We all know who we think is funny right now, but who are the funniest people ever? That’s what we’re here to attempt to answer today. It isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First of all, humor is so subjective that several of your favorites will inevitably be left off the list, while you’ll scream bloody murder about several of the people who did make it. But that’s part of the fun of it, and I’m sure you’ll let us know about it in the comments.
Second, what’s considered funny has changed so much over the years that it’s hard to compare people of different eras. In fact, “funny” as a concept is relatively new, at least as we know it, and that means that this list is naturally heavily weighted towards people who’ve done their thing relatively recently.
And finally, I’m sure that there is some bushman on the Kalahari who lived 10,000 years ago who was funnier than all these people put together, but it’s kind of hard to rank a dude we’ve never heard of. And so in recognition of those limitations, and because we really are the experts in everything, we bring you this audacious project, the 50 funniest people ever.
Yeah, yeah, he’s been a human punch-line for over twenty years now, but people forget that for about a ten year period starting in 1975, Chevy Chase was The Man. Starting with Saturday Night Live and continuing right on through Caddyshack and Fletch, Chevy defined the image of “funny cool.” He’s as responsible for the evolution of American comedy as anyone else.
The comedy world has always been a huge boy’s club, but when you’re as funny as Lily Tomlin it doesn’t really matter. She’s not a joke machine, but she has that loose, goofy sort of charm that just makes everyone smile whenever she’s in the room or on screen. It’s an effortless sort of funny.
Jack Lemmon was a great actor. He was also a naturally hilarious dude. His bewildered, put-upon style became an underrated comedy staple for decades, and really made classic movies from Some Like it Hot to The Apartment to Grumpy Old Men. You don’t have to be a comedian to be funny.
The Carol Burnett Show was an old-fashioned variety show that managed to be really, really funny, even compared to the edgier Saturday Night Live which took its place in the comedy world. And a big reason for that was Carol Burnett’s natural understanding of the concept of funny. Nobody had better timing or mastered the art of self-effacing humor quite like her.
Another vet of The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Korman also was one of Mel Brooks’ go-to guys, most memorably in Blazing Saddles. Look, whenever someone as funny as Mel Brooks think you’re funny enough to be his main dude, you’re funny as hell.
Dan Aykroyd was never really the fireball of comedy that his friend John Belushi was, and he was never the type to just stand up there and tell jokes, but Dan Aykroyd was arguably the most important member of Saturday Night Live in its formative years. His ability to inhabit his characters in ridiculous, warped ways set the tone for what people would find funny for years to come – and still find funny today.
Tracey Ullman earned her place in the comedy pantheon the moment she allowed her variety show to start airing quick sketches of an animated family known as The Simpsons. But more than that, she’s a very gifted comedienne, a chameleon who understands how to slip inside the skin of just about anyone or anything and find what makes them funny.
People liked to laugh whenever John Candy was around because he played the boorish, fat guy perfectly. But underneath that big bluster, there was a warmth that made him the type of funny that everyone wants to hang out with. He was the epitome of the funniest best friend in the world.
A 17th century French dramatist, Moliere earned his spot on this list by conquering the world of wit long before “funny” as we know it became a thing. His pithy quotes and biting satire helped set the foundation for the sort of caustic comedy that thrives today. He was so funny that he was able to use it almost as a weapon.
Nobody does deadpan funny better than Christopher Guest. Nobody. From This is Spinal Tap all the way through his own mockumentaries of the last couple decades, Christopher Guest has carved out his own niche in the comedy world, all without even cracking a smile.
19th century writer Ambrose Bierce was one of those rare old dudes who would have fit right in today. His sardonic, vicious satire earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce,” and his infamous The Devil’s Dictionary served as a sort of bible for the satirical world for a long time. He was universally regarded as a huge asshole, but eventually the world learned an important truth: assholes are funny. He was light years ahead of his time.
Douglas Adams had that whole understated, dry, slightly weird English humor thing going for him, and while he never quite got the recognition he deserved as a funny dude, his Hitchhiker’s Guide series is one of the funniest things anyone has ever written anywhere. Offbeat, kind of geeky, reveling in the absurd, it was basically the literary equivalent of The Simpsons.
Some people are just so funny that they don’t even really have to do anything. They just have to be. Gilda Radner was one of those people, just a human expression of funny who made people laugh simply with a look.
Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is one of the funniest satires ever written. Of course, it helps that his targets – the French and philosophers – are so easy to make fun of, but you’ve got to remember that back in his day, nobody else was doing it. Voltaire almost invented mocking the French as a comedy staple, and for that we thank him.
Lenny Bruce is a weird case because for a comedian he really didn’t have a lot of jokes. What he did do, though, was blast open the doors for future generations of comedians by making the taboo funny, by obliterating the lines of decency with a confrontational and transgressional style that made the uncomfortable the heart of comedy. He was about 50% funny and 50% provocateur, but it was a combo that created much of what we consider funny today.
Aristophanes was the OG of funny, just a sassy old Greek asshole who spent his life shit-talking everyone else. Again, he’s one of those old dudes who would have fit right in today. He’s considered an important figure in the evolution of Western literature and culture, but he should also be recognized as one of the most important figures in the evolution of the concept of funny.
David Letterman is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for making irony a comedic staple. And given that irony lies at the heart of almost every funny thing that people do or make today, I’d say that he’s earned his place on this list. Letterman was – and still is – a comedy genius.
Watch any of the old clips from The Carol Burnett Show, and most of the funniest moments involve the rest of the cast members losing their shit because Tim Conway did something ridiculously funny. One of the best ways to tell if someone is truly funny is by how other funny people react to them, and funny people couldn’t even be around Tim Conway without busting out in laughter.
Madeline Kahn was Mel Brooks’ secret weapon for years. She fused funny and sexy into one unique package, and again, whenever you can say that you’re a muse of Mel Brooks, you know you’re incredibly funny.
Norm MacDonald is too weird and too goddamn mean for most mainstream audiences, and everything he does inevitably flops, so why is he on this list? Well, it’s the old “how do other funny people react to him” thing. Watch any talk show appearance of Norm’s. He just slays the entire room. The host always ends up doubled over in laughter, and no matter who else is on the show that night, Norm is the alpha dog. He’s so funny that he’s almost too funny for regular people.
Shakespeare? You’re damn right. For as much as everyone talks about Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s comedies are just as noteworthy. They created a style of comedy that is still mimicked today in everything from sitcoms to romantic comedies, and while those aren’t exactly at the forefront of modern comedy, they are still reliable and popular standards, and Shakespeare was doing that shit almost 500 years ago.
Graham Chapman was sort of the leading man of the Monty Python troupe, and in a lot of ways he was the one who made the whole thing go. He could inhabit his characters better than anyone else in the troupe, and had the ability to lampoon the sort of straight-laced English middle-class man better than just about anyone who ever lived, with a weird mixture of subtlety and absurdity that’s virtually impossible to duplicate.
Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of cheating since they’re three different dudes (well, four if you count Shemp), but it’s impossible to really separate them, you know? That’s because they were like a comedy Voltron. Alone, they were just ordinary dudes, together they were the Three freakin’ Stooges. It only worked because they each added something to the mix created in some mad scientist’s comedy chemistry lab.
How funny was Chaucer? Sure, his works, especially The Canterbury Tales and The Book of the Duchess, were landmarks in both English literature and satire, but really all you need to know is this: the dude was making fart jokes in his books, and this was over 600 years ago. Look, if I stand for anything, it’s that the father of the fart joke deserves his place on this list.
Bob Newhart belongs to that old school of comedy. You know, the one that keeps it clean and family-friendly, and while that is usually a recipe for mind-numbing boredom, Newhart is that rare talent who can get away with it because he’s just so naturally funny. His demeanor and his delivery are just so perfect for the style and tone. Nobody does put upon bewilderment better.
It’s impossible to deny Charlie Chaplin’s influence on comedy – or the fact that he was almost supernaturally gifted when it came to the funny arts. It’s hard to really compare Chaplin to most of the people on this list because he did it all without saying a word. But that just makes his ability to make people laugh all the more impressive. Nobody has ever been more physically gifted at making people laugh than Charlie Chaplin.
If Leslie Nielsen didn’t make you laugh, it’s possible that you have no soul. I remember sitting in the theater with my best friend as a kid, watching Spy Hard – a terrible movie – and almost crying with laughter because Leslie Nielsen was, well, Leslie Nielsen. The point is, is that it didn’t matter what he was doing or how good or bad his movies were, Leslie Nielsen was always – always – incredibly funny. It’s just who he was.
Louis C.K. is possibly the funniest person on the planet right at this moment. He’s also probably the most universally respected comedian alive today and he can get away with saying things that lesser comedians can’t. That’s always the hallmark of a genuinely funny person, and someone who could hold his own and kick ass in any era.
Phil Hartman was the heart of Saturday Night Live for almost a decade, and during much of that time, the show was considered as good as it’s ever been. He was the perfect sketch comedy performer, which is an underrated medium that many don’t quite understand is a unique thing all its own. He could make any character funny, and that’s because he understood how to find the humor in anything. There are very, very few people who have ever been as talented at making people laugh as Phil Hartman.
It’s tough to really rank the members of the Monty Python troupe because they were all so ridiculously talented, but John Cleese always seemed to be just a hair better than the rest. He nailed straight-laced absurdity better than just about anyone who’s ever lived, and he did it – and still does it - with a sort of twisted surrealism that has become a fundamental principle of modern comedy.
Bill Cosby’s clean brand of comedy has sort of fallen out of favor over the years, but you can’t deny his impact on that world. He influenced everyone, and it’s not so much the jokes he tells, but the way he tells them, with a slow, deliberate story-telling manner, with each pause and inflection designed to generate the maximum amount of laughter. He speaks the language of funny.
Yes, Robin Williams can be a little much and sometimes you just want to tell him to sit down and shut up, and to stop acting like a hyperactive child who stumbled onto cocaine, but here’s the thing: Robin Williams is so funny that he can’t really control it. It’s just a 100 MPH comedy assault that never ends. Whatever you think about Robin Williams, you can’t deny that beneath all the noise is a mind that never stops thinking funny.
For all of Will Ferrell’s success –and remember, success always breeds haters – the best way to show anyone that he’s truly funny and not just a product of marketing, is to show them his outtakes. It’s almost breathtaking. He just keeps coming and coming and coming, improvising ridiculously hilarious stuff on the spot, and other very funny people around him spend all their time almost crying in laughter. His movies are the polished finished project, but the raw materials are pure funny, and it’s no coincidence that his best stuff always embodies that sort of experimental looseness.
John Belushi was a human atom bomb of funny. You could just drop him anywhere and watch him explode. He was physically gifted as a comedian in a way that comes along maybe once in a lifetime, and had the sort of rare charisma that makes comedy not just funny but genuinely riveting.
Lucille Ball was so funny that she basically created an entire genre that still thrives today. It’s hard for people to really appreciate how funny she was because that genre has become such a cliché. But it’s not a cliché when you’re the person who did it first, and Lucille Ball made the sitcom style her thing. She owned it and everyone else is just renting it from her.
The Marx Brothers have always been on the Mount Rushmore of American comedy, and Groucho was always their star. Their style, led by Groucho, helped cement basic comedy principles that still hold strong today. Just watch every time Groucho clowns Margaret Dumont and you can see the seeds that later became Animal House, Caddyshack, and just about every huge comedy that’s hit since. Groucho understood human nature, and that’s always been the hidden secret of comedy.
Peter Cook never found worldwide mainstream success, but he’s a dude that other funny people absolutely worshiped. Jon Cleese, Eric Idle, Stephen Fry...I could go on and on and on, but these are all ridiculously funny people who flat-out admit they weren’t even in Peter Cook’s league. In fact, in 2005, a poll of 300 comedians was taken called the Comedians’ Comedian, and Cook ranked number one. He was massively influential, and a lot of what we take for granted in comedy today is owed to that influence.
Steve Martin will always be funny. It’s just who he is. At his peak, he was probably the funniest dude on the planet. Just watch The Jerk. When you’re not laughing, take a moment to try to comprehend the sheer genius that it takes to pull that off.
Peter Sellers was so funny that he essentially became a human expression of the concept. That might sound weird, but it’s true. He was an enigma who even claimed himself that he had no real personality except for whatever character he was playing at the time. He was a vessel of pure comedy.
Redd Foxx was one of the first comedians with the balls to get filthy. He proved to everyone that the profane could be wildly funny and set the stage for just about every comedian to come. He was the sort of dude who would make you laugh so hard you wouldn’t be able to breathe and once he saw that he’d just keep coming and keep coming, like some sort of comedy terminator.
Don Rickles showed everyone that assholes could be funny, and not just funny, but funny in that brutal sort of way that feels almost like a weapon. It didn’t matter what room he was in or who he was with, he could reduce the whole thing to rubble using only his brain and his mouth.
Being funny is multiple eras is an almost impossible trick to pull off. That’s because attitudes about what’s funny change, but Mel Brooks did it. He was a contemporary of all those old 1950s variety show comedians who fell out of favor once the counterculture’s sharper edge took over, but instead of becoming irrelevant, Mel Brooks just went out and made Blazing Saddles. He transcends shifting attitudes and cultural trends because that’s what real funny is. It’s timeless.
Rodney Dangerfield was so funny that it was almost exhausting. You could just drop him in any room and watch him just devour the place, perfect one-liner at a time. It was an old school style of comedy, but Rodney made it cool simply by being funnier than anyone else. Of course, it helped that he looked like, well, like Rodney Dangerfield. Everything about him was naturally hilarious.
Bill Murray is one of those dudes who isn’t going to kill you with joke after joke. No, he’s just so goddamn charming that he can make you laugh simply by being Bill Murray. It’s relaxed and utterly ingratiating. It’s Peter Venkman or John from Stripes. It’s Phil the weatherman. It’s Bill Murray.
Forget about his eponymous show for a minute and just go watch one of his comedy specials. Dave Chappelle is a ridiculously funny dude. He’s a comedic savant, and although occasionally he gets lost in his own head, nobody has ever been a better comedy freestyler than Chappelle. Really, he passes all the funny tests: he can be funny on screen playing characters, he can be funny on stage playing himself, other funny people revere him, and he just crushes talk shows. I’ve seen him make Conan O’Brien laugh so hard that Conan was literally doubled over in laughter. He’s still the funniest standup on Earth today – when he wants to be.
George Carlin was funny because he was just so damn smart. He saw everything, and understood how to point out how absurd the world and society was in a way that made people both think and laugh really, really hard. He was always pushing at the edges to see how far he could go or what could break, and is an example of how being funny can be almost an exploratory science. He was a comedic astronaut.
Oscar Wilde is the sassiest dude who ever lived. Nobody was wittier or capable of a pithier comeback. This is the sort of dude who could just show up, say one or two words and just destroy an entire room or turn some jerk into a quivering mass of goo. You did not want to get into an argument with Oscar Wilde, because he’d make you cry while everyone else laughed their asses off.
Yeah, shut up. Make fun of Eddie Murphy all you want, but go back and watch anything he did for about a seven-year period in the 1980s and try to tell me he isn’t one of the funniest people who ever lived. He owned Saturday Night Live. He just owned it, but his comedy specials are really where he killed. Watch Delirious. It’s 30 years old and it’s still the funniest stand-up special I’ve ever seen. Eddie Murphy isn’t just funny. He’s a force of nature.
Mark Twain was the first great American humorist, satirist, social critic...I could go on. The point is, is that he basically created the standards on which American humor is based. He had the wittiness of Oscar Wilde along with that sort of plainer edge that made him appealing not just to society type but to ordinary people. He could make the President laugh at the same time he made the farmer laugh, and that is always the sign of a truly funny person.
Richard Pryor was the funniest man alive during an era that is arguably stocked with the highest concentration of funny people ever. He married Bill Cosby’s storytelling style with Redd Foxx’s filthiness and created a style that is essentially the default language of funny today. I mean, this is a dude who made people cry with laughter telling a story about how he almost died setting himself on fire while smoking crack. Come on. He is the godfather of American comedy and the funniest person who ever lived.
More Lists You May Enjoy
50 guys we wish we were in 2013