Top stand-up comedy acts in the 20th century
12:33 AMStand-up comedy is usually a one-person act presenting a story, analysis of a situation, or short jokes following some theme. I have reviewed myriad comedy acts from the 1900s and helped to distill for your listening pleasure.
There are other sites on the internet that are quick to point out top selling comedians or comedy acts, even some comedy albums. Upon reviewing these, you will quickly find that stand-up comedy is actually a more modern (1940s on) thing. And looking back, some of the comedians on those lists are comparable to a modern David Letterman. Either way, onward!
How do you judge a good stand-up routine? Well first it has to be standup; outside of the below FIVE STAR list, some notable non-stand-up bits have been included. You have to imagine you are in the theater, with a light buzz, and in good company. This is hard because all the recorded acts have laugh tracks included, and it is easy to bias towards acts with a bigger following. An example is Wendy Liebman who uses a punctuated delivery which depends on the audience laughing. You almost want to dock her for using so many filler words but they actually are necessary.
We are really looking for quality comedy, which you can share with friends and are not too dated. For example 90s stand up is so easy to notice when you hear them bring in the gay/lesbian routines. That used to be funny, but only because of uneasiness with the topic at the time.
FIVE STAR / BEST PERFORMANCES
Abbott and Costello Who's on First (1937)
Alphabetically and not necessarily better than others on this list, Abbott and Costello deliver a home run performance with this confused introduction of player's names on a baseball team. They did not develop the idea for this bit, but delivery is perfect with a fast-paced back-and-forth.
Andy Griffith What It Was, Was Football (1953)
Andy Griffith delivered this outsider's nonchalant perspective of the game that Americans still hold dear today. Thirty-three years after NFL was incorporated, this bit illustrates a contest between men on a field.
Bob Hope Bob Hope Pepsodent Show Broadcast to the US Army (1941)
Bob Hope provided humor and relief for service members and families in the US armed forces. This is one of his many themed stand-up acts following a formula of sponsor acknowledgement, light introduction, subject matter mastery of armed forces life, and closing of gratitude to the forces. For his effect in uplifting spirits he was recognized by the Legislative Branch as "first and only honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces".
Bob Newhart MULTIPLE
His acts that scored the most points are in his style of one-sided conversations. Perhaps the best well-known is King Kong -- a rookie security officer in the Empire State Building describes to his boss futile attempts to remove an unwelcome visitor. Two others that are just as good are Wernher von Braun -- a politically expedient Nazi scientist who joined the US missile program after the war; and Ben Franklin in Analysis -- a psychologist that looks down on Ben's frugal and masochistic ways.
Gene Tracy Went to the Doctor, Wont Get None Till Monday
Many acts were demerited for use of unnecessary language and vulgarity because you probably need to be more than a little drunk to get the full funny. Morris's exceptional performance is in a series about Harold, a dimwit with a speech impediment, this time discussing impatience with his soon-to-be wife.
George Carlin MULTIPLE
Carlin brings a literal, no-holds-barred analysis of modern language, beliefs and self-identity. The most famous is Why We Don't Need 10 Commandments -- a breakdown of scripture and the motivations for writing it that way. Two others that are just as good are Euphemisms and Airline Announcements, in his linguistics theme uncovering "bullshit" people say to make themselves sound more important.
Jeff Wayne Avoid the Trap, Way (1990s)
These all use gratuitous language and the format is different than others on this list in that they are segmented and short jokes, some approaching a "story". I believe these jokes are properly attributed to Wayne, as I am sure you have heard them before, but they are pristine.
Rod Man Def Jam Performance (1997)
He has the perfect black comedy voice, like Chris Tucker minus the screeching. His storytelling is very approachable and matter-of-fact. This is his only performance worthy of any star ratings.
Wendy Liebman Wendy Liebman (1996)
Liebman's self-titled performance is reused in bits and pieces throughout many of her appearances but this is the original stand-up one. She uses the blonde ditz voice to tell a story set in verse like "Miss Suzy" the school yard song (you know it) that ends each predictable sentence with another similar word starting the next sentence.
Honorable mention: Robin Williams
To fully appreciate a Robin William act you must start at the beginning and listen through -- he talks fast (even faster than George Carlin) and really rolls the punches. Williams is definitely an accomplished comedian and some of his performances do include bit-sized "stand-up" acts, but he definitely belongs in a separate category.
Honorable mention: Bill Cosby
With so many strong stand-up performances and a lifetime of comedy achievement, Bill Cosby is noted as an honorable mention. He has achieved four-stars for so many acts, but he is juts a step away from the inner circle.
TWO STAR / EH PERFORMANCES
ONE STAR / BLEGH PERFORMANCES
Cheech & Chong
The Jerky Boys