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Monday, May 4, 2009

The Great Unknowns

I’ve never been one to play favourites. Even as a kid I hated the concept of “best friend”. I liked all my friends and didn’t want to rank them in any kind of order, or set one above the rest.

So when someone asks who my favourite comic is, I can’t say. There are plenty I really like for various reasons.

That being said, it’s always fun to read lists of everyone else’s favourites, even if it’s only so you can sit back and complain about who missed the cut. There are three such lists kicking around I want to compare. Each one lists what they consider to be the top 100 stand-up comics of all time. The compilers are Comedy Central, Britain’s Channel 4, and the political blog Crooks and Liars.

You might think there would be lots of crossover. Afterall, it’s not a list of their personal favourites, but who they deem to be the best. But there are only 22 comics who make it onto all three lists. Here they are, with their average ranking (rounded up or down to the nearest whole number) in parentheses:

Dick Gregory (64)
Jackie Mason (63)
George Burns (61)
Andrew Dice Clay (59)
Denis Leary (54)
Bill Cosby (42)
Bob Newhart (41)
Eddie Izzard (40)
Roseanne Barr (39)
Steven Wright (36)
Joan Rivers (36)
Bob Hope (33)
Steve Martin (27)
Jerry Seinfeld (25)
George Carlin (23)
Robin Williams (22)
Bill Hicks (19)
Eddie Murphy (14)
Lenny Bruce (11)
Chris Rock (10)
Woody Allen (7)
Richard Pryor (2)

Is that the definitive list then? It’s a good one, although I’d quibble with a few. I personally don’t see how Andrew Dice Clay makes it on to any list of the greatest. Most successful, perhaps, but not greatest.

More stats from the compilation: Forty-eight comics make it on to two lists. The most prominent, in my opinion, of these are Dave Chappelle, Andy Kaufman, Mitch Hedberg, Albert Brooks, Jack Benny, Jon Stewart, Sam Kinison, Don Rickles, Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Crystal, Bill Maher, Jim Carrey, Dana Carvey, Paula Poundstone, David Cross, Larry Miller, Lewis Black, Henny Youngman, and Billy Connolly. How those people got left off one of the lists is anybody’s guess.

What’s really interesting is noting the comedians to only make one list. Interesting both on who should have been on more lists, and those who surprised me by even making one. Comedy Central had 30 singles, Crooks and Liars had 27 and Channel 4 had a staggering 75. It's almost as if Britain were an island unto itself.

Of those that probably should have been on at least a couple of lists, but only made one, consider these acts: Louis CK, Norm Macdonald, Dom Irrera, Dave Attel, Wanda Sykes, Phyllis Diller, Demetri Martin, Emo Phillips, Sarah Silverman, and David Steinberg.

One thing that really stands out is how nation-centric they are. The two American lists are filled with mostly Americans and the one British list is filled with mostly British (check out their top 10: 1. Billy Connolly 2. Peter Kay 3. Eddie Izzard 4. Richard Pryor 5. Harry Hill 6. Bill Hicks 7. Bill Bailey 8. Victoria Wood 9. Chris Rock 10. Ross Noble. I’m ashamed to admit I’m not familiar with half of their top ten comics of all time!).

Which got me to thinking, it’s generally considered that Canada produces some of the best comedians in show business, right? Everyone talks about it. But who gets mentioned? People like Mike Myers, the cast of SCTV and Kids in the Hall, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, Norm Macdonald, Will Sasso, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones. In other words, very few stand-up comics.

In the three top-100 lists, a grand total of five Canadians made the grade. Six, if you include the Canadian-born American Mort Sahl. Comedy Central had Jim Carrey (36), Howie Mandel (82) and Norm Macdonald (83), Crooks and Liars had Carrey (36), David Steinberg (65) and Cheech & Chong (67) (Chong is Canadian and the duo met and formed in Vancouver). Channel 4 had nary a Canuck.

Deserved? Maybe. But Comedy Central includes comics such as Gallagher, Janeane Garofalo, Andrew Dice Clay, George Wallace, Paul Rodriguez, Pat Cooper, and Eddie Griffin. Channel 4 includes people like Dave Allen, Ed Byrne, Tommy Tiernan, Omid Djalili, and Ben Elton. Crooks and Liars includes Gilbert Gottfried, David Brenner, Shecky Greene, Jamie Foxx, Johnny Yune, Alan King, Totie Fields, Phylliss Yvonne Stickney and Rick Aviles.

No knock on any of them, but I’d put Brent Butt, Stewart Francis (left), Jon Dore, Mike MacDonald, Derek Edwards, Bonnie McFarlane, Irwin Barker, Mike Wilmott, Elvira Kurt (right), Shaun Majumder, Caroline Rhea, Russell Peters, Harland Williams, Ian Bagg, John Wing, Sugar Sammy, David Pryde, Jeremy Hotz, Ron James, and Pete Johansson up against any of them. And those are the ones just off the top of my head.

If I liked lists, I'd make my own top 100 stand-up comics of all time that included its share of Canadians. But I don't. Someone should though. So I could go through and critique it.


Uncle Brian said...

Even as a kid I hated the concept of “best friend”People thought I was a weird kid. I wish you'd been around then to make me look normal by comparison.

kms said...

My problem with these types of lists is how does one form an opinion about a live performer such as a standup when you haven't seen them live. Unless you've seen them perform live, your opinion is based upon recorded material, at best, or, at worst, just reputation.

The recorded material may be a good representation of the performer but perhaps not.

It would be interesting to know what the compilers of the lists are basing their opinions on for each of the standups. Perhaps they could include a little checklist; for example, 1. in person live performance 2. video of comedy club live performance 3. video of made for tv standup special 4. video clip of tv show appearance 5. sound recordings 6. reputation, etc

kms said...

Is that a hot picture of Elvira Kurt?

Guy MacPherson said...

Something else they need to add to the checklist is whether they are going on reputation, success, or other factors.

And yes, that is, indeed, a very hot picture of Elvira Kurt.

Uncle Brian said...

Elvira Kurt? She used to be my best friend.