25 of the Best Comic’s Comics, According to Patton Oswalt and Other Beloved Comic’s Comics

Oswalt, Rachel Feinstein, Andy Kindler and Jackie Kashian help us identify the comics who comics love the most
25 of the Best Comic’s Comics, According to Patton Oswalt and Other Beloved Comic’s Comics

“I’m not trying to fight to be the world’s greatest comic's comic because there’s no money in it.” - Andy Kindler

There might be as many definitions of “comic's comic” as there are actual comedians. To some, it’s the comic that all of the other stand-ups aspire to be. To others, it’s the gonzo oddball that club owners complain isn’t selling enough drinks. To nail down a definition — or at least to better understand the spectrum of possibilities — I talked to several comics who are regularly identified by that moniker, including Patton Oswalt, Rachel Feinstein, Andy Kindler and Jackie Kashian. And I wasn’t surprised that we didn’t arrive at anything approaching consensus. “It's like comedy itself,” explains Kashian. “It's so subjective.” 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to get a better grasp on that slippery label. For starters, let’s try a definition as simple as “a comedian that comics think is really funny, that we love running inside to watch,” says Feinstein. That’s the classic image of the comedian’s comedian, says Kindler, performing on stage while the other comics gather in the back of the room, laughing their asses off. 

“For me, you’re at the bar. And someone says, ‘Hey, Maria (Bamford) just went up,’” says Kashian. “Or ‘Kindler just went up.’” When stand-ups stop what they’re doing to watch, that’s a comic’s comic. 

Or is it? What if the other comedians stop to watch because they know the person on stage is about to die an inglorious no-laugh death? What if the comic is a rabble-rouser who might incite the crowd to riot? “In both cases,” Kashain says, “there’s a row of comics in the back of the room laughing at that silence or laughing at that fight.”

Kindler agrees that there are many reasons comics might stop in their tracks. “One universal thing is that people do like to watch other people bomb,” he says. “Zach Galifianakis would mostly prefer to see me die on stage.”

But we’re talking about something more profound, the comic who others stop to watch because something amazing is about to go down. “For me, ‘comedian’s comedian’ ultimately means a comedian whose work ended up shaping what other people do,” argues Oswalt. When he was coming up, Oswalt admired comics who weren’t trying to people-please but instead had a more personal goal in mind. “It wasn't necessarily that they were saying ‘fuck the man.’ They didn’t hate the man. They didn’t hate success, but success was not the first thing on their mind,” he says. The comic’s comics “were only truly trying to prove things to themselves.” 

For our comedian panel, at least, being labeled a “comic’s comic” is a double-edged sword. Feinstein has heard comedians complain that while they want to be respected by their peers, they also don’t want a reputation as that person that the industry never got. “I’ve gotten those compliments before, ‘You’re so underrated,’” she says. “Where are you supposed to place that?”

Oswalt knows just what she means. “I’ve seen ‘comic's comic’ in the context of, ‘This person is not for everybody. This person is probably never going to make it.’”

When Kashian is called a comic’s comic? “That makes me think, well, who doesn’t like me?” she confesses. “Conversely, to say someone isn’t a comic’s comic feels like an insult.”

That’s why, ultimately, the comics I spoke to consider the label high praise indeed. “It’s the highest compliment,” says Kindler, “because it means that I’m doing things that make comics laugh.” And having the approval and admiration of your peers is crucial in a changing industry, says Feinstein. With social media removing many of comedy’s traditional gatekeepers, “it is really important that your peers respect you because ultimately you get work through your friends.”  

So who do these comic’s comics consider to be the quintessential comic’s comics? Our panel nominated several comedians from the past 40 years, including these 25 performers who give “comic’s comic” a good name… 

Bill Hicks

Hicks was the first name that came to mind for Kashian. “Hicks was doing something that wasn’t being done,” regularly creating completely original bits that were then adopted by other comics, she says. “It’s the middle 1980s. And for me, Bill Hicks introduced and normalized pornography,” Kashian says. “If he wasn’t the first guy to do it, he was the first guy to do it on the circuit where he would say, ‘I watch porn.’ The audience would go silent and then he would say his famous line: ‘Oh, I’m the only one?’” That throwaway line quickly became a comedian’s go-to for almost any situation. “Bill Hicks was a comic’s comic,” says Kindler, “but he was also a revolution.”

Maria Bamford

“When we would do the ‘Comedians of Comedy’ tour, the other comedians would run in during their pot break to watch her, just to see what she would do next,” says Oswalt. “I remember standing backstage with Sarah Silverman. We were watching (Maria) and Sarah’s like, ‘I gotta write more. Look at this stuff she’s doing.’”

“I mention Maria a lot, and some people are like, ‘I’ve never heard of her,’” says Kashian. “I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s not her fault. She’s grinding it out.’” 

Rest assured, other comics know exactly who she is.

Kevin Meaney

“If a joke didn’t work, he’d start singing, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, if my jokes don’t work, I don’t care,’” says Kindler, who believes deconstructing the act of stand-up itself is one of the hallmarks of comic’s comics. 

Jessica Kirson


She does this thing whenever an audience misunderstands or doesnt get a joke, she will fully turn around and talk to the wall,” says Feinstein. “She will just say that internal monologue that all of us comics feel — ‘the guy in the front row is not your father’ — because everybody feels like a fraud at some level. And comedians would run downstairs to watch Jessica do this.” 

Jeremy S. Kramer


“For me, a massive comedians comedian is a guy out of San Francisco named Jeremy Kramer, who came up in the late 1970s, early 1980s at Holy City Zoo,” says Oswalt. Kramer was “a huge influence on people like Robin Williams, who literally calls him the Rosetta Stone of modern comedy. He was just effortlessly nonlinear, abstract and odd, alt-comedy before there was mainstream comedy.”

Mary Mack


“She’s a different kind of comic’s comic. She’s not aggressive,” says Kashian. “Her fan base is rabid but small. When you watch Mary Mack, you’re like, ‘What the hell is happening?’” A fervent cult following? That’s a big comic’s comic yes.

Todd Glass


Kindler nominated Glass, one of the first publicly out comics. He’s a “Philadelphia native who is a bit of a hero in the Los Angeles indie comedy scene and a comic’s comic everywhere,” according to Decider. Comedy fans on Reddit agree. “You know a guys good when as great of a comedian as Jimmy Pardo just sits back, shuts up and watches to see whats going to happen next,” wrote u/hogwildest. “Todd Glass is the definition of comics comic.”

Marina Franklin


Franklin is a “really funny comic thats getting more attention right now,” says Feinstein. “She’s a great storyteller and tells interesting, vulnerable and just funny material. I like the weird details of peoples lives and childhoods, I gravitate toward that a lot.” Feinstein and other comics gather to watch her sets thanks to the “funny, specific details of her life.” 

Warren Thomas


After Thomas passed away in 2005, Chris Rock asked Bill Maher, “Who the fuck was funnier than Warren Thomas?” Not many people, according to Oswalt. “He absolutely would not take shit from anyone, and he was just lethally determined to go his own way. He was also unbelievably charming, like movie-star charming.” Oswalt tells the story, repeated by Fred Stoller and others, how Thomas went in to audition for SNL but left after Lorne Michaels kept him waiting for two hours. (Rock waited for six and got the job.) “Rock famously said (Thomas) assholed himself out of a job because they were ready to roll the world at his feet,” says Oswalt. “Just legendary. When he was on stage, other comedians would pack the room to watch him just to see what he would do.” 

Kevin Nealon


Comedians appreciate other comics who constantly deconstruct the form, says Kindler, providing an extra layer of laughs for the other jokers drinking Heinekens in the back of the room. “Kevin Nealon used to have notes on stage, right?” says Kindler. “Then he’d say, ‘What’s that guy doing back there, don’t do that!’” Then while everyone would turn to look at “that guy back there,” Nealon would furtively go through his notecards to see what came next. Did he need them? Hard to say, but the joke worked whether you saw him peeking or not. 

Laurie Kilmartin


“Laurie Kilmartin can write a joke that is tight and smart and dark as all hell,” says Kashian. “And if the audience doesnt like it? She will just tear them apart. And then do another joke. And theyll be psyched the whole time.”  

David Letterman


For Kindler, Letterman represents the classic comedian’s comedian. “In his show in the 1980s, that was the first time I’d ever seen somebody go into a bit, say ‘Okay, well, this isn’t working,’ then make fun of the bit or make fun of the writers,” he says. “Carson did that too, but Letterman made an art out of it.” An example? Here’s Dave, mid-monologue, stopping Late Night to go backstage and edit out a joke that flopped. 

Larry David


David always “had a reputation as a comic’s comic,” says The New Yorker. “Which means I sucked,” added David. Oswalt disagrees, holding up David as an example of how mainstream success doesn’t mean you lose your comic’s comic badge. “He kept his anti-comedy bona fides,” explains Oswalt. “He’s a billionaire so it doesn’t necessarily have to do with, ‘Oh, this person’s a genius, man, because he’s real.’ That’s also a myth. It depends on how you conduct your career once you’ve broken through.”

Dave Attell


Kindler calls Attell “the most shocking comic’s comic because you don’t know where stuff is coming from.” Kindler isn’t a fan of shock comics like Andrew Dice Clay — “it was so horrible, the anti-gay stuff.” But Attell is another story. “Attell might say something insulting,” says Kindler, “but he’s funny all the time.” 

Aparna Nancherla


The painfully introverted Nancherla used to open her act with the line, “It’s okay, guys — I’m surprised I’m a comedian, too!” She’s “old school,” says Kashian, with a reputation for understated, offbeat humor. Her way of crafting exquisite one-liners earns her the comic’s comic label, as well as multiple websites naming her “The Funniest Woman on Twitter.”

Sam Kinison


Kinison, another comic nominated by Kashian, falls into the category of comedians who changed the game for the funny people who came after him, including Hicks. His background as a Pentecostal minister brought a “fire and brimstone” energy to his act, setting him apart from the happy-go-lucky, set-up/punchline comics before him. He was the first guy I ever saw to go on stage and not in any way ask the audience to like him,” said Hicks.

John Mulaney


“Mr. Mulaney has earned a reputation as a comic’s comic, a choirboy type who makes the sort of embittered observations you’d expect from a much older, more cynical man,” The New York Times wrote back in 2018. Kindler is on board “just because he’s so amazing at the complexity of his jokes. He’s just so brilliant at it. I can’t think of anyone more articulate in the comedy mode.” If writing material is your thing, Mulaney’s stand-up is a masterclass in inventively literate storytelling. 

Bob Rubin


“Another San Francisco guy is Bob Rubin,” says Oswalt. “In my second-to-last special, I asked Netflix to add (Rubin’s) self-shot special as a bonus. What’s amazing is a lot of people reacted to it like, ‘What is this shit? I don’t get this.’ Even nowadays, they don’t get it. But his influence on the comedians that were coming up just in terms of how you would write and comport yourself on stage was so massive.”

Yamaneika Saunders


Saunders, a comic’s comic nominated by Feinstein, is “the quintessential comedienne for our time,” according to Stand Up World, “sharp, quick-witted, versatile.”  Saunders is on the forefront of using social media as a comedy vehicle, telling Vulture she’s proud of her Instagram Live events “because I get to share myself and connect with people instantly. There is nothing like instant connection.” 

Andy Kaufman


If we’re being technical, says Kindler, Kaufman “really was more of a performance artists’ comic.” But there was no one more committed to deconstructing the pillars of traditional stand-up, and Kaufman earns a spot on this list for redefining what one could do on a stage for laughs. “In comedy clubs where he started, you had a series of comedians, one after another,” Bob Zmuda explained in his book, The Truth, Finally. “When Andy got up and did what he did, it was so different. You found yourself laughing because it was so out of place.”

Sam Morril


Morril is a craftsman, says Feinstein. “He works a joke until it works.” In fact, one other qualification that we could add to the definition of “comic’s comic” is a relentless work ethic. Morril “just works his ass off,” she says. “It’s fun to see him getting that kind of success because he’s just on the road every single week.”

Dana Gould


Gould is “a guy (to whom) a lot of comedians owe their persona and rhythm on stage,” says Oswalt, “and I’m one of them.” As a founding father of the alt-comedy movement, Gould is among the names that come up most often when you Google “comic’s comic.” “I’ve seen some nights of his in clubs where he just fucking went off, and it was some of the most amazing shit I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Oswalt. “I couldn’t believe what he was getting away with.” 

Keith Robinson


“As much as I hate to support him,” Feinstein says Robinson belongs on this list. You can count on Robinson to roast other comics when he’s on stage. “Whenever I walk into the Cellar, he’ll be like, ‘Why is Rachel dressed like Robin Hood: Men in Tights?’ He always takes my outfit and reduces it to the more infuriating thing. I cannot take a risk with an outfit without Keith Robinson reducing me to the stupidest example of what I look like.”    

Norm Macdonald


Both Kashian and Oswalt nominated Macdonald for this list. “There are plenty of comedians comedians who had massive success,” says Oswalt. “Norm Macdonald is the first one that comes to mind who was still doing things that made other comedians say, ‘Oh my god.’”

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