To conclude his well-written review of Dave Chappelle’s latest performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Jason Zinoman of the NY Times writes:
At his best, Mr. Chappelle’s [sic] proves that thoughtfulness can make a joke funnier. Making smart comedy that is argumentative and funny is not a zero sum game, but his first performance of a long residency at Radio City does occasionally makes you wonder if it is.
That is not a well-written conclusion, but there’s an interesting idea at the heart of it. I think what Mr. Zinoman is trying to say (and I could be wrong) is that Dave Chappelle might be the smartest comedian alive, but only if you think comedy is a contest.
In any sane person’s mind, the top three comedians in the world right now have to be Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. There are hundreds of worthy stand-up comedians in the industry, but those three have to be at the top.
If our criteria remains Zinoman’s — smart, argumentative, and funny — I’d be willing to let Jon Stewart be part of the conversation, but if he really wants a shot, he’ll have to release a stand-up special sometime this century (which, apparently, he will be doing…soon?).
Additionally, I’d be willing to discuss Bo Burnham. I know that’s a controversial entry because, for many, Burnham’s comedy is still a bit too gimmicky, but he’s doing innovative material with a young man’s energy and a hyper self-awareness that speaks to the people of his generation. He’s able to argue with an audience if he feels they need it, and he’s willing to call into question some of the fundamental beliefs that they hold dear. At the same time, his hyperkinetic energy and his reliance on his musical talent have kept him, I suspect, from reaching a multi-generational audience.
Bill Burr also has to be part of the conversation. Bill Burr brings an unironic and uncynical anger to the stage, knowing at all points that he must be a psycho because he gets angry about things that regular people don’t angry about, like the idea that there’s no reason to hit a woman. That anger, however, is his talent. It allows him to notice things that all of us feel or suspect but that we don’t know how to articulate — for example, see his continued ability to get an audience to clap for the idea that mass genocide is necessary for our overpopulated species to continue.
Over the past six or seven years, Burr’s stage presence has benefitted from his increased acting experience. He’s developed the confidence to examine the narrative elements of a joke and a storyteller’s recognition that narrative alone can carry the tension, and not just the audience’s expectation of a laugh.
Playing with audience expectations might be his strongest skill. While all great comedians are willing to challenge their audiences, Burr is unabashed in his contempt for any audience trying to punch above its weight class. The prime example of this is when he berated, for a full twelve minutes, an unruly audience in Philadelphia (if that’s not redundant). The audience had booed almost every other comedian off stage during a festival, but, for twelve minutes, Burr attacked them head on, targeting everything that is wrong with Philadelphia, taking each boo as a badge of honor, and challenging them not to laugh as he tore them a new one.
With that being said, Burr’s comedy specials have also felt a bit insular. It’s a Bostonian’s insurality, to be sure — insightful, aware, proud, shamefully honest, and deeply insecure — but it’s an insularity that prevents him from going deeper than he already has. That insularity might be why he keeps returning to the well of overpopulation and political conspiracy.
Burr’s last few specials have all been fantastic. His skills as a joke teller, storyteller, tactical observer, and stage performer have increased with each one. But the philosophical depth of his targets remains limited, as if he’s blind to some significant element in the field of comedic possibility.
It might be that Burr doesn’t often talk about his family. He isn’t shy about it — you can track the growth of the man with the growth of his relationship to his partner (first his girlfriend, now his wife) — but he doesn’t dwell on family the way Rock, Chappelle, and C.K. do. It’s probably because Burr only had his first child in January of this year, and so his perspective on the family has been lacking that crucial parental angle. I’m intrigued to see how being a dad enriches his material in the next special.
There are other great comedians of course: Norm Macdonald, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Hannibal Burress, Tig Notaro, Ellen Degeneres, etc. But if comedy is a zero-sum game, there’s only room at the top for one.
Unfortunately, trying to choose between Chappelle, Rock, and C.K. is like trying to choose between Jordan, Lebron, and Bird, with no clear indication as to which comedian transfers into which basketball player. And with no clear answer, all you can do is sit back, relax, and enjoy their greatness.