The Snortie Awards

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I’m not a fan of New Year’s Eve shows about lists of the blah blah blah from the past year of blah blah blah.  I don’t like Top Ten of anything because it can all change the next day.  I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t like End of the Year retrospectives.  However, it was suggested by one of my best blogging pals that I create something called “The Snorties,” a list of the best comedians of all time.  Although I am not a fan of lists like this because they are all subjective, I’m doing it anyway.

Nobody can ever compile a truly comprehensive list because to do so, one must actually have seen every comedian there has ever been, and that’s just not possible.  Therefore, I will go ahead with the best all-time comedians, broken down by category, who I have ever seen either live or on television/film.  So here you go, the first and only annual ever because it will never happen again – SNORTIE awards.

Also, don’t ask me for an acronym that Snortie represents.  There is none, but I welcome you to make up your own.  Even if you do, it won’t be as funny, nor would mine be as funny, as the ones written by Mike.  “Snortie” just represents a noise we make when we laugh, combined with Brainsnorts, and that’s enough of that.

I came up with five comic categories, each with two representatives because it is necessary to separate comics who did not curse, known as “working clean,” from those who used profanity – or were “working blue” as it was called back about the time of Lenny Bruce.  Speaking of Lenny Bruce, although he might be considered one of the greatest ever, he will not be included here because I just never had the chance to see him either in person or on television.  Yeah, I’m as old as Hell, but I’m not that old.  

And speaking of old – to answer a likely question, “NO,” I didn’t put YouTube links because you’re old enough to look that up yourself.  Lazy bastards.

Later, where I list the actual best of the best, first will be the “clean” comic and then the “blue” comic for that category.  You’ll figure it out, but first, the categories:

  1. The Storytellers
  2. The Social Observers
  3. The Characters
  4. The Self Deprecators
  5. The Improvisers

Following those five will be two other comic categories:

“The Obscure” and “THE Best”

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Now, the Snorties…

1.  The Storytellers

Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor

storyteller

Some comedians don’t tell jokes.  They tell stories, ranging anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes.  They weave intricate tales in which everything just goes wrong, and we know that the story itself can’t really be 100% true, but nobody cares and everybody just goes along for the fabulous ride.  There are beginnings, middles, and ends to these stories, and they’re the kinds of stories that nobody can ever repeat with even a fraction of how you first heard it, so nobody should really ever try.

Cosby’s best stories are about both being and raising a child, about growing up and growing old, and about failing as both a child and a parent.  Pryor’s best stories about flirting with death, experimenting with drugs, and run-ins with the police.  At both ends of the spectrum, both are iconic storytellers.

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2.  The Social Observers

Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock

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“You ever notice…?”  Is usually the first words spoken by the social observer, who looks at the same boring crap that we all look at every day, but they seem to notice something that the rest of us have overlooked.  They find a small, thin thread, and they pull that thread.  And before you know it, that same thread runs through all of us, and it has us crying, “Yeah, me too!”  Those observations can range anywhere from the airport to the zoo, but somewhere in the middle you’ll find almost every one of us nodding our heads in agreement.

One of Seinfeld’s best moments is about doing laundry.  One of Rock’s best is about “doing” President Clinton.

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3.  The Characters

Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman

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It’s been said that most comedians are born from pain.  Some of those comedians have had such pain that they can’t even bring that pain unless they pretend to be someone other than themselves, a character separate from themselves so they don’t have to actually face anyone.  It’s like a 24-hour Halloween party for them.  I’m sure that they don’t want it to be that way, but sometimes it has to be.  Those comedians don’t usually last as long as others because it limits the kinds of jokes one can tell.

Martin, with his white suit and arrow through his head, was the first comic rockstar, selling out the same arenas as Springsteen and The Stones.  There was never a moment when he was just plain “Steve,” until he realized how he had been limiting himself and how much more he had to offer.  Kaufman – one of a kind, but which one?  You just never knew.  He’d come out on stage in an Elvis costume and do an entire show as Elvis.  Or he’d come out as a bad ventriloquist.  Everything was experimental, and you were never quite sure who was inside the test tube – you or him.

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4.  The Self Deprecators

Brian Regan and Louis C.K.

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Comedy normally only works well for a mass audience if the mass audience has enough in common to laugh at.  For example, if you make a joke about raising kids, it might only work well for those who have kids.  That’s never going to be everybody.  But if you’re going to make yourself the topic of the joke, and you want everyone to laugh at you, then everyone will have “you” in common when you’re telling the joke.  That’s the basis of self-deprecating humor.  If you make a joke about rednecks, you have to worry about pissing off the rednecks.  But if you make a joke about yourself, you don’t have to worry because you’re inviting everyone to laugh at you.  Since you’re obviously okay with that, everyone else will be too.

Brian Regan might be the best comedian you’ve never seen.  His work is all about what he sucked at:  little league, science projects, weighing a package, spelling bees, going on vacation, etc.  Louis is all about what he sucks at:  being a father, losing weight, meeting women, eating healthy.  These two are people you’d just like to hug because they seem like they deserve it.  Also, of all these comedians, Louis looks very much like me, but much taller.

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5. The Improvisers

Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried

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Improvisation – the ability to “riff,” to make shit up in the heat of the moment.  Of all the comedy I have within me, this is my personal best, but you haven’t met me in person, so you have no choice but to agree.  I’m not assigning credit to this, but I took an Improv class in college, and it was fabulous fun.  The most important thing to learn in a class like that is confidence, but confidence is not enough.  Some improv comedians will try 100 jokes, and maybe only 50 will work, but those 50 will be the greatest jokes you might ever hear.  The other 50 will suck, but you’ll forget about them.  This is the benefit of touring small clubs.  You can “improv,” and then you can pick and choose what works, twist it a little the next night, and try again but all the while making each night seem like it was fresh and new for each audience.

Williams, now known far more for film than his stand up, was one of those actors for whom the script would just say “Robin does something funny here” because the directors had that much faith in him.  It didn’t always work, but that’s the double edge of improve.  Gottfried, well, you just have to experience him live.  I nearly choked on my own saliva one night when he starting riffing about having a pastrami sandwich with the Pope.  The most impossible routines to repeat – ever.  You just have to be there.

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And finally, for special meritorious notoriety for achievements in this, that, and the other thing – two special awards…

The Obscure

Mike Birbiglia

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You might remember Steve Landesberg, but probably not.  He wasn’t brilliant, but he was okay.  However, he was on Johnny Carson quite often because everyone has that one, obscure comic that nobody else seems to pay much attention to except you.  For Carson, that was Steve Landesberg.  For me, that’s Mike Birbiglia.  His small-club routines are only about a half hour, but it’s the best half hour I can find.  You won’t find a more genuine, likable guy who also makes you laugh with stories about choking on pretzels, accidentally insulting a blind man, accidentally convincing someone he’s a rapist, having George Bush at a picnic, and finding porn on his parents’ computer.  I just don’t know why he didn’t catch on.

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THE Best

George Carlin

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Some people can’t be put in one category because a little of them can be put in every category.  They have been characters, told stories, worked “clean” and “blue,” exposed a self-deprecating side, and ripped the hell out of social observation.  While everyone else might be a 10 in their one, single category, one person is a 9.9 in every category.  That’s George Carlin because he was too complex to categorize and would have pissed on you for doing so.  

He was the one guy who could look you in the eye, tell you how people like you are screwed up and going to Hell, and tell it in a way that you’d probably agree with him.  Nobody else has ripped down the fabric of life and showed you the crap and dust and rusted nails behind the facades we like to build for ourselves – and nobody ever will – like George.  He started out with pure admiration for Lenny Bruce, then he far surpassed him when you account for an entire career.

Unfortunately, I only saw him in person twice, but I would have traded both of those to have seen him alive and able to accept his Mark Twain Prize for Humor awarded posthumously in 2008, announced only days before his death.  Would have been one hell of a show to see him accept that in person.  As brilliant as his rants have been, I bet anything he would have been humble and appreciative to be recognized in such a way.  And if you’re a fan, you need to read his last book, Last Words.

So, that’s the first and last of the Snortie Awards.  Don’t come back next year because there will probably be an empty theater, except for a few custodians sweeping up after another shitty performance of The Nutcracker.  Drive safely.  Also, for you single guys, the best hookers are a little north of South Street.  You might want to take off that bow tie first.  It didn’t work on the waitress you tried to pick up, and when the hookers see it, they’ll charge you more.  G’night.
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ps. for those of you into blogging, and into good blogging, this is a damn good post.  something like this takes about three, maybe four hours.  you wanna be good?  be willing to put some effort into it.  lazy bastards.

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30 thoughts on “The Snortie Awards

  1. My god. I don’t see people who like stand up as much as I do very often, and I love everybody you mentioned. I agree about Mike Birbiglia, he’s always seemed to be on the verge of breaking through. I really want to see Sleepwalk With Me, and now that I think about it I’m not sure what’s stopped me. I really appreciate you doing this; just awesome.

    • i saw sleepwalk with me, and i reviewed it here on my blog. although i didn’t like it as much as i hoped, it is definitely something that every birbiglia fan should see. it could be that because i like him so much, i expected too much from the movie – so that might be unfair on my part. but you should see it and i’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  2. I like this list. I grew up on Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. Mine would include Mitch Hedberg (RIP), Maria Bamford, Kathleen Madigan, Jackie Kashian and Jim Gaffigan. I saw Mike Birbiglia last year do a full show (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) and it was pitch perfect. The only one I can’t listen to is Gilbert Gottfried – it’s that voice. I feel the urge to listen to “A Place for My Stuff” now. Carlin was indeed, one of the best.

    • thanks very much for your suggestions. in my original list, i had mitch hedberg as “character,” but then i thought about andy kaufman’s full range of characters, and i had to go with that instead. i loved his off-beat delivery. he had those jokes that were never funny if you repeated them, only funny when he told them. i loved his bit on pepperidge farm bread and the double wrapper. “i don’t want another step keeping me from toast.” i have two of his album’s in my ipod.

      have you seen birbiglia’s movie “sleepwalk with me”?

  3. Birbiglia is one of my favorite humans in existence right now. I adored Sleepwalk with Me (I even own a signed copy on Blu-ray) and I am continually impressed by what he delivers. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is one of the best things I saw last year and as much as it was a stand-up routine, it was insanely personal and very intimate. He’s definitely gaining on the greats as one of the best storytellers. Glad to see you mention him.

  4. So I was reading along nodding with each category saying wait where’s George. He has to have George on here. Of course a wee bit of patience would have done this girl good. He’s hands down my Fav.

    BTW I want a Snortie. No I’m not funny at all. I mean I crack myself up all the time though most people quickly move away from the crazy woman. But serious with a name like Snortie I have to have one. Gimme Gimme.

  5. Hm…this is a blog post about the best AMERICAN comedians of all times, not the BEST of the WORLD, and you spend several hours on that? Since you’ve called your fellow bloggers lazy bastards, I’ve got to ask if you were too lazy looking up anything beyond US borders or have you just never been told that there’s a whole world out there?

    • you’re almost right. i said it’s the best of all the comedians i have personally seen. i can’t judge those i have not seen, and – unfortunately – who i’ve seen has been limited to americans.

      as for “lazy,” i meant that as more of a joke that followed the previous “lazy bastards” call when i said i wasn’t going to add youtube links. it was a jest, but i guess not an obvious one. very sorry.

  6. I enjoyed your list, Rich. You picked some great comedians and the categories were spot on. I remember listening to a Bill Cosby album as a kid and laughing so hard my sides hurt. My favorite improvisor of all-time was Jonathan Winters. He was on the Dean Martin show in the 60s and they would turn him loose in a room of random items and he would pick up something (ball glove, can of paint, etc.), immediately go into character, and tell a great story. Robin Williams idolized the guy and became a great improvisor too.

    Someday I hope to make someone’s list of the top 843 humor writers. Since there’s only 845 total, I think I’ve got a pretty good shot. Any votes you could throw my way would be greatly appreciated.

    • just point me in the direction of where to vote and you’ll have mine. thanks very much, and i’m glad you mentioned the jonathan winters/robin williams connection because i had forgotten about that and you brought it back for me, as well as the props that dean martin would have for him. i hope today’s comedians make an effort to give thanks to those who inspired them also. happy new year.

  7. This is fabulous! Much thought and insight had to go into this, so I appreciate your efforts!

    I was fortunate to see Carlin once … and that was in the 1970s. Sitting in the first row was also great for the visuals.

    Special cheers for following the suggestion. I must say that Snorties could expand into film and actors. Just a thought to get your creative mind going.

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