Everyone has a special place in their heart for people who make them laugh. Whether it’s through stories, songs, pratfalls or straightforward setups and punchlines, gifted comedians can create a legacy like no other.
So who are the funniest of the funny people? From classic comedians of bygone eras who changed the face of comedy to the most exciting artists working today, we’ve assembled a shortlist of the finest comedians of all time.
UPDATE:With songs about Jeff Bezos, turning 30 in lockdown and the precarious issues with online stardom, Bo Burnham's latest Netflix stand-up - shot entirely in his apartment - is simply stunning. Watch it and give him an upvote, as he's currently criminally low on this list.
There will be many great names missing from this kind of list of course, so read on to see if we’ve included your favourites. Upvote those favourites and suggest your own future additions at the bottom.
- Check out some of our best Netflix stand-up comedy specials while you're at it
Best comedians of all time
1. Richard PryorRichard Pryor: Live in Concert on Netflix
Outspoken, freewheeling and frenetic but always in control, Richard Pryor was a fascinating figure who put every bit of himself into his comedy. Pryor was instrumental in allowing comedy to evolve from straightforward gags to something more freeform, something with room to be sophisticated, puerile, righteous and deeply intelligent all at once.
Finest moment: Pryor lived a difficult life and it informed his work, such as his story of his darkest hour after days of freebasing cocaine.
2. George CarlinStream on Amazon Prime now
There is perhaps no one better than George Carlin at being angry and using that fury with precision. His stand-up takes aim at politics, advocates free speech and skewers religion - it’s heady stuff watching him perform and it’s easy to see why he’s held in such high regard by fellow comedians. Best known to some as Rufus in Bill & Ted, George’s career was so much more. He penned over 20 comedy albums, was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show and the very first Saturday Night Live - yep, it was him that was chosen to host.
Finest moment: Watch his routine about the 10 Commandments - it's hilarious, cutting and utterly relevant, even today.
3. Robin Williams
Gone too soon and sorely missed, Robin Williams was truly exceptional, capable of rattling off a dozen breathless punchlines in the time it’d take a lesser comedian to adjust their mic stand. He was a phenomenon.
Finest moment: No comedian has ever been able to make the subject of drugs funny in quite the way Williams did. From 1986: “Do you think God gets stoned? I think so – look at a platypus.”
4. Steve Martin
Younger people who grew up on his films may not realise that Steve Martin made his name as one of the most unpredictable stand-ups in the business. A banjo-plucking lover of chaotic prop gags, flitting from topic to topic, Martin’s comedy lived firmly in the absurd.
Finest moment: Martin performs stand-up for dogs and fully commits to the bit.
5. Chris RockWatch Tambourine on Netflix
The boundless energy of Chris Rock’s performing style gives some clue as to how he’s remained in the business so long – he clearly lives for this. His whip-crack staccato delivery is inimitable, his technical skill is flawless, and he’s fearlessly provocative in all the right ways.
Finest moment: Too many to pick from, but watch his most recent special, Tamborine, to see Rock exploring deeply personal material in a way he hasn’t before.
6. Bill Hicks
Although he died aged just 32, Bill Hicks managed to transform comedy, with his spite-filled musings on the advertising industry, religion and the corruption of governments. Watch his stand-up back now and some of it jars. But in the 90s, he was an alternative rockstar of a comedian more than happy to upset the establishment with his ferocious riposte - when the targets were the right ones, there’s no better.
Finest moment: Hicks' takedown of the advertising industry has to be watched to be believe. It is extremely NSFW, though.
7. Billy Connolly
You can go through a whole Billy Connolly stand-up show without him once telling a joke but you will still be crying with laughter. That’s because Connolly’s comedy is observational, weighing heavy on nostalgia and at the same time it’s self deprecating, sometimes rude but always told in such a warm, cheeky way that you can’t help but be blown away by it all. The Big Yin is one of the most influential comedians of all time, even if he does make it look so effortless.
Finest moment: The Wildebeest story has been told a few times by Connolly and it is such a brilliant build-up of comedy.
8. Larry David
Along with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David created one of the biggest sitcoms of all time. But his humour was properly realised when he branched out on his own for the improv-heavy Curb Your Enthusiasm. With Seinfeld to rein in awkward situations, Curb remains a painful/hilarious, painfully hilarious watch. In the starring role, David is a walking faux pas and we can’t get enough of him.
Finest moment: The Palestinian Chicken episode is some of the finest TV ever made. But there's many Curb episodes that are up there as well.
9. Ricky GervaisStream on Netflix now
One of the most divisive comedians around, Ricky Gervais has had a career that would be the envy of most. His first sitcom The Office is an instant classic - and who would have thought that a slight mockumentary based in Slough would translate so well to the US but it did. Following this with Extras, Derek and now Life After Death, his TV always provokes humour while pulling on the heart strings. Stand-up wise, Gervais is always stepping into controversy but he wouldn't have it any other way.
Finest moment: Getting his guitar out in The Office and singing some Freelove Freeway to his very unimpressed co-workers is comedy gold.
10. Tina Fey
Tina Fey is a comic wonder. Not only did she revitalise Saturday Night Live when she was head writer, she wrote the best skewering of the show in 30 Rock and also created the Incredible Kimmy Schmidt for Netflix. Oh, she also wrote Mean Girls and you will never, ever see a better Sarah Palin impression for anyone else. Everything Tina Fey touches turns to comedy gold.
Finest moment:Brownie husband is incredible, as is her Sarah Palin.
11. James AcasterWatch Repertoire on Netflix
If you only know James Acaster from panel shows, you immediately need to binge his four-show Repertoire collection, available on Netflix. His set construction is tight as a drum, his timing is perfect to the millisecond, and he’ll surprise you again and again.
Finest moment: “K and an E and a T and a T! E and an R and an I N G! T and an O and a W N… KETT’RING TOWN, FC!”
12. Bill Bailey
Comedy’s beloved wizard and 1982 Michael Bolton Stars in Their Eyes regional finalist, Bill Bailey has so endeared himself to people that a petition was started attempting to get him cast as a dwarf in the Hobbit films. A musical polymath, he’s one of the smartest and silliest stand-ups around.
Finest moment: His one-minute takedown of the band U2 in 2004’s Part-Troll was that last thing that ever needed to be said about U2.
13. Flight of the Conchords
“Back in New Zealand, where we invented rap...”
Graduating from the fringes of comedy to making one of the most perfect TV shows in history (fight us), New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk-parody duo have deservedly become megastars. A sell-out reunion tour in 2018 proved that success hasn’t dulled their deadpan brilliance even slightly.
Finest moment: Business Time. “Tonight we’re gonna make love. You know how I know? Because it’s Wednesday.”
14. Amy Poehler
There's an art to being funny without being cruel and one of the best in the business at this is the fantastic Amy Poehler. Her star turn in Parks And Recreation is understated - the show's mockumentary style works well with Poehler's slight, awkward glances at the camera when things look like they are going wrong. Another SNL alumni, it never feels like the real Amy Poehler is that far away from her characters - which is great as every one of them are likeable and hilarious.
Finest moment: Walking out to greet a crowd on an ice rink, with Gloria Estefan playing in the background. Brilliant stuff.
15. Steve CooganStream on Amazon Prime now
We’re so happy Steve Coogan has embraced Alan Partridge once more. For a while it felt like he was going to leave the character behind but the latest show proves just what a perfect comedy character he is. But Coogan is so much more than that. Just look at his brilliance in The Trip, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the fact that his production company is behind everything from Gavin And Stacey to the Mighty Boosh.
Finest moment: Alan Partridge trying to climb a gate and skewering himself on a spyyyyyke is some of the funniest four minutes of TV you will ever see.
16. Vic and Bob
Okay we are cheating a little here but it is far too difficult to separate Vic and Bob (although Bob did a stellar job without Vic in his Gone Fishing show). The pair are perfect, offering up a surreal, irreverent type of comedy that has been emulated countless times but never matched. Whether they are re-inventing the panel show with Shooting Stars or pushing boundaries with their sketches, Vic and Bob are hilarious by proxy. The best thing about them is that their style hasn’t changed - and, at the same time, never grown old.
Finest moment: Their rendition of Masterchef is up there ("It's a shoe cake") but Bob Mortimer dressed as George Michael gets us every single time.
17. Stewart Lee
Stewart Lee once called one of his stand-up tours, the 41st Best Stand Up because of one of these lists, so we have no idea how he will react to being included here, but we couldn’t leave him off. His comedy is meta, where he starts a joke, explains the reason he’s doing it, rips it apart, then mocks the audience for laughing at the joke he this trying but failing to tell. His sets always feel ramshackle but he brilliant holds up a mirror to the whole act of stand-up comedy, while taking no prisoners when it comes to mocking other comedians and those who come to watch him.
Finest moment: There are many but his Joe Pasquale story is fantastic - not for Joe, mind, but for everyone else. Or Jim Davidson for that matter.
18. Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Fleabag is already a classic. Just two seasons long, 12 episodes of cutting comedy that shines a light on everything from sex to religion. Adapted from her live show, it’s perfectly realised thanks to both Waller-Bridge’s acting chops to he writing. When it comes to writing, Waller-Bridge showed she can do black comedy just as well with Killing Eve and she’s currently polishing the latest Bond movie with her own imitable style.
Finest moment: The first episode of the second series, the dinner date, is one of the most awkward things you will watch but it's blisteringly funny as well.
19. Victoria Wood
A legend sadly taken too soon, Victoria Wood was a superb stand-up, a gifted songwriter, a thoroughly incisive satirist and… well, we could go on. An impeccable eye for the ridiculous foibles of the British allowed her to create fascinating, funny and deeply human characters that struck a deep chord of authenticity.
Finest moment: It has to be The Ballad of Barry & Freda.
20. Daniel KitsonHead to Daniel Kitson's website
One of the most elusive comedians on the list, Daniel Kitson has been the darling of the stand-up circuit for years now - but you never really know what you are going to get with his comedy. Sometimes it’s more like watching a solo theatre show, other times he’s frenetic and scattershot - not that many would know, though. His shows sell out fast, he doesn’t do TV and doesn’t tour. Ask any comedian who they look up to, though, and it would be him.
Finest moment: “Today… I did seven press ups: not in a row.” That's just one of his many brilliant lines to expect - this was from his 2018 Edinburgh show.
21. Bo BurnhamWatch Make Happy on Netflix
After becoming famous at just 16 for YouTube videos made in his bedroom, Bo Burnham grew up into a comedic one-of-a-kind, producing multi-layered musical shows with every detail perfectly planned (he meant to knock that water over). It seems 2016’s Make Happy may have been his comedy swansong, but he's back in a fantastic lockdown stand-up show on Netflix.
Finest moment: His out-of-nowhere skewering of cynical “stadium” country music from Make Happy: “Huntin’ deer, chasin’ trout… A Bud Light with the logo facin’ out.”
22. Sharon HorganStream now on Amazon Prime
Catastrophe may have come to an end, but its legacy will last for years. It's a show about adults making mistakes, trying to rectify them and making some more. it's got equal amounts of heart and honesty and that's all because of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's fantastic script and acting. Beyond Catastrophe and Horgan continues to write brilliant, subversive and hones comedy. With a second series of Motherland done, exec producing duties on Divorce and a hand in the fantastic This Way Up, the future of comedy is in fantastic hands.
Finest moment: "You are shouting at your family with a massive boner. Are you proud of yourself?"
Without a doubt one of the best things on Twitter at the moment, Limmy has had a career that started on the internet that’s where it currently resides at the moment. If you can, seek out The Limmy Show, it’s a perfect example of the comedy that can be done on a budget and it’s fantastic. Lately he’s been delving into streaming games and praising celebs for being incredibly down to earth when the die.
Finest moment: Try and not laugh out loud when watching Limmy duplicate himself while dressed, and dancing, as Tina Turner. It's sensational.
24. Hannah GadsbyWatch Nanette on Netflix
When the history of comedy is written, there will likely be a case for dividing it into pre-Nanette and post-Nanette. Australian-born Gadsby was an unfamiliar face to many when her show arrived on Netflix in 2017, but her unflinchingly interrogative deconstruction of her own autobiographical material sets a new standard for what comedy can – and should – be.
Finest moment: The final 20minutes of Nanette. There’s no describing it, really – watch it, if you haven’t already.
25. Ellen DeGeneresWatch Relatable on Netflix
She may have taken a 15-year break from stand-up to become an American national treasure, but Ellen DeGeneres proved with her 2018 special Relatable that she has lost none of the smarts that sent her shooting to fame in her early career.
Finest moment: Watching some of Degeneres’s first-ever appearances as a complete unknown, such as on Johnny Carson in 1986, you can see all the ingredients that would make her a superstar.