Stand up comics as a profession has been around since the days of vaudeville. However it’s roots can probably be traced all the way back to the courtroom jesters and fools of medieval Europe. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that comedians started to get true recognition for their art and stand up comedy albums became more than just a novelty idea. It would in the decades following that the art of standing in front of a group of people and telling jokes would truly hit it’s stride. The 1970s and 1980s gave comedy lovers the best and had the long time players of this game performing at their peak. Take a walk down the world’s funniest memory lane with me.
5) Sam Kinison
The rock star of 1980s comedy. Kinison was a force of nature on the stage. He was loud, opinionated and had what may be the most memorable scream of all time. This former evangelist had no need of taboos as nothing was off limits for him. His favorite targets included religion and relationships. He ranted openly about his poor marriage history and gleefully poked at the nonsense spouted by religious leaders and believers. His brash nature and loud delivery was a turn off to some but to others he was the perfect union of rock and roll energy and vicious comedy. Kinison’s work suffered somewhat as his substance abuse issues worsened towards the start of the 90s. During this time Kinison at times seemed to be more interested in getting a reaction from the crowd than actually telling jokes and he seemed to no long be interested in punchlines. Kinison’s life was cut short in a car crash but before his decline and tragic lose there was nobody else like him on the stage, and his anger and energy hasn’t been matched since.
4) Richard Pryor
The god father of no-limits stand up comedy. Pryor made his mark talking about the subjects that no other comedian of the time would touch. Race, sex and of course his own drug habits and his infamous freebasing accident were all fodder for his wit. Pryor thrived on controversy, so much so that his own TV show would be canceled after only four episodes due to his refusal to tone down the material. While other comics would come to use cursing as a cheap shock he would carefully place and balance obscenities in a way that even the most uptight audience member would find themselves doubled over with laughter. Sadly Pryor’s unique and biting brand of humor has been watered down by decades of cheap imitators. Pryor himself seemed to out of his way to soften his image with a string of mainstream film roles in the mid to late 80s. But no amount of imitators or family friendly films can ever diminish the crazy laughs that Pryor brought about in his heyday.
3) Rodney Dangerfield
Dangerfield may have claimed to get no respect but he still stands as the undisputed king of the one liner. A master at self deprecation, nearly all of his jokes were at his own expense. Yet Dangerfield could just as easily turn his wit onto anybody else and cut a heckler down to size with one line. He hit his stride late in life, only starting to get noticed as a comic in the 60s when he was already over 40 years old. By the 80s Dangerfield was in his 60s but had firmly established the hard luck persona that made the audience love him. He was always giving to his fellow comics, establishing the comedy club Dangerfield’s which was the launching point for comics as Chris Rock, Roseanne, Robert Schimmel and Jeff Foxworthy. Even as his movie career took off in the 80s Dangerfield never stopped hitting the stage and making audiences role over with laughter as he milked his own faults for comedy gold.
2) Bill Cosby
William Henry Cosby, Jr. better known to the world as the only Bill Cosby. His star had been on the rise since he broke the color barrier on television in the 60s series I Spy. However it was the next few decades that would really show the performer at his finest. Throughout the 70s and 80s Cosby would continue his work on the stage but would also continue to branch out in television. The children’s cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in the 70s and of course the cultural landmark of the The Cosby Show in the 80s which set the standard for family sitcoms ever since. When working a stage Cosby did was may have been the most difficult kind of stand up: clean comedy. These days folks like to make fun of this legend for his ridiculous sweaters and tendency to ramble in gibberish but at his peak he was untouchable. Even today anybody of any age could pop a copy of his stand up film Bill Cosby: Himself and laugh from start to finish.
1) George Carlin
Carlin’s career spanned over 40 years and the nature of his act changed greatly over time. When he started out in the 1960s he used a great number of characters (such as Al Sleet the Hippy Dippy Weatherman) in his act. By the time of his passing in 2008 his material had become more angry and vicious. The work this legendary performer did in the 70s and 80s was the perfect marriage of his observational humor and his anger and annoyance toward humanity. These were the decades that yielded Carlin’s seminal “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” and his playful observations about “Places For Your Stuff.” He would lose his more playful side in later years but Carlin seemed to having the most fun during this period of his career. And that fun brought about some of the best laughs of the 70s, 80s, or indeed of any decade at all.