The Top Five Comedians of the Summer

UCB

After we (John S and Josh) settled our squabbles on anchoring, we went to the highly recommended Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York nearly every week this summer (sometimes twice) to see some of the best (and worst) up-and-coming and established comedians. The vast majority of these comics were seen at Leo Allen’s Whiplash, but some were also seen at Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler’s variety show, Hot Tub. All in all, we saw over forty comedians perform. In traditional NPI fashion, we decided to rank them. Below are the five best comedians we saw this summer, all of whom we strongly recommend:

5. Hannibal Buress

Hannibal Buress has a well-crafted, slow and deliberate stage presence that highlights his strong material. Certainly slap-stick and stage antics have a certain appeal, but Buress’ strength is the language of his comedy and the laid back persona he creates. In his joke about the fire SUV, for example, his casual disregard for the hypothetical conflagration emphasizes the incongruity of his empathetic, “It’s sad and unfortunate.” That addendum showcases both his comical nonchalance and his unexpected use of serious and complex language (his deliberate emphasis of each syllable of un-for-tun-ate also enhances the humor). In general, Buress knows how to pick the right words for the joke, making his material much more clever and subtle than most comedians. He also has a diverse and flexible act: We saw him perform three times over the summer and, while some repeats were inevitable, his act was never tired, and always seemed to involve some level of improvisation or off-the-cuff flourishes.

4. Pete Holmes

Pete Holmes has fantastic material. Certain comedians are able to compensate for their decent material with excellent delivery; Holmes, meanwhile, uses his emotive delivery to complement his unique (and hilarious) insights on common decisions we face and people and situations we encounter. He critiques a guy for saying he’s “old school” because he wouldn’t let a stranger punch his mother in the face. He hilariously talks us through the thought process he has at eight in the morning, when he has to make the decision to either continue sleeping or pursue sex with his girlfriend about to leave for work (he chooses sex). The dilemma itself isn’t that humorous, but the way he precisely describes the contrasting appeals of sleep and sex make the joke work. In the above clip, he talks about his consoling poke of a Facebook friend after reading his suicidal status update. It’s funny how Holmes frames this joke. He claims (sarcastically, of course) that he doesn’t know what to do in response to the status; so, obviously the best solution was to poke him. We don’t mean to shortchange Holmes’s delivery though; his emotive nature (unlike Hannibal and, as you’ll see, Morgan Murphy, he is not at all hesitant to speak quite loudly for emphasis) enhances his already clever material. His increase in volume and poking motion at the end of the Facebook joke undoubtedly makes it more humorous.  But, unlike Murphy, Buress, and our top comedian, the delivery does not make his act.

3. Morgan Murphy

Morgan Murphy is the only female comedian in the top five, and she really earned her spot here. Her stage presence is cool, relaxed, and composed. She tells her jokes quietly and without much vocal inflection. Rarely does she crack a smile. Like Buress, she is a fairly slow-paced, low-energy comedian, but, as with Buress, this is not meant to be disparaging. But, we did rank her higher than Buress for a reason. That is because of how well Murphy’s delivery meshes with her material. Her demeanor perfectly suits Murphy’s type of comedy, which is largely deadpan and sarcastic, whereas Buress at times appears to be slow-paced for the sake of being slow-paced. And, if you’re not into that, it may be off-putting. Murphy’s demeanor works well as she seriously considers seemingly absurd propositions, like how Paris Hilton would clean a room in the first joke in the above clip. The substance of her jokes is quite diverse though. She has some raunchy material (like a bit on “sexting”), some self-effacing material, and some more mundane material (her joke on babies having babies in this routine is a favorite). She’s currently a writer for Jimmy Fallon, but PLEASE don’t judge her based on that.

2. Jim Gaffigan

At this point most people know Jim Gaffigan, so seeing him stop by Whiplash was a treat. He’s been on Comedy Central for years, has multiple CDs, and regularly appears on talk shows (he was the only person from UCB John S was following on Twitter before he saw him live). If you haven’t seen Gaffigan on TV before (where have you been?), then you’re missing out: He’s probably one of the five best comedians working today. He’s known for his material on bacon, Hot Pockets, and ketchup, but he has an ability to riff on pretty much every mundane absurdity for longer than you could imagine. The only reasons he’s not #1 on this list are because he was a known quantity before he stopped by UCB, and he didn’t exceed his own high standards; he didn’t even include his famous “audience perspective” voice.

1. John Mulaney

We saw John Mulaney twice this summer, and each time he was excellent. First of all, he is an incredible performer of comedy: He is a great story-teller, and he commands the stage throughout his act. Beyond that, his behavior on stage is particularly suited to comedy; he looks and sounds funny. Part of this is due to his appearance and voice, but most of it is due to his refined delivery. Aside from simply having this fleshed out persona on stage, Mulaney’s material is great. He knows how to find great stories, like the one about being alone at a subway station with a woman, but he also knows how to balance the absurd—such as his proclamation that “adults rape each other”—with the nuanced—such as his familiarity with “that shuffle that women do when you chase ‘em.” This ability to manage extended stories and bits, combined with the same subtlety and command of language that make Murphy and Buress so impressive is what places Mulaney at the top of this summer’s comedy mountain. Also, watch this video. It’s funny.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on September 16, 2009 at 6:21 PM

    Ok, Buress should at least be at number 2 behind gaffiagn, if not ahead of him. I was a little dissapointed with 3, and 4 is just a poor man’s brian regan

    Reply

  2. […] of our favorite things here at NPI are comedy and Larry David. Naturally, then, we love Curb Your Enthusiasm. In fact, we love it so much that […]

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  3. Posted by John S on September 22, 2009 at 1:29 PM

    Man, if this post were done today, the title would be: Aziz Ansari Annihilates the Competition!

    Reply

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  6. […] and John presciently posted their top 5 comedians of the summer:  Two of the top five, Morgan Murphy and Hannibal Buress, were chosen as the best female and male […]

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