Stand-up comedians are a rare breed. It’s one thing to write funny material but to take it on stage in front of an unruly audience and leave them dying of laughter is a really tough gig. The best comics have found ways to make their performances feel fresh and exciting no matter how many times they’ve done the material, connecting with audiences around the globe in venues of all sizes.
Comedy is obviously subjective, so you might not find all the people on this list hilarious, but we took factors like popularity, influence, originality, awards and the audience ratings earned by their comedy specials at websites like IMDb to form our list of the best stand-up performers to ever handle a microphone. Did your favorite comic kill or did they bomb?
35. Eddie Izzard
England has given us some brilliant comedians over the years and Eddie Izzard is among the most celebrated. The multi-talented performer has done plenty of work as an actor but he’s stayed active on stage, recording 10 solo stand-up specials since 1993, including “Definite Article” and “Glorious,” both of which are regarded as modern classics. His 1998 special, “Dress to Kill,” might be his masterpiece, however, seeing him tackle lofty topics like centuries of British history and the Church of England in a way that’s hilarious and informative. That particular special earned an average score of 8.7 at IMDb, which is the second-highest grade ever held by a stand-up film.
34. Sarah Silverman
When Sarah Silverman won an Emmy Award for her 2013 HBO special, “We Are Miracles,” it was just another achievement in a remarkable career in comedy. From voicing Disney characters to taking dramatic movie roles and starring in her own acclaimed Comedy Central series, the deadpan charmer has basically done it all but her roots go back to the stage. She’s released three full-length specials, including 2017’s “A Speck of Dust” for Netflix, she’s never been afraid to tackle big topics like politics and religion on stage, and she even sings during many of her performances.
33. Bo Burnham
Few comics have accomplished as much as Bo Burnham before turning 30. In addition to having four top-selling comedy albums — and a few specials for Comedy Central and Netflix — under his belt, he’s also started an acclaimed moonlighting gig as a director of movies and stand-up specials for other comedians. Burnham’s three specials so far have earned viewer ratings ranging from 8.2-8.5 out of 10 at IMDb, making them some of the top-scoring titles in the history of the genre on that website. That kind of success can rarely be sustained but it’ll be exciting to see where he goes from here.
32. Doug Stanhope
A comedy club road dog for about 30 years, Doug Stanhope still doesn’t have a ton of mainstream fame and that’s probably fine with him. His style is so vicious and pitch-black that it’s become his trademark and is what fellow comics, his legion of die-hard fans and listeners to his podcast love most about him. The best evidence of this came in his 2013 special, “Beer Hall Putsch,” in which he told the shocking story about assisting in his mother’s suicide at her request when she was suffering from emphysema, somehow making the anecdote funny, sad and full of hard truths all at once.
A tireless workhorse, Stanhope has released 15 comedy albums and specials since 1998.
31. Tig Notaro
Another comic who has proven brilliant at taking life’s toughest moments and finding ways to talk about them on stage is Tig Notaro. A longtime comedy writer, Notaro’s first stand-up album didn’t come out until she was 40 years old but she’s quickly become an icon since then. Few comics have ever made themselves as vulnerable under the spotlight as she has when talking about her own battle with breast cancer, even famously showing audiences the scars from her double mastectomy during performances. Her albums and specials have been nominated for several Grammys and Emmys, and her semi-autobiographical Amazon Prime series, “One Mississippi,” earned acclaim.
30. Ali Wong
Shots of Ali Wong commanding the stage while seven months pregnant in two separate comedy specials may be the best images that stand-up comedy has given us this millennium. Those specials, 2016’s “Baby Cobra” and 2018’s “Hard Knock Wife,” are among the best ever produced by Netflix and made Wong into a sensation. Before that, she was known mostly as a writer for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and an actor on several short-lived series. Wong’s high-energy style on stage — no matter how close she was to giving birth — and her frank, raw discussions of her sex life have made her one of the most essential comics of the current generation.
29. Hannah Gadsby
Australian comedy fans had known about Hannah Gadsby for about a decade before the rest of the world caught on in 2018. That year, Netflix released her groundbreaking stand-up special, “Nanette,” and it became known as an instant classic in the genre. Taking the kind of vulnerability and personal reflection that Tig Notaro helped pioneer to another level, “Nanette” saw Gadsby letting the audience in on her deepest secrets in a way that brought many viewers to tears when they were done laughing. The special won a Peabody Award and an Emmy, and holds a 100% grade at Rotten Tomatoes, making it a watershed moment for comedy and live performance in general.
28. Mitch Hedberg
One of the all-time kings of one-liner delivery, Mitch Hedberg had a delivery that could never be duplicated. An observation like, “An escalator cannot break, it can only become stairs,” is the kind that made Hedberg an icon and one of the most endlessly quotable comics in history. He only released two comedy albums before his death of an overdose at the age of 37 in 2005, making Hedberg’s material and his gentle style seem even more precious today.
27. Kevin Hart
There aren’t many stand-up comedians who’ve been able to regularly fill arenas and get audiences to pay to see their specials in movie theaters, but Kevin Hart is one of them. The massively successful Hollywood star has been one of comedy’s biggest box-office attractions for more than a decade, with his 2013 special, “Let Me Explain,” ranking as the top-grossing solo comedy special to hit theaters since 1995. In addition, his 2015, 2016 and 2018 tours were the highest-grossing comedy tours of those years, according to Billboard.
26. Whoopi Goldberg
Long before she was an EGOT winner and the co-host of “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg wowed audiences as a stand-up comic. Her one-woman show, “Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway,” was aired on HBO in 1985 and led to her working alongside Robin Williams and Billy Crystal as co-host of the network’s “Comic Relief” specials. In 2001, Goldberg became the first woman to win the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Her stand-up career wasn’t nearly as long as many others on this list but her list of accomplishments probably outpaces them all.
25. Margaret Cho
When Margaret Cho won the award for funniest female stand-up at the 1994 American Comedy Awards, it announced her as one of the leading voices of her generation of comics. From there, her ABC sitcom, “All-American Girl,” further helped her gain mainstream fame that would only make her many comedy specials even bigger events. In her nine comedy albums and seven specials released since the late 1990s, Cho has been acclaimed for her explicit discussions of racial identity, sexuality and her complicated relationship with her mother, who is a Korean immigrant.
24. Maria Bamford
At the 2014 American Comedy Awards, Maria Bamford won the honor for best club comic over heavy hitters like Bill Burr, Sebastian Maniscalco and Doug Stanhope. It was just further evidence of her reputation as a tireless road performer who has been dropping albums and specials since 2003. Bamford’s unique delivery includes her incredible range of voices, which she’s also used in dozens of animated series like “BoJack Horseman” and “Adventure Time.” Among Bamford’s sharpest material includes examinations of her own battles with mental illness.
23. Patton Oswalt
Like Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt was also part of the touring, alt-comedy group, The Comedians of Comedy. He’s long been viewed as one of the hardest-working comics in the business and his specials have earned him plenty of acclaim to go with his mainstream success on shows like CBS’s “The King of Queens” and movies like Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Oswalt’s 2016 Netflix special, “Talking Over Clapping,” earned him an Emmy and a Grammy. Oswalt covers a huge variety of topics in his performances but some of his best material has been his takes on religion as an outspoken atheist.
22. Jeff Foxworthy
The brilliance of Jeff Foxworthy was in finding a massive audience that had been all but ignored by mainstream comedians for decades. The Georgia native’s role as the biggest name in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, starting in 2000, helped make him one of the most popular comics of this millennium — but he was already a huge draw before that. His first two comedy albums, 1993’s “You Might Be a Redneck If …” and 1995’s “Games Rednecks Play,” went multi-platinum and announced him as one of the best one-liner artists of modern times. Foxworthy’s witty observations about Southern life helped make him a household name that still holds weight after 30 years.
21. Amy Schumer
With great success comes a massive army of haters and Amy Schumer has been defying the trolls for the better part of a decade. A regular of Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts, Schumer has done blockbuster stand-up specials of her own for that network, HBO and Netflix since 2013. Her frank discussions of body image issues and her own sex life earned her legions of fans, especially among millennials who related to her stories about the trappings of single life. In addition to being a huge draw on stage, Schumer’s Comedy Central series, “Inside Amy Schumer,” won her a Peabody and an Emmy.
20. Wanda Sykes
As an actor, Wanda Sykes has made a career out of stealing scenes on shows like HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and ABC’s “Black-ish,” but she’s been equally brilliant as a live performer. She won the honor of funniest female stand-up at the 2001 American Comedy Awards and she’s had acclaimed specials on HBO, Comedy Central, Epix and Netflix since 2003. Since coming out as a lesbian in 2008 after having previously been married to a man, Sykes has been honored for LGBTQ activism and has touched on sexuality and racial identity often in her material.
19. Redd Foxx
A groundbreaker for several reasons, you’ll constantly hear Redd Foxx’s name thrown around as an influence cited by great comedians who came after him. His material was infamously raw at a time when many of the most famous comics kept their stuff clean and safe for general audiences and he was one of the first black performers to headline in front of white audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. Foxx was also one of the first comics to openly talk about his battle with drug addiction on stage, which was something Richard Pryor — who idolized Foxx — would turn into a signature part of his own act.
18. Don Rickles
Many comics have earned their reputations as masters of roasting, but they are all just following in the footsteps of Don Rickles. “Mr. Warmth” earned that nickname by taking no prisoners and shredding everyone in the room at the many “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” specials he was invited to during the 1970s and 1980s. His days as a stand-up icon go back to when he performed on the Las Vegas Strip and regularly killed on Johnny Carson’s version of “The Tonight Show” in the 1960s. The formula of insult comedy that Rickles helped make famous has rarely been improved upon.
17. Joan Rivers
Arguably the best of all the so-called insult comics to follow in Don Rickles’ wake was Joan Rivers. After all, it takes some serious confidence to stand in a room full of famous people and make fun of them to their faces — and even more so when you’re a woman. Rivers was simply a natural on stage and commanded a room like only the best performers can. Her five comedy albums were released from 1965-2013, a year before her death, showing her longevity in a notoriously tough business.
16. Jim Gaffigan
It’s tough to find a more universally liked stand-up comic than Jim Gaffigan. Perhaps it’s his unassuming, Midwestern vibe or the fact that he’s one of the all-time greats at self-deprecating humor. In a business full of comedians who make fun of themselves, Gaffigan takes it to another level, usually ripping on his looks and his skills as a father to great effect. A tireless worker, he’s released 12 comedy albums since 2001 and has been nominated for five Grammys in the category of best comedy album.
15. Ricky Gervais
If you like watching Ricky Gervais torch smug celebrities as host of the Golden Globe Awards, you’ll probably love his stand-up specials. He’s released five of them since 2003 and the grades given by IMDb users equal an average score of 7.9 out of 10, which is stellar. His most frequent targets include lofty subjects like politics and religion, with him often pointing out the most ridiculous aspects of each. In addition to his continuing career as a top-drawing comic, Gervais’ biggest mark on comedy has come in the form of creating “The Office” and its many iterations around the globe.
14. John Mulaney
He may look like a clean-cut Boy Scout but John Mulaney has earned endless acclaim for his mature and sharp observations about American life. In the 2010s, he worked steadily to become one of the top comics in the business, with his three specials for Comedy Central and Netflix drawing praise from critics and viewers. A Peabody and Emmy winner for his work as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Mulaney won another Emmy for his 2018 Netflix special, “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” which is regarded as a modern classic.
13. Bill Hicks
Cut from the same cloth as philosophical comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, Bill Hicks had one of the sharpest tongues in comedy. Known for his bleak outlook on life and for smoking cigarettes on stage, Hicks earned a massive following in the 1980s and early 1990s and has since become recognized as a thinker’s comic. Hicks would tragically die of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 in 1994, but not before leaving us with some of the most thought-provoking comedy specials ever recorded. In fact, his 1992 special, “Relentless,” is the only stand-up film not by Carlin or Dave Chappelle to earn an average IMDb user rating of 8.7 out of 10.
12. Bill Burr
The acerbic Bill Burr has been a comedy club regular for nearly 30 years and has been cranking out acclaimed albums and specials with regularity since 2003. Known especially for his rage-filled rants about a wide variety of topics, Burr has also developed a loyal following as a podcaster. Since 2012, he’s released four Netflix specials that have been praised by critics and viewers, especially those who agree with his bitter positions on modern life.
11. Rodney Dangerfield
The all-time king of one-liner delivery, Rodney Dangerfield gets plenty of respect from the comics who came after him, despite what he would’ve said on stage. An example of a celebrity who got his break late in life, Dangerfield didn’t become a headlining act until he was in his 40s. Audiences in the 1960s and 1970s knew him from his many performances on “The Tonight Show,” where he’d regularly bring Johnny Carson to tears. In addition to his legendary work as a comic, Dangerfield was known for helping young comics get their break, including Jim Carrey.
10. Lenny Bruce
It can easily be argued that Lenny Bruce was the architect of the modern stand-up comic, using his platform to critique society’s most sacred institutions — and using plenty of curse words while doing so. He was infamously arrested for obscenity and put on trial, making him an icon for free-speech activists. Unfortunately, Bruce also helped pioneer the self-destructive tendencies that would undo many great comics, dying of a drug overdose in 1966 at the age of 40, which robbed comedy fans of many more great observations from this early legend.
9. Ellen DeGeneres
Probably the most successful woman ever in stand-up comedy, Ellen DeGeneres is a household name thanks to the magnetic personality she displays on her daily talk show. But audiences were drawn to her way before that, thanks to her live comedy career taking off in the 1980s. In 1991, she was named the funniest female stand-up at the American Comedy Awards and she’d win arguably the most prestigious comedy award in 2012, when she took home the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Her specials, especially 2003’s “Here and Now” for HBO, have seen her pick apart the most mundane parts of daily life to hilarious results.
8. Eddie Murphy
In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy was one of the biggest celebrities in the world and his stand-up shows were more like rock concerts. He’d pack arenas, wear skin-tight leather suits on stage and even fill movie theaters when his specials were released, like 1987’s “Eddie Murphy Raw,” which earned more than $50 million at the box office. He pretty much walked away from performing after that but the specials we do have are still classics and show him to be one of the most charismatic comics to ever work. In 2015, Murphy was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in a gesture that was probably long overdue.
7. Jerry Seinfeld
Few have defined the role of stand-up comedian like Jerry Seinfeld. After all, episodes of his iconic 1989 sitcom began and ended with him performing bits of his routines on stage, making millions of viewers familiar with his unique material. Seinfeld’s whiny delivery and uncanny ability to nitpick the smallest inconveniences in life have been duplicated by countless comedians since his rise to fame in the early 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, his tours still draw top dollar around the globe, with him earning an estimated $41 million in 2019 alone.
6. Chris Rock
Chris Rock is another one of those comics who’s accomplished just about everything someone can hope to achieve when they enter the world of comedy. He’s had his own network sitcom, starred in plenty of films and hosted the Oscars but it’s the mark he’s left on stage that has made him a legend. Rock’s HBO specials from the 1990s, including “Bring the Pain” and “Bigger & Blacker,” announced him as one of comedy’s sharpest stars thanks to his takes on broad issues like race relations and gun control. His record of success is so stellar that he’s won the Grammy for best comedy album three times despite only releasing four records in his career thus far.
5. Lily Tomlin
Lily Tomlin has made herself known more as an actor in the past few decades but she broke plenty of ground as a stand-up comic in the 1960s and 1970s. Her list of accolades is impeccable: a two-time winner of funniest female stand-up and a lifetime achievement honoree from the American Comedy Awards, a winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a Kennedy Center Honoree — making her one of only two women to win both of those latter prizes. Her 1972 comedy album, “This Is a Recording,” was a huge seller and became the fist one by a solo woman comic to win the Grammy for best comedy album.
Her gift for inhabiting multiple characters with unique personalities in her performances would pave the way for performers who didn’t simply stand there and talk about themselves.
4. Robin Williams
Another comic who certainly didn’t just stand there and give wry observations was Robin Williams. The three-time winner of funniest male stand-up at the American Comedy Awards had more energy on stage than arguably any comedian in history. For examples of his wild style, just listen to his Grammy-winning album, “Reality … What a Concept,” or see his 2003 Emmy-nominated HBO special, “Live on Broadway,” the latter of which helped show an entirely new generation his gift on stage after decades of focusing on film roles.
3. Richard Pryor
It arguably doesn’t get any more legendary than Richard Pryor in the history of stand-up comedy. His ability to tackle uncomfortable issues like racism and his own bouts with addiction in front of wide audiences was unprecedented and would inspire entire generations of comedians to follow suit. His albums and filmed specials from the 1970s and 1980s are the stuff of comedy legend, with his delivery style, use of profanity and defiant attitude all being copied by countless young comics who idolized him. When the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was created in 1998, Pryor was the first person who was honored with it.
2. Dave Chappelle
Of all those disciples of Richard Pryor that have come through in the past 40 years, Dave Chappelle has been the most consistent. Even with the break he took from comedy at the apex of his career, Chappelle has had a prolific output, filling theaters and commanding top dollar for his specials in recent years. The 2019 winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has been renowned for his unpredictable but typically sharp takes on everything from race relations to police brutality to politics and drugs. His 2000 HBO special, “Killin’ Them Softly,” has the highest average rating of any stand-up film on IMDb, with an incredible score of 8.8 out of 10.
1. George Carlin
Pretty much all of the great stand-up comics took their focus off the stage at some point and gave it to roles in movies and television — but not George Carlin. While he did take the occasional acting job, Carlin proved his love for writing and performing comedy in front of live audiences was as endless as his talent for doing it. His work was prolific and consistently great, with his 13 solo stand-up specials having a remarkable average score of 8.3 out of 10 at IMDb. He also released 19 comedy albums from 1963 until his death in 2008, giving him one of the deepest canons of original material of any comedian.