Three of the best funnymen of their generation thrash out the 10 best comedians of all time
An Englishman, a Scotsman and a Sri Lankan walk into a bar. No, it isn’t the start of a Seventies joke, but the premise for a very important discussion: to determine who the best stand-up comedians of all time are. We’ve assembled three of the greats to give us our list: a comedian who’s on his way to being one of the best in Romesh Ranganathan (and yes, we know he’s British, rather than Sri Lankan, but that intro was a tap-in), an act regarded as the best right now in Kevin Bridges and one of the all-time greats in Frank Skinner. It’s three generations of “the best”, if you will.
Agreeing on the 10 best might seem easy, but with Skinner staunchly pro-British-acts during the chat (Bridges referring to him as “passport control”) and Ranganathan and Bridges being huge admirers of the US scene, things are as divisive as hilarious. Even an apparent shoo-in like Richard Pryor proves tricky.
RR: I’d start with Richard Pryor. I want to request his inclusion because I’ve got him tattooed on my arm so if he wasn’t included, what a f*cking damning indictment of that life decision that would be.
FS: Well on that basis, I want Hitler. [Laughter] I get a bit f*cked off with British comics going on about how marvellous US comics are, that they are somehow superior.
RR: I know, and I get your point because part of it is that Americans have that kind of vibe about them, don’t they? Even the sh*t ones look like they’re being quite good.
KB: Have you ever seen Richard Pryor’s Live & Smokin’? When he’s in the basement. He’s dying on his arse. It’s like he’s done a pub gig but released it. He actually mentions how much he’s struggling. He’s playing with the audience. He’s playing to silence. It’s amazing to watch. [There’s a loud bang outside] Have we got a Ouija board? OK, Richard Pryor, you’re f*cking in, mate. Richard, you’re already in, mate. He’s a restless spirit, Richard Pryor. [Laughter] You need to put Billy Connolly in, too. He started it for me. He was the first guy that was just a guy talking. You never saw how it was put together. It was just a guy up there starting to talk and he kind of created what we now do for a living.
FS: When I’ve seen him in more recent times, I don’t think he’s so good, but he did a couple of ‘Audience Withs’, I remember, which were just f*cking astonishing. So, yeah, I wouldn’t argue against Connolly. If we’re talking about ‘all time’, how far back are we going to go? What about Max Miller?
KB: Never seen him
FS: Max Miller was a British comic and he was the ‘cheeky chappie’ – that’s what they called him. He used to do the innuendo thing but he did it very marvellously. And he used to wear a floral suit with plus fours. I mean bright flowers. And he used to come on, stand there, look at the crowd and go: “What if I am?” He never fully explained what he meant but what a great f*cking opening line. It’s the most ambiguous… You know he could’ve just meant flashy, he could’ve meant gay, he could’ve meant a complete knobhead. But what an opener. I played him recently in a thing, in full costume. And it reminded me of the beauty of when comedy was just about making people laugh with no other priorities. No “I wonder what The Guardian will say about the fact I haven’t got a theme running through this show.” He didn’t have serious elements about his personal life. He just did these knob jokes and he had this masterful skill of delivering them.
KB: It’s quite cool to say Bill Burr…
FS: We can’t have another f*cking American.
KB: He’s good, though... He’s so comfortable with what he’s saying, his opinions.
FS: I tell you who is a brilliant comedian – Norm Macdonald. I did Montreal in ‘94 and he was on and I’d never f*cking heard of him. And I met him at some card game first and he was a funny guy, so I went to see his act. It was astonishing. I mean, brilliant. He did a bit about sodomy in prisons. He says, “Imagine the one guy who goes in and doesn’t know that happens so it’s a complete surprise to him. So he’s in the canteen the next day and the guy who’s sodomising comes in and he says: ‘Hey fella, you’ve got a lot of growing up to do.’” [Laughs] I tell you whose stand-up I really, really like and I don’t think he’s thought of that much as a stand-up but he’d certainly be in my top 10, and that’s Harry Hill.
RR: Oh my God, yeah.
FS: He’s a fantastic stand-up. It’s beautifully interwoven and it’s like, punchline, punchline, proper f*cking funny. And it’s clean. So I’m not just going for dirty comics. But he’s arguably, I think, the best living British stand-up – apart from us three.
KB: He’s a Champions League spot…
FS: I’d be very sad if Harry Hill didn’t make it. He did that joke, he used to say: “Those chimpanzees, they love a centre parting.” He says: “They’re stuck in the Twenties.” [Laughter] And I think he’s taken a lot of unnecessary sh*t just lately. For example, I know someone who went to see The X Factor musical [I Can’t Sing!] and it was f*cking great. And I really like that Stars In Their Eyes he did. But as a stand-up, he’s f*cking outstanding. He says: “I’ve had one of those glass-bottomed baths fitted. The bloke in the flat downstairs was moaning about it.” [Laughter]
KB: I’ve never seen him live, but that genuinely made me laugh. Not just the Harry Hill chimpanzee, but the Norm Macdonald stuff. I’m going to go and check them out.
FS: There are some who are performance comics and there are some that are material comics. And some of the material comics are very low on performance, they could do with a bit more. But with Americans, I can say generally they’re performance comics and if you were to read it on the page...
I mean, I saw Jerry Seinfeld at The O2 and he did an hour and a half and he did 25 minutes of really funny stuff. Chris Rock the same.
KB: What do you mean, the rest of it was just…
FS: The rest of it was fairly stock stuff about... you know, stuff you’d expect. He did a big long piece about blow jobs and added nothing new to the debate – if it is a debate. It is in our house. [Laughter] Do you know what I mean, though? He had nothing new to say and I thought, “If you’re Chris Rock…”
KB: With Chris Rock you immediately think of a big routine that he’s done, like gun control, bullet control. I remember watching that just going: right that can be done as well. I’d just started stand-up, getting through, like, Frank, Connolly and then watching a guy who’s doing this. He’s probably done routines about blow jobs, or about the difference between men and women, or whatever. But immediately you think: Chris Rock is political.
FS: Are you trying to get him in the 10?
KB: I don’t know. I’m a fan.
RR: I’d put him in. He’s got to go in.
FS: Bob Monkhouse told me he used to do this joke where he’d come on and say: “I love those animal biscuits they sell at Marks & Spencer. Have you seen them, those animal-shaped biscuits? They’re lovely. But I got a box the other day, and I opened it and it said on it: Do not eat if the seal is broken. And would you believe it?” [Laughter] But he said: “On a great night, I don’t have to say, ‘would you believe it?’ But on a bad night, I have to say, ‘The biscuit’s shaped like a seal.’” [Laughter] Maybe we should put Monkhouse in. He was a f*cking joke machine. He did a lot of sh*tty gameshows and people dismissed him, but when you saw him live, he was doing that sort of US first-person stuff. I did a series with him and he used to do the warm-up and he’d say: “Me and my wife, OK, I’m 68 but we still have an active sex life. She still wears a see-through nightie but it’s bifocal.” [Laughter] What about Jo Brand? I saw her when she was the Sea Monster. That was her stage name. And she did Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham and I knew nothing about her – she might have been on telly but I’d never seen her. And she came on, and she had a very, very rhythmic act in those days. She’d go: “I was on a holiday, I went to see the sights, I went to the cake shop.” Bob Mills once said: “I don’t know Jo’s act but I could whistle it for you.”
RR: I would back Jo Brand. She’s just a quality stand-up.
KB: I like Jo. Onstage, the monotone and the stubbornness, it’s a lot of confidence. That’s infectious when you watch it.
FS: Joan Rivers is very funny. Her fearless pursuit of a punchline, regardless of casualties.
KB: The fact she still kept on writing and performing with energy and her relevance right through until she passed away. It’s inspirational, it’s what every comedian should be setting out to achieve.
FS: I think one thing one of us needs to say is that as soon as we leave this room, we’ll think of someone – that gives us licence if anyone says, “Why am I not in it?”
RR: I do think there’s an argument for Michael McIntyre.
FS: The first tour, ‘The Man Drawer’, I saw that at the Apollo and I thought, this is probably the most consistent hour and a half I’ve seen by a comic. He made me feel happy that comedy could be like that.
RR: And you know you see comics talking on stage pointing out stuff? Like, try writing a routine like that. Try to do it yourself, replicate it.
FS: What about Stewart Lee? I think he’s a f*cking good comic.
KB: Daniel Kitson. I watched him one night at The Stand in Edinburgh, the late show, and I just thoroughly enjoyed it.
FS: Lee has had an enormous influence on British comedy. I was gigging with him 25 or more years ago and he often didn’t go down that well, but he stuck with it. He never started doing stuff about the difference between men and women or buying a kebab on the way home, he stuck with it and eventually, after f*cking flogging it for years, people thought, “Actually, it’s good this.” When I arrived, I didn’t have any plans, the audience basically wrote my act. If they laughed at something, I did it again, I didn’t have any criteria. But he was a man who arrived with a plan and he stuck with it.
THE FINAL 10 (Rom and Bridges voted for Skinner, but he took himself out...)
- 1. Richard Pryor
- 2. Billy Connolly
- 3. Joan Rivers
- 4. Norm Macdonald
- 5. Michael McIntyre
- 6. Stewart Lee
- 7. Jo Brand
- 8. Chris Rock
- 9. Bill Burr
- 10. Harry Hill
Romesh Ranganathan’s solo UK tour, ‘Irrational’ starts from 4 February, romeshranganathan.co.uk; Kevin Bridges’ A Whole Different Story… is out now on Blu-ray and DVD; Frank Skinner On Demand With… is available to watch on BBC iPlayer every Friday from 9.30am
Words: James Gill
[Images: Hal Shinnie, Rex, Getty]