The oldest joke on record, a Sumerian proverb, was first told all the way back in 1900 B.C. Yes, it was a fart joke: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it — something was definitely lost in time and translation (you have to imagine it was the Mesopotamian equivalent of “Women be shopping”), but not before the joke helped pave the way for almost 4,000 years of toilet humor. It’s just a shame we’ll never know the name of the Sumerian genius to whom we owe Blazing Saddles. But with the rise of comedy as a commercial art form in the 20th century, and with advances in modern bookkeeping, it’s now much easier to assign credit for innovations in joke-telling, which is exactly what Vulture set out to do with this list of the 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy.
A few notes on our methodology: We’ve defined “joke” pretty broadly here. Yes, a joke can be a one-liner built from a setup and a punch line, but it can also be an act of physical comedy. Pretending to stick a needle in your eye, or pooping in the street while wearing a wedding dress: both jokes. A joke, as defined by this list, is a discrete moment of comedy, whether from stand-up, a sketch, an album, a movie, or a TV show.
For clarity’s sake, we’ve established certain ground rules for inclusion. First, we decided early on that these jokes needed to be performed and recorded at some point. Second, with apologies to Monty Python, whose influence on contemporary comedy is tremendous and undeniable, we focused only on American humor. Third, we only included one joke per comedian. And fourth, the list doesn’t include comedy that we ultimately felt was bad, harmful, or retrograde.
The list was put together by Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox; New York senior editor Christopher Bonanos; comedians Wayne Federman, Phoebe Robinson, Halle Kiefer, and Rebecca O’Neal; comedy historians Yael Kohen (author of We Killed) and Kliph Nesteroff (author of The Comedians); and journalists Elise Czajkowski, Matthew Love, Katla McGlynn, Ramsey Ess, Dan Reilly, Jenny Jaffe, Lucas Kavner, and The Guardian’s Dave Schilling. (Fox, Bonanos, Keifer, O’Neal, Czajkowski, Love, McGlynn, Ess, Reilly, Jaffe, Kavner, and Schilling wrote the blurbs.)
Without further ado, here are the 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy. They are listed below in chronological order, complete with video or audio. Use the timeline slider to jump to different eras or specific comedians.
I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time /
And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime /
I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time”
Bert Williams was the most popular black comedic performer in America at the turn of the 20th century. But his celebrity grew tremendously when he put the songs from his stage show Abyssinia to disc and cylinder. That record included the piece he was best known for, “Nobody.” It’s an upbeat tune whose buoyant arrangement runs perpendicular to its melancholy message of isolation and disappointment, a device that’s since become ubiquitous. The idea at the center of “Nobody” — laughing at the self-deprecation of an unfortunate schlemiel — was what fueled its tremendous success. And having a black man as the song’s tragic protagonist added to its novelty and ultimate comedic longevity, spawning a comic genre where vulnerability and ennui weren’t taboo, but welcome subjects. Released at a time when cylinder recordings were at their apex, Williams became widely known for the song, and he was forced to sing it at essentially every appearance he made, for the rest of his life.
Though it began as a stage routine, “Cohen on the Telephone” is noteworthy for embracing two emerging technologies: the telephone and the phonograph. Developed in England by Joe Hayman, the definitive Jewish vaudeville monologue became bigger than any one comedian as it grew into a sensation stateside when American comedians like Barney Bernard, George L. Thompson, and most notably Monroe Silver took on the character of Cohen and recorded covers of the routine. Built on a classic misunderstanding-an-accent premise, it popularized the comedic device of hearing one half of a phone conversation. It was an undeniable influence on comedy legends Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart.
When The Gold Rush debuted in theaters, Charlie Chaplin was already the biggest star in pictures, but this film, which Variety called “the greatest and most elaborate comedy ever filmed,” cemented his place in the industry. Legend has it that this sequence, in which Chaplin’s character dreams about entertaining Georgia, the dance-hall girl, with a couple of forks and dinner rolls charmed audiences so much that in some cases they shut down the screening and made the projectionist respool the film so they could watch it again. This bit was something different for comedy at the time. It wasn’t just another cheap laugh; it showed that you could create a hilarious sequence that also propelled the plot forward. Because this scene was so joyful, it makes reality all the more depressing when the Tramp gets stood up for his dinner date. By being among the first on the silver screen to add a little tragedy to his comedy, Chaplin raised the bar for the art of jokes.
Athletic is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot when talking about silent films, but Keaton’s really deserve it: He was highly agile, performing all his physical stunts — many of them genuinely dangerous — without cuts, often in one take. The resultant films are true action comedies, precursors to The Blues Brothers or the movies of Jackie Chan. They are also, partly because of his filmmaking ambition and partly because he was successful enough to justify decent budgets, simply bigger and better-looking than most silent films. Whereas Chaplin made intimate poetic miniatures that are admirable but can sometimes cloy, Keaton made broad, bright murals that do not require much adjustment of your mind-set. The General still works as a movie comedy, and it’s going on 90 years old.
Many early-20th-century vaudeville stars left the stage to help power the burgeoning media of radio and TV, but few were bigger or brighter than George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their signature routine, “Lampchops,” carries with it the true vaudevillian spirit in that it joyfully delivers a little bit of everything: Wit, wordplay, bits of physical business, and a diverting ditty about love, complete with soft shoe. In this eight-minute version recorded as a Vitaphone short, the savvy and dryly sarcastic Burns sidles up to the guileless Allen, who floats on her own cloud while defending her smarts and the reason why she’s more than one woman (“My mother has a picture of me when I was 2”). In addition to encapsulating the duo’s deceptively easy chemistry, “Lambchops” makes abundantly clear why the plucky Allen was a yardstick by which future “dizzy” dames — e.g. Chrissy from Three’s Company or Phoebe from Friends — would be measured.
When Jon Stewart was hosting The Daily Show, there were many times when you could feel Stewart was truly bothered by the social injustice or the bonehead media figure he was talking about, and even though Stewart was speaking from the heart, he could still make you laugh. That was what Will Rogers pioneered in the 1930s. With a down-home, backwoods charm, Rogers became a national figure by discussing the government and his humorous, logical approach to what was wrong with it. In the midst of the Great Depression, Hoover introduced a plan designed to encourage local groups to help with unemployment, and he asked Rogers to appear on the radio to help promote this plan. What he got were these jokes. Every generation needs a Colbert to present the truth in an entertaining way, and Will Rogers was one of the first we had.
Laurel and Hardy are hired to deliver a piano to a house in Los Angeles, and discover on their arrival that the door is at the top of a very steep, very narrow flight of steps. That’s it. The bare-bones premise allows it to become a pure physical-comedy experiment: How many possible variations can they ring on “Piano goes partway up; piano goes back down”? It’s like a Bach fugue, with a theme and variations and then variations on the variations, although Bach’s keyboard ended up in better shape than this battered instrument does.
We got guns /
All God’s chillun got guns”
There are a lot of different ways to express how you’re feeling about the state of the world. The Marx Brothers used insanity. In Duck Soup, Groucho is appointed the leader of the small country of Freedonia, but when the neighboring country of Sylvania attempts to annex it, Freedonia goes to war. The final ten minutes of the movie begin with the song “The Country’s Going to War,” in which the people of Freedonia excitedly sing about the coming conflict, but it slowly devolves into a minstrel show in which the brothers sing “All God’s Chillun Got Guns.” The final battle is a rapid-fire attack of jokes, similar to the Tommy gun Groucho uses to accidentally shoot his own soldiers. This section of Duck Soup appears briefly in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen’s character, in the midst of an existential crisis, has an epiphany that, rather than trying to understand everything about life, we should just enjoy it. The Marx Brothers may not have been able to do anything about the coming war, but they certainly gave us something to laugh about.
It’s almost a crime to pick just one of Mae West’s brilliant, bawdy quips, but it’s hard to say there’s a joke that more perfectly sums up West’s pithy, punchy power quite so well. A playwright who was once arrested for her risqué material, West wrote her best lines herself, including this one, from her hit film I’m No Angel, which provoked such shock and outrage with audiences that it helped contribute to the institution of the restrictive Hays Code in Hollywood. Before that, she was an early subject of FCC censorship. She was also an early advocate of LGBT rights and sexual freedom, and in the 1930s she reportedly bought the upscale apartment building she was living in to force it to desegregate. At once a renegade, a box-office sensation, and an unlikely sex symbol, she reshaped the very rules of comedy. When she was good she was very good, but when she was bad, she was an absolute badass.
Peter: What are you going to do?
Ellie: A system all my own …
One of the earliest examples of the Depression-era screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s charming road-trip film created an enduring template for escapist romantic fictions featuring temperamentally mismatched leads, with a touch of slapstick humor and motormouthed banter worth reciting. Gable’s cocky newspaperman Peter Warne finds a story and a love interest in Colbert’s Ellie Andrews, a headstrong heiress on the run from the iron fist of her rich father. The film’s signature bit is a visual gag in which Peter teaches Ellie how to hitchhike; after a half-dozen cars zoom by in rapid succession, Ellie steps up, hikes up her skirt to reveal a little leg, and the next driver immediately skids to a halt. The tactic betters Ellie’s chauvinistic counterpart, and firms up the ideal of the sassy, brassy woman whose sex appeal is a tool subservient to the machinations of her clever mind. In the context of this modern Taming of the Shrew, the smart, sexy sensibility of this bit influenced a host of other lightly bawdy screwballs, and has been handed down to argumentative would-be paramours, from Moonlighting’s David and Maddie to Archer and Lana from Archer.
This was the joke, which Fred Allen quipped in response to a child violinist who performed on his show, that was the start of the legendary “feud” between Allen and Jack Benny. Creating a fake rivalry to get attention was nothing new when the wry, clever Allen started taking shots at his longtime friend Benny on the air, but their commitment to the gag was. The two volleyed insults back-and-forth on their shows and made occasional appearances on each other’s programs, they ran a “Why I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest, and a three-round boxing match between Allen and Benny was advertised (though it would never come to fruition). The pair kept the sideshow going for a decade. This blurring of the line between what is reality and what is comedy would happen again and again thereafter, with great moments such as Andy Kaufman’s foray into wrestling, various comedians’ presidential runs, and, to some extent, the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen. Allen never made the leap to television, which, sadly, leaves him in the shadows of that era’s comedic greats, but when it came to smart comedy that rewarded the audience for paying attention, nobody did it better than Fred Allen.
It’s hard to say with authority exactly who invented the one-liner, but Borscht Belt comedian Henny Youngman (the man Walter Winchell called “the King of the One-Liners”) is arguably responsible for the most famous one ever. Just like how Groucho’s moustache, eyebrows, nose, and glasses became synonymous with “comedian,” “Take my wife … please” is the Platonic ideal of a joke. The format is one that is still mimicked to this day: using a familiar phrase to draw people in, then taking a sharp left turn. And though the joke is seen as shticky and hacky at this point, structurally it is deceptively elegant, as the setup is hiding inside what seems like a transition. Despite writing tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of jokes in his life, legend has it that Youngman’s most famous one was the result of an accident. When he first started working on the The Kate Smith Show, Youngman’s beloved wife, Sadie, brought a bunch of her friends backstage with her. Annoyed, Youngman brought his wife to the stagehand and said, “Take my wife, please.” The rest is history.
No single sketch has imprinted itself on the American psyche in the last century more acutely than “Who’s on First.” This impeccably structured scene of baseball monikers and prickly pronouns was both the germ of Abbott and Costello’s incredible career and its crown jewel. The sketch itself endures for a number of reasons: Its simple premise delivering myriad laugh lines, the clear schlemiel-schlimazel dynamic between performers, the room it provides for embellishment, and the rat-a-tat delivery make it feel like a ramshackle Ford Model T gathering speed as it barrels toward the edge of a cliff. As the calm and collected Abbott painstakingly explains his baseball team’s lineup — “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I-Don’t-Know’s on third” — Costello tumbles headlong into a misunderstanding made funnier by his infuriated and impotent yaps. Loving tributes to Abbott and Costello’s rhythms and antagonistic banter can be found in countless buddy movies, as well as current projects by fans such as Quentin Tarantino and Jerry Seinfeld. The sketch’s history also tells us something about the American relationship with ownership of comedic material; while the act was drawn from similar vaudeville acts of the day, Abbott and Costello copyrighted “Who’s on First” in 1944.
The portly, hard-drinking comic spoke that line in his last starring role in a career marred by alcoholism. Off-screen problems aside, Fields found a way to make audiences laugh at and root for a character who hated children as much as he loved liquor and thumbing his red nose at societal norms. Generations later, we’d get Archie Bunker, Larry David, and dozens of other semi-lovable misanthropes, all indebted to Fields.
This joke is reputed to have had the longest sustained laughs in radio history. Though that might be an exaggeration, what it did do was create the perfect joke to represent the medium’s biggest comedic star. Jack Benny had a lot of recurring jokes associated with his character: no matter how old he got, he always insisted he was 39; he was terrible at the violin; and he was very cheap. So when Benny’s character is walking home and is given the ultimatum “Your money or your life,” the studio audience is already dying when Jack takes a pause. When Benny finally says, “I’m thinking it over,” the audience explodes. It’s a joke that can only be told by this character, when the audience is already anticipating how he’d react. This is the hard-to-write type of joke that long-running series like The Simpsons or recurring characters on Saturday Night Live need to constantly invent in order to surprise the audience. A joke that is perfect for the character, but is still surprising to an audience — nobody nailed it like Benny.
It was 1948, a year into commercial-television broadcasting, and literally nobody had figured out what TV comedy would or could be. Berle had worked a million stages, starting in vaudeville, and had a clue: The ten-inch, black-and-white screen meant that almost nothing could overwhelm, and the broader the performance the better. Unsubtle shtick, ridiculous costumes, patter, a frantic, frenetic pace — it all turned out to be right for the smudgy image on a ten-inch, black-and-white screen. Within a few years, TV grew slightly more sophisticated (and screens got bigger), and Berle’s career started to run out of gas, but you can still spot his comedic DNA in any club where a comic is capably humiliating a heckler in the back of the room.
While there were other female comedy performers — in TV and movies, or as a part of double acts — Jean Carroll was the first to break through by standing alone onstage. Though called the “female Milton Berle” and the “female Bob Hope” (she had to be compared to men, because there were no female comedians to compare her to), you watch her stand-up now and you see a style uniquely her own. Her rapid-fire delivery that sneaks in punch lines as she blitzes her way through a monologue, like in the joke above, feels arrestingly contemporary, and might remind you of Amy Schumer or the way Jim Gaffigan delivers his punch lines in falsetto under his breath. She moved so quickly and was so ahead of her time, she literally tells the audience to catch up. Ed Sullivan got it, though, asking her to appear on the show over 20 times. Watching those appearances was a young Lily Tomlin, who dressed up like Carroll as a kid.
Sid Caesar’s first TV show was so successful that its sponsor couldn’t produce enough to meet audience demand and had to cancel the show. His second show was so popular that it was cancelled so the network could break it into two different shows. Milton Berle figured out how to do comedy on TV; Sid Caesar perfected it. Your Show of Shows was basically SNL before there was SNL: A guest host would perform sketches with Sid, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and the rest of the players, and a song or two would be performed. There had been parodies on television before YSoS, but this program was among the first to write parodies that capitalized on the specific strengths of its performers. Watch how in “A Streetcar Named” Sid, one of the greatest physical comedians who has ever lived, is given a number of physical jokes to perform, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with the original film. Yet he is able to boil down all of Marlon Brando’s legendary performance into 30 seconds of eating sloppily. Without Sid, there’s probably no Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Mad magazine, or SNL.
As if being arguably the greatest American sitcom star of the 20th century weren’t an impressive enough achievement, Lucille Ball also broke huge barriers both on and off-screen. She was the first woman to run her own production company, the reason CBS changed its mind about allowing multiethnic couples on television, and quite possibly the only reason Star Trek exists (no, seriously). Though I Love Lucy may seem almost obscenely wholesome now, at the time, story lines like that of “Job Switching” — Lucy and Ethel get jobs while Ricky and Fred act as their housewives — were pretty envelope-pushing, not to mention the fact that it pioneered the three-camera, live audience setup, without which we wouldn’t have Cheers or Seinfeld or Friends or The Big Bang Theory. But what Lucille Ball (and Vivian Vance as Ethel) did in scenes like the forever-parodied chocolate-conveyer-belt scene was pave the way for generations of comedians to be unabashedly funny, fearless, and no-holds-barred silly, all while writing their own rules.
In 1950s San Francisco, when audiences expected performers to grace the stage in jacket and tie, Mort Sahl shuffled into the spotlight in a disarming bright-red sweater and freshly pressed khakis, ever-present newspaper in hand. He was often mistaken for a student at the trendy hungry i club, and that unassuming appearance came in handy, as his biting topical humor was known to split the room. No topic was off-limits, no target was taboo, not even the communist witch hunts of McCarthy-era America. But Sahl made it palatable by speaking to his audiences in their own language, with unprecedented conversationalism and intellectualism. In the joke that helped him develop a cult following, for example, he invoked the then-popular Eisenhower jacket, in an accessible metaphor about oppressive government fear-mongering. Before The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, there was Mort Sahl, who besides being a tremendous influence on Woody Allen, was the progenitor of the challenging political comedy we know today.
The incredibly prolific “King of the Party Records” was a revolutionary figure in his day, trading in bawdy one-liners and long-winded yarns that transfixed black clubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit, as well as white crowds on the Vegas strip. Before he starred in Sanford and Son, Foxx found his voice telling the sort of off-color jokes one might expect from a tipsy uncle letting loose after Thanksgiving dinner; audiences in early recordings of his multivolume Laff of the Party albums laugh with such unbridled enthusiasm, it’s easy to make out the kind of release he provided to otherwise polite ’50s audiences. The pickpocket joke is certainly just one of thousands Foxx had in his pocket, but it represents two things he loved most in a joke: wordplay and sex. Foxx’s taboo-busting frank talk earned him many admirers, though his most obvious descendants are cheerfully filthy storytellers such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
There’s a reason that, in 1994, 1,000 animation professionals named Chuck Jones’s masterpiece “What’s Opera, Doc?” the greatest cartoon of all time. It’s astounding how much story and comedy they cover in such a short time. Parodying Richard Wagner’s operas (not to mention Disney’s Fantasia and arguably Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd’s whole thing), it essentially tells all of “Ring Cycle” in less than seven minutes. Its density influenced, and will continue to influence, all cartoons that came after it.
What's Opera Doc by MistyIsland1
Two jazz musicians accidentally witness a gang murder and go on the run, disguised as women. The plot seems pretty innocuous today, but in the 1950s the Hays Code required films to be “moral” and “wholesome,” so Some LIke it Hot, with it’s cross-dressing and hints at homosexuality had to be made without the approval of the Motion Picture Production Code. Banned in Kansas and condemned by the Vatican, the film’s last line is just perfection, sharply capping off 120 minutes of subversive zaniness while at the same time subtly hinting at the idea that people should love whomever they want to love. The joke is hilarious yet oddly touching, subversive yet romantic, all while essentially summarizing the whole movie; it’s no surprise that the film tops almost every list of best comedy films of all time.
Though An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May was the duo’s biggest critical and commercial hit, it’s even easier to see how revolutionary they were with their rawer debut, Improvisations to Music. There is just so much in this joke. There is the natural banter and subtle heightening of improvised dialogue; the duo met earlier in the decade as members of the Compass Players, the seminal improv group that also included Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Shelley Berman, and Del Close, whose members, in the same year as this record came out, founded the Second City. Beyond that, the joke is remarkable for how well it captured how mid-century, high-brow people talked. Nichols and May affectionately parodied beat trends and intellectual pretensions, in which pillow talk becomes a game of who-can-drop-the-impressively-most-obscure-literary-reference. (Their back-and-forth sounds like an Annie Hall outtake, and it came out 18 years prior.) After Nichols and May, and some of their peers, comedy would no longer be primarily defined by a man in a tuxedo telling jokes in a nightclub. Still, what’s most enjoyable about the piece is hearing Nichols and May enjoy each other: They were their own audience and above all they made each other laugh. It’s an influence you still see today, as comedy has become more insular, reliant on increasingly obscure references. The idea of making comedy for yourself, your friends, and people who think and experience the world the way you do was uncommon before Nichols and May, and fundamental to comedy after.
In the age of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, of social satire and the “subversive” comic, it was a wonder that a former accountant who looked like your dad’s best friend could put out best-selling comedy albums and become his own unique comedy institution. Bob Newhart always sounded like he was making up his act as he went along, which not only made him relatable, but exciting. In “The Driving Instructor,” his signature style is on display: a one-sided monologue in which you only hear the instructor’s befuddled responses, rather than the more unhinged student driver on the other side. Most of his bits followed this sort of “straight person, crazy person” structure, and this one is no exception. You also get a good sense of his expert timing; not many people could live inside a befuddled pause like Bob Newhart, and he went on to become one of the most-beloved comics of all time, influencing every understated comic who came after.
There’s a head-scratcher at the center of comic Dick Gregory’s career: Is he a comedian drawn to politics or the nation’s funniest politician? Early in his career, it was much more clear which side of the fence he was on. After getting out of the military, Gregory told jokes in black and white rooms, got a leg up from admirer Hugh Hefner, and worked on TV appearances to provoke thought and motivate action through comedy. Though his early shows had punchy one-liners about everything from space travel to drinking booze, his clear-eyed look at black life in the segregated South will be his legacy. This restaurant joke was one of the first to undercut segregation and discrimination in a public setting with bold intelligence and humility. Whether he had it in mind to deliver a spoonful of sugar to help audiences take the medicine or simply channeled anger into laughs, it’s hard to say, but seminal jokes like the one above never betray a hint of bitterness. This contemporary of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, who still performs occasionally at the age of 84, has touched thinkers irascible, e.g. Paul Mooney, and genial, e.g. Bill Maher.
The idea of white guilt as a punch line feels like nothing new today, when publicly calling out people and organizations for racial microaggressions using the most up-to-date social-justice buzzwords is a viable path to online celebrity. But in 1961, when ally status wasn’t assumed or expected, Lenny Bruce’s “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” boldly indicted and lampooned his target audience, and said something important and new. The speaker in this bit clearly has the best intentions, yet still manages to speak almost exclusively in stereotypes or compliments steeped in unconfirmed generalizations. For example, in the above joke, he pokes fun not at the malicious racists, but the ignorant who mean well. It’s a line in the sand no one before Bruce had drawn. The joke also captures the fearlessness of Bruce’s comedy, unafraid to offend or paint himself as a villain for the sake of mocking injustice (see also: this bit). Though his comedy is of-a-time, this is ultimately why he continues to be held in such high regard. It’s not hard to see his influence in George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and all political comedians of the last half-century.
It’s now a given that any sketch or late-night show worth its salt will have someone who can impersonate the president, but there was a time when the practice was unthinkable. Then came Vaughn Meader, with his dropped r’s and Harvard–New England accent. After honing his President Kennedy impression at nightclubs, Meader released The First Family, a record of JFK sketches. Despite its lighthearted tone, James Hagerty, President Eisenhower’s former press secretary and a top executive at ABC, called it “degrading to the president.” The American public didn’t agree, however, as the album was a sensation, becoming the fastest-selling record at the time. People nationwide were quoting the above joke. President Kennedy himself addressed the record, saying at a press conference, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.” Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey’s George Bush, Jordan Peele’s Barack Obama: Comedy has a history of helping to shape public perception of a president — and it all started here.
There’s no way you get to David Letterman without Steve Allen, whose early TV career — including the first iteration of The Tonight Show, plus several other series — was practically anarchic for network TV. He (and Ernie Kovacs, who’d be all over this list had he not died young in a car accident) just tried anything: camera tricks, man-on-the-street interviews real and mock, phone calls to random strangers that went off in weird directions. Letterman paid homage to Allen (and credited him) often and openly: His Alka-Seltzer suit explicitly mimics the teabag stunt, and he, too, drew on the endless comedy fountain that comes from watching street weirdos.
The wheelchair-bound titular character gets the most laughs with his uncontrollable right arm and occasional outbursts that reveal his loyalty to Adolf Hitler. But the best line of the film belongs to President Merkin Muffley, another of the three characters Sellers portrayed. The delivery is so forceful, so serious, that it takes a few seconds to realize how absurd the line is, as the world faces assured destruction. Civilization doesn’t fear nukes like it used to, but the sentiment of “Well, everything is fucked so we might as well laugh” makes this a timeless treasure and a peak of political satire.
In the early days of TV, networks had room to experiment, play, and occasionally fail — and without this freedom, the country may never have learned about the warm and antic improvisational comic Jonathan Winters. After some early appearances on shows such as Omnibus, he found a home on The Tonight Show during Jack Paar’s five-year stint as host. Occasionally, the audience would get a taste of his established characters, such as saucy old lady Maude Frickert; other times, Winters would be handed a prop or two and then be encouraged to let loose. One of Winters’s most famous appearances with Paar was on The Jack Paar Program, where he found himself with a stick in his hand, stretching his rubber mug, and impulsively creating a series of scenarios in rapid succession. As the comedian goes fishing, fights bulls, and reports to superior officers about seeing giant beetles, he often finds rich characters as well as crisp punch lines. With the mental agility and physicality on display here, it’s easy to understand why successive generations of comics, Robin Williams in particular, emulated Winters in every way they could.
At a time when most comedians of color were relegated to finding success only on the Chitlin’ Circuit, thanks to killer appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, mainstream audiences welcomed a “dirty old lady” stand-up named Moms Mabley into their homes with open arms. It’s unclear whether Mabley’s cuckoo-clock bit preceded her as a stock joke that she made her own or whether she originated the joke that would later be covered by comedy greats such as George Kirby and Redd Foxx, but Moms was the one to put the joke on the map. Mabley’s unmistakable cadence and uniquely gravelly timbre took a piece of unquestionably hilarious writing on a subject (successfully hiding marijuana in a cuckoo clock during a police raid, after which time the cuckoo gets high and forgets or neglects to coo for hours) that at the time would have been considered indelicate at best, and elevated it from just a solid joke to something that wouldn’t be out of place performed on the bluest comedy show you could find.
Fiddle with your rosaries /
Bow your head with great respect /
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect …”
A Harvard mathematics professor starts writing funny Cole Porter–inspired songs, self-releases an album, and before long is performing those songs every week on national television. “The Vatican Rag” is Lehrer’s satirical look at the Second Vatican Council, which attempted to update the Catholic Church by getting rid of the hymns and bringing in some popular music. With jokes like the one above, Lehrer doesn’t just poke fun at a sacred cow, he slaughters it. “Weird Al” Yankovic cites Lehrer as one of his greatest musical influences, and it’s very easy to see the connection.
When people look back on Johnny Carson’s career, a lot of the focus is on monologue jokes and the comedians he introduced to national audiences. The fact that Johnny was a natural performer who was quick on his feet is frequently forgotten. After Ed Ames, a co-star on TV’s Daniel Boone, ended up striking the chalk cowboy with a tomahawk, right between the legs, the audience exploded. Johnny waited for his moment, even going as far as to prevent Ames from retrieving the tomahawk before dropping an ad-lib that would live on in a million blooper specials for years to come. Johnny was quick on his feet, he was risqué without saying anything dirty, and he knew how to spin a mistake into classic television.
While Don Rickles, a.k.a. “Mr. Warmth,” was making a name for himself in mob-run Las Vegas casinos along with the likes of Shecky Greene, other comedians were getting tight fives together for The Ed Sullivan Show. Unlike those of his peers, Rickles’s act required time and space to explore, and most important, a high-profile audience to relentlessly mock. The Dean Martin Show provided a national television stage for his celebrity-insult act by putting him in his element and re-creating a Vegas showroom, complete with stars of the day, such as Boone. Rickles is a model jester when mocking the powerful — even presidents — so the fact that Boone happened to be drinking milk during his act was basically like a layup. The key to the joke might be “and I’m a friend,” as Rickles’s shtick worked, like the best roasters since, because he insulted out of love. His fearlessly subversive act ended up making him a TV regular on The Tonight Show, a star of roasts, and an inspiration for future generations of insult comics. Simply put, Chris Rock wasn’t the first person to offer someone a cookie.
It’s hard to pick a single joke of Bob Hope’s because he had a million of them. Well, maybe not a million, but he did have an 85,000-page “Joke File” which was scanned by the Library of Congress. Hope hosted the Oscars 19 times, and despite being one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he was never even nominated for an Academy Award himself. Hosting the show in 1968, he opened with one of his most famous jokes: “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it’s known at my house, Passover.” With this one succinct joke, in his influential, unmistakable cadence, not only do we get a funny, self-deprecating quip playing off his long career in show business, but he also hints at how Hollywood views comedy. Sure, we all love to laugh, but is it art? Hope was America’s comedic embassador, and as part of his duties he inspired (and employed) countless comedians over the span of his very long career. But that didn’t mean he was going to get an Oscar nomination (He did get 5 Honorary Awards, though).
Deutschland is happy and gay /
We're marching to a faster pace /
Look out, here comes the master race”
Ah, irreverence! We take you for granted these days, as you are seemingly everywhere, but let’s not forget the pioneers. In The Producers, Mel Brooks set out to touch the untouchable: Holocaust jokes. To have the climax of your film be an ironic song-and-dance number about the glory of Hitler and the Nazi Party was risky at the time, to say the least, and many studios and distributors wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. The film received wildly mixed reviews and it was an initial box-office flop. But apparently the world soon came to their senses, as Brooks nabbed an Oscar for his screenplay, while The Producers went on to become one of the most-beloved comedies of all time, eventually spurring a wildly successful Broadway musical of the same name. Vulgar, satirical, and filled with ethnic jokes, Brooks’s early work would go on to inspire everyone from the Zucker Brothers to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose Book of Mormon wouldn’t have existed without The Producers as a precursor.
Nobody self-deprecated like Phyllis Diller, a true pioneer in the art of making fun of oneself. She discovered that it helps a comic to not only have something “wrong” with themselves, but to also play it up, especially when introducing yourself. One of the first jokes a comedian writes is usually some form of “I know what you’re thinking,” followed by a self-administered pot shot to disarm the audience. For Diller, this manifested itself in wearing outlandish bag dresses and exaggerated hair and makeup, wanting the crowd to only focus on her jokes. (Note: She had many TV appearances in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but as you can see from her look, she was made for the late-’60s boom in color televisions.) For that, every comedian, male and female, owes something to Diller. Most immediately Joan Rivers, who honed her act by taking herself down a peg with one-liners about being an unmarried Jewish woman. Rivers wore cuter dresses, however.
These three words — “I hate spunk” — uttered by Ed Asner as Mary’s soon-to-be boss, during the pilot’s job-interview scene, trenchantly captured exactly what it was like to be a single woman trying to enter the workforce in the early ’70s and the fundamental (proto–Leslie Knope vs. Ron Swanson) dynamic that would propel the show through seven critically acclaimed seasons. And not only that, but it was being directed toward Mary Tyler Moore, an actress America fell in love with as Laura Petrie, the fictional wife of Dick Van Dyke. Incredibly poignant at the time, it also set a template for a charming yet awkward female protagonist trying to have it all (see: Liz Lemon).
Tomlin’s Ernestine exploded after her appearances on Laugh-In. The phone operator was as big as a fictional character gets, appearing on countless other late-night shows and in Tomlin’s own comedy projects, even interviewing Cher at one point (Cher!). Ernestine was insistent, with a mildly sinister snorting laugh, and she pretended to be your friend, which is what made her dangerous. This joke in particular hit the hardest, as the aforementioned “Mr. Veedle” was supposed to be Gore Vidal. The whole enterprise was subversive at the time, commenting on major telephone companies’ tendency to extort money and information from customers. Initially, Ma Bell tried to stop the bit from ever happening, though they later played nice and offered her a “community service award.” Tomlin is rarely given enough credit for her trailblazer status, crushing it as a “woman in comedy” and as a Generally Hilarious Human Person before SNL was even a thing. Her influence reached every sketch and character performer who came after her, from Gilda Radner to Mike Myers to Kristen Wiig.
A Mexican-American from L.A. dodges the draft and meets a half-white, half-Asian guy in Canada. They form a comedy duo. The source of their material? Marijuana. One sketch about a deal gone wrong due to a brain-dead smoker becomes a hit, leading to more hilarious albums about weed and music and race, then eventually a film franchise. It’s hard to call Cheech and Chong’s comedy “sophisticated,” but there is something singular about “Dave,” which is essentially a stoner “Who’s on First.” There’s a humanity in this short sketch, especially in Chong’s confused character. Stoner comedy is still going strong today – if not more so today, as weed becomes more socially acceptable – and it can be traced back to this three-word punch line. Big Lebowski, Friday, Pineapple Express, Half Baked, Broad City, etc.: All of it.
Did you ever notice: Four words that would go on to define a generation of comedians, and Brenner was one of the first stand-ups associated with it. He used the phrase to start the above joke in his first Tonight Show set, and it would be used in many more Tonight Show sets as his style became de rigueur during the ensuing comedy boom. Before Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, there was Brenner, who, as Richard Lewis put it, was the king of observational comedy.
This is the joke that started it all. Dangerfield had the second half, but, as he told an interviewer in 1986, he needed to put something “in front of it: I was so poor, I was so dumb, so this, so that.” It was 1972, the year The Godfather came out. “All I heard was the word ‘respect,”’ he told the New York Times. “’You’ve got to give me respect,’ or ‘Respect him.’ I thought to myself: It sounds like a funny image — a guy who gets no respect.” It was a game-changer for Dangerfield, who struggled for years under the name Jack Roy. With a new image and catchphrase, he became a comedy star, building on the work of Henny Youngman and Don Rickles to create one-liners that were darker, grittier, more specific. Comedians have an ideal age for their comedy, and it seems Dangerfield needed to be a little older and a lot more grizzled before America wanted to hear from him. By the time he really hit it big, in the ’80s, Dangerfield was already in his 60s. Old, but not too old to push stand-up forward.
It’s difficult to describe, at this distance, the shock waves that All in the Family radiated out into the network-TV pond. Most late-’60s sitcoms were the palest of pap, in the Munsters and Gilligan’s Island vein; unless you count the young-and-single status of the Marlo Thomas character on That Girl, it was tough to find even a hint of the social dynamics riving the country. Suddenly, a family in Queens with a racist dad and a lefty son-in-law was arguing — really vigorously! — over the Vietnam War and the dynamics of race, dealing with crime and hypocrisy and, in one episode, a very close call with a rapist. The series almost never slid over into treacly Very Special Episode territory, either; the issue-oriented stuff was baked into its premise, and it usually stayed funny. The Sammy Davis Jr. episode upped the stakes with a celebrity cameo, and what an ideal celebrity for Archie to meet: black, Jewish, one-eyed, and wildly charismatic.
Early in his career, the L.A.-based comic, actor, and director Brooks longed to cheerfully destabilize the staid realms of comedy with which he’d come into contact. As he appeared on TV variety shows in the late ’60s and beyond, Brooks breathed new life into the old tropes of comedy by making the usual subterfuge involved in particular kinds of acts abundantly obvious. To wit, one of his earliest bits, on the Flip Wilson Show, featured him deconstructing ventriloquism by telling stock jokes and moving his mouth in an obvious way; while it doesn’t seem funny on paper, Brooks’s knowing script and chipper delivery made it shine. On his first album, Comedy Minus One, he even invited you — yes, you — to get involved in the act. The title track, a routine about a trip to the garage, leaves empty spaces for lines read aloud at home from a script, which was included on the inside of the album cover. Over the course of the scene, you — yes, you — essentially grift Brooks (and guest comic Georgie Jessel) while picking up all the laugh lines. Though, if you are just listening, which presumably most are, you’ll only hear Brooks and Jessel talking to no one. The smarts behind the experiment, and the verve with which it’s delivered, make the jokes irresistible. It’s the sort of anti-comedy experiment that doubtless had an effect on Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin, not to mention essentially every alternative comedian of the last 20 years.
“Word Association” was not even written by one of the show’s writers, as Pryor insisted the show hire Paul Mooney for the week. Mooney is one of the all-time greatest comic minds on the subject of race, and this sketch showed just that. That “Nigger” –“Dead honkey” climax still feels dangerous and revelatory, partly because of how direct and simple it is. Mooney wrote in his memoir it was the easiest thing he ever wrote, as all he had to do was write what it was like to interview with NBC executives earlier in the week to work on the show. As a piece of comedy, it demanded attention. It’s a role that comedy unfortunately has continued to play ever since: forcing people who like to believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore to confront that it does, and ideally laugh at how oblivious they were being. It’s arguably the most important sketch about race ever written, and all comedy about race — whether by Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, or Key & Peele — follows in its path.
“There’s one thing I think everybody agrees on, and that’s who the nicest guy in show business is. And, of course, I’m talking about Mr. Mike Douglas. Yeah! Yeah, come on! You know, I was home the other day and I happened to catch Mike’s show, and a funny thought occurred to me. I wondered: What if someone took very large steel needles, say 15, 18 inches long, large steel needles with real sharp points, and plunged them into Mike’s eyes. What would his reaction be, huh? I think it might go something like this.” [O’Donoghue turns his back to the camera to prepare his impression. He turns back around, puts his hands to his eyes, and screams maniacally.]
SNL’s inaugural season left viewing audiences reeling for many reasons, not least among them the show’s penchant for raw, rough humor, and the cast’s irreverence toward the popular culture they were raised on. The grim prince behind much of the darkness was Michael O’Donoghue, a performer and writer famous for not only contributing to National Lampoon but creating pitch-black satires such as “The Vietnamese Baby Book.” In addition to teaching John Belushi’s eager foreign man to speak English phrases such as “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” O’Donoghue made himself known in SNL’s first year as an impersonator of sorts. Buck Henry came to the stage and informed the crowd that the “king of impressionists” was on his way. O’Donoghue, dressed in Vegas-standard jacket and tie, amiably wondered what it would look like if Mike Douglas had steel needles shoved in his eyes. The aggressive screaming and flailing that followed was a shock, and O’Donoghue’s wild commitment sold it as comedy. (Henry capped off the bit by asking genially, “Uncanny, isn’t it?”) The violent, gross-out gag was a gauntlet thrown down to its audience, a test to see how far they were willing to go, and the reverberations of the gesture can be felt in generations of black-comedy acolytes.
One of the silliest and sweetest family entertainments ever to air on network TV, The Carol Burnett Show knew exactly how to please its audience. While Burnett and her supporting cast of inveterate gigglers were known for their recurring characters, big performances, and breaking one another onstage, they also committed to opulent, crowd-pleasing movie parodies. The show took on many classics, including Double Indemnity and From Here to Eternity, but it was their parody of antebellum Southern landmark Gone With the Wind — and one visual gag in particular — that stuck in fans’ minds. Like Scarlett herself, Carol Burnett’s Starlet tears down and transforms her drapery into a makeshift gown when she looks to seduce Harvey Korman’s Ratt Butler. But when Starlet sashays down the long flight of stairs, draped in her drapes, it’s clear she has overlooked one simple aspect of the alteration: the curtain rod, which sticks out two feet on either side of her shoulders. This sort of impeccable detail helped push the movie parody to new heights, and a ripple of its influence was not only felt not only in burgeoning shows like SCTV and SNL, but in masterful visuals crafted by the likes of Key & Peele.
When Elayne Boosler arrived on the comedy scene in the 1970s, she broke ground for female comics with her brash, pro-sex material. A 1979 New York Times article highlighted her unapologetic approach to stand-up — she wasn’t self-deprecating, she wasn’t that interested in losing weight, and she wasn’t filled with shame about being a woman. In this joke, she’s giving voice to the woman’s perspective in dating and casual sex, at a time when female comics were few and far between. It was another decade before she became the first woman to have her own hour-long TV special (she had to self-finance it, however), and while she never became quite the mainstream-success story of her peers, like Jay Leno and Andy Kaufman, she paved the way for every subsequent female comedian who wasn’t afraid to go up against the boys.
Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall is jam-packed with jokes and moments that irrevocably changed comedy, but it’s the film’s famous fourth-wall-breaking intro that warrants mention, as it basically sums up Allen’s career in one joke. In it, the writer-director-star literally builds on the work of his comedic predecessors, taking jokey-jokes and making them more introspective, neurotic, existential, and cerebral. Annie Hall was the last true comedy to win the Best Picture Oscar, beating Star Wars in the process. That’s fitting: The history of sci-fi cinema can be divided into before and after Star Wars; the same can be said of Annie Hall and comedy.
While Carlin may have had routines more philosophical than the one about the seven curse words one can’t say on television, there’s no denying this juggernaut of censorship and linguistic glee. Carlin was present at Lenny Bruce’s infamous obscenity arrest, and was arrested under similar circumstances himself, so his evolving examination of the nation’s selective prudishness was fueled by very real experiences. The routine encapsulates Carlin’s insatiable drive to examine hypocrisy in our culture — be that hypocrisy in the realm of religion, language, or politics — and his determination to open his audience’s eyes about the rites and rituals holding society back. Even as Carlin punctuates his speech with a rhythmic, recurring loop of the seven words, his erudition and incisiveness make the bit the most intelligent dissection of swear words to date. Carlin revisited the routine for the better part of the decade. It was first heard on his 1972 record Class Clown, but it’s most iconic performance might’ve been when he finally performed it on television, in his 1977 HBO special, which provided a warning before he went into it. Of course, comics can say almost anything they want on TV these days. The relaxing of our national morals may have a lot to do with it, but surely Carlin’s crusading had some sway. The bit’s impact can also be felt with profane, brainy boundary-pushers like Bill Hicks and Patrice O’Neal, and shows like Inside Amy Schumer.
On Location: George Carlin at USC (2/2) by therustyfishplate
Taken from his 1977 debut album, Let’s Get Small, Steve Martin’s “excuse me” bit is an incredibly layered moment of comedy. He starts off playing the banjo, tells the audience he’s going to make a bit of a departure from his normal routine, asks for mood lighting, and then goes into a seemingly off-script diatribe about how the backstage crew isn’t meeting his standards, leaving the crowd wondering if this is part of the show or just a comedian being a bit of a diva. Then he finally gets to the punch line, two simple, drawn-out, overly exaggerated words: “Excuse me!” And then he just goes back to playing his banjo, seemingly letting the audience know that it was all just a brilliantly crafted dumb joke. It’s the purest articulation of anti-comedy you’ll find: It’s a comedy show, so people are expecting something funny to happen, what would be really surprising (and thus really funny) is if something unfunny happened. (Yes, explaining the humor dries it up a little. Sorry.) This joke exists as a sort of patient zero for which so much comedy can be traced that it’s almost silly to make a list. Even so: The Simpsons, Mr. Show, Wet Hot American Summer, Norm Macdonald, Tim and Eric, and oh so many other alternative comedians, past and present, followed in Martin’s footsteps. The fact that the joke created a national catchphrase and made Martin an unprecedented stand-up megastar is a testament to how revolutionary it was.
The man an overwhelming number of comedians and comedy fans will espouse as the best of all time, Pryor was at his loopy, confessional, raucous, and blue best in the live setting. It follows that Pryor’s filmed performances, Live on the Sunset Strip and Live in Concert in particular, are indisputable powerhouses. The latter sees Pryor sweating through his shirt and twitching behind his mustache, sticking and weaving as he moves from topic to topic, not unlike the fighters in his bit about boxing. As usual, Pryor makes stray observations about race as readily as he delves into drug addiction, and reveals his vulnerabilities as quickly as he gets political. He also depicts a lot of strange things, the most memorable of which is a heart attack. It’s a scary and delicate subject Pryor lays plain without hesitation, twisting his body on the floor as he remembers some great force stopping his breath and even scolding him, “You know black people have high blood pressure, anyway, don’t you? Watch your diet!” It’s an unfettered and beautiful bit that has inspired a horde of comics, including Chris Rock and Louis CK.
Airplane! is arguably the quintessential cinematic example of brilliantly stupid humor, and this joke may be the stupidest — and therefore, the best. The 1980 classic abounds with quotable one-liners and layered jokes that improve with time, but no one steals the show more than the straight-faced Leslie Nielsen imploring Robert Hays to land their out-of-control plane. It’s been named one of the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time,” and its genius is in its homophonic simplicity: It’s funny, I can say from experience, to both a small child and a professional comedy critic. It’s the kind of quip that thousands of screenwriters have attempted to mimic — how could Austin Powers, Zoolander, or countless Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy characters exist without this one line?
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, improv theater Second City’s influence on American comedy was ever-present, and you didn’t have to look much further than Saturday Night Live, with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd all cutting their teeth on the show. And then there was Bill Murray, the man Second City alum Harold Ramis frequently called the best verbal improviser he’s ever seen. So when Ramis had a chance to direct the improv-heavy Caddyshack, he let Murray off the leash. The Dalai Lama scene is a hilarious testament to improv training and the ingenuity of the human brain, influencing essentially all comic performers that came after it. Now, every actor in a comedy is asked if they got to improvise lines on set — this joke is why. And then there is the sarcastic tag – “So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice” — which set the tone for many comedic protagonists thereafter. Vince Vaughn’s entire career is basically that line.
Coming, like all Williams’s jokes, in a tornado of riffs, this is the defining joke of the 1980s Comedy Boom, a time in which too many comedians made too much money and spent it on too much cocaine. Williams, with his struggles with abuse and his manic stage persona, embodied this better than anyone (though he said he never performed high). Seven months before he taped the HBO special in which the joke appears, Williams was out with his friend John Belushi; the next morning Belushi would be found dead of a drug overdose. Williams was never known for being the most confessional comedian, if only because he never stayed on a topic long enough, but there is a powerful truth to his most famous joke.
Okay, we need to compartmentalize here and consider Cosby, difficult as it has become, exclusively on the merits of his stand-up career — because those merits are staggering. Time was, his material about life and family bridged racial gaps and explored the role of modern fatherhood in a way that gave rise to such comics as Ray Romano, Louis C.K., and Jim Gaffigan. “Hi, Mom!” was the perfect distillation of his comedy sharply articulating the unique frustrations and thanklessness of being a parent — specifically, in this case, the overlooked one. It was such a simple, evergreen bit that Carlos Mencia would be accused of nabbing it decades years later. Himself would also encourage NBC executives to give Cosby, who already had a few failed TV shows under his belt, another try on the small screen. The resulting effort, The Cosby Show, was groundbreaking and beloved, until it could be no longer.
Kaufman and Letterman are, of course, two comedy legends, each with many bits that could have a place on this list. But there is something nice about putting them together, as they were kindred spirits in expanding the meaning of comedy and entertainment. Kaufman was a frequent guest on Letterman’s Late Night, with each appearance pushing comedy forward, or at least sideways. The joke here, which plays out over 12 hilarious, awkward minutes, is that Kaufman has adopted three children; however, instead of babies, they’re three grown black men, Herb, George and Tony (a.k.a. Tino). What could have been a one-off sight gag turns into an even longer bit as Letterman interviews them, with Andy disappearing for a stretch and returning to do his dead-on Elvis impersonation. This appearance isn’t as famous as when he was fake-assaulted by wrestler Jerry Lawler in 1982, but it is most indicative of what these two brought to comedy. Kaufman, at his best, pushed the buttons of comedy with a childlike innocence; Letterman did so with a bemused irony. Kaufman would pass away less than nine months after this appearance; it’s trite to say, but it’s very true: Comedy was never the same.
While it certainly owes something to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Albert Brooks’s reality-TV predictor Real Life, This Is Spinal Tap advanced the substance and style of the mockumentary and defined its future. The film follows the tumultuous comeback of vapid, leopard-printed rock trio Spinal Tap, played by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean. This scene between Guest’s idiotic Nigel Tufnel and blandly accepting documentarian Marty DiBergi, played by Rob Reiner, perfectly illustrates the combination of structure and play that makes the movie its own sort of comedic Stonehenge. While the clueless Nigel insists that the big numbers on the dials of the band’s amps make them special, Guest & Co. perfectly skewer the pretensions of pop musicians with a conjunction of character, improvisational wit, and comic timing. Without subtle but seminal moments like this one, there would be no fourth-wall-busting comedy such as The Office — not to mention Guest’s latter-day treats Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.
One-liners are as old as comedy itself, but few comics have mastered them as fully as Steven Wright, whose 1985 album I Have a Pony is brimming with smart, tight jokes. Everything about Wright’s manner — his stoicism, his precise wording, his refusal to interact with the audience — made him a superstar during the ’80s boom, and his ability to identify banal aspects of life and spin them into absurd ideas remains unmatched. Of all his jokes, this one about exact replicas stands out for its imagery and many layers — it tells a little story with extreme brevity. It’s obvious why and how Wright inspired legions of other comics, most notably the late, great Mitch Hedberg — he of “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too” — but also the likes of Demetri Martin, Myq Kaplan, and Zach Galifianakis.
Before she was an EGOT winner, Whoopi Goldberg, more than any comedian of her generation, made stand-up more theatrical. Getting her start as an actress, she was given opportunities at stand-up clubs like the Belly Room at L.A.’s Comedy Store, which, unlike the famed Original Room, was more open to experimentation and, more notably, women. There, without a late-night set in her sights, she was free to do a show that would run well over an hour. Eventually, with the help of director Mike Nichols, she brought her show to Broadway. Filmed for HBO as Direct From Broadway, the above joke was told by Goldberg in character as a California surfer girl (not Valley girl) who gets pregnant by accident. The comedy comes from how specific and well-drawn the character is. Along with the likes of Sandra Bernhard, Goldberg’s blurring of stand-up and storytelling one-man shows changed the game, with John Leguizamo in the ’90s and the Mike Birbiglias of the world today following in her footsteps.
It’s no easy feat to fight in heels, but Joan Rivers made a career out of it. She had moxy, smarts, and stamina, and she never apologized for her jokes. After finding her voice at Second City in early ’60s Chicago, Rivers invaded the downtown New York boys’ club at the Bitter End and the Gaslight Cafe, playing alongside Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. She made a strong connection with Johnny Carson and, from there, she took off — writing, hosting shows, touring, and exhibiting the work ethic of a carpenter ant until the end of her life. Like many other comics with a vast catalogue of one-liners (and in Rivers’s case, a physical card catalogue), Rivers reused material when it suited her. This joke was one Rivers had used for years, but used here in reference to Christie Brinkley, represents a midpoint between Rivers’s downtown years and the red-carpet years yet to come. Though she was often catty and brutal, Rivers’s best stuff weighed in on the life of women in America — their struggles with romance, their bodies, and with the patriarchy in general. This line completely sums up Rivers’s understanding of what a woman is up against despite lip service from men. There are some gossipy comics, e.g. Kathy Griffin, who owe their careers to Rivers, while others like Whitney Cummings and Chris Rock just took a cue from her ability to craft a pointed zinger.
It’s almost shocking to look back on Roseanne’s pilot through the lens of today’s network comedies. The pilot is messy, the jokes aren’t rapid-fire or referential or filled with snark, and the characters are unwieldy and normal-looking, without a Token Hot Person in the bunch. They yell at each other and over each other, and don’t seem to care that anyone can hear them. Even the studio audience feels more real, like they’re genuinely enjoying themselves and haven’t been neutered by machines. The show was revolutionary in its honesty and in its portrayal of a lower-middle-class leading woman as a working mother, something previously unseen on network TV. This joke captured Roseanne’s character perfectly, as she can’t even make a point about how hard it is to be a working mother without being interrupted by one of her kids. The show’s success — it was one of the five highest-rated TV shows during its first five years on the air — sparked at least a few subsequent comedies, like Grace Under Fire and Reba, though nothing on air since has captured Roseanne’s tone in quite the same way.
Roseanne Season 1 Episode 1 by f718473651
The spirited back-and-forth in this scene from Eddie Murphy’s prime is impressive even before you consider the fact that Murphy is playing both Saul and Clarence. This was the first, and arguably best, time we saw Murphy pull off what would become his signature multicharacter act. It was a perfect setting: Depicting barbershop culture that was never before seen on the big screen, it allowed Murphy to do what he did better than anyone — talk shit and embody very specific characters. The big payoff comes at the end, but everything Murphy says leading up to it is equally hilarious. Even if you watch today, it’s still incredible how much of a comedy powerhouse Eddie Murphy was. Murphy was the biggest comedy star of the second half of the century, bringing a vitality and sense of now to comedy. It’s hard to compare his stardom to any one comedian; the closest approximation might be that he was like the entirety of the original cast of Saturday Night Live’s influence condensed into one person.
When Harry Met Sally… was the launching pad for a seemingly endless string of romantic comedies, all of which tried to replicate the magic of this perfectly crafted scene. Meg Ryan, with a brilliant idea and a perfect performance, blew up the conventions of flirty dialogue, pushing the classic rom-com tension to never-before-seen heights. And then director Rob Reiner cuts to his mom, Estelle, who delivers the most-repeated line from the most famous scene in the history of romantic comedy. (We dare you to think of a more oft-quoted moment in a rom-com. What are you gonna say, “You had me at hello”? Child’s play!) It’s a jokey-joke, almost Catskillian in its delivery and Jewishness (Estelle met Rob’s father, Carl, when she was a set designer in the Catskills), which, in a way, connects the joke to those days. It’s a direct line: Woody Allen updates the Borscht Belt, and When Harry Met Sally updates his update.
Everything about this 1990 bit from Paula Poundstone’s HBO special Cats, Cops and Stuff feels somehow joyous. It was spurred by a couple in the front row handing her a box of Pop-Tarts — “So you’ve been reading Tiger Beat?” she asks when they confess that they knew they’d brought her favorite flavor — but evolves into a meditation on her long-standing relationships with the pastry. It has the everyday feel of the observational comedy of the 1980s, but it hints at the alternative scene that would soon spring up — the bit started with her simply reading the box onstage to fill time. Unlike many female comedians of that time, Poundstone’s material had little to do with her gender, instead opting for relatable silliness for anyone. She would go on to be so associated with the brand that she produced a special video for them. It would’ve been hard to guess at the time, but the bit foreshadowed a lot of food-based humor to come: Jim Gaffigan on Hot Pockets, Patton Oswalt on KFC Famous Bowls, Paul F. Tompkins on cake vs. pie, Brian Regan on Pop-Tarts, and, oddly enough, an older Jerry Seinfeld on Pop-Tarts.
When “Bart the Daredevil” aired in 1990, The Simpsons wasn’t yet the greatest sitcom on television — but the episode helped the show take a giant leap in that direction. That a sweet scene of good parenting and father-son bonding between Homer and Bart would lead to this string of perfect stupidity is an example of the show at its finest — a first-rate comedy with heart. But once Homer takes off on the skateboard, the relentlessness of the gag — the endless brutality, the stupid repetition — opened the show up to new levels of absurdism that would become its trademark. It wasn’t long after that we saw the emergence of the early 1990s alternative comedy scene, one that relished in silly, ridiculous, and often pointless comedy. It was a rejection of the more traditional stand-up that dominated in the ‘80s, and The Simpsons’ offbeat influence could be seen in shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Mr. Show With Bob and David, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, The Upright Citizens Brigade, Family Guy, and South Park, to say nothing of an entire generation of comedians.
Before In Living Color, you couldn’t find a comedy show where blackness was the default setting. On an episode of “WTF,” Chris Rock explained his desire to be on In Living Color instead of SNL: “I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.” It was the environment in which Kim Wayans was able to play Benita Butrell, an older, black neighborhood gossip, whose comic hook was not based on her being black nor female. This joke, which is set during the L.A. riots, ends with her famous catchphrase, and still crackles with a specificity of language and character. Even if the dearth of commonality of experiences, references, and cultural tropes created a chasm between what In Living Color was doing and what mainstream sketch-comedy audiences had come to expect, the show’s tenure and popularity narrowed the gap enough for creators of color to make art that is now, rightfully, considered universal.
In classic Seinfeld fashion, this joke is from the season-four episode “The Pitch,” which is built around a quotable line. Despite it being used to define the show within the show, “a show about nothing” went on to define Seinfeld too. Yes, Seinfeld was about “nothing,” in that it focused on the minutiae of everyday, not unlike Seinfeld did in his stand-up. But Seinfeld was also about nothingness, it was about meaninglessness. As Larry David famously put it, “No hugging, no learning.” It’s cynical comic tone, which was unlike anything at the time, went on to dominate much of the television comedy that would come after it.
Like some other examples on this list, the story of this joke has become a sort of legend shared among comedians. When Russell Simmons created Def Comedy Jam, black comics who’d spent as much as decades toiling in obscurity knew they could be very publicly made or broken. Backstage tensions were understandably high. And during this taping of the show, the audience was rough, booing the comedian who went on before Mac. Bill Bellamy warned Mac before his set, “Be careful out there — this audience is tough.” To which Mac replied, “I’ve been going at this too long — I’ve worked too hard — I ain’t scared of ‘em!” What did Mac do? He goes onstage, picks up the mic, and tells the audience exactly that. Instantly, the audience explodes in laughter. The moment captured so much about what was exciting about black comedy at the time. There was this urgency, this bravado, a bigness that demanded attention. Zoom out from this joke, and you get Martin Lawrence; you get the rest of the Original Kings of Comedy, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer, who, along with Mac, released a tremendously popular Spike Lee–directed stand-up feature film in 2000 (and the subsequently released Queens of Comedy, featuring Laura Hayes, Adele Givens, Sommore, and Mo’Nique); you get BET’s Comic View, of which Kevin Hart was the host of in 2008 — you get the entire ’90s black comedy boom. There’s a reason over 3 million have watched the clip on YouTube.
This is one of many jokes that ends with the same punch line — “you might be a redneck” — on Jeff Foxworthy’s giant debut record, entitled You Might Be a Redneck If … The joke, like all the jokes, is a perfect, weightless object — a comedic disco ball that looks great but is totally hollow inside. The economy of language and the vividness of the pictures Foxworthy paints are quite astounding. Other examples from the same record include, “If you’ve ever been too drunk to fish, you might be a redneck,” and, “If your dad walks you to school because you’re in the same grade, you might be a redneck.” Foxworthy plays with the same rural-Southerner stereotypes, but to an audience of rural Southerners, it’s not satire but an opportunity to laugh at oneself. This one joke broke Foxworthy into the mainstream, launched a merchandising bonanza, and spawned the Blue Collar Comedy Tour – not to mention the chicken-fried, low-brow comedic aesthetic associated with the troupe. In fact, culturally homogenous stand-up tours blossomed thanks to Foxworthy. You might equate this with a kind of Gulf of Tonkin incident for comedy, but just like a corny pop song, this joke can never be dislodged from our consciousness.
In his 1993 special Revelations, released not long before his tragically early death, Bill Hicks had a lot to get off his chest. Having spent 15 years looking for an audience, he had found some success in Britain, decrying the evils of American culture to a receptive audience. And the subjects of his current bugaboo were advertisers and marketers. With his constant assurances that “there’s no joke here,” Hicks’s bit is pure, calm loathing, slowly building into an expression of impotent rage at the state of the world. It’s a great bit that hints at all the brilliant ideas he could have explored if he had lived; for one, his Über-liberal politics and disdain for the traditional stand-up could have placed him well in the alternative comedy scene that was just developing. His most direct comedic descendant is probably Doug Stanhope, but his attitude of fury inspired a generation of satirists of all stripes.
In one of many gleefully dismissive reviews of Jim Carrey’s first wildly successful star vehicle, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Carrey suggests an escaped mental patient impersonating a game-show host — and, what’s worse, his hyperbolically obnoxious shtick is the whole damned show.” The next decade of studio comedies, however, came to be defined by this particular brand of outrageously broad, lunatic lead character whom you either loved unconditionally or deeply despised (see: Tommy Boy, Austin Powers, Zoolander, basically every Adam Sandler movie). These movies were also noteworthy for being PG-13, an MPAA film rating that studios really started figuring out how to take advantage of in the ’90s. Talking out of your butt isn’t edgy to the adults who reviewed the film (or films like it), but it was exhilarating for the teens who went to these movies in droves, thanks to their PG-13 rating.
After opening for Seinfeld, appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, and developing All-American Girl for ABC, Margaret Cho was riding high when she recorded her HBO comedy half-hour in 1994. All-American Girl would subsequently flop, in part due to the network’s mishandling of its Asian and Asian-American characters, but in retrospect it’s amazing to think a network tried to package Cho’s comedy into a traditional sitcom at all. In both her early sets and her later, edgier material, Cho explores a cross-section of life (being a child of immigrants, Asians’ and Asian-Americans’ lives, racism, LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and a ton of sex) no one else was serving up at the time (if ever), and definitely not with Cho’s signature honesty. Listening to her special over 20 years later, Cho’s voice is both genuine and outrageous, and confessional without feeling self-deprecating — a mix that feels novel even in today’s comedy world, and one that explains her huge following in the late ’90s into the 2000s. The calling card of Cho’s earlier work? A joke entitled “Ass Master,” in which her Korean-American mother asks questions about the gay porn sold at their family’s San Francisco bookshop. In this one joke, Cho includes confessional storytelling, impressions, queer life, family, and sex. This ability to be all things within one bit, now common in the post-alternative comedy scene with stand-ups like Chelsea Peretti, James Adomian, and Kyle Kinane, was Cho’s mark on the early ‘90s.
Margaret Cho - Comedy Half Hour (1994) - Stand... by comedy-movie
Before 1995, thanks to appearances on The Ben Stiller Show and the movie Reality Bites, Janeane Garofalo was already an alternative-comedy staple. But with her HBO special, for which she brought notes onstage with her, she was responsible for delivering alternative comedy to the masses. It was the move that swiftly removed the showbiz-ness from stand-up and whatever residual Las Vegas glamour it once had. Stand-up was free to be messy, loose, and, most important, honest. Thanks to Garofalo (and some of her peers, like Marc Maron) truth — not stage presence or sharp writing — became stand-up’s most prized asset. Comedy changed, and in turn comedy audiences changed. No longer did people want to see a polished act; they wanted to see whatever’s new, whatever’s currently happening in the comedian’s life. Whom did she influence? Everyone.
That line, said by Chris Tucker’s Smokey, and Ice Cube’s character Craig getting fired on his day off set the stage for the events that take place in Friday. On the surface, it’s one of many weed jokes made throughout the movie (most of which was filmed on the street where director F. Gary Gray grew up, with actors told not to wear red clothing like Bloods gang members because this was Crips territory), but it also reveals more about these two best friends living in South Central L.A. It’s the sort of joke people make when they can’t talk honestly about how hard they have it. That’s what makes Friday so singular: Not only did it find a way of communicating what life was like in the neighborhood while keeping things fun, it paved the way for a certain tone of comedy that is simultaneously grounded and broad. You don’t have Barbershop without Friday; you don’t have essentially every Seth Rogen movie without Friday.
Chris Rock’s 1996 special Bring the Pain cemented the SNL and In Living Color alum’s status as a necessary voice on race in the United States, and this joke in particular was a revelation. It articulated complex, largely unspoken ideas about race that moved beyond the black-white dichotomy and challenged audience members of all races. Exploring such a sensitive matter with controversial language was a high-wire act — consider: “There’s some shit going on with black people right now. There’s like a civil war going on with black people, and there’s two sides: There’s black people, there’s niggas. The niggas have got to go” — and Rock has talked about the months he put into making it work. While Rock’s forceful delivery and restless pacing help sell it, the joke works because of its classic, unimpeachable structure: It’s simply a relatable, culturally savvy joke about one of the most contentious subjects in modern America, and its legacy looms over any comic who discusses race.
Arguably the best backstage comedy of all time, The Larry Sanders Show is certainly the best “onstage-backstage” comedy of all time. Tonally, we had never seen anything like it before, and the show paved the way for other dry, awkward single-camera comedies to come, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many of the best Sanders episodes built a conflict behind the scenes and then let it play out under the bright lights of Larry’s nightly talk show (see: almost every subplot involving Jeffrey Tambor’s unhinged sidekick, Hank). The show also allowed its celebrity guests to stretch unpredictable muscles and undercut their public personas (remember John Ritter and Gene Siskel almost beating the crap out of each other? ) — a tactic that also did wonders for Ricky Gervais’s Extras years later. David Duchovny’s recurring appearances were a true highlight, as his sexuality and possible “crush” on Larry was a source of confusion and discomfort. Duchovny confirmed to Huff Post a few years ago that the whole thing was actually his idea, explaining that it preceded all the “bromance baloney” that came after. The tension was real! The saga culminated in the finale when he flashed Larry his junk, Basic Instinct–style.
“The Story of Everest” is not a sketch about Everest; it’s a sketch about a man brought low by a collection of 200 glass thimbles. It’s also an exquisite mix of smart and stupid, comedy and anti-comedy: the combination that made Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s Mr. Show the ’90s touchstone of hip comedy. Producing network HBO was smaller then, so Mr. Show still managed to feel underground, and stuck in the minds of many comedy nerds (some of whom went on to make sketch shows of their own, i.e. Human Giant and Portlandia). In the sketch, proud climber Jay Johnston attempts to tell his family about summiting the Himalayan peak but repeatedly whacks into said thimble collection on his way to the floor instead. As with most Mr. Show scenes, the pratfall at the center of “Everest” comes in a dazzlingly ornate frame. The climber soon finds his living room folly, not his amazing deed, has been immortalized in film. Distraught, he wanders from the cinema and performs one final fall on the street as onlookers jeer; thus, the sketch’s true title is revealed as one last over-the-top gag, “The Story of the Story of the Story of Everest.”
While many critics fault Sex and the City for failing to offer realistic, fully fleshed-out female characters (and lapsing into couture porn on more than one occasion), its fans appreciate it for what it was: a slapstick female-centric comedy that ushered in a new and refreshing way to talk about sex. While SATC’s sexual quandaries ranged widely from the filthy to the absurd, sex jokes were never throwaway, serving instead as a jumping-off point for a larger cultural conversation about love and dating. Season one’s anal-sex cab-ride conversation is a hallmark of the series’ ideas about comedy: jokes as both a language between female friends and a virtual necessity when negotiating the ridiculous world of dating. (Only a few weeks?!?!) That a show could essentially be a years-long conversation between four women and an undeniable runaway hit changed the game for the comedy of Amy Schumer, Girls, and basically any show in which ladies talk frankly, and hilariously, about sex.
The Farrelly Brothers had already established themselves with Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, but then there was There’s Something About Mary and the “hair gel.” If Cameron Diaz putting a wad of Ben Stiller’s semen in her hair pushed gross-out comedy to a point never before seen (seriously, until Girls, can you think of how many other times you’ve seen semen in film or TV?). The crazy thing is the film, with this joke prominently featured in its advertising, made nearly $370 million worldwide, which was the most ever made by an R-rated comedy (and currently is only surpassed by The Hangover and The Hangover II). It established what is now known as the hard-R comedy, a phenomenon that would really take hold in the ’00s. MPAA-pushing comedic set pieces are now unavoidable, but it was There’s Something About Mary that stuck its flag in the genre of joke. To this day, that flag sticks right up like Mary’s hair.
In the wake of 9/11, there was no consensus on how to return to making fun of the world. New York–based late-night shows like Letterman, The Daily Show , and Saturday Night Live opted for sincere, gentle returns, while The Onion put out its finest paper to date. But only three weeks after the attacks, Gilbert Gottfried rejected the niceties at The Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, where he told this joke and received a chorus of boos and “too soon” from the audience. (In response, Gottfried went into a legendary rendition of the backstage joke “The Aristocrats.”) It’s hard to say it was the first joke to get the “too soon” treatment, but it was definitely not the last (it wasn’t even the last for Gottfried), as the debate over how comedians respond to tragedies has been going ever since, especially with the rise of social media. With this joke, however, in hindsight, people yelled “too soon” too soon; his joke was doing what comedy should do: not mocking the victims or belittling legitimate suffering, but finding the honest humor in real-life horror during a sensitive time.
To focus in on any one moment of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the low-fi animated series about humanoid fast-food items, is to hit directly on the sort of full-throttle absurdism that has come to represent Turner’s entire Adult Swim programming block. In the first of its 11 seasons, ATHF set the tone of its mayhem with antagonists including the snotty 2-D delinquents the Mooninites. In the episode “Revenge of the Mooninites,” Ignignokt and Err acquire a miraculous belt that provides “all the superpowers of ’70s supergroup Foreigner,” and proceed to torture our heroes — evoking Foreigner’s song “Cold as Ice” to freeze one character stiff and giving another “Double Vision.” (Eventually, white-trash neighbor Carl turns his own head into a Connect Four board by invoking “Head Games.”) This bizarre twist on pop culture represented the network’s maximalist new take on late-night stoner comedy: clever rather than slack-jawed, and stuffed with so many jokes that missing one doesn’t matter. Without notions like the Foreigner Belt, there would be no frenetic Tim & Eric segments, no “Too Many Cooks,” and certainly no weird, random Old Spice and Skittles commercials on national TV.
Before Chappelle’s Show, the world had enjoyed sketch shows featuring predominantly black casts, but never before had the realities of race relations in America been presented so irreverently. Opposed to sketches like “Word Association,” which confronted racial tensions head on, Chappelle and his co-creator used ridiculous premises to underline the absurdity of the national environment. Take the show’s best (though it will never match “I’m Rick James, Bitch” in popularity) sketch, which aired in the premiere episode. Chappelle plays a blind, black white supremacist. It’s a concept that is equal parts silly and brilliant. By having the white supremacist be black, it underlines how insane the concept of racial prejudice is, considering what we think of as race is just a social construct. It will make your head explode. It instantly changed comedy about race in this country, as Key & Peele played with a few years later. The sketch, and the show, in general, also changed the public conversation about social responsibility and comedy. What kinds of jokes is it okay for which kinds of people to tell? And to repeat? Are the ones on comedians of color to ensure that their white fans don’t misinterpret their intentions? Chappelle set up the sketch by saying that the friend he had played it for said it would set back black people, foreshadowing a time when comedy was scrutinized like never before.
When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 2000, he couldn’t have known that one of history’s most ridiculous presidential elections was only months away, or that his election-coverage name, “Indecision 2000,” would turn out to be so prescient. In the following years, the slow-moving train wreck of the Bush administration gave Stewart and his team an amazing opportunity to build their fledgling late-night show into an institution, one that would eventually host presidents and prime ministers. This segment was one of the show’s earliest and finest moments of righteous indignation, using a format that would become a staple of the show: employing contrasting video clips to highlight someone’s hypocrisy. Digging through the archives of Governor Bush’s 2000 presidential election and comparing his statements with 2003’s President Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War, The Daily Show was cleverly using resources available to any news organization to provide the sort of accountability journalism that the media was failing to do.
The Adam McKay comedy that helped set the tone for an era of Will Ferrell blockbuster comedies is also a touchstone of millennial culture. For a movie that was endlessly quotable, one scene’s staying power has lingered on in particular: after the epic fight scene, the discussion back at the newsroom. The self-referential scene is the epitome of what would come to be defined over the next decade as an ironic, new-wave of comedy, in which doing something absurd must immediately be followed by pointing out its absurdity. It’s a nifty trick you’ll see basically every night at any of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s four theatres. Where early eras of improv rewarded commitment to the scene, UCB, which McKay was part of in its early stages, allows for a have-it-both-ways detachment: You’re in the scene, but you’re also outside the scene. You murder someone with a trident; you point out that you murdered someone with a trident. Outside of improv, or real life for that matter, the line also reflects the internet’s love of pointing out things. “That escalated quickly” became another way to say “that happened.”
It’s hard to credit anything other than the scene in which Steve Carell actually has his incredibly hairy chest waxed as the catalyst that super-=charged the Judd Apatow empire of heartfelt R-rated comedies. It’s a one-take, expletive-fueled tour de force, punctuated by almost “adorable” outbursts, like the one mentioning American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. Carell sacrificing his body for the bit was the ultimate move for his character: a good-natured guy falling victim to hypermasculine peer pressure, especially at a time when “metrosexuality” had emerged and disrupted gender politics on a broad, pop-culture level. As for Carell’s counterparts, including his waxer, their genuine reactions of hilarity and horror give it that blooper-reel feel, like you’re already watching the even-funnier deleted scenes, a technique that seeped into just about every partially improvised movie to follow.
By 2005 Sarah Silverman was a well-known comedian without a full-length stand-up special. Famous for her controversial, off-color jokes, she kicked off her concert film, Jesus Is Magic, with this provocative line, which embodied everything that made her a groundbreaking comic: her willingness to play with stereotypes while challenging the boundaries of taste via her cutesy, ditzy alter ego. Though, for better or worse (oft for worse), the joke did kick off a trend where it seemed every comedian needed to have a rape joke. Still, her provocative persona always had more depth and vulnerability than most shock-jock types, and in this perfectly formed one-liner is the seed of her later, more infuriated material about rape. Without Silverman, who had previously bounced between clubs, alt scenes, and sketch comedy, there would be no Amy Schumer or Anthony Jeselnik, though her influence can be felt across the entire comedy spectrum.
The Lonely Island didn’t create the “viral video” or the SNL Digital Short, but it brought the former into the mainstream and the latter into the 21st century. The first of their silly sing-along videos, “Lazy Sunday” couldn’t have been timed better: It premiered literally two days after the official launch of YouTube. Granted, NBC didn’t quite understand the power of virality at that point — the network removed “Lazy Sunday” from the video-sharing site and restricted it to iTunes (albeit for free) — but the video spread around the internet nonetheless. (Years later, it rightfully found a permanent home on YouTube.) While “Dick in a Box” may have been the best video, and “YOLO” arguably their best song, the perfect blend of catchy tune, simple video, and goofy idea in “Lazy Sunday” spawned, for better or worse, a sea of imitators.
Showing up to hear Stephen Colbert, or Colbert’s bloviating right-wing pundit character “Stephen Colbert,” at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 must have been one of the biggest missteps of George W. Bush’s presidency — minus his signature policy decisions, of course. Never did the former Colbert Report and current Late Show host Colbert prove his fearlessness more than during this jaw-dropping 20-minute set. Heedless of Bush’s grim visage or the stunned discomfort of those in the audience, Colbert continued his comedic assault just feet away from the POTUS. Directly addressing Bush throughout, Colbert mocked the president’s penchant for hollow photo ops and likened the flailing administration to the Hindenburg. The joke above exemplifies Colbert’s set, ironically linking the conservative Colbert character with Bush to poke at the POTUS’s longstanding beef with the media and disinterest in public opinion. The up-close-and-personal delivery of this barb, among others, refreshed political satire by making it feel immediate, dangerous, and necessary.
In an alternate universe, Louis C.K. could have easily remained a very good, underappreciated New York stand-up, another middle-aged white dude performing at the Comedy Cellar every night. But in his 2007 HBO special Shameless, he called his 4-year-old daughter an asshole, and things shifted. The honesty of his perspective as a father genuinely trying to engage with his kids, while still seeing the world through the eyes of a cynical comic, was cathartic for parents and eye-opening for nonparents, and shone a light on the darker corners of that intimate, fundamental parent-child dynamic that is rarely explored. It would inspire legions of stand-ups to pick apart their own relationships and biases, and upped the ante for soul-baring onstage.
Around 2009 and 2010, a second comedy boom exploded, during which fans developed a different relationship with comedy: Self-proclaimed “comedy nerds” were as interested (if not more interested) in comedians’ backstage life as they were in their crafted jokes. And Marc Maron’s conversation with Robin Williams, on the 67th episode of “WTF,” was its breakthrough. Here was a legend having the sort of frank conversation about comedy and being a comedian that was previously relegated to green rooms and road gigs. Maron and Williams trade stories, and Maron brings up an old joke and the beef he has with another comedian (a theme of early “WTF”s) that resulted from it. It was conversational, it was inside-baseball, and hundreds of thousands of people heard it.
Four years after Christopher Hitchens penned a Vanity Fair essay arguing that women aren’t funny, out came a film that would change the conversation about women in comedy for the next decade. Its success proved that an all-female cast could make an R-rated, Judd Apatow–sized hit comedy for all genders to enjoy. And nothing said that louder than the scene in which they all collectively shat their dresses. Despite being an outrageous sequence of events, it has subtlety as well: You never actually see poop (although you do see plenty of vomit) and they don’t try to make scatological humor somehow seem “sexy” just because it’s coming from a woman (think: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). Instead, there is something almost punk rock about Maya Rudolph kneeling in the street in her pristine, white wedding dress.
Girls, more than any other piece of comedy of its generation, illustrates the young person’s never-ending battle between irrational confidence and extreme self-loathing — something this joke typifies. When the show premiered, this quote was used by critics to hammer the show’s navel-gazing, yet it deftly made light of and satirized the art of personal mythologizing. We have to assume Dunham knew that her show would stand for an entire demographic, and, in a way, it has. Through her narcissism, emotional sensitivity, confusion, and desperate need for belonging, Hannah really is the voice of her generation. That voice has inspired comedies like You’re the Worst and Master of None to continue mining the same complex, fraught landscape of depression, ambition, and identity, without blinking.
Before 2012, Tig Notaro was an alternative-comedy darling whose performances relied heavily on goofy nonsense. But with one unforgettable set at L.A.’s Largo, she changed the trajectory of her career and raised the bar for onstage honesty. The months preceding her performance had seen her suffer from life-threatening C. diff, break up with a partner, and lose her mother in a tragic accident; then, just before the show, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This one heartbreaking line kicked off one of the most important stand-up sets of all time and immediately became the stuff of folklore, as comics and audience members described the stunning show.
Ever since Richard Pryor, comedy has been open to the confessional; stand-ups have been free to talk about the darker parts of their minds. But what if those darker thoughts aren’t quirky or comically weird or “what everyone’s thinking,” but something seriously wrong? Over the last decade, Bamford has been pushing comedy in this direction. She tackles the twists and tangles of her mind as a really smart, funny cat would a ball of yarn, batting at it in wonderment to the delight of all who are fortunate enough to witness. And she is battling the stigma around mental illness, and comedy about it, by writing the above perfect joke, taking aim directly at the stigma. The good news is it seems to be working, if the rise of sadcoms and shows with depression and mental-illness story lines like BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are any indication.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler weren’t an unknown quantity when they were tapped to host the Golden Globes in 2013, but history has shown that not all great comedians make for great award-show hosts. Fey and Poehler started off with relatively safe monologue jokes, and it was with this line, halfway through, that they sharpened their focus. Drawing attention to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, Poehler attacked not her controversial film but her less-than-beloved ex-husband. The result was an almost-perfect joke; tightly constructed, perfectly paced, funny even if you really didn’t know the details and funnier still if you did. Its impact was instant. Listen to how the room reacts: After the initial wave of shock echoes through the room, a genuine laugh follows. Much more than a celebrity roast gag, the joke set up the pair’s perspective as truth-telling, unabashedly pro-women joke-slingers with no fear.
Hannibal Buress probably didn’t set out to bring justice to dozens of women or spark a national dialogue about sexual predation when he started explicitly referring to Bill Cosby as a rapist in his stand-up. This joke wasn’t even ready for wide release — it became public via a grainy cell-phone video. But its impact was monumental, getting people talking about accusations that had dogged the venerable Cosby for years. And the context matters: Buress, one of today’s most successful young black comics, took aim at perhaps the most iconic black comedian in history; the joke itself is about getting out from under his glaring disapproval. In doing so, he did what so many comedians claim to do but rarely deliver on: busting taboos, speaking the unspeakable, making enemies. Whether or not it was his intention, Buress’s words brought results: There’s almost certainly a direct line from his joke to Cosby’s recent indictment, and it’s in this new environment that comedian Beth Stelling recently came forward with her own story of abuse in the comedy community. As influence goes, it’s hard to think of many jokes that had more impact.
The night after Stephen Colbert debuted as the host of The Late Show, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon reportedly wanted to assert the dominance of his show and sensibility. He did so with the sight of Ellen DeGeneres doing her best Rihanna impression, waving her hand around like a gun, and mouthing the words to “Bitch Better Have My Money” while Justin Timberlake looked on. Was it funny? Nope. But it sure was fun! And it makes sense, as during his time in late night Fallon pushed a style of comedy that equated fun and funny. Better yet, DeGeneres, who after a career as a respected stand-up arguably pioneered that style with her daytime show, was at the center of the act. Of course, it went viral: This style of populist comedy goes down easy, and spreads even easier.
In many ways, 2015 was Amy Schumer’s year, in large part because her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, cemented its place in the comedy canon. With this episode-long sketch, a perfect re-creation of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, Schumer put the audience in her shoes — that is, as a very funny person judged more by some for her looks than her talent — and produced one of the funniest, sharpest half-hours of television in recent memory. There are too many lines to choose the most perfect (“Oh, Amy. I didn’t see you there. I thought you were a garden gnome”) but the heart of the piece — that 12 men must decide if Schumer is “hot enough” to appear on television — is the type of brutally hilarious idea that rarely makes it on television. Along with her pitch-perfect Friday Night Lights parody, the memorable “Last Fuckable Day,” and the Emmy-winning “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup,” Schumer found herself leading the way in 2015 as such excellent feminist comedy as Broad City and Sisters took over the landscape.