Standup has always seemed to be so far beyond anything I could ever imagine myself doing, but in some fundamental way I think the neurosis that drives a standup is very similar to that which drives a horror writer. At best it's a transgressive artform, dangerous, full of anger and cynicism, and it allows us to poke around in our own id in a relatively safe way. Good horror shows us the things we aren't supposed to see, and good standup says the things we aren't supposed to say.
So I just started brainstorming a horror-inspired TV pilot set in the world of standup comedy, and it got me thinking about my favorite standups and what I love about them. I'm not saying these are necessarily the BEST standups. They're just the ones I have the most affection for. Here's my list:
10. Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield's approach feels pretty outdated now, I suppose, but I've had a bit of a soft spot for him ever since I first saw him performing on Johnny Carson back in the 80s. Maybe it's because he was so unrelentingly Jew-ey, which helped make me feel a little less self conscious about being one of the only Jews I knew in Los Alamos. Maybe it was just the googley eyes, which would never fail to crack me up when I was eight or nine.
But I think it's mostly because, as kind of a fat sadsack dork myself, I responded to how he made that very thing work for him.
I also have always loved his personal story : a failed standup who gave it up for years to be a paint salesman, and who then reinvented himself in his late 40s, took on a new stage name, and almost by chance became a huge star because of a single performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
As I grew older and my tastes shifted toward more overtly edgy material, I began to see past Dangerfield's sometimes hokey one-liners to the seething rage that seemed to boil beneath them. His vicious turn in the otherwise overwrought Natural Born Killers -- where his shtick was stripped down to its raw, ugly core -- cemented his place in my personal pantheon.
9. Steve Martin
In a lot of ways the antithesis of Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin is probably the first standup other than Bill Cosby I really recognized. I distinctly remember being six or seven and listening to my parents vinyl copy of A Wild and Crazy Guy over and over and over again. I couldn't get enough.
What's amazing is, almost three decades later, how well the album holds up for me. Martin embraced outright silliness in a way that almost no other comic has, and he took a scientific approach to it that somehow elevated the material beyond the goofy one liners and the shtick with the banjo and the arrow-in-the-head gag. I still find it to be imminently re-listenable in the way a lot of comedy albums just aren't.
And speaking of Bill Cosby...
8. Bill Cosby
It's a total cliche to say that Bill Cosby was everybody's dad in the 1980s, but it's also pretty much true. Like your dad, he wasn't not terribly cool. But I'd guess that for most of us who grew up during that time period, he was this constantly soothing presence that, if we're willing to admit it, we're still fond of.
Most people associate him with The Cosby Show, but the first thing I think of when I think of him is actually going to the dentist. It was Dr. Lorio's practice up in Los Alamos. He used to have these little radio headsets that he'd give to patients whenever they were getting their teeth cleaned or their cavities filled. It had about five or six stations, mostly light rock or smooth jazz, but the last station was always a running loop of Bill Cosby. I didn't even really know who he was at the time, but I'd lay back while the pretty and buxomy dental hygienist picked at my teeth with her little instruments, close my eyes and just let his low rumbling voice take me away.
It got to the point where I actually looked forward to going to the dentist. Even now when I go and they don't have those headsets I find myself absurdly disappointed.
The amazing thing about Cosby, I realize now, is that he never really tells an actual joke. It's just these precisely crafted long-form stories about his friends or his family that are as touching as they are hilarious. I don't get a lot of belly laughs from his stuff anymore, but when the mood strikes me I can still slip into Bill Cosby, Himself like an old pair of pajama pants.
7. Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks inhabits the exact opposite end of the comic spectrum from Cosby. There's nothing comfortable about what he did. He didn't tell stories. He didn't want you to like him. He wasn't trying to make you comfortable, or even necessarily to make you laugh. He was rage personified, and he wanted to piss you off.
When I was in high school I was a huge Denis Leary fan, but then I got to college and a buddy of mine introduced me to Hicks. I realized that he pretty much did the exact same thing Leary did, but earlier, funnier, smarter, and much much better (something countless other people have noticed, by the way). When I dug deeper into Hicks's stuff, I realized that only maybe two thirds of it is actually funny. The rest is just too blistering and bitter to really get a laugh. Hicks was kind of out of control. But funny or not, it's all genius.
6. Marc Maron
Like most people, I discovered Marc Maron pretty recently through his incredibly popular WTF podcast. I'd seen him before on Conan and Comedy Central, and I even caught a couple of his live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in LA without really knowing who he was. He was just one of those "that guy" comics that you sort of recognize.
But the podcast, if you haven't listened to it, is brilliant. It's a pretty straightforward interview show, where he sits down with a fellow comic and talks about life and career. But through his own matter-of-fact vulnerability he manages to get these comics to open up about their own pain and personal demons in some extraordinary ways (check out the Todd Hanson and Mike DeStefano episodes to see what I mean). He got Louis CK to cry. He also, over the course of two interviews, famously gave supreme douchebag Carlos Mencia enough wick to completely detonate himself.
After watching more of his actual standup, I realized that that queer mixture of anger, honesty, and raw vulnerability is sort of his thing. He could be insufferable -- a Bill Hicks who wants to talk about himself -- but his generally laid-back delivery makes it all go down easily. He's the sort of guy you think you want to hang out with, but sort of fear you'll either get into a fist fight or it'll turn into a big sensitive man cry-fest before the night's done.
5. Sarah Silverman
I feel bad that there aren't more women on this list. Putting it together really showed me how behind I am in really paying attention to female comics. There are a number -- Tig Notaro, Lisa Lampanelli, Amy Barnes, Paula Poundstone, etc. -- who I know, but when it comes right down to it I'm just not familiar enough with their work to say much about them (Maria Bamford almost made my list, but I couldn't quite justify knocking off Rodney Dangerfield). Bad Scotty. I obviously have homework to do.
So now I'm going to make it worse by saying I have a huge crush on Sarah Silverman (I know, me and all the other hipsters out there). I always kind of melt in the face of really beautiful women saying really awful and offensive things. But fanboy lust aside, I think Silverman is one of the most technically perfect comics around. Her sense of timing is pretty much unmatched, and she's able to layer a single joke with about seven more layers of cringe-inducing hilarity than any male shock comic out there. She's smart, she's no bullshit, and she's fucking fearless.
4. Brian Posehn
I feel like Brian Posehn's kind of guilty pleasure (just check out the dick farting bit in the video above to see what I mean). But, I don't know, the guy's just really fucking funny to me. He's the quintessential big fat metal dork, and so he reminds me of myself and a lot of friends I've had over the years. If I could do standup, I'd like to think I'd be all smart and stuff like Marc Maron, Steven Wright or Louis CK, but I actually think I'd probably be a lot like Brian Posehn.
3. Louis CK
Louis CK's probably the best living standup comic out there right now. He combines the best of everything -- absurdity, observational, surreal, social commentary, smart, stupid, etc. -- into a stream of hilarity that just doesn't let up. I probably laugh more times per minute during a Louis CK bit than I do any other comic. And he somehow makes it all look really easy.
What's weird is how he's sort of become this dad figure like Bill Cosby, but for a younger and more cynical generation. His relentless lack of sentimentality about his kids can make me uncomfortable at times, but it has lead to some of the funniest routines in the history of standup.
2. David Cross
I know I just said Louis CK is the best living standup, but my affection for David Cross goes way back to the early 90s and his legendary Mr. Show with Bob and David (clip NSFW), in my opinion the greatest sketch show ever (it's also where I first saw Silverman and Posehn). This gives him the edge.
As a standup, Cross is as polished as CK and as fearless as Silverman. And he just doesn't seem to give a fuck. He's relentlessly intelligent, calls out bullshit when he sees it, and is not afraid to pick a fight. He also, famously, ad libs a lot of his act on the spot. That blows my mind. Most people know him these days as an actor from either Arrested Development or Modern Family, but if you haven't checked out his standup do yourself a favor.
1. Richard Pryor
Of course. Who else?
Nobody could tell a horrifying and heart-breaking personal story and make you laugh as hard and as consistently as Richard Pryor. Whether he was talking about his abusive father, growing up in a brothel, or lighting himself on fire while freebasing, Pryor had a unique ability to mine into himself in a way that most comics only dream of. There has never been a comic more willing to expose himself on stage, to flaunt all of his personal demons and invite you to laugh at them. And no one was funnier. It's a tragedy that he was struck down with MS so relatively young, just when it seemed he had gotten his shit together. He could still be going.
All that said, this is my first memory of him, and as terrible as it is I still kind of love it.
Paul F. Tompkins