Who are the best working comedians today? Who’s creating the best material, influencing the most people and is the flat-out funniest? You could base the answer on a number of factors, be it ratings and box office success or Twitter followers and YouTube views. But I was more interested in who the people who look at and create comedy all day, every day think are really working at the highest level. The people who actually are actively getting comedic content out there, whose lives revolve around comedy. So I asked them.
I asked 12 people in the comedy business who their favorite current comedians are. The resulting list has the names you’d expect on it, but also some you might be surprised by.
In order to compile the list, I had people send me a list of 10 names in order from favorite on down. I assigned each choice a point value, with a #1 pick netting 10 points, a #2 pick netting 9 points and so on. I then added the points up. It was pretty straightforward, as I am no scientist.
Here are the judges who were kind enough to contribute lists to the survey:
-Eric Appel, Writer/Director, Funny or Die
-Owen Burke, Creative Executive, Gary Sanchez Productions
-Neil Campbell, Artistic Director, UCB Theatre LA
-Mike Farah, President of Production, Funny or Die
-Sam Grossman, Director of Original Programing and Development, Comedy Central
-Hallie Haglund, Writer, The Daily Show
-Chris Kelly, Writer/Director, Onion News Network
-Anthony King, Artistic Director, UCB Theatre NY
-Rob Kutner, Writer, Conan
-Christine Nangle, Writer, Saturday Night Live
-Sam Reich, President of Original Content, CollegeHumor
-Ricky Van Veen, Co-Founder and CEO, CollegeHumor
And now, onto the list:
15 (three-way tie): Maria Bamford
Maria Bamford is an excellent standup, and what makes her sets so unique is her voice. One of the best voice actresses around, she’s voiced characters in shows such as Home Movies, Daria, Tom Goes to the Mayor and Hey Arnold! In her standup, she utilizes her voice to portray her dysfunctional family, amongst other characters, making her standup surreal yet personal.
15 (three-way tie): Hannibal Buress
Hannibal Buress has turned a promising standup career into jobs writing for two of the highest-profile comedy shows on TV: Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Having written for SNL last season, he’s now on board for the upcoming season of 30 Rock. He also released a great standup album this summer entitled My Name is Hannibal, cementing his reputation as one of the sharpest joke writers out there.
15 (three-way tie): Chelsea Peretti
If you don’t follow standup comedy too closely, you probably recognize Chelsea Peretti from her great guest appearances on Louis and The Sarah Silverman Program. But she’s an amazing standup and writer in her own right, and she’s also been behind some things you’ve probably heard of, such as Black People Love Us and the New York Rejection Line. Her profile has been steadily rising for a while now, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone gives her her own show.
14: Brett Gelman
Brett Gelman has become one of Funny or Die’s go-to actors, and with good reason. Gelman always seems a little unhinged, a little on the edge of doing something that nobody else involved in the shoot planned on. He’s got a certain controlled creepiness to him that he expertly utilizes in videos such as his Mr. Celebrity series and Death Bed Subtext. And clearly, the higher ups at Funny or Die have taken notice: Gelman’s character in The Other Guys was absolutely scene-stealing and one of the best parts of the entire movie.
13: Donald Glover
Donald Glover is one of those people who has so much ambition it makes everyone else seem lazy in comparison. What has he done in the past couple years? Let’s review: his comedy group Derrick is one of the most popular sketch groups on the internet, a popularity they used to help finance their movie Mystery Team, which was sold to Roadside Attractions at Sundance. Donald was also a writer at 30 Rock, a job he quit only to be cast as Troy in NBC’s Community mere days later. He started doing standup only about a year ago, but he’s already had his own Comedy Central special. Oh, and he’s also a musician, naturally, selling out shows under the name Childish Gambino. And what have you done this year?
12: John Mulaney
John Mulaney started out doing standup and making videos with writing partner Nick Kroll. Now, he’s scored one of the most coveted gigs in comedy: writing at Saturday Night Live. And last season, he appeared on Weekend Update as a featured correspondent. When not working on the show, he’s tirelessly touring and writing, and a move either up the ladder at SNL or into movies seems inevitable. And with a natural delivery honed on the stage, he’s a natural choice for the writer/anchor role that people like Tina Fey and Seth Meyers have filled in the past. Could we be looking at Seth Meyer’s replacement as head writer and Weekend Update anchor when he eventually leaves the show? It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
11: Jon Glaser
Jon Glaser spent many years making people laugh from behind the scenes as a staff writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but despite him now having his own show, you still may not recognize him. That’s because his show, Delocated, is about a family in the witness protection program, so he’s always seen in a ski mask and with his voice distorted. The show is wonderful, an absurd and surreal take on reality TV that’s like a natural extension of the many characters Glaser created for Late Night. Oh, and he also was the frontman of Detroit Octane, the joke band that played “Barack Obama-sistable” during the 2008 election, so clearly he gets bonus points for that.
7 (four-way tie): Daniel Kitson
If you’re unfamiliar with Daniel Kitson, it’s because unlike many other people on this list, he hasn’t starred in numerous TV shows and movies, nor has he made a series of viral web videos. No, Kitson is a standup comedian and pretty much only a standup comedian. Shunning TV work because he prefers to keep the control over his own material that he has with standup, he’s constantly touring and working on new material. And by being so singularly focused, he’s honed his craft to become one of the best standups touring today.
7 (four-way tie): Conan O’Brien
What a weird year for Conan O’Brien. He went from kicking off what was supposed to be one of the most stable and high-profile gigs in comedy, host of The Tonight Show, only to be humiliatingly given the boot after a mere seven months. But by going through that ordeal in such a public fashion, he discovered that he had become a sort of folk hero, a guy who personified smart, goofy and subversive comedy. So he didn’t play to old people in the midwest as well as Jay Leno? To his newly rabid fans in Team Coco, that’s a badge of pride. And now he’s prepping his new show, Conan, on TBS with a boatload of freedom and a huge fanbase. Who knows? Maybe getting canned from The Tonight Show will turn out to be one of the best things that happened to him. Maybe.
7 (four-way tie): Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart is hilarious, yes. That much is a given. But as a host of The Daily Show, he’s grown to be more than just a comedian who makes jokes about the news to become one of the most important commentators in the media. In the era of 24-hour news that is more and more steeped in ideology, it’s fallen to Stewart to fill the role that the press is supposed to play: an outsider who takes the establishment to task for what they say and do. The fact that a comedian has become such a vital voice in politics and media with almost no peers (other than Stephen Colbert, naturally) is a sign of the times, for better or worse, but one thing is clear: politics would be even more terrifying and depressing without Jon Stewart around.
7 (four-way tie): Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais created what is probably the biggest global comedy phenomenon since The Simpsons with The Office. That unassuming office mockumentary has spawned six different international versions, with a seventh version being worked on in China right now. And since then, he made the equally-great Extras, turned his podcasts into an animated series for HBO, toured behind his standup material, guest-starred on a number of different shows, made some movies and became pretty much the only reason to watch any awards show he was a presenter on. In short, he’s made himself an institution in the comedy world.
6: Aziz Ansari
In the past few years, it’s been tough to miss Aziz Ansari. Maybe you saw him in Parks and Recreation as the obnoxious chauvinist with a heart of gold Tom Haverford. Or in Funny People as the obnoxious standup RAAAAAAAANDY. Or maybe on TMZ as a part of Kanye West’s entourage, or as the host of the MTV Movie Awards, or in Flight of the Conchords, Get Him to the Greek, I Love You, Man or Observe and Report. And he’s primed to only become more ubiquitous in the future, as he’s got a three-picture development deal with Judd Apatow that’ll have him cementing his place as one of the top comedic performers working today.
5: Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is the definition of a comic’s comic. He tours all the time, consistently writing some of the best standup material out there; his standup albums are veritable masterclasses in the art form. He’s one of Hollywood’s go-to punch up writers, having a hand in jokes in more movies that you would believe. And he’s also a supremely versatile actor, bouncing between roles in projects as disparate as King of Queens, Big Fan, Ratatouille and The United States of Tara. Essentially, he manages to do a number of things brilliantly that most ambitious comedians struggle to nail one of.
4: Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler is often credited with breaking through some sort of comedic glass ceiling, opening the door for other women to kick off a female comedy renaissance. Maybe! All I know is that regardless of gender, she’s one of the funniest people on the planet. Coming off of eight years as the most consistently funniest cast member on Saturday Night Live, she then proved that she could create a character worth building a sitcom around with Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope. Leslie is goofy, earnest, naive and lovable all at once, a significant feat, and one that keeps people coming back week after week.
3: Zach Galifianakis
Zach Galifianakis has had a pretty crazy last couple of years. The Hangover launched him from comedy nerd favorite to mainstream comedy golden boy almost immediately. Clearly the breakout star from that ensemble cast, he’s been bumped up to sharing top billing with Robert Downey, Jr. in Todd Philips’ upcoming Due Date. In the meantime, he’s snagged a recurring role in HBO’s Bored to Death and has created what is arguably the most consistently funny web series on the internet in Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifinakis. And he’s done all of this without dropping what made him so intriguing in the first place: being deeply weird and unpredictable.
2: Stephen Colbert
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Bleep|
Stephen Colbert plays Stephen Colbert on TV, but that Stephen Colbert isn’t the real Stephen Colbert. And that’s what makes his performances so amazing. He inhabits his blowhard character in a way that is almost completely seamless, with the ability to knowingly wink at the audience while never really breaking character. It’s a comedic high-wire act made even more impressive by the fact that he does it four nights a week. And by becoming one of the right wingers that he mocked with The Daily Show, he’s able to take them to task in a completely new way.
1: Louis C.K.
Louis C.K. was at the top of nearly every list submitted to this survey. He had no real competition. And it’s no wonder: his show, Louie, is not just one of the best and most original comedies to arrive on TV in the last few years, it’s one of the best shows, period.
Louis has had a long and impressive career, writing for TV shows and movies and relentlessly touring. But with Louie, he’s been given an opportunity to do whatever he wants with virtually no restrictions. And what he’s created is a completely unique and completely personal show, one that straddles the line between comedy and drama deftly. It’s a show that only someone completely comfortable in their voice and confident in their own ideas could create, and it stands apart and above almost anything else out there. It’s no wonder he’s earned the respect of the comedy world. He seems to be doing what everyone dreams of eventually doing, if they ever can: creating a work that no one else in the world could possibly have created.
Top graphics by Steven Dressler.