Comedy is, of course, subjective, but there are undeniable icons who’ve had a hand in the way we laugh, the way we think, and the way we talk. And of course, all these icons have brought their own unique style, history, and court of influence to the stage. It’s fascinating to weigh the work of Richard Pryor against Jerry Seinfeld or Sarah Silverman and Andy Kaufman — they’ve all done so much in such different ways. (Likely providing inspiration to many of the comics on Comedy Knockout along the way.)
But what if these uneven puzzle pieces were pressed into place? It’s an exercise in curiosity as much as it is comedy nerdery, but we decided to think on the characteristics you would need to Frankenstein together the perfect comedian, a creation that would be clearly unstable in reality, but which we can imagine as some kind of comedic super being.
So, here are the ingredients.
Brains – George Carlin
Few people, comedians or otherwise, were able to put things into perspective like George Carlin. While he started out as a quirky, astute comic, he was still fairly conventional. As he evolved on stage, however, Carlin came to deliver scathing commentaries on government, corruption, censorship, and the dark undercurrent of human nature. What set him apart, however, was that his sets would often include him proposing some sort of solution, giving surprisingly intricate details on how to solve complex problems like prison overpopulation, the deficit, and religious fundamentalism, all with a single grand gesture. While the world aches for a mind like Carlin’s, thankfully (and ruefully), so much of what he said is still relevant today.
Language – Sarah Silverman
There’s a kind of casual deliberateness to Sarah Silverman’s routine, one that has managed to keep her in the “controversial” category. She chooses her words carefully, then delivers them with an artful, unassuming vulgarity that she’s seldom, if ever, apologized for. She once said, “I don’t set out to offend or shock, but I also don’t do anything to avoid it.” And there you have it.
Stage Presence – Chris Rock
After his tenure on both SNL and In Living Color, Chris Rock’s attempt to rebrand himself as a bankable movie star in the early 1990s fell flat. As a result, he went back to focus on his stand-up act, and started to take the comedy world by storm with a string of HBO specials and a late night talk show. On stage, Rock seemed more focused and energized, sticking and moving as he attacked topics like race relations in America while pacing side to side with a fire in his eyes.
Honesty – Richard Pryor
Like Carlin, Richard Pryor’s early act was rooted in convention and didn’t give much indication of the brilliant comedian that he would become. After he moved to Berkeley, California in 1969, he found himself drawn into the counterculture movement. Not long after, his act evolved, developing a distinct, unapologetic style, and before long he became a voice that had never been heard in comedy before, one that spoke with jaw-dropping honesty about drug abuse, police brutality, and psychotic behavior — often while simply referring to his own turbulent personal life.
Relatability – Louis C.K.
Much of Louis C.K.’s humor is based on the fact that he’s a regular guy just trying to get through the day. While he manages to work in some pretty subversive cultural observations, he seems to approach these topics as a frustrated voice of reason, whose punchlines were closer to him simply shrugging shoulders than proposing any sort of grand solutions. A working class comic that boasts a sophisticated barroom intellect, but one that is not afraid to use lowbrow humor, all while seeming like the kind of comedian that you’d really want to have a beer with.
Observation – Jerry Seinfeld
While observational humor existed in stand-up before Jerry Seinfeld, he did manage to completely reinvent it, always able to explain how almost any situation was rife with potential awkwardness. He would also go beyond the standard-issue “have you ever noticed…?” jokes, looking at mundane situations with a much broader perspective, often veering into vast, imaginary worlds, like his hypothesis on where laundry goes when it’s lost in the dryer.
Energy – Robin Williams
When he got going (and wasn’t he always going when a camera was on him?), Robin Williams expelled jokes like most people do air. It’s a notable rapid fire style that made him a champion talk show guest and stand-up comedian before and after he showcased his equally impressive capacity to gut punch a viewer as a dramatic actor. Seeing Williams run and run on stage almost undermines the skill and intelligence required to make it work because it all looks so easy, but in fact, Williams’ mind clearly had a few extra processors to convert observations into material so quickly and with such great success.
Delivery – Ellen DeGeneres
A calm and collected performer who was always able to convincingly act anxious or neurotic to best suit her act, Ellen DeGeneres effortlessly alternated between calm and manic deliveries, and has always been able to intricately weave what seemed to be off the cuff rambling while keeping the audience’s attention throughout. This would pay off big when a well-delivered punchline at the end of her set was to a joke she’d managed to set up back at the very beginning.
Attitude – Bill Hicks
For lack of any better way to put this, Bill Hicks did not give one single f*ck. Watching him perform, it almost seemed like he’d be there delivering his moving-target takedowns of advertising, obscenity, and the establishment whether there was a crowd there or not. Hicks approached comedy like he needed to get something off his chest, and whether or not the audience went along with it was merely incidental.
Willingness To Get Weird – Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman was anything but conventional, at one point trading away any affection he earned as the oft-adorable Latka on Taxi by becoming comedy’s greatest heel as he tossed women around in the wrestling ring and got into supposed fights during both an episode of Fridays and an episode of Late Night with David Letterman. Kaufman’s other exploits included sitting on-stage and eating ice cream while an audience looked on, his legendarily odd debut on Saturday Night Live when he badly lip-synced to the Mighty Mouse theme, and rumors that he would hold audiences hostage by reading passages of “The Great Gatsby” to them for long stretches of his act. There are also longstanding rumors that he faked his death, which are lent credibility by Kaufman’s reputation as an unrivaled and daring comedic performance artist.
Intensity – Sam Kinison
On stage, Sam Kinison carried with him the booming voice of a preacher (which he had been earlier in his life) and a kind of intensity about life and relationships that made it seem like he was always a moment away from splitting your ear drum with a guttural howl. Killed by a drunk driver just as he was starting to become a fixture in the public consciousness, Kinison is still remembered by many for his electricity that he brought to a set and mourned for all that he didn’t get to do on stage and in front of a camera.
Tenacity – Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce’s fight against government obscenity laws made him a martyr and a key figure in comedy whose sacrifices helped pave the way for freer public expression, but the war that was waged against him by police from across the country (a war that robbed him of his ability to earn a living as he became persona-non grata on the nightclub scene) doubtlessly drove him further into his addiction, which eventually wound up killing him. A lesser man would have conformed and toed the line. A lesser man would have surely had a bigger career and an easier life, but what’s it worth if you reject a war with the world and choose a war with your own ideals?
Moxie – Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers’ comedy cut to the bone, and as a barrier-breaking female comedian in the 1960s, she never hesitated to target the rampant sexism in both show business and society at large, yet still managed to be self-deprecating at the same time. Her criticisms of archaic social conventions, particularly between men and women, made her an early advocate for gender equality, a role she took all the way to The Tonight Show as the first ever female host when she worked as a fill-in for a vacationing Johnny Carson, who later disowned her when she started her own late night show without kissing the ring and asking for permission. Because that was Joan Rivers, someone who paid little attention to old guard ideas and someone who had no interest in living her life within the constraints of how other people thought she should.
Star Power – Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy was a teenage stand-up comic whose unmistakable confidence and star power allowed him to push his way into the cast of Saturday Night Live, saving the show as its first (and only) second generation star. To sum it up, you had to see what Murphy was going to do on each episode, and later, when his stand-up moved to the forefront with concert films — 1983’s Delirious and 1987’s Raw — the same was true. And it would probably be the same if he ever went back to stand-up because Murphy’s kind of electricity doesn’t fade.
Impressions – Kevin Pollak
Being a great impressionist is about more than nailing the voice and then using that voice as a standalone device to get laughs. As Kevin Pollak demonstrates, being a great impressionist is all about capturing and then heightening a subject’s mannerisms and mindset before using that fleshed out character to tell a story. When executed in that way… a parlor trick transforms into an artform.
See more comedians with all sorts of appealing styles (and body parts) on truTV’s ‘Comedy Knockout‘ Thursdays at 10:30/9:30c.