Laughing matter: Ranking the best comics from film, TV and stage

The winter blues are around the corner.

When the leaves finally fall off the trees and the temperatures are near freezing, we will need things to pass the time. We’ll need to find avenue toward happiness and joy with the shorter days and cold rain.

One of the best ways to get through the late fall and winter seasons is laughing. For years many comedians have taken to the stage, small screen and motion pictures to make us chuckle or flat-out burst into tears.

I’m taking a moment to recognize my favorite comedians of all time and maybe give you all some suggestion for viewing in a few weeks.

Judging comedy is a subjective task. I’m sure if you poll 100 different U.S. Americans, you will get 100 different No. 1 comedians.

To determine my best of all time, I judged them on three levels. The first part is 20 percent of my grade – movies. Can the comedian make huge box office money on the big screen or be the talk of any production after appearing?

D.L. Hughley speaks at the 72nd Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon in May 2013. Photo by Anders Krusberg.

The next 30 percent is based on television work. Does the comedian provide a boost to any sitcom, sketch-comedy show or variety program? Especially when their name is on the product, does the comedian bring the thunder in the sound of laughter?

And finally, 50 percent is based on the foundation of comedy – standup. Whether it’s seven minutes, a half-hour or a full routine, is the comedian a great storyteller? Do you shed tears during the set? Are there jokes that last time? And does the material stay fresh and remain relevant?

Before I jump into my top 10, here are my honorable mentions: Sinbad, Robert Schimmel, Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Wanda Sykes, Larry Miller, Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx, David Letterman, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, George Carlin, David Alan Grier, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Jeff Ross, Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Katt Williams, Norm McDonald, J. Anthony Brown, Adam Sandler, Jerrod Carmichael and Kevin Nealon.

10. George Wallace

The legendary George Wallace makes my list firmly from his standup routines. Right along with The Strip, gambling and quick weddings, Wallace is a fixture in Las Vegas. He does most of his shows in Sin City but still travels around the world hitting the stage.

Wallace became a factor in the comedy world writing for “The Redd Foxx Show.” Wallace can jump in front of the camera and steal a scene with straightforward style.

Then on the big screen, any Wallace appearance will leave you in stitches. Some of his best work was in the 2000 film, “3 Strikes.”

9. Don Rickles

I love the genre of “Celebrity Roast.” And the original king was Don Rickles. Since then comics like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Jeff Ross and a guy to be named later have made roasting an art form. But the man who breathed life into the style was Rickles. He was unapologetic, vicious, sharp and quick on his feet with insults. Nobody was safe from his laser sharp wit.

He was the person you wanted to see on “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” from 1974 to 1984.

If you heard Rickles was going to stop by “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” or in later years “The Conan O’Brien Show,” you were in for a treat.

Until his death in 2017, Rickles still brought heat with his jokes. He loaned his talents like his signature voice to “Toy Story.” He would appear in movies and television for decades. So multiple generations know the hilarious insulting style of the icon Don Rickles.

8. Chris Rock

OK, Rock doesn’t have the best movies when he’s the headliner. But he does make an impact in such flicks like “The Longest Yard,” “Grown Ups” and his big break, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” We all remember the rib scene.

Rock has made his name in the comedy game through standup. He is one of the best in this current generation. He is topical, smart and observant. He can do entire sets on women vs. men, politics, race or even the music industry.

Rock usually has a positive impact on television projects like “Everybody Hates Chris” or “The Chris Rock Show.”

But it all comes back to his standup specials. At least once a week, I fire up one of his classics on YouTube and listen while I get some work done. I do take a few laugh breaks.

7. Daniel Tosh

This guy is not for innocent ears. Edgy is one word to describe his style. Tosh goes for shock value but he does it intelligently. He is calculated and enters a joke with precise measurements of its effects.

So Tosh will address gender, race, religion and tragedies.

Tosh has modest success in movies like “The Love Guru.” And his cartoon “Brickleberry” is cult-classic material. But Comedy Central Tosh.0 is one of the best programs on the network. Tosh has the challenge of keeping his material fresh while using internet clips and memes.

But for Tosh in his pure form, just view one of his standup specials like “Daniel Tosh: Happy Thought.” It is controversial, black comedy at its best.

6. Patrice O’Neal

Gone too soon definitely applies here. O’Neal passed away on Nov. 29, 2011. In his short 41 years on this earth, O’Neal left his mark.

I quote him often and his philosophies about men and women. O’Neal was a genius with his observations of our interactions. His views on society, politics and much more are timeless. Just watch a clip from “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.”

Before Tosh.0, there was “Web Junk 20,” hosted by O’Neal. He departed this Earth leaving a masterpiece in the standup special, “Elephant in the Room.”

It was O’Neal at his best. He incorporated his conversation with the audience technique, black comedy and connecting the dots at the finish.

I’m thankful for every television news appearance, radio show spot and cameo in a movie. O’Neal will live forever.

5. Greg Giraldo

Another late comedian I wish was still around to deliver the laughs is Bronx native Gregory C. Giraldo. Another “Tough Crowd” alum, Giraldo made most of his impact through writing. But it was a need for his to fill one of the spots on a Comedy Central Roast that put him in front of the camera again. And his performances in the roast world made him a legend. Just imagine Don Rickles on steroids, and there you have the lethal style of Giraldo.

Everyone was eligible to be a victim to his jokes, even Giraldo himself. He battled depression and shared it on stage. It seemed his pain brought out his best work.

The news of his Sept. 29, 2010, passing sent the comedy world into a depression. But ironically, it was listening to Giraldo on stage, from TV clips and on the roast stage that helped us all bounce back. And we’re still laughing today.

4. Bill Burr

Now America is familiar with the standup comic, actor, writer, voice artist, producer and much more. But what makes Burr so great is his honesty. He’s the only man I’ve listened to on a podcast for more than three hours. It was entertaining every single minute. He’s not afraid to address any issue or topic. Burr is not politically correct but he’s fair in his observations.

Standup is his bread and butter. Now his cartoon based on his upbringing, “F is for Family” is a Netflix hit. And his work as a writer has brought to life many hilarious skits.

The man delivers the goods in many forms, but on the stage is Burr in his brilliance. Please give a listen to “Why Do I Do This?” and “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.” The two standup specials are six years apart. You’ll see Burr’s consistency as a comedian and his growth as society has changed.

3. Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy is the man responsible for me coming up with my criteria of an all-time comedian. In television, he pretty much saved “Saturday Night Live” back in the early 1980s. Hollywood came calling and we received classics like “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Trading Places” and “Coming to America.”

But Murphy stamped his greatness on stage with “Delirious” and “Raw.”

Murphy has inspired so many comics of today and created a talent tree that includes Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and his late brother, Charlie Murphy.

Eddie became an entertainment iconic figure of the 1980s alongside Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. But he was just getting started. The 1990s gave him a chance to work behind the camera as well. Back in front of the camera, you didn’t know when you would see Murphy as another person. In the Nutty Professor films of 1996 and 2000, Murphy brought an entire family to life. That was dedication and comic gold.

Murphy’s work over four decades should place him in everybody’s top 10 easily.

2. Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle appeared in “The Nutty Professor” back in 1996 stealing the scene from one of his role models. In less than 10 years, Chappelle would become the standard in comedy.

Another icon, Mel Brooks, gave the young comedian a big break back in 1993 with the role of Ahchoo in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”

Then the Washington, D.C., native sharpened his standup skills, gaining more attention, to obtain small roles in movies like “Blue Streak” and “Undercover Brother.”

In between those projects, Chappelle had the lead role in “Half Baked.” By the year 2003, Chappelle had a devoted cult following. Then “Chappelle’s Show” debuted and the three seasons made Chappelle a legend.

The show gave Chappelle a voice and brought his vision of the word to life. Meanwhile he kept hitting the stage. Chappelle became a topic of his standup routine after departing from his megahit TV show. The 45-year-old has bounced back nicely from his controversial ending of “Chappelle’s Show.” Just check out his Netflix deals. He’s worth every penny.

1. D.L. Hughley

One of the first comedians I would truly laugh at was D.L. Hughley. I was about 11 years old watching him host BET’s “Comic View.” Part of his routine is checking or roasting the audience. I laughed from a place within I never felt before. I got the jokes.

Since then D.L. Hughley has brought life to my laughter and he has almost taken my life. I made the mistake of buying his album “Notes From The G.E.D. Section.” I laughed so hard from the CD while driving along Germantown Parkway, my eyes were filled with tears. I had to pull over to collect myself and eject the disc just to drive home safely.

As I reflect on the previous nine comedians, Hughley has a bit of all their signature styles, intelligence, quick wit and observational skills.

On the big screen his credits are “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “The Brothers.” From 1998-2002, he was the patriarch of “The Hughleys.” Now he keeps busy writing books and hosting “The D.L. Hughley Radio Show.”

He still tries to make me wreck every weekday with his timely humor on the radio. That’s why I love viewing his classic standup specials in my safe living room. But hitting the floor can leave some injuries.

And those who have attended his shows can testify you’re not safe if he spots you from the stage. He will roast you and embarrass your ancestors.

From your roast to your reflections of a childhood with two tough parents to addressing today’s political climate, thanks for all the laughs, D.L.

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to