The thing about comedy is that the relevance of the materials used in each era often loses validity past a certain time, but even with more updated materials, are the comedians of today as good as these legends of the olden days were?
Often hailed as the greatest comedian of all time, George Carlin was a name that no one took lightly, even though he was a comedian. His comedy was dark, political, and based on current affairs, which ranged from seeming almost insensitive and immature, to a sudden jolt back to sophistication and wise philosophy that reminded the audience who they were seated in front of. He used his language as painters use their brush and drew socio-political pictures that were as controversial and dark as they were funny. George Carlin was more than just a comedian, as his influences exceeded far beyond that of anyone else in his position.
If George Carlin is the greatest comedian of all time, Robin Williams is probably the funniest talk show guest of all time! His impressions were legendary, his impromptu improvisations were genius, and whether he took the microphone as a standup artist or played the lead in highly acclaimed movies like Dead Poet’s Society or Good Will Hunting, the man was brilliant in everything he did. While people often talk about the way he passed away, he will always be a legend for the way he made everyone laugh and even cry sometimes.
Bob Newhart is actually still active and although the man is nearly 90-years old, he is not planning to retire anytime soon either, as told to Conan on TBS last year. Ever since the late 1950s, the classic legend has managed to perfect his trademark expressionless delivery, stammers, meaningful pauses and blank stares to astoundingly successful comic effects in both individual standup shows, as well as in modern TV shows like The Big Bang Theory.
The very fact that Joan Rivers managed to make it and make it big in a time when the entire standup comedy scene was ruled by men and the audience wasn’t particularly kind to female comedians, is in itself a testament to her incredible comic genius. While there are excellent female comedians today, one may be tempted to argue that her self-deprecating humor, wise philosophies, and razor-sharp wit would have been enough to establish her as one of the prime comedians even today. After all, a line like “The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it” doesn’t really lose its comic appeal, even in 2019!
From hosting radio talk shows and being America’s first funny Weatherman, to becoming one of the most celebrated, popular, influential and funny talk show hosts to ever exist; David Letterman has had a bright and illustrious comedy TV career that is unmatched to this day. He was and still is known for his unique style of comedy, which has influenced more modern comedians than perhaps anyone else. The Late Night Show with David Letterman lasted for twenty-three seasons and had well over four thousand episodes in total, which stands as a testament to his popularity, which is nothing short of legendary.
He isn’t the only preacher who turned into a comedian later on, but he certainly remains as the best one to take that unconventional step! However, those that were lucky enough to see Sam Kinison’s few performances before he tragically passed away in a car accident at only 38, knew that he wasn’t exactly looking to deliver soft, religious jokes! Often criticized for his juvenile, loud, and somewhat insensitive delivery, Sam Kinison is still considered to be a legend because, somehow, he managed to make it all funny in a way that only he could.
The final entrant on this list might very well be a name that you have never heard of before and that’s alright because not many did since he wasn’t that popular at that time and, sadly, the satirical genius of Bill Hicks left us before it could mature, as he died from cancer at just 32. He has a select and cult following to this day because his material and delivery had depth beyond its time and it was unapologetically critical of everything and everyone from the government and religion, right down to his own audience!
Do the Modern Comedians Compare to these Legends?
The final answer depends on the audience and unless we are able to bring some of these legends back on the stage with more up-to-date materials, it is hard to draw a comparison between the celebrity comedians today and the established names of yesterday. After all, the likes of Seth Rogen and Tiffany Haddish are no pushovers either. Besides, the talent pool is much deeper today than it was three decades ago. Taking a look at this site called Summit Comedy reveals the names of young and famous college comedians such as Jessi Campbell, who was the winner of the 2015 Campus Activities Magazine Female Performer of the Year award, or Andrew Sleighter who has even performed on Conan O’Brien’s shows and frequently appeared on Money from Strangers (MTV).
There are so many more talented, rising college comedians on the site and you can be the judge of whether they have what it takes to compete with the established celebs and legends of the bygone era by giving them a chance to perform. They might just surprise you as many of these names are the future stars of stand-up comedy.
If there is one comedian who has defied all trends and have managed to not just stay relevant today but also become the highest paid, active comedian from the 70s, it would have to be Jerry Seinfeld, who made $30 million from his live standup comedy routines alone in 2018! Seinfeld might have just proven that legends of the old days could have still ruled the standup scene today, although, that is definitely arguable.
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