Which side of me will win?

Top 5 stand-up comedians, by a stand-up comedian

I’m occasionally – very occasionally at the moment – a stand-up comedian and one of the things people most often ask me when they find out that I am one is who are my favourites and who are my influences. I love talking about comedy, but I think I’m getting bored of this question, so I’ve decided to just do a blog in answer to it so that from now on I can just give people a link and tell them to fuck off.

I thought long and hard about this and was quite surprised to discover that my favourite five comics are all American. They are though, so there you have it. This isn’t about patriotism, it’s about who’s the BEST.

#5 Doug Stanhope

I’ve seen Doug Stanhope live twice and he only gets to be fifth on this list because he was a bit shit the first time. And by his own admission he quite often does bad shows, so it wasn’t just bad luck on my part. The second time I saw him though, he more than made up for his previous failings. It was the hardest I have ever laughed at live comedy. Yes, I laughed even harder than I did at The Krankies (I’m not kidding or being ironic, The Krankies were hilarious when I saw them a couple of years ago).

The bit that had me laughing so hard that I was beating the empty seat in front of me – I don’t know why, it was like it was helping me to breathe or something – was a story about daydreaming while watching an American football game on TV. It was offensive and wrong on almost every conceivable level, pretty much just for the sake of it, and it just kept getting worse and worse.

That’s what I love about Stanhope. You can’t defend the things he’s saying, but even attempting to do so is the very essence of missing the point. I’m not sure what the point is – I think it’s like one of those things that disappears when you look directly at it – but whatever it is, it’s fucking funny.

In the absence of the NFL fantasy, here’s the bit that made me realise just how special Stanhope is…

I’m putting a line after each video out of desperation. WordPress seems determined to have these videos overlap with the headings that follow them otherwise.

#4 Bill Hicks

I don’t think Bill Hicks is one of the top five funniest stand-ups ever, not quite, but comedy isn’t just about being funny, it’s about being meaningful and Bill Hicks probably means more to me than any other comic.

I first saw him on terrible-yet-unmissable late-night TV show, The Word, and didn’t see what the fuss was about, mainly because they didn’t actually have him perform on the show. Stupid, awful show that it was.

But then shortly after he died, Channel 4 showed the documentary It’s Just A Ride and the performance Relentless back-to-back and Bill Hicks squeegied my third eye.

I was 16 at the time. A difficult age. Through childhood you live a very illusory life, in a kind of bubble protected from reality. I think one of the reasons adolesence is difficult is that it’s the time when that bubble gets burst. Before I saw Bill Hicks, I already had this feeling that something wasn’t right, that the world somehow didn’t fit together in the way it was supposed to. What Bill Hicks did was tell me why I was getting that feeling – it was like he was exposing all of the world’s bullshit in one go. It was a huge, “Aha!” moment for me, and I will always love Hicks for it.

I’ll also always love him for continuing to perform right up until he couldn’t any more. That’s literally what happened. He took the stage for what was to be his final show then, part way through the performance, he just stopped, said, “I can’t do this any more,” and left the stage for the last time. It’s heartbreaking to think of it. He was only 32.

During the period between his diagnosis and death, Hicks produced his least polished, but best material by far. Knowing he was going to die, he became truly fearless and angrier than ever before. My favourite Hicks bit is from that period and I love it for the same reason I love Stanhope’s best stuff – it is indefensibly disgusting…

Don’t read this bit. It’s not necessary.

#3 Chris Rock

I’d never heard of Chris Rock before when I first saw him on TV, but I was channel hopping and saw stand-up comedy so I decided to watch. Holy shit! Was I in for a treat…

Rock gets compared to other black comedians, because he’s black and because people are lazy like that, but when I first saw him I was reminded of Bill Hicks. The fearlessness, the preaching, the truth.

The special I saw was Bring The Pain and is an absolutely legendary performance. It deservedly made Rock into a superstar. In fact, it wasn’t Bring The Pain that did that, it was really one part of Bring The Pain – eight minutes of true comedy greatness entitled Niggas vs. Black People.

Now, I’m neither black nor American, so I don’t know what it was like to be a black American hearing this routine for the first time. But I can try to imagine it and I can see and hear it in the reaction from the predominantly black audience on Bring The Pain. He takes a difficult, awkward issue and runs at it headlong, spelling it out without even a whiff of compromise, and it feels like a huge weight is being lifted. It’s not just laughter you hear, it’s huge howls of relief and release. It’s like… finally, someone is saying what needs to be said. Again, this is a perfect example of what I mean when I say it’s not about being the funniest, it’s about being the best

Fuck you WordPress. This looks really silly.

#2 Louis C.K.

All of the comics on this list have influenced me, in a lot of ways, but the only one I think I’d call an influence in terms of being someone who I’d compare myself, as a comedian, to is Louis C.K.. But even then, only in a small way and only in my most recent material.

I heard C.K. say something on a podcast about his admiration for comedians who humiliate themselves in their work, and that’s exactly what he does… better than anyone, I think.

He has a very confessional style, by which he owns up to a myriad of his own insecurities and failings. I’d see him, and other comics like him, talking about this really personal stuff and imagine what it would be like if it weren’t funny – if he were just laying out the bare facts and details. It would be awful to watch. Painfully so. And incredibly humiliating for the comic.

When I first started doing comedy, I just couldn’t see how that kind of material could be done. How do these guys make such personal, sad, embarrassing things so funny? I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t.

But then, thanks to the actions and encouragement of a real person in my real life, I was presented with an opportunity to try something along these lines. And I think it has to be largely thanks to Louis C.K. that I figured out how to do it. I’ve only performed the material in question twice, mainly because it’s too long for most open mic spots, but I’m confident it’s my best and most accomplished so far. The first time I performed it, I remember feeling my cheeks redden with embarrassment at one point, even while the audience was loving it. I took that as a clue that I must be doing something right.

Still though, I have a long, long, long way to go before I can do something as incredible as this…

I kinda made a funny feature of it now though, right?

#1 Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor is the best there was, and almost certainly the best there’ll ever be. And I’ll tell you why. He led a life marked by terrible pain and tragedy pretty much from start to finish and he makes it, all of it, fucking hilarious.

Growing up in a brothel, being beaten as a child, alcoholism and drug addiction, depression, broken marriages, racism, heartbreak, a heart attack, multiple sclerosis, death and, most incredibly of all, a suicide attempt are all piss-your-pants funny when told by Pryor.

One of my favourite Pryor jokes, one of my all-time favourite jokes of all ever, is the one about how his father died while having sex with an eighteen year-old girl…

“He came and went at the same time.”

Such a beautiful, brilliant, perfect joke. I dream I’ll one day be able to say something half as funny as that about the death of my father. I know I can’t do it yet.

Now, about that suicide attempt. Pryor was usually cryptic about exactly how and why he had ended up running down the street on fire, but in his autobiography it reads pretty much like a suicide attempt to me, albeit one that occurred when he was so out of his mind on crack that he was, in a very real way, not himself.

Yet… it’s one of his funniest routines. And therefore one of anyone’s funniest routines. See for yourself…

But it’ll have to be via links…
…because I can’t figure out…
…how to embed these fuckers.


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