50 people and teams who changed American comedy

Updated 9:00 AM ET, Mon August 20, 2018
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American comedy is as broad and varied as the human capacity for humor -- which means there's usually a comedian out there for everyone. But there are some comics -- and comedy teams -- who've been so influential that they changed what we talk about when we talk about American comedy. Here are 50 of them:
After enjoying success in the 1930s and '40s, the Marx brothers experienced a revival among college-aged audiences in the 1960s because of their characters' irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Their chemistry as a comedy team was second to none. From left to right, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Chico Marx, Groucho Marx, and Gummo Marx. Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Stan Laurel, right, and Oliver Hardy, left, successfully moved from the silent films of the 1920s to movies with sound in the '30s because their comedy style was so visual. "We're not talking comedians," Laurel recalled during a 1957 interview. "We only said enough to motivate what we were doing." "The moment Laurel and Hardy came together to work as a team was a gift from the comedy gods," said filmmaker Robert Weide. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
The popularity of Bud Abbott, left, and Lou Costello, right, propelled them from 1930s burlesque theaters to a national radio show in the '40s, to the movies and TV. Abbott and Costello may be most known by their famous "Who's on first?" routine -- which became a staple of their act. John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
Already successful as solo performers -- when Bob Hope, left, and Bing Crosby, right, teamed up as a duo they won fans by pretending to be rivals out to get each other. The pairing led to a string of "road" movies beginning in the 1940s with titles like "Road to Morocco." The road movies helped define the "buddy comedy" film genre. Hope and Crosby often would speak directly to the camera -- aka -- "breaking the fourth wall." "When you break the fourth wall, you're basically inviting the audience in," said comedian W. Kamau Bell. "It's like these people aren't performing for you, you're hanging out with them." American Stock/Getty Images
"There's never been an act as convulsive, unpredictable and frighteningly funny as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis," said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "You didn't know what they were going to do next." The duo gained fame in the 1940s and parted ways in the 1950s. "Egos get pulled into this kind of a thing," Lewis said in 1965. "We loved one another ... we just didn't like working together anymore." Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Husband-and-wife comedy duo George Burns and Gracie Allen rocketed to success on radio, and later, TV. After Allen's death in the 1960s, Burns -- with his trademark cigar -- continued performing as a solo act. He performed in movies and on TV well into his golden years -- making his final film appearance in 1994. Burns died two years later, at age 100. NBC via Getty Images
To say the Three Stooges comedy trio specialized in physical horseplay is an understatement. During their films of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Curly Howard, left, his brother Moe Howard, center, and Larry Fine, right, artfully slapped themselves silly to make audiences laugh. Another Howard brother, Shemp, replaced Curly Howard after his death. Two other comics also spent time in the Stooges: Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Jean Carroll broke the mold for women in comedy when she emerged in the 1940s. Women were expected to appear on the comedy stage with a male counterpart in those days, if they appeared at all. But Carroll didn't play by those rules: She not only went solo, mostly performing material that she wrote herself, but also made spousal jokes -- typical fodder for male comics -- her own. "The thing that attracted me to my husband was his pride," she quipped in one subversive joke. "I'll never forget the first time I saw him, standing up on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze — and he too proud to run and get it." Aubrey Hart/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
After sharpening his slapstick skills in vaudeville and radio, comedy heavyweight Milton Berle was more than ready to take over TV when the medium became popular in the late 1940s. His first show, "The Texaco Star Theatre," was a variety comedy show that was so popular, it's been credited with driving skyrocketing sales of television sets. It was the start of a very long love affair between comedy and TV. Archive Photos/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The first woman to run a production company. The first woman to star in an interracial relationship on TV. One of the first women to show her real pregnancy on TV. Lucille Ball's dynamite influence both on screen and behind the scenes of comedy television reshaped the genre for decades to come, particularly for women. life.com
Moms Mabley was known to black audiences for decades before she was "discovered" by mainstream audiences in the 1960s, and through it all the quality and cleverness of her comedy never changed. Relying on a grandmotherly persona, Mabley -- credited as the first female stand-up comedian -- could be as raunchy as her younger, male counterparts, but with a slyness that proved her comic genius. John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images
The grand dame of self-deprecating stand-up comedy, Phyllis Diller inspired legions of future comedians upon her debut in the 1950s, and forever changed the industry for the funny women who followed her. "She paved the way for everybody," Diller's talent agent said at the time of her death in 2012. Joan Rivers agreed, writing in a tribute that "the only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny. If she had started today, Phyllis could have stood there in Dior and Harry Winston and become the major star that she was." Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Religion, sexuality, race, politics -- good luck finding a subject that Lenny Bruce wasn't comfortable joking about. Bruce kicked open doors for post-1950s comedians by working blue with just about every sensitive subject possible, at one point even getting arrested on obscenity charges and put on trial. But without Bruce, we likely wouldn't have other comic revolutionaries like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and we'd be culturally poorer for it. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Joan Rivers was a comedy pioneer with her insistence on talking about life as a young woman with an unprecedented honesty. Her rat-a-tat joke-telling and unabashed discussion of single life, sex and womanhood paved the way for her to become the first woman to host her own late night talk show. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
It's an eternal debate among comedy fans: Has there ever been a stand-up comedian better than Richard Pryor? Could there ever be? With his unfiltered comedic tales, unmistakable delivery, and incisive observations on race, class and American culture, Pryor challenged comedians to step up their storytelling, and challenged Americans to think in new ways. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Carlin went from performing as a mild-mannered stand-up comic to a shaggy-haired, bearded social critic who also happened to be damn funny. It was Carlin, of course, who gave us the "seven dirty words you can never say on television," and whose obscenity-filled comedy prompted the Supreme Court to allow broadcasters to censor offensive material. NBCUniversal/Getty Images
If you want to take a master class in using comedy as a powerful form of social critique, pay close attention to Dick Gregory. During the civil rights movement and beyond, Gregory used his skills to tear apart racism in America with expert punchlines. Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
These two are probably your favorite comedian's favorite comedians. In the 1950s, the improv duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May succeeded on the strength of their incredible improv and sketch comedy skills, the likes of which comedy hadn't seen before. Smart and snappy, theirs is a satire that still resonates today. Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
"All comedians are, in a way, anarchists," Bob Newhart once said. "Our job is to make fun of the existing world." And that Newhart did, with his memorable stammer and ability to leave an audience in hysterics with his one-sided phone conversations. NBCU Photo Bank/Getty
Long before Redd Foxx was known as the elder Sanford on the '70s comedy "Sanford and Son," he was making audiences cackle with his bawdy sense of humor in stand-up routines. These sets were recorded as lucrative "party records," and helped pave the way for the boom in comedy albums to come. NBCU Photo Bank/Getty
With "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers" all in his repertoire, Mel Brooks is likely behind at least one of your favorite comedy classics. The legendary actor and filmmaker honed his skills on the '50s sketch program "Your Show of Shows" before taking over comedy cinema in the '70s as director of some of the genre's greatest productions. Archive Photos/Getty Images
"Simply put, there was and is nobody else like her" the New York Post wrote in 2015, six decades into Lily Tomlin's celebrated career. Anyone who's seen Tomlin's incredible ability to transform into just about any comedic character, from the nosy telephone operator Ernestine to the mischievous 5-year-old Edith Ann, would agree. NBCUniversal/Getty Images
The sexual assault conviction against Bill Cosby this year has, for many, overshadowed his long-standing comedy career. Starting in the 1960s, Cosby brought a new perspective to stand-up that was distinct in both its insight and its style, as witnessed on the celebrated comedy album "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With." From the stage Cosby moved on to film and TV, where he created the groundbreaking comedy series about a middle-class African-American family, "The Cosby Show." Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Tom Smothers (left) and Dick Smothers, right, gained popularity as a standup comedy duo during the 1950s. By the end of the turbulent 1960s, they were hosting a weekly comedy TV show that poked fun at Washington and the controversial politics of the day. The Emmy-winning "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" often found itself the target of censors at the CBS network. Conflict between the show and CBS led to its cancellation in 1969. CBS via Getty Images
The world mourned in 2014 when singular talent Robin Williams committed suicide at the age of 63. The genius of Williams' comedy was in its incredible versatility, timelessness and cross-generational appeal. Comics as disparate as Jimmy Fallon and Louis C.K. all carry hallmarks of Williams' influence. Peter Kramer/Getty Images
Woody Allen's career has been shrouded with controversy since 2014, when Dylan Farrow accused him of sexually assaulting her as a child, an allegation Allen denies. What is clear is that his contributions to the art form and influence on the genre -- whether it's as a stand-up comic, a writer, or filmmaker with iconic titles like "Annie Hall" -- can't be understated. Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Before late-night guests were participating in lip-syncing contests and hawking their latest movies, Jonathan Winters was cracking up "Tonight Show" audiences with his impersonations and comical characters. Without Winters, we may not have gotten comedy greats like Robin Williams and Dana Carvey. NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
There have been a number of sketch comedy series on American TV that have all contributed to the way we think about telling jokes; the difference with "The Carol Burnett Show" was its headliner. Burnett, who started out with roles in films and shows like Lucille Ball's "The Lucy Show," wasn't just expressively hilarious. She was also "this warm, funny, relatable person," says producer Michael Saltzman, who is currently at work on a new sitcom that will bring Burnett back to TV. CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
"Well, excuuuuuse me!" Years after Steve Martin broke through the comedy scene with his boisterous and beloved stand-up routines, you can still imagine him saying that trademark line. While his comedy performances captivated audiences in the '70s and '80s and inspired comedians to come, Martin's influence has extended to film, literature, music (he plays the banjo!) and even art curation. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
From "Saturday Night Live" to "Late Night with David Letterman" to "Taxi," Andy Kaufman proved he was a genius at playing the comically oddball character. In fact, Kaufman was so skilled at committing to a character that there are those who think he's just been playing dead since 1984. NBCUniversal/Getty Images
Whether you know him as "Mr. Warmth" or "The King of Insult Comedy," no one knows how to throw a verbal jab like Don Rickles. He reminds us that there's an art to the insult: The stinging quip should be so funny that even your target can't help but laugh. Mark Mainz/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
Whoopi Goldberg's immense talent can be summed up with four letters: E, G, O and T, which represent the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards she's won as one of comedy's most multifaceted contributors. Goldberg is not only an influential stand-up comedian who could tackle difficult subjects like race and gender discrimination with ease, but she can also hold her own in the dramatic arts. Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images
One of comedy's most prestigious honors, the Mark Twain Prize, describes to a "T" what makes Bill Murray so special. Throughout his more than 40-year career, Murray has majorly impacted American society "as a social commentator, satirist, creator of memorable characters ... and fearless observer of society." NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
He's been Gumby, a Beverly Hills cop, a talking dragon, a Nutty Professor, an African prince, and a pair of New York barbers, playing both at the same time. Who else but Eddie Murphy has displayed such flexibility and devotion to character? He looked up to Richard Pryor as he got his start in stand-up, but now, more than 30 years into his comedic career, it's his work that's being studied as masterful. NBCUniversal/Getty Images
With "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show," Shandling reinvented TV comedy twice over -- and that's on top of being "a kind of Yoda to every funny person born since 1965," as GQ put it in an expansive profile, mentoring comics from Judd Apatow and Ricky Gervais to Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler. CNN/1997
If life had gone differently for Billy Crystal, he might have remained a substitute teacher in Long Island, New York -- the gig he held while trying to land work as a stand-up comic. But then came a 1975 appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," a landmark role on fan-favorite series "Soap," a year on "Saturday Night Live," a string of hit comedy films from "The Princess Bride" to "When Harry Met Sally," and more successful hosting gigs than one could count. Getty Images
For a guy who created a show about nothing, Jerry Seinfeld's done incredibly well for himself. After honing his observational humor skills as a stand-up comedian, Seinfeld found massive success with the NBC comedy "Seinfeld," easily one of TV's most iconic series. He's still transforming the genre today but offering a new spin on his casual comedy style with the web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." NBCUniversal/Getty Images
Chris Rock has become so synonymous with gut-busting routines that it's hard to see a photo of him without getting the giggles. His unique delivery means you can spot a Chris Rock set without even seeing him, and his honest, pull-no-punches writing style builds on the work of predecessors like Richard Pryor to offer some of the most witty and insightful observations on race in America. Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
Ellen DeGeneres is currently best known as one of the best -- and nicest! -- things to happen to daytime TV in a very long while. But before she was holding down a talk show Oprah-style, DeGeneres was a stand-up star who took her approachable comedy to TV with the sitcom "Ellen" in the mid-90s. It was during her tenure on that show that DeGeneres made history, coming out as a lesbian in real life as well as in her sitcom. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
An iconoclast as much as an icon, David Letterman's journey in late night has heavily influenced the just-as-famous names who've followed in his footsteps, from Jimmy Kimmel to Conan O'Brien. As The Atlantic put it when Letterman departed "Late Show" in 2011, he might be "the last true innovator" in the genre. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
At this point the phrase "Tina Fey" has become code for all things excellent and hilarious. The first woman named head writer of "Saturday Night Live," Fey not only proved her impeccable impersonation and delivery skills but opened the door for other hilarious women to join her. She went on to spark some timeless turns in comedy TV and film, from "30 Rock" to "Mean Girls." Christopher Polk/Getty Images
The appetite for Dave Chappelle's insightful stand-up and sketch comedy has been so insatiable that for a time it prompted the comedian to take a step back from his career. Within two years of the 2003 debut of the "Chappelle's Show," the comic found himself overwhelmed with demands for a series he no longer believed in. But his fanbase was as strong as ever, as every impromptu set he did during his hiatus made headlines. Now he's at work on a series of three stand-up specials for Netflix. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
During his nearly 20 years at the helm of "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart turned Comedy Central's late night show into appointment viewing, fostered the careers of comedy giants like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, and fundamentally changed the way Americans view, experience and discuss the news. Brad Barket/Getty Images
Rarely is there a voice as distinct and powerful as Margaret Cho's. Comedian, activist, artist and boundary breaker. She brought fresh perspective to comedy clubs as a queer woman of color, and starred in the first Asian-American family sitcom, "All-American Girl." Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Most fixate on the talent in front of the camera, but in comedy Judd Apatow is as famous as the stars whose careers he's helped create. From the game-changing TV series "Freaks and Geeks" to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," Apatow's influence can be seen in some of the most celebrated comedy productions of the past 20 years. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Even in the pre-Twitter era, Conan O'Brien seemed to speak the language of the Internet comedy that was to come. When he first took over "Late Night" from David Letterman in 1993, he had an uphill battle to climb with ratings. Thankfully, he fought it out to stay on the air -- otherwise we never would have witnessed "Masturbating Bear" and "Pimpbot 5000." MEGHAN SINCLAIR/TBS
Stand-up, late night, TV comedies and films -- there's little that George Lopez hasn't made his mark in. While stand-up has always been his bread and butter, Lopez broadened mainstream TV in 2002 when he became one of the few Latinos to star in a primetime comedy program, following behind "I Love Lucy's" Desi Arnaz and "Chico and the Man's" Freddie Prinze. Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Scleroderma Research Foundation
Sarah Silverman's resume reads like a greatest hits of TV comedy jobs, between stints on "Saturday Night Live," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Seinfeld." But it's with her no-holds-barred stand-up that Silverman has left her mark. Take, for example, one of her most infamous one-liners: "I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele teamed up for "Key & Peele," a sketch comedy TV series that debuted in 2012 on Comedy Central. Paras Griffin/Getty Images for NAACP