A Look Back at ‘Entertainment Weekly’s 50 Funniest People Alive 1997 — Who Stood the Test of Time?
In 1997, Entertainment Weekly took on the daunting task of cataloging the 50 Funniest People Alive. Who came out on top? EW crowned Robin Williams, “the Tasmanian Devil of comedy, a Shakespearean fool on speed, the id at play. At the mike or in front of the camera, he spins out jokes like flying beads of sweat, pouring out impressions, one-liners, and nonsequiturs as his hands trace frantic parentheses in the air. A manic mass-culture Mixmaster, Robin Williams embodies our information-overload, short-attention-span times better than anyone else in the business.”
What does the rest of EW’s list look like 25 years later? Unfortunately, a number of its occupants are no longer with us. While some are (nearly) as popular as ever, most have faded from their former prominence and more than a handful have descended into disgrace. Here’s where the members of 1997’s Funny 50 stand today.
The Still Relevant
Virtually no one on the list is as big a star today as they were in 1997, with the possible exception of America’s Dad Tom Hanks (30). But a number of the comedians are still working near the top of their game. Jerry Seinfeld (2) tours nonstop, and the very mention of a Seinfeld reunion still makes headlines. Eddie Murphy (6) is cranking out movies on Amazon, while The Simpsons (10) just kicked off its 35th season. Steve Martin (26) keeps getting Emmy nominations for his Only Murders in the Building. Ben Stiller (44) isn’t that funny anymore, but he’s winning awards for directing dramas.
As for Bill Murray (23) and Bill Maher (33)? Both still might be considered stars, but Murray’s on-set misbehavior and Maher’s outlandish opinions nearly landed these funny guys on the Disgraced list below.
Unfortunately, more than 20 percent of EW’s list is made up of funny people who’ve gone on to the great comedy club in the sky. In addition to Williams, we’ve said goodbye to Garry Shandling (7), Richard Pryor (9), George Carlin (13), Grumpy Old Men duo Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (15), Mary Tyler Moore (22), Rodney Dangerfield (36), Alan King (41), Jackie Mason (43) and Joan Rivers (49).
The largest group consists of funny people whose IMDbs are getting a little snoozy.
Jim Carrey (4) and Kevin Kline (34) show up here and there but have mostly been on self-imposed hiatus. The great Albert Brooks (5) has a single Curb Your Enthusiasm appearance on his non-animated credits since 2015. Legends Bob Newhart (11), Carol Burnett (16) and Mel Brooks (20) are all in their 90s, God bless ‘em.
While no longer at their career heights, a number of comics on the list are still getting onstage and cracking wise, including Penn and Teller (38), Janeane Garofalo (39), Tim Allen (42), Steven Wright (40) and Paul Reiser (47). Others are taking the podcast route, such as Dana Carvey (46), Dennis Miller (32), and Rosie O’Donnell (8).
Some are doing what they always did — just less of it. David Letterman (18) shows up on Netflix here and there to interview a famous pal. Howard Stern (28) is the Quasi-King of Some Media, literally phoning in his SiriusXM radio show. Beavis and Butthead (50) are back — it’s just hard to remember which streaming service they’re on.
Finally, there’s the list of funny people who work but simply seem to have slowed down: Rowan Atkinson (19), Billy Crystal (21), Tracey Ullman (25), Bette Midler (31), Lily Tomlin (25), Goldie Hawn (37) and Nathan Lane (48).
Finally, we come to five funny people who have experienced calamitous falls from grace in the years since 1997. The crimes of Ellen DeGeneres (29) pale in comparison to the other comics on our Disgraced list, but being in charge of a toxic work environment isn’t an accomplishment anyone wants on their LinkedIn. Roseanne Barr (3) lost her show after racist tweets put an exclamation point on years of erratic behavior. It’s not fair to blame Monty Python (12) for the sins of John Cleese, but the group’s most public member is also its most problematic, with anti-trans tweets and pathetic cries about cancel culture. Woody Allen (17) married Soon-Yi in 1997, with unproven allegations of child abuse going back to 1992 so … uncomfortable that EW placed him on this list at all. As for Bill Cosby (14)? More than 60 women have accused him of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual harassment. There’s nothing funny left to say about these five.