Friday, November 27, 2009

The Ten Most Influential Comedians of the Decade

Though the prevailing doxa seems to be that alternative comedy was the biggest movement of the past ten years, the truth is future history books will mark this decade as the one in which stand-up got fragmented. The red states had blue-collar comedy; the ghettos had The Kings of Comedy; the suburban mooks yukked it up listening to Rich Vos and Jim Norton; and, yes, the hipsters were slapping their tightly-jeaned knees watching Comedians of Comedy DVDs.

It is thus keeping in mind all these disparate comedy movements that I present the most influential comedians of the decade. These are not necessarily my favorite comedians of the decade. If that were the case, you would see Paul F. Tompkins, Marc Maron and Maria Bamford on this list. For better or worse though, these ten comics were the ones that open mikers sheepishly aped this decade while trying to find their voice. These are the ten comics that shaped people's expectations of stand-up over the past ten years. Some of the comics on this list even helped introduce stand-up to markets that no one would have previously thought of (blogs, indie rock festivals). Here, then, are the ten most important comics of the nascent millenium.

10) Louis CK

No comedian has more respect uptown and downtown than Louis CK. True, sincerity was not as popular as irony in this decade and if this were a list of beloved comics, CK would be ranked much higher. But it is only recently that comics have begun to talk about break-ups and childhood trauma with the same soulful, gut-wrenching intensity that he is known for. Whether Dane Cook did indeed steal those jokes from him or not, we can at least count that incident as evidence that CK's lowbrow/highbrow/anything-but-middlebrow style had a significant impact in arenas as well as in faux-dives nationwide.

9) Mitch Hedberg

Of course Mitch Hedberg helped open the floodgates for one-liner comics worldwide. But his most lasting contribution would be his laid-back, stoner delivery. You'd be hard-pressed to find a comic who sounded like they had more fun onstage than he did. More cynical readers may point out that heroin would make anyone happy, but therein lies the rub: heroin addicts often end up taking heroin not to get high; after a certain point users never feel high on smack again. They simply take it to ease the pain in their stomachs.

This is the exact opposite of Hedberg's comedy. There are moments on Strategic Grill Locations when he flubs the delivery to his jokes or tells undeveloped zingers. Those moments aren't only acceptable; they leave indelible impressions on the listener's mind. Many comedians have since tried to recreate the loose, goofy, comedic vibe that Hedberg brought to rooms nationwide; none have come close.

8) Aziz Ansari

Before you click the "Publish Your Comment" button, angry readers, consider this: Aziz Ansari was the first comic to use blog buzz to advance his career the way stand-ups used The Tonight Show or Dangerfield specials 20 years ago. Before YouTube, Ansari was making viral online videos with Human Giant ("Shutterbugs") and without them ("Aziz's Shitty Mixtape"). Anybody who has made the comics in the back laugh with jokes about shitty action movies and dumb R&B songs owes him at least another listen. And yes, in an age where Arabs, Sikhs, Indians, Pakistanis and Turks were indiscriminately called "towelheads," there he was, crossing over to white audiences and paving the way for great brown comics like Hari Kondabolu.

7) Jeff Foxworthy

According to a New York Times article, Comedy Central largely overlooked Jeff Dunham until the suits saw that The Blue Collar Comedy Tour was such a success. Though Larry the Cable Guy was the breakaway star, Jeff Foxworthy initially attracted attention to one of the most lucrative movements of the decade.

Before you shit on Foxworthy, check out this clip from Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? His quick wit and good-natured delivery help save this from turning into a mean-spirited humiliation of a grown woman who should have paid more attention in math class as well as chemistry class.

6) Bernie Mac

One of the great lessons of ethnic comedy in this decade: it wouldn't be enough to talk about your race. An audience raised on Def Comedy Jam and hip-hop skits knew everything about the difference between black people and white people. While Bernie Mac would remind us of the similarities between blacks and whites, he did not resort to Bill Cosby's gentle delivery. Indeed, Mac's rapid-fire cadences hearkened back to the fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preacher style of Sam Kinison. His personal material, where he mostly aired his family's dirty laundry, was a precursor to Louis CK's shockingly confessional bits on wiping shit from his daughter's vagina.

The Bernie Mac Show
was also a revelation. This decade's answer to The Cosby Show, the Emmy Award-winning program would get shuffled around the TV schedule like every other show on Fox that should never have been canceled. In truth, it's amazing that a show about a borderline abusive father even got greenlit to begin with. A closer look reveals that, like his blustery stand-up act, there was a redolent sweetness reminding us that he acted this way because he loved the kids -- and he respected the audience.

5) Dave Attell

To a certain extent, Dave Attell almost ruined comedy clubs. Thousands of up-and-comers have flooded bringer shows with lesser jokes about sex with trannies and midgets. Truth be told, it is not easy to say what makes Attell better than these wannabe cool jerks. Delivery comes to mind. Every word that leaves his mouth is marked "Important." There is nothing casual about this man; every breath seems to have smoke behind it.

Or perhaps it's his laser-like focus on nightlife. No comic books or rug rats here: every joke he has told has been about alcohol, weed, sex, cocaine -- anything that we indulge in between 5 pm and 4 am to help us escape our humdrum existences (and to help us forget his legions of humdrum imitators).

4) Sarah Silverman

You mean to tell me that attractive female comics spontaneously decided in this decade to tell off-color jokes about black men, anorexia and child abuse? Truth is, Sarah Silverman had the same impact on many comediennes this decade that Eddie Vedder had on "alternative" rock singers in the '90s: everyone sounded like them.

What the imitators lack is her silliness. Most of the clones would make fun of Martin Luther King for shock value; few have the imagination and verve Silverman had to tell a hilariously preposterous lie about MLK farting in a car with the windows up and the heat on full blast.

3) Todd Barry

True, few comics were dumb enough to try to affect Todd Barry's low -energy style. But Barry's snarky quips about shitty rock musicians would permeate alternative comedy scenes nationwide, spawning imitators left and right. Comics were also drawn to his detached, wry take on urban life, taking jabs at conversations overheard at restaurants as well as knee-jerk ineffectual liberals that bring a bad name to the left.

Lest you think that Barry is a boutique act that only has hipster cachet, watch this Letterman clip, where each joke has laughs and an applause break.

2) David Cross

David Cross would have been number one, but it seems his influence started to wane as the decade wore on. Less comics -- both indie and mainstream -- would do topical material. Even the angry, insolent tone would become less and less popular.

But it was Cross who ultimately attracted attention to alternative comedy in the first place. Simply listen to Aziz Ansari's self-effacing quip on the Invite Them Up compilation CD, where he imagines a listener skipping his track: "Fuck Aziz Ansari; David Cross, where is he at?" For a long time, Cross was the biggest indie comic out there. His stint on Arrested Development certainly didn't hurt. Neither did his cult following from his Mr. Show days.

The most important legacy Cross gave us, however, was taking comedy out of the comedy clubs and into the rock clubs. In 2000, Cross went on a rock tour with Ultrababyfat, helping fuel the Comedians of Comedy tour as well as giving impetus to the deluge of comedy tents at indie rock festivals.

1) Patton Oswalt

Sure David Cross attracted audiences to indie comedy, but Patton Oswalt would keep them coming back for more. It is because of Oswalt that every geek with a comic book collection thought they could tell jokes. It is because of Oswalt that Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford got the attention they deserved through the Comedians of Comedy tour.

But when scholars hundreds of years from now discuss the significance of Patton Oswalt, they will all point to his tone. Granted, very few comics can stray from cynicism for long and his screed against KFC bowls is served with a big helping of bile. But before Oswalt, almost no comics talked about their passions. Love was almost always out of the equation.

Yet there he was, recounting his hilariously detailed obsessions with giant women, Alvin and the Chipmunk records, celebrity chefs and film producer Robert Evans. The reason Oswalt was the obvious choice to star in films like Big Fan and Ratatouille was because the two lead characters in those films needed his infectious zeal to come to life. It is this lust for life that had as many comics joking about the things they love in this decade as The Beatles had musicians singing about love in the '60s.


killy the kid said...

wow. there's one woman on there. wow. ok.

gigglechick said...

I think your list is pretty spot on.

Although, if you're talking about open mic'ers getting up and doing bits that were inspired by others, there was a huge chunk in the mid '00s where they were attempting to channel Dane "He Who Should Not Be Named" Cook.

As far as only one woman being on there - I'll have to agree with only having Sarah on there.

That's not to say that I particularly like her. But I've found that many open mic'ers of the female persuasion think that they can just spout forth something shocking for a chick to say and call it comedy.

While it's easy to be inspired by Maria Bamford, one can't pull off her range of talent up on stage... and if you go the Lisa Lampanelli route, you're probably not going to get that balance of "equal opportunity" crassness down as well as her. But it's somewhat easy to get up at an open mic and say cock or vagina and get some tittering from the crowd.

Of course, there are TONS of women comedians whom are fantastic... as pointed out by the Bammer herself:


Yay for adding Attell to the list :}

Mo Diggs said...

I'm talking of a list if influential stand-ups not best or greatest. I did not want to make a list of greatest stand-ups because there would have been too many for me to list.

Which influential female stand-ups do you think I overlooked Kelly? I would genuinely love to see your list.

Jon Clarke said...

Nice list. I like how you defended the comics I hate.

Mo Diggs said...

Thanks (I think) Yeah thanks

OneLinerChumpStain said...

Mitch Hedberg died of a SpeedBall overdose, which is a mix of cocaine and heroine. Maybe the pain in his stomach was too strong to be assuaged by heroin alone.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Dane Cook is definitely missing from this list as far as emulation is concerned. Gaffigan should be here, carrying the torch of Brian Regan, who dissects things that presumably don't matter. But perhaps they did more to shape the previous decade. The one called, "Observational Comedy".

As far as getting a better guage of influential women, if I were you Mo, I would ask up-and-coming female comedians (Morgan Murphy, Kristin Schaal, Karith Foster) who they were influenced by. But most of us would probably cite men.

In the past couple of years I have been influenced by Seinfeld and Chris Rock who are not even on this list. But also inspired by CK to ask myself if what's on the page is honest and matters to me. Nevertheless I feel most people look to CK to ask themselves if they're being jarring / fearless enough.

Where are the absurdist comedians who are shaping future absurdists?

I like what you said about Aziz, (even though I would put him lower on a longer list having more to do with shaping technology's influence on comedy), and you provide great insight into everyone's gift.

Chris Garcia said...

This is a great list, Mo, thanks for sharing, and good job comics you don't necessarily care for.

Although I think Aziz and Todd Barry are great, I think Chappelle and Dane Cook's influence has been felt harder.

The middle 2000's were owned by those dudes, and everyone and there mother started emulating them.

I think Russel Peters could be on there, too.

Amye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mo Diggs said...

I don't see many comics emulating Dane's style nowadays. Even in the suburbs I see way less physical comics.

A lot of people say Chappelle was influential. What specific influence did he have? Not many shows ripped off Chappelle's Show. As far as his stand-up goes, I don't really see what he was a precursor of. He's a great comic to be sure, but I question how much his influence was felt.

Same goes for Gaffigan.

And Abbi, I wanted KILLY to list the influential women since she was the one who raised the issue.

Why would you say Russel Peters belongs on the list?

Emily Heller said...

As far as influential female comics, I think Maria deserves to be on there. I can't tell you how many of the female comics I know say that she single handedly made them want to be on stage (and continues to). I think she opened up a place for women onstage that wasn't there before - not angry, not hypersexualized. Just smart and silly. Even if no one can successfully emulate her style, that she makes you want to get up and do it is influence enough, isn't it?

Chuck said...

I agree that Foxworthy is an influence to Southern/Redneck comics. But he was influencing those folks 15 years ago. Bernie Mac was a star in the hood for that long as well. Doug Stanhope is glaringly absent from this list. Stanhope was touring indie rock clubs before Patton did CoC. Doug Stanhope is your favorite comics favorite comic.

Mo Diggs said...

@ Emily

"Even if no one can successfully emulate her style, that she makes you want to get up and do it is influence enough, isn't it?"

This is what was gleaned from your research, not mine. Truth is I have not seen many comics (famous or local) who have told me the reason they got onstage was that they heard her comedy.

I chose comics whose had a style that, if not actually imitated by other comics, was at least an influence on the marketplace. Maria Bamford, as much as I love her (I actually consider her the Queen of Comedy)had a style so idiosyncratic that few comics were dumb enough to imitate it.

@ Chuck

I chose Foxworthy because the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (which convinced Comedy Central to choose more red state acts) would never have gotten off the ground if it wasn't for Foxworthy's cachet. True Larry the CG was the breakout star but Foxworthy brought the tour attention. So I agree he influenced the Blue Collar guys a decade ago, but his effect on comedy programming was in this decade.

"Stanhope was touring indie rock clubs before Patton did CoC." Citation needed. Besides, did he do it before David Cross?