[There is a companion podcast to this article, by Cook St. Productions, which you can stream or download here, or get through iTunes here. On the podcast, we run down this list and my colleagues Travis and Evan outline their many disagreements.]
So what am I talking about when I say “The 20 Best Funny People Right Now?”
It’s a title intended to be vague, and one that I settled on by default. I say ‘Funny People’ because that avoids the term ‘Comedian,’ which suggests it’s relegated to stand-up. And I say ‘Best’ because ‘Funniest’ sounds somehow more subjective, and ‘funny’ ain’t all that’s being measured here.
I made the following list using my own opinions and tastes, but also combined with whatever ‘facts’ or statistics the Internet could offer. I then evaluated the contestants based on these conflicting merits:
- Success – past, present, and projected future.
- Popularity – amongst the general popularity, or critics, or other comedians.
- Versatility – how they’ve fared across multiple projects and media.
- Talent – charisma on-screen or, presumably, in person.
- Voice – is it distinct, and how much ownership they have over the comedy.
- Relevance – are they important to the comedy landscape, and will they be moving forward.
- Trust – This might be the most important metric, but the hardest to qualify. A relationship without trust fails 100 times out of 100, and when you lose faith in someone’s ability to make you laugh, that’s kind of it. For instance, when you hear someone’s in an upcoming project or you see them pop up on TV or in a movie trailer, what’s your gut reaction — is it ‘yes!’ or is it ‘uh oh what is this?’ Do you trust their talent to transcend their project? Do they make interesting creative choices? Do they seem to still care? The answers to these questions come from the gut, and as inexact as that science may be, it helps settle some ties. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Andy Samberg are both extremely funny people, but I do not trust Andy Samberg.
‘Nuff disclaimer? Alright you monsters, here’s your goddamn list.
THE BEST FUNNY PEOPLE RIGHT NOW
- Jordan Peele
- Age: 35
- Case For: The funnier half of Key & Peele, which is the most revered sketch show on cable, and definitely the Internet. You see their content shared online more than Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer, and Kroll Show put together. They consistently take risks with their premises, and although the show doesn’t reach a Chappelle’s Show-level of satire, it also doesn’t rely on race humor. Peele has a variety of skills including wacky, deadpan, and the best Obama in the game. He and Key are working with Judd Apatow to develop a movie together. Otherwise, he’s been good in Wanderlust and on Children’s Hospital.
- Case Against: While he’s the part of Key & Peele who makes me laugh, we can’t really know how much of the show comes from his mind alone, and he doesn’t do nearly the heavy lifting that Fred Armisen does in Portlandia or Amy Schumer on her show. The chemistry with Key is a real reason the show works, not strictly Peele’s performance. Oh, also, hasn’t really accomplished that much otherwise.
- Conclusion: It would be a lot cleaner to put Key & Peele together at #20, but that’s dishonest to this exercise and sets a bad precedent for loopholes. But Peele really seems to have come into his own and has years of opportunities ahead of him. Stick him on SNL right now and he’s their best cast member.
- John Mulaney
- Age: 32
- Case For: As a stand-up, he’s got two great specials, and having seen him perform live a few months ago, I can vouch that his next will be just as good. Honestly, the 2012 special, New In Town, is a Top-3 all-timer. It’s better than any one special Louis CK or Aziz Ansari has done. He was a highly-revered writer on SNL for five years, most notably as the co-creator of the ‘Stefon’ character. Left the show to develop and star in his own sitcom, Mulaney, which is currently on FOX.
- Case Against: Mulaney is an atrocious show. It’s single-camera, and laugh-track, so it was always doomed to seem old-fashioned, but beyond that, it’s also just a blatant Seinfeld rip-off. He plays a stand-up comedian who has neurotic conversations with his friends in a New York apartment where — surprise! — one of the friends is a hot female. These were all choices he made as far as creating the show, so I have to dock him some points for bad instincts. I can’t wait till this show is cancelled, and it will be — seems like every occasion a non-CBS network tries to emulate their success by pushing a formulaic laugh-track show, it fails.
- Conclusion: I’m a little worried about his self-confidence moving forward. Mulaney was his first crack at mainstream success, and sometimes you only get one at-bat. But being this good of a stand-up and comedy writer at 32 means he has plenty of time to improve and avenge the failure.
- Melissa McCarthy
- Age: 44
- Case For: Since breaking out in 2011’s Bridesmaids (for which she was nominated for a freaking Oscar), she’s become one of the top 3 or 4 bankable movie stars in comedy. In 2013, she did Identity Thief and The Heat. In 2014, she did Tammy and St. Vincent. She also stars in Mike & Molly on CBS, which is successful, and shows her cross-demographic appeal. She’s hosted SNL three times since 2011, and is so damn good at it, she’s received multiple Emmy nominations for those appearances.
- Case Against: While her movies make money, they haven’t been very good since Bridesmaids, especially Identity Thief (19% RT) and Tammy (24%). And even The Heat, which was successful and completely dependent on her chops, left me feeling fatigued because the character she’s perfected (tough, crass, loud) seems more and more one-note.
- Conclusion: She has to be Top-20 because she’s one of a handful of brand names at the box office. The general public knows and loves her, so we can pencil her in for at least one ‘Untitled Melissa McCarthy Comedy’ every year for the next five. Let’s just hope they’re more Bridesmaids than they are Tammy.
- Patton Oswalt
- Age: 45
- Case For: He’s been consistently relevant for a decade now. His last four specials have all debuted at #1 on comedy album charts, including Grammy nominations for Finest Hour (2011) and Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time (2014). He’s written a best-selling book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Rave reviews for his acting chops in Big Fan (2009) and Young Adult (2011). He pops up everywhere, whether it be Modern Family, Parks and Rec, Portlandia, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, etc, and has oddly become a very active and ‘important’ Internet presence. His Twitter account sometimes makes headlines, and his serious Facebook post about the Boston Marathon bombing went viral in 2013.
- Case Against: One could argue his stand-up is in decline, and his material is becoming more about making ‘a point’ and less about being funny (see David Cross). And his outspokenness on hot button issues could potentially age poorly and veer into Bill Maher self-righteous territory. Also, kind of a cult figure in ‘nerd’ culture, which as you know, has become an all-inclusive and obnoxious subset of humanity.
- Conclusion: He really is a fixture in the comedy world, across many platforms, and very well-regarded amongst other comedians (they call him the ultimate “comic’s comic”). It would be silly to leave him off a list that values relevance and hard work. Also, he was Ratatouille.
- Tina Fey
- Age: 44
- Case For: As far as accomplishments go, her career is as good as anybody’s, cemented by winning the Mark Twain Award for American humor in 2010, the youngest-ever recipient (David Letterman and Carol Burnett won it in the years that followed, to give a reference of prestige). On SNL, she was head writer for seven years, and as a performer, gave us Sarah Palin and an A+ run behind the ‘Weekend Update’ desk. Creative force behind 30 Rock, a critical darling (it won Best Comedy Emmy three times), for seven seasons. Her book Bossypants was so successful it created an entire genre of female comedians needing to write their own memoir. She also wrote Mean Girls, which is secretly one of the most entertaining movies of the past 15 years.
- Case Against: She’s a better writer than she is a performer, and as much as I value the former, there’s a reason she, like Seth Myers, never became a full SNL cast member. Which might explain why her movies have been so underwhelming — she’s been the star of Baby Mama, Date Night, and Admission, and I don’t remember her specifically as funny in any of them. Also, after writing for, or about, an NBC sketch show at 30 Rockefeller Center, from 1997-2013, she seems pretty burnt out and focused on motherhood, and who can blame her. It just might mean our best days with her are in the rearview.
- Conclusion: There is some definite personal bias here — I had wanted to leave her off the Top-20 altogether to prove a point that she’s overrated, but that’s because I got sick of 30 Rock, and I don’t think much of that show’s comedy came from the Liz Lemon character, anyway. I think she’s one of the best and most important comedic minds of the past fifteen years, but she also never surprises me. I’m being hard on her; 30 Rock ended in 2013, she’s great as a Golden Globes host, and she’s got some movies lined up for 2015 (one with Amy Poehler) that could render all this ‘what have you done for me lately?’ talk moot.
- Vince Vaughn
- Age: 44
- Case For: Still one of the funniest people in the world on his feet. He’s quick, charming, and magnetic. He hosted SNL last year and the monologue was just a Q&A with the audience and he absolutely killed it. His last two comedies, The Watch (2012) and The Internship (2013, also the writer), are surprisingly lovable, even if critics and audiences seem to hate them.
- Case Against: Sure, there’s Swingers (1996), Old School (2003), and Wedding Crashers (2005), but since then, he has had more misfires than maybe anyone outside Adam Sandler. Yikes, here we go: The Break-Up, Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, Delivery Man.
- Conclusion: Given that his career has been more down than up the past decade, this is nothing more than Grandfather clause. But seeing him on SNL last year, as well as hearing him on a recent WTF podcast, proved to me he still has something that resembles a fastball, even if it’s just Vince Vaughn doing Vince Vaughn things (i.e. a sly wink every few minutes). You get the sense he’s still the funniest guy in the room, and with a new season of True Detective coming up, I’m just not ready to let him go.
- Amy Schumer
- Age: 33
- Case For: She made a name for herself on Comedy Central Roasts and a few stand-up specials from 2009-2012, but it’s her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, that sets her apart. It’s only twenty episodes in (the third season starts this spring), but it’s already been Emmy-nominated for writing, and as the creator/writer/star, she should get a lot of credit. She also has a movie coming out this summer called Trainwreck, that she wrote and stars in, and is directed by Judd Apatow. The last two comediennes he took under his wing were Lena Dunham and Kristen Wiig, so I’m siked.
- Case Against: We have a very small sample size to go on, and her stand-up specials have been good, but not transcendent. And Inside Amy Schumer is fairly under the radar; it doesn’t move the needle for Comedy Central the way Key & Peele does.
- Conclusion: This is a total vote of confidence, based sheerly on potential. Inside Amy Schumer is awesome. The show has a decidedly female voice — an anomaly in sketch comedy — so she gets to explore a lot of bits that, for instance, Lena Dunham or Mindy Kaling cannot using just narrative. And if I’m wrong, I guess that means Judd Apatow and I share the same bad taste.
- Aziz Ansari
- Age: 31
- Case For: Other than Louis CK, the most recognizable face in stand-up comedy, especially for the 18-49 demographic. Been a workhorse – Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening (2010), Dangerously Delicious (2012), and Buried Alive (2013). His material has shown growth, too, going from early bits about his cousin and Kanye West, to now more personal subjects like marriage and dating in the digital age. He has five million Twitter followers (as a reference point, Bill Burr has 420k). Played Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation for the past 7 years, and before that, was on the unheralded MTV sketch show Human Giant.
- Case Against: Has little-to-no movie career, unless you count 30 Minutes or Less, which you shouldn’t. On Parks and Rec, his contribution pales in comparison to Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt.
- Conclusion: Besides being young, prolific, and popular, he seems to have the respect of his peers — his set on the James Franco Roast proves it. And he seems to have a real love for the game; the apocalypse could come tomorrow and wipe out the rest of humanity and he’d still be writing jokes about it.
- Amy Poehler
- Age: 43
- Case For: Stars in Parks and Recreation, now entering its final season, and nominated for Best Actress Emmy every year, plus one for writing. Just published the book Yes Please, which is outselling Lena Dunham’s collection of essays. The funnier half of a much-lauded Golden Globes hosting team, as well as two great ‘Weekend Update desks’ on SNL. Did SNL for 7 years, has a ‘Best of’ DVD, probably ranks just behind Gilda Radner and Kristen Wiig for ‘most beloved female cast member.’ Named to TIME‘s ‘100 Most Influential People In The World’ List in 2011. For films, she starred in They Came Together (2013) and Baby Mama (2008), as well as scene-stealer in Blades of Glory (2007), Mean Girls (2004), and Wet Hot American Summer (2001). Co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, meaning she helped invent today’s most popular type of long-form improv, and considered one of the best improvisers ever.
- Case Against: She’s not uproarious on Parks and Rec, and that’s not because she’s playing it straight — Leslie Knope just isn’t that funny. And with the show ending, it’s unclear how much she has left in the tank. While she does write, she more ‘gifted performer’ than ‘original comic mind.’ Doesn’t have any legendary SNL characters or sketches.
- Conclusion: While there may not be One Thing she’ll be remembered for, she gets around to plenty of different mediums, and always commits to her performance. She also gives a lot of different looks. As far as pure chops go, I’d put her in front of the camera sooner than Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling.
- Fred Armisen
- Age: 48
- Case For: Key part of SNL for 11 years, making him the second-longest tenured cast member ever. Smooth transition to Portlandia, where he pulls almost all the comedic weight for a sketch show that Jerry Seinfeld recently called “the best show on TV and one of the best all-time.” He has an Emmy nomination for acting in Portlandia, and three for writing it. He’s the bandleader for Seth Myers’ talk show, and ostensibly the funniest part.
- Case Against: He wasn’t exactly a star on SNL, or to put it politely, his sense of humor just isn’t for everybody. Doesn’t have a meaningful movie credit to his name. What currently makes him relevant, Portlandia, has declined in popularity and quality since it became a hit in 2011.
- Conclusion: Full disclosure – Fred Armisen makes me laugh more than anyone on this list. So there is a bias, but let me explain. He may not have the success or popularity of the people above him, but I’d put his originality against absolutely anyone’s. His sense of humor is just … slightly off, which has its place; the comedy landscape needs idiosyncrasy. He has awkward body language, weird bug-eyed expressions, and faux-sincerity. Sometimes he’s so subtle you wonder what the joke is, and sometimes he’s so over-the-top it feels like he’s doing a meta-commentary on traditional sketch comedy. Fred Armisen is unique, and you can’t say that about everybody.
- Stephen Colbert
- Age: 50
- Case For: A little show called The Colbert Report just went off the air, but was extremely popular, and maybe most impressive, equaled if not eclipsed its Daily Show lead-in. He was on the Daily Show from 1997-2005 and should be considered its best correspondent ever. Takes over the Late Show for David Letterman later this year. His 2008 book I Am America and So Can You! is a bestseller. Beloved for creating and starring in Strangers in Candy. Also, no one will ever host the White House Correspondents Dinner better than he did in 2006.
- Case Against: Okay, hear me out, but how much of the Colbert Report is him, and how much of it is the writing? And while he’s lauded for hosting his show for nine years as a character and not himself, did it become just as predictable?
- Conclusion: If Jon Stewart didn’t pave the way, Colbert would be higher, but I got too much respect for the original. That being said, he’s about to be the funniest host on late-night, and apparently has 4 animal species named after him!
- Zach Galifianakis
- Age: 45
- Case For: He’s arguably the funniest person on the planet, so there’s that. He will outwit and crack up anyone he’s with, even just on talk shows or podcasts. The original Hangover (2009) is one of the best, most successful comedies ever, and he’s why. His stand-up special Live at the Purple Onion (2007) is genius. The Between Two Ferns web series is Emmy-winning and still one of the best things on the Internet, evidenced in 2014 when Obama was his guest. And when he hosts SNL, it’s pretty clear from the cast and the audience that they know they’re in the presence of greatness.
- Case Against: The thing is, he’s 45 (it’s weird that he’s older than Vince Vaughn), and doesn’t seem interested in fame or making a string of funny movies. He didn’t get famous till he was in his late-30’s, then got a stinky amount of money for The Hangover trilogy, and now just lives on a farm in North Carolina being selective about his roles. Shouldn’t he have more than one all-time movie to his resumé? Due Date is fine, that was 2010. The Campaign was 2012 and not nearly as good as it could have been.
- Conclusion: If this list is being made in 2010, he’s easily #1 or #2. But two bad Hangover installments later, I just feel depressed about that whole era. It’s not his fault he did those movies, but it is on him that he hasn’t made other uproarious comedies in the meantime. But…. he’s in Birdman and that’s the best film of 2014 by a long shot, and he has a heist comedy in summer 2015 with Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson. Here’s hoping.
- Mindy Kaling
- Age: 35
- Case For: Wow, somebody actually in their prime! She is to The Mindy Project as Tina Fey was to 30 Rock — the star, head writer, creator, etc. While The Mindy Project is no 30 Rock (in most people’s eyes, including audiences and critics), she is very funny as the star. And the writing is sharp, which is due to her, directly or indirectly. Named to the TIME ‘100 Most Influential People In The World’ in 2013. Her comedic voice was also all over The Office from 2005-2012 (she wrote 25 of the 160 episodes!). Her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? has been gaining popularity since 2011 and helped prove she had the voice to lead a show herself. She also hasn’t … really … missed … yet.
- Case Against: She’s not the best actress on the planet, a lot of times it actually seems like she’s smiling through a joke on Mindy Project. There are no Emmy or Golden Globe nominations for her (other than writing. Still not considered a huge draw; she’s never hosted SNL and doesn’t headline movies.
- Conclusion: She’s definitely catching this list at the right time. Not sure how long the Mindy Project will be on the air, nor what her career will look like after, but she’s in total control of her voice right now, and it’s undeniably one of the most distinct and pervasive out there.
- Will Ferrell
- Age: 47
- Case For: Outside of Bill Murray, basically the reigning ‘Funniest Living Person’ since 2000, and the undisputed comedy king in Hollywood in that span. Won the Mark Twain prize for American Humor in 2011. Arguably the best SNL cast member in the show’s 40-year existence — he has three ‘Best of’ DVDs, no one else even has two. Spread his wings a bit on other ventures, whether that be dramatic roles, or co-creating Funny or Die and Eastbound & Down, or doing a one-man Broadway show as George W. Bush.
- Case Against: If this was five years ago, he’d be #1 with a bullet. Starting in 2010 and working backward: The Other Guys, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, Anchorman, Elf, Old School, Zoolander, Ladies Man. But the past four years, he’s given us The Campaign and an Anchorman sequel. I think his prime is behind him, and I don’t think he’s as hungry, or takes as many chances as he used to. Also, Semi-Pro, Land of the Lost, and Bewitched.
- Conclusion: Look, if this was an all-time list, I’d have more to say. He is to comedy what Einstein was to science or something. He can switch from innocent (Buddy the Elf) to obnoxious (Ron Burgundy) at a moment’s notice. And I don’t think people in comedy consider him even on the same level, he’s just Jordan playing a different game. He makes people smile and laugh in anticipation of what his first line will be. That’s a considerable reputation. But the reputation has exceeded the work recently.
- Kristen Wiig
- Age: 41
- Case For: She wrote and starred in Bridesmaids, which still might be the ‘last great’ comedy film, and that was 2011. She was even nominated for an Oscar for the script. She’s also had memorable parts in great films like Macgruber (2010) and Knocked Up (2007). Was the best part of Anchorman 2 (2013). Her run on SNL (2005-2012) is basically unassailable, and she carried that show. Only a few people have seemed to be ‘bigger than’ SNL while they were on it, and she’s in that class with fellow movie stars Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, and Eddie Murphy.
- Case Against: Her film career has been fine, but not great, since the Bridesmaids debut. The Will Ferrell parallel (fine, Ferrell-lel) is pretty interesting because they both crushed SNL, then left to star in movies and killed it immediately, then eventually started doing dramatic roles even though they have more comedic talent than anyone around. The difference being that Ferrell put together a string of comedy classics, and Wiig just has Bridesmaids (shades of Galifianakis here).
- Conclusion: I’ve still liked her in the indie films she’s done and love that she’s being seen as more than just a comedienne, but damn, I expected to her to give us a new big comedy every year for the half-decade following Bridesmaids, but instead that’s been co-star Melissa McCarthy. She does have a heist comedy in summer 2015 with Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, and Jason Sudeikis, and is also re-uniting with her Bridesmaids co-writer to develop a new movie. So she’s still young, I’m just getting antsy.
- Lena Dunham
- Age: 28
- Case For: She’s in her 20s, first of all, and completely controls HBO’s biggest comedy, Girls. Now, this is a polarizing show, but Judd Apatow and I are firmly on the side that thinks it’s the best thing on television. She writes it, she directs it, she stars in it. She’s Louis CK, but on HBO. Girls has already won a Best Comedy Emmy and she’s won Best Actress (well-deserved by the way, she’s a much funnier actor than Louis, and her other auteur comp, Woody Allen). She just published a much-anticipated memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which debuted at #2 on the NY Times bestseller list.
- Case Against: She’s not what I would call ‘beloved.’ People seem to really resent her because she’s young and her show is overhyped and takes itself too seriously and she got a $3.5 million book deal, etc. And the book has not made the cultural splash many thought it would, in fact it gained the wrong kind of headlines early on because of a controversial rape allegation she included. Also, her 2010 film Tiny Furniture is something I’d prefer to never watch again.
- Conclusion: Girls may not be the funniest show around, nor is Dunham a queen of different looks, comedically speaking. But she does still earn her paycheck in the comedy genre, and she plays the game with ambition and total honesty. Though she’s only 28, it’s not the kind of ‘she can do anything she wants!’ potential you’d think. She will, more than likely, do what people expect her to do, which is write/direct/star in movie after movie once Girls is done, and they’ll all resemble each other. Just like Woody Allen, who like it or not, was an immovable voice in comedy for two decades.
- Jon Stewart
- Age: 52
- Case For: So regardless of where you stand on The Daily Show, and whether you ‘used to like it’ or you prefer Colbert Report or now John Oliver’s HBO show, Jon Stewart’s half-hour at 11 pm on Comedy Central forever changed media satire, and is a cultural institution. They have won, not been nominated for, but won, nineteen Emmys since he took over the reins fifteen years ago. Second to only SNL, it became the breeding ground for comedians to hone their skills and get exposure, including Colbert, Oliver, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry, Matt Walsh, Rob Riggle, Lewis Black, Kristen Schaal, Larry Wilmore, etc. Beyond The Daily Show, Stewart did just write and direct Rosewater, a critically acclaimed film no one’s really talking about. He’s helmed three bestsellers, including Earth (2010), America (2004), Naked Pictures of Famous People (1998). Hosted the White House Correspodents Dinner in 1997 and the Academy Awards twice.
- Case Against: How much of the influence and success of The Daily Show is attributable to Jon Stewart? It’s a fair question. We know they have an experienced and deep writing team, we know that guys like Carell and Colbert helped the show as much as the show helped them. Also, a lot of people accuse him of pushing a liberal, self-righteous agenda and would rather he just stop posturing and run for public office instead of pretending he is only a satirist.
- Conclusion: No one is more ‘important,’ from a global and historical standpoint, in comedy than Jon Stewart. His imitators aren’t just the people he helped give a career to, it extends to comedians starting their own Daily Show forums in places like Russia and Egypt; he has helped make satire a universal language. For many people, and I consider myself included, he’s the media personality I trust most to help me sort through a bullshit world of school shootings, terrorism, cable news, etc. He’s Edward Murrow, he’s Walter Cronkite. And it’s either a sad state of modernity that a comedian has that amount of trust from his audience, or it’s really goddamn amazing. Just a month ago, when the verdict was released for the Eric Garner grand jury, Stewart’s take was the only one people cared about. He sat there, unable to make a single joke, expressing the shock and incredulity many of us did, and somehow, that was cathartic. A lot of people can make jokes, but when the chips are down, he’s who me and millions of other people across the world run to for some sense of answers, some sense of authority.
- Age: 32
- Jonah Hill
- Age: 31
These young men are getting grouped together in one write-up because a lot of their success is intertwined, and because they made it this high for the same reason: they are the most consistent funny people in film the past 7-8 years. It’s weird to say, but it’s true. Also, they have each packed in a career’s worth of good work before the age of 33.
In doing this list, the most startling pattern was the lack of great comedy films the past five years. I keep telling you that former titans like Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Zach Galifianakis seem to be ‘past their prime’ and haven’t made anything relevant or innovative since 2010, but then I did some research and realized nobody has. Check out the list.
2011: Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses
2012: 21 Jump Street, Ted
2013: This is the End
2014: 22 Jump Street, Neighbors, The Interview (?)
So what the fuck gives? Well, for one thing, Hollywood could use some fresh new voices. You got to clear the deck every decade or so, make room for people that are hungry and incentivized and play to win, not play to not lose. Instead, you’ve had a lot of dependable movie stars (e.g. 5 people lower on this list, i.e. Ferrell, Galifianakis, Wiig, V. Vaughn, M. McCarthy) make average projects. And the real secret: the talent has gone to television. Traditionally, people like Tina Fey or Amy Poehler would graduate from SNL and do movies instead. You got Lena Dunham and Louis CK helming their own TV shows because that’s the medium where you can afford to be ambitious. Consider showrunners Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), Dan Harmon (Community), and Mike Judge (Silicon Valley) — they’d all rather control their own circumstances for lower stakes on television than risk 2 years of their life making a movie that pisses off a studio because of its paltry opening weekend box office.
In the meantime, the two guys who consistently deliver funny films are Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen.
- For/Against Rogen: He’s got a brilliant comedic mind, even if you don’t love him as a comedic actor. I have not seen The Interview yet, and although that will surely be remembered (and tainted) for its offscreen controversy, I can at least say that I’ve spent all year excited for it, because he and co-writer/co-director Evan Goldberg have earned that. This is the End (83% RT) was their return to form in 2013, after having written The Watch in 2012, Pineapple Express in 2008, and Superbad in 2007. Even when the script’s not his, it’s clear he infuses every project with his wit and his voice, whether that be 2014’s Neighbors, 2011’s Golden Globe-nominated 50/50, and of course Knocked Up in 2007 and 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005. Then again, The Green Hornet in 2011 is viewed as a bona fide flop (probably because it’s outside the comfort zone), and he also starred in The Guilt Trip in 2012, and 2009’s Funny People.
- For/Against Hill: He has been the common element to the best comedy film the past 3 years (two Jump Streets, and his tremendous turn in This is the End), and that doesn’t account for his work in Wolf of Wall Street (which borders on comedy, even if Moneyball didn’t), plus The Watch (2012) and Get Him to the Greek (2010) and Cyrus (2010). Go get some, young man. Sprinkle in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008 and OBVIOUSLY Superbad in 2007 and you got a full career by age 31!
And while I must mention that much of Jonah Hill’s work has been written by Seth Rogen, I know a chicken who’s better than the egg when I see one.
- Louis CK
- Age: 47
- Case For: He’s acknowledged by everybody as the current and longstanding king of stand-up comedy, and created the business model of ‘write a new hour of material every year’ that his peers are trying to keep up with. He’s also ahead of the curve on distribution; fans can buy his specials for $5 directly on his website. His last three: Oh My God (2013) won Emmy for Best Writing, Live at Beacon Theater (2012) won the Emmy for Best Writing, Hilarious (2011) won Grammy for Best Comedy Album. He’s edgy without being controversial — the last time he hosted SNL, he did nine minutes of stand-up as the monologue, which meant telling a national audience on live TV the reasons he’s against religion. His television show, Louie, has been Emmy-nominated for Best Comedy the past two years. Louie is universally lauded as a genre-changing triumph, done by a total auteur (he stars, writes, directs, edits), and frequently makes headlines for the subject matter(s) it’s not afraid to address with total honesty, e.g. divorce, parenting, homophobia, rape, obesity.
- Case Against: He’s not a great comedic actor, and although he showed up in American Hustle and Blue Jasmine, it always just feels like a cameo. Let’s see … what else … uhhh… his clout can’t last forever? I’m just grasping at straws.
- Conclusion: He’s idolized by his stand-up contemporaries, he’s fawned over by every talk show and podcast host, and his show Louie is admired by everyone in film and television for its courage and vision. He’s the closest thing to a comedy god working right now, and the sooner we acknowledge that reality, the sooner we can appreciate it.