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Friday, July 23, 2010

The funniest person alive

I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Simmons, who writes The Sports Guy column on ESPN. I share his passion for basketball, but I can't abide his homerism for all teams Boston-related. He's really funny most of the time and I hardly ever miss a column, but he stole my moniker, even if he had no idea. Back in the early 1990s (I think) I did a weekly sports column for an embarrassing sports weekly that nobody read. Even if the columns weren't up to Simmons' standards, the title was absolutely perfect for me: The Sports Guy. I didn't come up with it, but thought it was perfect because it worked on two levels, it being my name and all. With Simmons, it just works on one level. But I'm not bitter.

Simmons used to work on The Jimmy Kimmel Show (in what capacity, I have no idea. I could Google it, but I couldn't be bothered). So he's got his comedy bona fides. And in his latest summer mailbag, he answered a letter about comedy so I have the perfect chance to plug him in this blog. He's the kind of writer who veers off topic so even if you're not a fan of whatever sports he's writing about, his columns are always entertaining. But this is all comedy. See what you think:

Q: Who is the funniest man alive right now? Personally I like Zach Galifianiakis -- he's the Kevin Durant of this category. We know he will be great, but he isn't quite there yet. I'm still taking him.
-- Joey Miller, Dallas

SG: I spent way too much time thinking about this. The short answer: Yes. 2009 belonged to Galifianiakis over any other funny person. Not sure about 2010 yet.

The long answer: With the NBA, I can just click on a list of MVPs for the past 50 years that gives me a general idea of "Who was the best player alive for that year?" We don't have this for the "Funniest Person Alive" title, and really, we should. You have to nail at least one of these questions to qualify for that given year: Were you in the hottest comedy of the year, or even better, in the middle of a run of hot comedies? Were you carrying SNL? Did you have an iconic stand-up special, cable TV show, late-night show or comedy series? Did you routinely crush any late-night appearance or SNL hosting gig? Did you have a huge approval rating with little to no backlash? Do we associate that year with you to some degree? I need resonance beyond just cult affection, which unfortunately rules out the great Bill Hicks (who has a strong case for 1990).

For instance: 1982, 1983, 1984 ... Eddie Murphy. Period. That was the Eddie Era. SNL, "Delirious," "48 Hrs.," "Trading Places," "Beverly Hills Cop." Done. There was no doubt whatsoever. And sure, there may have been some doubt in other years. But here's what I am thinking for guys in my lifetime (starting in 1975, when I could start remembering stuff, along with input from 10-12 friends).

1975: Richard Pryor
Best stand-up comedian alive (and the most respected). Also crushed his only SNL hosting gig ever with its first legitimately great show and water cooler sketch.

1976: Chevy Chase
SNL's first breakout star as it became a national phenomenon. He also made the worst move in Funniest Guy history by leaving the show as he was wrapping up his Funniest Guy season. Even "The Decision" was a better idea.

1977-78: John Belushi
Replaced Chase as SNL's meal ticket in '77, then had the single best year in Funny Guy History a year later: starred on SNL (during its biggest year ever, when audiences climbed to over 30 million per episode); starred in "Animal House" (the No. 1 comedy of 1978 and a first-ballot Hall of Famer); had the No. 1 album (the Blues Brothers' first album). No. 1 in TV, movies and music at the same time? I'm almost positive this will never happen again. And also, if you put all the funniest people ever at the funniest points of their lives in one room, I think he'd be the alpha dog thanks to force of personality. So there's that.

1979: Robin Williams, Steve Martin (tie)
"Mork and Mindy" plus a big stand-up career for Williams; "The Jerk" plus a best-selling comedy album plus "official best SNL host ever" status for Martin.

1980: Rodney Dangerfield
His breakout year with "Caddyshack," killer stand-up, killer Carson appearances, a Grammy-winning comedy album, and even a Rolling Stone cover. Our oldest winner.

1981: Bill Murray
Carried "Stripes" one year after "Caddyshack." Tough year for comedy since cocaine was ruining nearly everybody at this point.

1982-84: Eddie Murphy
The best three-year run anyone's had. Like Bird's three straight MVPs. And by the way, "Beverly Hills Cop" is still the No. 1 comedy of all time if you use adjusted gross numbers.

(Random note: Sam Kinison's 1984 spot on Dangerfield's "Young Comedians" special has to be commemorated in some way. At the time, it was the funniest six minutes that had ever happened and could have singlehandedly won him the title in almost any other year. It's also the hardest I have ever laughed without drugs being involved. Sadly, I can't link to it because of the language and because it crosses about 35 lines of decency. But it's easily found, if you catch my drift.)

1985-86: David Letterman
Went from "cult hero" to "established mainstream star," ushered in the Ironic Comedy Era, pushed the comedy envelope as far as it could go, and if you want to dig deeper, supplanted Carson as the den father for that generation of up-and-comers and new superstars (Murphy, Leno, Seinfeld, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Howard Stern, etc.) ... and on a personal note, had a bigger influence on me than anyone other than my parents. One of two people that I could never meet because I would crumble like a crumb cake. (You can guess the other.)

1987: Jay Leno, Howard Stern (tie)
Seems like a million years ago, but Leno's frequent appearances on Letterman's showalways
and enjoyable "Tonight Show" guest host spots stole the '87 title from Letterman just because he seemed newer and fresher. (Note: The Leno-Letterman spot delivered the goods. They were unbelievable together. That's what made it so unbelievable when Leno backstabbed him for the "Tonight Show" job.) Meanwhile, Stern's morning show had become a tri-state phenomenon and reached the point that people were trading cassette tapes; he even landed a Fox pilot that year.

1988: Eddie Murphy
Reclaimed the throne with "Coming to America" one year after "Raw." Also, Arsenio Hall's show had taken off and Eddie was a frequent guest. The last great Eddie year. Alas.

1989: Dana Carvey
SNL's first breakout star in five years thanks to the Church Lady, his Bush Senior impersonation and a bunch of other things that didn't really hold up. What's weird is that Phil Hartman's SNL stuff held up much better, only it took Carvey leaving for people to realize how great Hartman was.

1990: Billy Crystal
Never had a career year but accumulated enough momentum from his stupendous SNL stint (1984-85), "City Slickers," his HBO comedy special and his late-night guest spots that his 1990 Oscars host job (the best ever to that point) wins him the award in a weak year. FYI: You could make a decent Bill Hicks case here, but he just wasn't well-known enough.

1991: Jerry Seinfeld
The year his show started taking off, much to the delight of everyone who loved him from his Letterman/Carson spots and the four episodes from the previous summer. I will never forget me and my buddy Kurt Sanger trying to convince everyone else we knew in college to watch the first episode of Season 2 with us (January 1991) and only a couple biting.

1992: Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Myers (tie)
Seinfeld's show became a smash hit; Myers was SNL's biggest star during a resurgent era and also made a hit movie ("Wayne's World," now the most dated comedy of all time and totally weird to watch, although the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene remains funny).

1993: Mike Myers
Weak year. Myers had SNL, "Wayne's World 2" and "So I Married An Axe Murderer." You could talk me into giving the entire "Simpsons" writing staff this spot just to get them on the list.

1994: Jim Carrey
"Ace Ventura," "The Mask" and "Dumb & Dumber." Has anyone ever gone three-for-three with smash hits in one year? Now he's just a crazy person on Twitter.

1995: Chris Farley
His long-awaited "I always loved Chris Farley and now I feel totally vindicated because I knew he was going to be famous" year with "Tommy Boy." Which still holds up, by the way. Silver medal to Norm MacDonald for crushing it on "Weekend Update" during and after the O.J. trial.

1996: Chris Rock
He underachieved on SNL to the point that, when he switched to "In Living Color" for one year, nobody gave a crap. By 1995, he had fallen into the "doing guest spots on 'Martin' and 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air'" stage of his career. And then, out of nowhere ... "Bring The Pain" happened. The best stand-up special since Eddie in his prime. Who knew?

1997: Garry Shandling
The best season ever (Season 5) of one of the greatest comedies ever ("The Larry Sanders Show") peaks with "The Roast" (the single funniest episode in the history of the show). Good enough to win a weak year.

1998: Adam Sandler
Became an A-List comedy franchise with "The Wedding Singer" and "The Waterboy." Weak year otherwise.

1999: Mike Myers, Chris Rock (tie)
"Austin Powers 2" (and A-List celeb status) for Myers; "Bigger and Blacker" special and an inventive weekly HBO show for Rock.

2000: Will Ferrell
At the height of his SNL powers at this point thanks to his Dubya impersonation. You could make a very strong "Will Ferrell was the greatest cast member in the history of SNL" case.

2001: Matt Stone, Trey Parker (tie)
A seminal season for "South Park" (Season 5) peaks with the ballsy Osama episode
just eight weeks after 9/11. Weird year for comedy in general. You could make a strong case for Ricky Gervais here; I would give it to him except for the fact that I hate British people.

2002: Larry David
His best "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season (Season 3) and it featured my single favorite episode (the one with Krazee-Eyez Killa).

2003: Dave Chappelle
Season 1. Enough said. The last unequivocal, there-is-no-doubt-whatsoever-that-he-has-the-title comedy season.

2004: Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart (tie)
Season 2 for Chappelle and a breakout year for Stewart (the 2004 election, his "Crossfire" appearance, the release of his book and his Peabody Award).

2005: Steve Carell
"The Office" takes off and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" hits theaters. Good enough to take a splintered year. Thanks to the Internet boom and cable boom, comedy now became so specialized that it became infinitely more difficult to say one person was "The Funniest Man Alive." My personal choice: Ferrell again, just because of "Anchorman."

2006: Sacha Baron Cohen
Borat. More than enough.

2007: Larry David
Comeback year for "Curb" as the Blacks move into Larry's house. Runner-up: Judd Apatow.

2008: Tina Fey
"30 Rock" takes off and Palin falls into her lap. Our first and only woman!

2009: Zach Galifianiakis
His "Hangover" role was funnier than anything anyone else did ... right?

2010: ????????
Five months to go. Haven't had a breakout star yet. Unless you count the double rainbow guy. So there you go.

To read the whole mailbag, or at least part II of the mammoth thing, click here.

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