My go-to author bio is a two-sentence summary: “Zachry Wheeler is an award-winning science fiction novelist, screenwriter, and coffee slayer. He enjoys English football, stand-up comedy, and is known to lurk around museums and brewpubs.”
Funny enough, the most common follow-up question I get has nothing to do with my writing. Nine times out of ten, someone asks, “So who are your favorite comedians?”
I love this question because we are currently experiencing a new golden age of stand-up, thanks in large part to the utter chaos plaguing the real world. Comedians are struggling to poke fun at the present reality, which is often more outlandish than any joke. The end result is a gulf of quality where mediocre comics are failing to make an impact. But on the flip side, the truly talented have been rising to new heights.
There is also the recent prevalence of Netflix, which has brought a tidal wave of comedians to the masses. An argument can be made that this has tainted the stand-up experience. Getting a good laugh is often an ambient effect. There is a big difference between sitting in a dank bar watching a small stage and sitting on your couch watching a polished production. I get that. But even so, the best of the best can get you to laugh at a funeral.
With that in mind, I would like to highlight my top five favorite comedians working today. Note that I said “working today,” an important distinction. My all-time favorite comedian will always be George Carlin. He had more of an impact on my worldview than most professors did. It’s an easy choice, but also boring in this context because nobody is going to challenge the greatness that was Carlin. Same goes for Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, and many others. This list is limited to the comedians that you can still see live on stage.
And with that, let’s get to it …
In my opinion, Patton is the most polished and whip-smart comedian in the business. His routines are sharp, his stories are engrossing, and his wordsmithing is second to none. The first time I heard “Take you down to Uncle Touchy’s naked puzzle basement,” I nearly pissed myself with laughter. He packs a brutal combo that most comedians would kill for: affability and ruthlessness. He will make you smile and applaud while systematically dismantling your most cherished beliefs.
Recommended special: Talking for Clapping
Bill is a rare breed of comic, in that he has built a reputation for battling political correctness. He is also one of the very few who can withstand the inevitable blow-back, mostly because he could not give a fuck about your opinion. His points are weighted, his delivery is savage, and he practically dares his audience not to laugh. His material has become a rallying cry for stand-up fans who are sick of the Twitter outrage monster. Comedians are supposed to poke the bear and Burr has one of the sharpest sticks in the business.
Recommended special: Paper Tiger
Hands down the most underrated comic on the planet. Doug Stanhope is a comedian’s comedian, a lawless talent that pushes boundaries until they shatter into a million pieces. His material is extremely honest, extremely curt, and extremely dangerous to the coddled mind. Stanhope is the current Bill Hicks, the unrepentant prodigy that blazes the trail for everyone else. His “No Refunds” show is a master class of biting humor, a must-watch for any fan of courageous comedy. This man should be selling out arenas.
Recommended special: No Refunds
Fearless. I’m talking balls-out, fists-up, fuck-your-feelings fearless. There is so much to respect about Jeselnik, because it’s all too easy to be shocking. Getting people to gasp isn’t hard at all, but getting them to gasp into genuine laughter is a genius-level ability. He’s the “what will he say next” comic that fans watch through their fingers. He feeds on discomfort and strikes fear into hecklers. His deliveries are methodical and his punchlines are so tightly cocked that they smash you across the face like a rocket-powered sledgehammer.
Recommended special: Thoughts and Prayers
Probably the most unsurprising name on this list. I would wager that most top fives would include Chappelle for one specific reason: he’s just too good NOT to include. A “best comics” list without Chappelle is like a hipster naming a list of bands you’ve never heard of. Chappelle is on his own level entirely. His comedy specials are must-see events, and his infamous bit on Jussie Smollett remains one of the most gut-bustingly hilarious five minutes of comedy I have ever seen. A true master of the craft.
Recommended special: Sticks & Stones
Honorable mentions: Tom Segura, Iliza Shlesinger, John Mulaney, Tig Notaro, David Cross, Dave Attell, Randy Feltface, Ron White, Lewis Black, Christopher Titus, Mike Birbiglia, Ali Wong, Sebastian Maniscalco, and many more I’m likely forgetting.