic he made his first entry into the members-only club by basically sword-fighting and beating back the entire city of Philadelphia in an epic meltdown rant and onstage resurrection that holds a historical spot in stand-up history. It’s on Youtube and needs to be seen to be believed.
His influence on stand-up is clear. You can watch any night at The Comedy Store, The Improv, or any club in NYC and see ten young comics doing Bill in the ways we all emulated George Carlin and Robert Klein when I was getting started. His influence on culture is evident as well when you think about the reaction his SNL opening monologue got, or Paper Tiger, his amazing hour we filmed at Royal Albert Hall in London was received, truly all over the world. Bill gets away with a lot. Part of it, I think, is his slavish and loyal dedication to his podcast and the fans who listen to it and know him so well. The rest I believe comes back to authenticity again. He’s giving you exactly who he is on that stage and the dedication and persistence he puts into his work is intense. People feel it. It’s like watching a great athlete work, like watching Gretsky or Kobe.
He’s a twisted version of an everyman who wants to understand everything. A comic who, in the end, realizes nothing makes sense. If you or I could do that in a way as entertaining as he does it we wouldn’t need Bill Burr. But we can’t, so we do.
Number 4 is Chris Rock.
I’ve known Chris Rock for a long time. He’s a monster. I believe he seriously changed the course of comedy with ‘Bring The Pain’. It was similar to Richard Pryor’s albums in that he spoke so honestly to both black and white audiences, maybe even more to black people and white audiences were the beneficiaries. At the time it was shocking how funny it was, and it set him on a course to really be so much more than just a funny man. He quickly became someone who had the pulse of society and could encapsulate bitter truths in a string of words with humor and brevity. It was magical to see him take off after being around for years on SNL and in Eddie Murphy’s camp and then just shoot past everyone for a few years and become the bee’s knees in terms of smart, funny, prescient erudite stand-ups. I sort of feel he would actually be Number 1 on this list today in terms of influence it not for a couple of things; one, maybe the energy he put into acting, which I have to say paid off for him as he’s really grown as an actor in the last few years. (See; Fargo, Spiral, The Week Of)
I also think the Covid stuff got to him. Some health stuff, some family stuff. You can combine that with his getting naturally carried off with some political winds and it all melded together into what I sense was Chris almost subconsciously taking the edge down for a bit. Just enough to give a few other comics more of a bite than he’s had in the past in terms of setting the pace for pissing the prims off.
I kind of think his recent run-in with Will Smith was good for him. Maybe smacked a little anger back into him. Who knows? Even before that though, it felt like he was back in the game, and his new tour was stacked up to bring him back pelting out some old-style Chris Rock shit, and yes, I do believe, pound for pound, Chris is one of the best there ever was.
Number 5; Whitney Cummings.
Whitney Cummings is a beast. She’s a Goddess. She can do everything. She can tear up the stage and do an hour special every couple of years that is always spot on, she can write, she can create shows, she can act, she has one of the best podcasts going, and she does it all without any kind of a hook. If you think about it, that’s really the genius of Whitney.
Her only hook is how hard she works. It’s not that she’s a woman, a female. Not that she’s pregnant, or is any unique nationality or race or, that’s she from the north or the south or the east or the west. She’s just a human being, and she’s so successfully mining her life for comedy that you relate to. It’s why I believe she belongs high on this list.
Whitney is relevant because she’s not trying to be anything but great. She’s not looking for any free passes. Her fans, and people all over the country and the world, understand it, and they want to emulate it. They want to be free from the need to be different as a crutch. They want to be rewarded for work that doesn’t have an asterisk next to it as a lot of it does today thanks to too much of a spotlight being put on who and what everyone is on the surface. She says whatever the hell she wants to say and however she wants to say it. She acts like a four-year-old on Twitter, a sixty-year-old in a writer’s room, and somehow she’s ageless onstage. She’s sexy and beautiful and isn’t afraid to flaunt it and doesn’t care if you’re triggered by it.
Anyone that knows me knows I’m the farthest thing in the world from a male feminist. I’m not on any kind of crusade here. I just think the lane Whitney Cummings drives in is not only unique but important. I love how my daughter and my wife both get her humor and her poise. A lot is written these days about men not being men, but too little about women who are afraid to be full-stop all-out women. Comedy needs about a dozen more Whitney Cumming’s.
Number 6; Bill Maher
There’s no question that Bill Maher is a major influence in this world as a comedian. He has been for years. Think about political comedy and his face is the first one that pops up. What makes Bill so unique and thought-provoking right in this moment is that he’s such a stalwart Democrat and liberal and is so often ready to think outside of the orthodoxy and mind-melding parade marching most Democrats are forced to keep step to in today’s world. He’s clearly thinking with his own mind, and no one wants that anymore. No one except maybe comedy fans and anyone with half of their mind’s left still intact. From Islamic terrorism to Woke Culture, Transgenderism, and Covid’s origin, he’s never afraid to speak up about tough topics, let alone make jokes about them.
Beyond being brave, he’s well versed and well-read on all of the issues, and if you’ve ever seen his stand-up specials, he’s never been one to talk down to his audiences; in fact just the opposite, he forces you to come up to his level, and if you can’t you need to sit there and be quiet. There are very few comedians or hosts in Bill Maher’s league in this country. He’s so not beholden to anything save his own sense of right and wrong, and funny or not funny.
His show is a perennial on television, one that I’m sure will last as long as he wants to do it, and his concerts are all sold-out events. Again, bravery and confidence is more in vogue than puppetry and song and dance in terms of not just influence but sales and ratings.
Number 7; Kevin Hart
Kevin Hart is an American legend. His influence is basically his phenomenal success. That’s not to say he’s not a wildly funny comic because he is, without a doubt. He’s more important than just his stand-up in terms of being someone who is changing and has changed the entertainment world though. He’s a grunt. A nose to the grindstone, a’ get out of the way if you’re not going to help’ guy, and he’s getting so much done that you have to think maybe there are twins. Maybe there are two Kevin Hart’s? He’s a big, bold thinker and has become such a brand to himself, a stand-up who’s become a major movie A-list star hasn’t happened since Eddie Murphy, and somehow Kevin Hart does it, keeps doing his stand-up tours going, something like eleven hundred podcasts, built a company, went off-road on Youtube in a very cool way, writes and produces films and television shows and still has managed to retain a level of class and dignity which I think sends out an important vibration to his fans.
The point is, this guy is a major part of stand-ups mosaic right now. And he should have hosted the Oscars. That was a big screw-up on someone’s part. He would have killed it.
Number 8; Taylor Tomlinson
Young, fresh-faced, white, cute, funny, and God-fearing. Wow. That’s a recipe for failure in today’s world. Right? Well, apparently not, because Taylor Tomlinson is probably the hottest new comic in America right now. I have it from an excellent source that her Netflix specials are some of the highest-rated things on the whole channel. Her tours are all instantly sold out, and she has a major movie deal she’s written in the pipeline with a great director.
More importantly, her young fans (and her old fans) love her honest, candid, direct comedy. Again, authenticity. She’s a kid, but she’s an old soul, and telling the truth doesn’t scare her. She’s not doing the pretty, hoppy bop, party dress thing onstage. She’s just letting it all out and fearless, plus she writes great jokes. Dark jokes, actually. Dark and real. Tough to do, and once more, someone telling the truth. Someone who has figured out a way to be honest about some really bad hops of the ball she’s had in life and look at the pain and laugh.
I love her work. I put her on this list because she’s a change agent. Many, many people will be affected by Taylor’s comedy positively. It isn’t just ‘did you ever notice that all dress sizes are such and such..’ (Which was straight out of my act, by the way.) She has a need to turn cards over and see what they say about us and why. It’s in the tradition of the best like Pryor and Chapelle, yet packaged in this twenty-something cute little blonde churchgoing gal who can get raunchier than Chapelle without ever really swearing. Watch, if she can keep the wheels on the cart from falling off and stays on the course she’s traveling, she’s going to be a serious influence on comedy in the years to come.
Number 9 - Louis C.K.
Louis is almost last on this list for a lot of reasons. He probably should be higher. He’s affected so much of our culture through his comedy and life. Good and bad. I will say that he’s hands down my favorite working comedian. Number one for me. We’re not good friends; I don’t really know him well, but I love his stuff. I love his take on everything he goes after. He’s a comic genius, and the most important mark I think Louis is making on culture right now is a damn essential one. He didn’t walk away. Didn’t quit. He worked his way back.
He won the Grammy, has been selling out theatres, has made two brilliant, hit, specials. This is all after (Spoiler; alert a lot of folks aren’t going to like this, or me, going forward..) he was railroaded out of town unfairly and horribly, undemocratically. Wrapped up in a movement (#Metoo) that had a lot of merit, muscle and meaning to it. A damn significant movement, a tornado of change that whipped up the wind and took out some needed trash, yet broke some of our fine china along the way.
Louis C.K. did very little wrong. I’m sorry. He had a proclivity. We are in an age where we’re supposed to respect everyone’s desires and urges, wants and needs as justifiable and righteous as long as they don’t harm others. Which they are, and I’m sorry but he didn’t harm anyone. If he had asked two forty-year-old women to have a three-way, and they said yes, would he have been stripped of his show? Taken off of networks? Benched for two years? Still hounded and treated like a serial killer to some?
I’m sorry, too many people talk about Louis C.K. as if he were a rapist. As if he sexually assaulted someone. Attacked someone. Touched someone without their permission. He didn’t. The man’s career was destroyed. Reduced to dust. Giant corporations instantly tossed him away after he had made them millions after years of struggling. Then, he made it back. No one helped him. He did it himself through hard work and being true to his art. After sitting on the bench for over a year and a half when he began to try to come back, people railed on him some more, but he didn’t care.
He trudged on, and in a lot of pain and hurt, he built a new act, reclaimed his stage legs, and won big. That’s going to be his biggest influence right this moment on culture. Don’t quit. Don’t let the dirtbags on Twitter wear you down. They don’t count. They’re nothing. Your work matters. The truth matters. For a comic, being funny matters. For an audience, the person on stage telling the truth and being funny matters. Louis C.K. is funny getting funnier. That’s his influence right there. The mob burned down his store. He never got his day in court so he just went back to the toolshed and went quietly about his business. That’s the message. Head down. Believe in yourself, believe in the truth, and stuff works out.
Number10 - ??????
Who is number ten on this list? Who is the tenth most influential comic in society right now? I think my answer will surprise you. I actually think they/him/her could be number one. That’s how important and prominent they are to day to day life. It’s going to take a whole column to deal with this particular act. That’s how key they are. Can you guess who it is?
Who I think it is?
I’ll let you know next week.
Standup World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.