It’s true what they say: laughter is the best medicine, and these men and women sure know what’s funny. Here are some of the most iconic comedians of all time, in no particular order. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include them all, so who are some of your favorites we missed?
Jerry Seinfeld is best known for playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself on the ‘90s sitcom Seinfeld, but he also does stand-up routines, which focus on observational comedy. Seinfeld currently stars in the web series talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which premiered in 2012. A wide range of comedians have guest starred, including Mel Brooks, David Letterman, Jason Alexander, Amy Schumer, and others.
Pryor’s body of work spanned over four decades, and included concert movies, recordings, and comedy films (many of which featured Gene Wilder or Paul Mooney). He reached a broad audience through his storytelling and observation style in his stand-up routines. He sadly passed away in 2005 from a heart attack. He was 65.
Joan Rivers had a controversial comedy style – she was self-deprecating but also made fun of other celebrities and politicians. She first rose to prominence in 1965 as a guest on The Tonight Show with her mentor, Johnny Carson, and eventually hosted her own program, The Late Show With Joan Rivers, making her the first woman to host a late-night talk show. Rivers died in 2014 at the age of 81 from complications during throat surgery.
Leonard Alfred Schneider, professionally known as Lenny Bruce, was not just a stand-up comedian – he also was a social critic and satirist. His free-style comedy landed him in jail multiple times due to his vulgar and obscene jokes (at least what was considered vulgar in the 1950s and 1960s), which branded him as a “sick comic” and led to him being blacklisted from television. He was pardoned by New York Governor George Pataki in 2003, almost 40 years after his death in 1966. He died at the young age of 40 of an accidental drug overdose.
Lucille Ball is considered one of America’s greatest icons, starring and producing in several sitcoms and comedy specials, and becoming the first woman to run a major television studio. Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz created I Love Lucy in 1951, a program that became one of the most well-known and most beloved shows in television history. In 1987, she received the Lifetime Achievement award in Comedy from the American Comedy Awards. Sadly, she died in 1989 from an aneurysm. She was 77 years old.
Eddie Murphy rose to fame on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984, credited as helping revise the show, but he actually started his early stand-up career in the 1970s. He’s also acted throughout his fame, winning a Golden Globe for Dreamgirls, and has lent voice work to animated films such as Mulan and Shrek. He tried his hand at singing, releasing three albums in the 1980s and 1990s. Many other popular comedians have listed Murphy as one of their greatest influences.
Jerry Lewis, nicknamed “The King of Comedy,” was also an actor, singer, and filmmaker. He appeared in over 60 films, some as a soloist and others with his comedy partner, singer Dean Martin, together known as “Martin and Lewis.” He was self-deprecating and used physical stunts and facial expressions, much of the time improvising and ad-libbing. Because Lewis rose to fame during the conservative era of the late 1940s and early 1950s, his antics were considered radical and liberating for the time. He died in 2017 at the age of 91.
Although Carol Burnett’s acting, singing, and comedy career spans seven decades, she is arguably best known for her groundbreaking comedy variety show The Carol Burnett Show, which was one of the first of its kind to be hosted by a woman. This multi-talented comedian has also appeared as a panelist on game shows and as a guest on several talk shows and has taken on dramatic roles in films. Lucille Ball became her mentor and friend, which is why you may see some similarities in their acting style. Still not slowing down, her latest film role was in 2020’s All Together Now.
Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn Elaine Johnson but her stage name is in reference to a whoopee cushion. Although she has performed stand-up comedy, she’s also won an Emmy Award, Grammy Award, Academy Award, and Tony Award and has taken on both comedic and dramatic roles, most notably her breakout performance in the drama The Color Purple. Some of her well-known comedy routines came from the 1980s HBO specials of Comic Relief, which she hosted with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. Currently, Goldberg co-hosts the daytime talk show The View.
Steve Martin first came into prominence in the 1960s as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later as a frequent host on Saturday Night Live. In the 1970s, Martin performed offbeat, absurdist comedy on national tours, but in the 1980s moved away from stand-up and started appearing in comedy films, including his first starring role in The Jerk. Other famous roles have been in Roxanne, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and the Father of the Bride movies, among countless others. He has played the banjo since an early age and included music in his early comedy routines. Although he continues to act, he has focused the last few years on his music, winning a Grammy Award for his bluegrass album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.
See part 2 here.