Believe it or not, this greatest of all-time list wasn’t as complicated to put together as many of the other all-time lists I have compiled over the years. Maybe I should rephrase that to say that the first five on the list wasn’t as hard to put in order as the remaining five However, coming up with a second five – and sticking to it – was much tougher. Here are my ten greatest African-American comedians of all-time.
I think it’s a no-brainer that Richard Pryor is the greatest African-American comedian of all-time. It’s a testament to his greatness that every African-American comedian whose career began after Pryor’s, including every comedian on this list, sans Bill Cosby and Red Foxx, aspired to be the “next Richard Pryor.” Simply put, Pryor set the bar for every African-American comedian to follow in his footsteps and set it so high, that it may never be reached.
Speaking of comedians who aspired to be like Pryor, Murphy has come incredibly close to matching Pryor’s greatness and in time, may be viewed with even more reverence. As it stands, Murphy has firmly established himself as the second greatest black comedian of all-time with plenty of time left in his career to reach even greater heights. One thing I find interesting about Murphy is the fact that, as he’s aged, he has evolved into a milder comedic movie star with more wholesome roles. Remember, when Murphy was an up and coming star, he routinely poked fun at the legendary Bill Cosby who, among others, spoke out about the increasing raunchiness in stand-up comedy.
My fellow Philadelphia native, Cosby has firmly entrenched himself as one of the greatest – and most beloved – comedians of all-time. From films like Uptown Saturday Night to stand-up comedy and several outstanding television series – led by the Cosby Show – Cosby has done it all. His longevity has been nothing short of amazing – and truthfully, I couldn’t disagree with anyone who told me he was the greatest comedian of all-time.
While Pryor and Murphy may have paved the way for an immeasurable number of comedians that would follow in his footsteps, it was Foxx who paved the way for Pryor. Foxx was waaaaay ahead of his time. Unafraid to speak his mind about ay subject – in a time when not many other black comedians would even think about it – Foxx wowed audiences with his down-to-earth realness. His long-running television series, Sanford and Son is still one of the most beloved African-American comedies of all-time.
Love him or loathe him, Lawrence has established himself as one of the greatest comedians of his era – and all time. Like Murphy and Pryor, Lawrence, he has succeeded immensely in every area of comedy. From his hilarious stand-up routines to his long-running television show and finally big screen success, Lawrence has covered all the bases and seems to produce at least one hilarious comedy every year. I don’t know if he can ever surpass the greatness of the four comedians I have ranked above him, but Lawrence is definitely in their class.
Rock has established himself as one of the funniest men in America and still has plenty of comedic years left to move even further up the ladder of success. From his outlandish stand-up routines to his successful movie career, Rock has become one of the most beloved comedians of his era – and one of the greatest of all-time.
I think most people know exactly how talented Chapelle is. He has done it all as well. From stand-up to television and films, Chapelle has established himself as a comedic genius whose star is till rising. Who knows, in another decade, Chapelle could possibly probably leap-frog at least one of the aforementioned comedians. As it stands right now, he has still been good enough to earn the number seven spot on my all-time list.
Flip Wilson is another guy who came along before his time. While he never experienced the big screen success of several of the comedians on this list, he also came along in a time when not many Hollywood movie producers were offering movie roles to African-American comedians. However, Wilson was absolutely hilarious for years on television and was also an outstanding stand-up comedian. There will never be another Flip Wilson or, for that matter, another Geraldine.
Now, I have to admit that Gregory was a little bit before my time. However, it is clear that his comedic, political and other contributions have paved the way for many of the comedians – including Pryor – that followed him. Gregory’s outspokenness on several subjects opened up doors for African-American comedians that had previously closed for decades. I’m not sure if Gregory was funnier than some of the present day comedians that I had to leave off of this list, but his contributions to African-American comedy can never be discounted.
Mabley, who was also before my time, makes this list for the same reason Gregory did. Were it not for her lasting contributions to comedy, who know how many black female comedians the world would have today. Don’t get me wrong, by all accounts, Mabley was also a fine comedian who was decades ahead of her time. Like Gregory, there will never be another “Moms” Mabley.