Can there be a Comedy MVP in a world of American Comedy Awards? Rewriting humor history

The recent Bill Simmons mailbag came to my attention last night, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for a couple of reasons. Simmons fielded a reader question about who he'd pick as the "funniest man alive" and says that he "spent way too much time thinking about this," and yet, that could not possibly be right, because what follows — his so-called Comedy MVP list — doesn't fit our actual timeline or even his own rules for the theoretical trophy. Plus, Simmons fails to remember that for several years (and coming back this year, reportedly), show business actually did single out comedians with the American Comedy Awards. They didn't hand out a Comedy MVP trophy back then. But what if they did?

Can we help Simmons rewrite history in a more accurate way?

1975: He picks Richard Pryor. Not a bad choice. You also could say the entire rookie cast of Saturday Night Live. I'd also accept Norman Lear, who at the end of the 1974-1975 TV season, was responsible for five of the top 10 shows in the country, including the top two — All in the Family and Sanford and Son, plus The Jeffersons, Good Times and Maude. And all five sitcoms dealt with topics in a humorous way that TV network executives would be scared to do 35 years later!

1976: This truly was Richard Pryor's year. Simmons picked Chevy Chase, who was the breakout star on the breakout show (SNL), but naming him your MVP while saying he made a boneheaded decision really makes your selection moot, doesn't it? Pryor, meanwhile, recorded and released "Bicentennial Nigger," which earned him his third consecutive Grammy Award for best comedy album. He also starred in his first of several collaborations with Gene Wilder in the hit film Silver Streak.

1977: Quick. How many comedy films can you name that won the Academy Award for Best Picture? You'd think Woody Allen should be the MVP for Annie Hall. Simmons picked John Belushi, because, well, he was the star of SNL?

1978: John Belushi. No arguments here. Not only a bonafide star on SNL, but also the scene-stealer in the number-one movie, Animal House, and co-star (with Dan Aykroyd) on the number-one album with "The Blues Brothers."

1979: Robin Williams? Sure he was a hit with Mork & Mindy, but enough of one to tie with Steve Martin? Martin really was huge, not only with the hit movie he wrote in The Jerk, but also in winning the Grammy in 1979 for "A Wild and Crazy Guy," and even more so playing to large theaters and arenas.

1980: Rodney Dangerfield. Simmons makes the case that Dangerfield was the star of Caddyshack, and notes that he made the cover of Rolling Stone (true) and won a Grammy (that came a year later). You also, though, could make the case for Bill Murray, who also stole his scenes in Caddyshack and played Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam.

For 1981-2010…

1981: Bill Murray for Stripes. Sure, for starring in the fifth-biggest movie of the year, as well as for showing us what we were missing when SNL overhauled the cast.

1982: Eddie Murphy. No doubt. For breathing new life into SNL and starring in 48 Hours, all at the age of 21.

1983: Eddie Murphy. OK. Yes. For continuing to be a huge star on SNL, as well as starring with Aykroyd in Trading Places, and his first special, Delirious. You're big in stand-up, TV and movies.

1984: Eddie Murphy? Yes for starring in Beverly Hills Cop, although as the top movie, it really only barely edged out Ghostbusters, so why not say Murray or Aykroyd, eh? My choice for 1984 has to be Bill Cosby. The Cos. In 1984, he followed up his classic stand-up special that every current stand-up watches and tries to learn from, Bill Cosby: Himself, and oh, did a little something called The Cosby Show. Remember when everyone was applauding Cos for not only Saving The Sitcom, but also presenting a black family as happy and successful? Cosby was your 1984 MVP.

1985: As much as Simmons would like to think that David Letterman was a mainstream star in the mid-1980s, writing it on the Internet isn't going to change what really happened in 1985. Everyone was talking about Michael J. Fox that year. Whether as the Republican preppy Alex P. Keaton on the #2 show on TV in Family Ties, or as the star of the biggest movie of the year in Back to the Future, as well as Teen Wolf. Honorable mention to Chevy Chase, for starring in both Fletch and Spies Like Us.

1986: Again, not so much Letterman's year as it was the year we all remember the all-star benefit of Comic Relief. And you cannot talk about Comic Relief without remembering that three stars were bigger than all of the stars, your hosts Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. Honorable mention to Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), for not only following up his first film by starting up a Saturday morning kids show that adults enjoyed, but also giving a big break to Phil Hartman in doing so. Also honorable mention for Sam Kinison, who played a version of himself in Dangerfield's Back to School and had everyone screaming.

1987: In saying this was the year of Jay Leno and Howard Stern, it's almost as if Simmons has given up and said, let me just tell you what I was doing each year of my youth. He gives 1988 to Eddie Murphy, when 1987 was the year Murphy did Raw in the leather suit and we all watched it. And also: Beverly Hills Cop II.

1988: So who was your MVP in 1988, if not Murphy? If you want to know why the 1990s were the decade that every stand-up with an act about themselves got a TV show, then you have to look back to 1988, when Roseanne debuted on ABC and immediately was the #2 show in America behind Cosby. Roseanne Barr, people. I didn't watch the show, and even I remember how important she was.

1989: Dana Carvey was a star of SNL, but so, too, was Dennis Miller on the Weekend Update desk. Say what you want about both of them now, but in 1989, we were watching SNL because of these guys (Hartman, too).

1990: Who was everyone talking about in comedy in 1990 but the man who sold-out Madison Square Garden, released multiple CDs, starred in a silly movie based on his character and got an SNL cast member to boycott his hosting gig? Why, none other than Andrew "Dice" Clay. Simmons again confuses his years, giving Crystal credit for City Slickers a year before it came out. Honorable mention for 1990 goes to The Simpsons, which gave FOX its first hit, had everyone wearing Bart Simpsons T-shirts, and prompted FOX to schedule its hit up against Cosby in the fall of '90. Cowabunga!

1991: This was the year for Billy Crystal, what with City Slickers and his stretch of memorable hosting duties at the Oscars. Simmons is cute for picking Jerry Seinfeld in both 1991 and 1992, when his sitcom wasn't a national hit until its fourth season. Honorable mention to the cast of In Living Color, for making so many stars: Aside from Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans, we also grew to know and love David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson and Jim Carrey.

1992: Mike Myers was a hit on TV and movies with SNL and his SNL movie, Wayne's World. If Bill Hicks goes anywhere, it's here.

1993: This was the year everyone was watching Jerry Seinfeld and his TV friends, after the buzz of the November 1992 episode, "The Contest," did what nobody thought you could do on network primetime.

1994: Jim Carrey made headlines everywhere by becoming a $20-million movie man with three hits that year on the big screen: The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. No contest.

1995: Now this was a tough year for picking an MVP. You could go with Seinfeld again. Or you could pick someone like Martin Lawrence, who had his own sitcom and was following up on the success of his special You So Crazy with a star turn on the big screen in Bad Boys. Chris Farley is a sentimental choice. Heck, you also could argue this was the year Dennis Miller came into his own with his HBO series.

1996Chris Rock. Bring the Pain. He brought it.

1997: The year Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian and TV execs and viewers rewarded her for it with cancellation. They sure feel OK about Ellen in 2010, though. This also was the year Will Smith put his stamp on the Fourth of July weekend at the movies, following up his comedic turn in sci-fi with another in Men in Black (also hip-hopping the theme song for all to hear). Oh, also, welcome to South Park.

1998: Adam Sandler was a box-office hit in both The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy, and enjoying gold and platinum status as a musical comedian.

1999: Mike Myers was at the height of Austin Powers, while Chris Rock was winning an Emmy for his HBO series and released Bigger and Blacker.

2000: Will Ferrell was SNL: George Bush, Janet Reno, "more cowbell." Honorable mention to The Original Kings of Comedy (Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and DL Hughley) for making stand-up big-time, and introducing a blueprint for others (see: Blue Collar Comedy Tour) to follow to success.

2001: Gilbert Gottfried, for following up his 9/11 joke at the Hugh Hefner Roast with his version of "The Aristocrats," thereby giving us the documentary "The Aristocrats." Honorable mention to Bill Maher for speaking his mind on his Politically Incorrect and getting the White House's attention.

2002: Jerry Seinfeld, for his documentary Comedian, which gave us all an inside glimpse of stand-up comedy, and also challenged everyone else to write a new hour from scratch.

2003-2004: Dave Chappelle, for The Chappelle Show; and Jon Stewart, for elevating The Daily Show to national consciousness and must-see levels.< /p>

2004: Ben Stiller, for collected work in Dodgeball, Starsky and Hutch, Meet the Fockers and Along Came Polly.

2005: Steve Carell, for his work on The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

2005-2006: For harnessing the power of the Internet, Dane Cook became a stand-up star, while "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in A Box" made SNL relevant in a whole new way.

2006: For commitment to character, no matter the stakes: Stephen Colbert, who as "Stephen Colbert" delivered the White House Press Association speech that nobody thought you could deliver to a sitting president sitting feet away from you; and for Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen.

2007: Still Stephen Colbert, but also Judd Apatow, for producing Knocked Up and Superbad, and making everyone in Hollywood think he also was behind every other successful comedy. Honorable mention for Funny or Die, which Will Ferrell and Adam McKay jump-started with "The Landlord," and soon enough wrangled Apatow into the fold, too.

2008: Tina Fey, for 30 Rock and making America take another look at Sarah Palin on SNL.

2009: Zach Galifianakis, for finally getting all of America to celebrate his brilliance in The Hangover, which has resulted in further big-scale projects for him. But
also Louis CK, for turning over his stand-up material and getting everyone in the industry to recognize him for it. Or is CK more a case of 2010…

Feel free to let me know if I missed any stand-out MVP performances or think you know better!

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

12 thoughts on “Can there be a Comedy MVP in a world of American Comedy Awards? Rewriting humor history

  1. carlin. a victim of the “not dying early” theory.
    i predict the Louis CK reign will lead until the end of 2011. then sinbad makes a comeback.

  2. If you’re talking about MVP, Carlin was one of those guys who was consistently among the best, but what year would you say he stood out clearly above the rest?
    I would definitely make George Carlin the Comedy MVP of 1972-1973, when he recorded and released “Class Clown,” which included his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and revised it as “Filthy Words” on the next album, “Occupation: Foole,” which resulted in the complaint that became his legendary Supreme Court case.

  3. I think a very good case could be made for Aziz Ansari being the comedy MVP this year.
    A critically acclaimed TV show, hosting gig at MTV Movie Awards, huge comedy album/DVD release, Just For Laughs Award, Dangerously Delicious Tour, has three movies in production for Apatow and he’s the star of the Ben Stiller-produced 30 Minutes or Less.
    I don’t think any other comedian has had any paralleled success this year in all three mediums – stage, film, TV.
    Or you know, there’s Conan O’Brien. Don’t think Louis CK has an inch on O’Brien or Ansari regarding success or influence.
    I’d maybe give a special mention to Garry Shandling for 1993 when The Larry Sanders Show became the first cable comedy to be nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys and he was offered Letterman’s show by NBC.

  4. Wow. Completely slipped my mind. I’d have to agree with Amy, Ansari takes 2010 by a fucking landslide.

  5. Mitch Hedberg intentionally and knowingly blew the light by FIFTEEN MINUTES at his Comedy Central Presents (filmed in 1998), just as the crowd was FINALLY starting to “get” him – as it turned out, the risk paid off in spades – Comedy Central ended up copying & pasting his “Tight” 45 into 22 killer TV minutes, which first aired in January 1999.
    Looking back – if, hypothetically, Hedberg DIDN’T blow that light, and if hypothetically, his special then WOULDN’T have ended up getting MEGA-airplay on Comedy Central, then I would argue that MANY MANY MANY open-minded lovers of brilliant outside-the-box JOKES might never have ever even heard of him – let alone, banded together to form a significant legion of loyal fans to the point that just about every show of his from 2000-2005 was a fucking rock concert.
    And – perhaps, most importantly – how many THOUSANDS of comics (dozens quite successfully) have started doing stand-up in the new millennium JUST FOR THE LOVE OF IT, simply because of the influence of Sir Mitchell Hedberg?!!!
    The man revolutionized stand-up comedy.
    ONE MVP is in order.
    Respectfully Submitted,
    Eric I
    P.S.: I’m not going to name names as to whose awards should be taken away, but with that said, in my opinion, paradigm-shifting post-bust stand-up is seriously lacking on your otherwise excellent list.
    As such, in addition to Hedberg, one could argue that one Mr. Dave Attell deserves an MVP somewhere along the way as well.
    Because the way I see it, without the benefit of the tremendous impact of EITHER Hedberg or Attell in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, stand-up wouldn’t be half as great as it is today.
    And, boy, is it great today!

  6. Good points, readers!
    The tricky thing about naming an MVP, and this goes for comedy as well as for sports, is that there’s no set definition for it. Some want to say it’s the best person on the winning team, some want to say it’s the person with the best statistics, and some want to be literal and say it’s the person who was the “most valuable,” however they define that value.
    Garry Shandling certainly deserves a mention, but you could make a case for him in 1986, too, for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
    I first met Mitch Hedberg in 1997, and yes, he certainly made an impact on stand-up comedy and deserves to be mentioned, but was there a year that you would say everybody knew who he was…1999? Mitch was the third-billed name behind Lewis Black and Dave Attell on that nationwide tour in 2003. Which, of course, is my way of saying that maybe Black and/or Attell could have qualified for a nod; either Attell with the heat from Insomniac, or Black breaking out from The Daily Show rants to get his middle-aged big break.
    We’re midway through 2010, and sportswriters love to try to predict the MVP at this point. I’m not sure we can say who this year’s Comedy MVP would be just yet.

  7. Dave Attell should definitely sneak in there around 2002 or 2003, when Insomniac was big and he was at the peak of his standup powers.
    Patton Oswalt should pick up 2007, with Ratatouille bringing him mainstream success, and his second CD, which included the KFC Famous Bowls bit, bringing him a lot more standup fans. He also wrote for the New York Times magazine that year.
    I would also argue that Jay Leno does deserve to win 1987. Funniest man alive, permanent guest host of the Tonight Show, selling out 5,000-seat theaters around the country.
    You could make a legitimate case for Howard Stern in 1993, when Private Parts the book was a #1 bestseller and they started to syndicate his show and he was #1 in every market he entered. If you did that, you could slide Seinfeld into 1994 when the mania really hit big after the third season.

  8. Or put Letterman in 1993 when the late-night drama captivated the country, then he debuted on CBS and blew the doors off. Stern is merely an honorable mention then in 1993, I’d say. Okay, I’ve thought about this too much, too! One thing I know for sure, Bill Simmons has a very narrow appreciation for and understanding of comedy.

  9. With all due respect to Mike Myers, does he really deserve TWO MVP’s, when there are stand-up comics who are literally LEGENDARY who received ZERO?
    Sure, Myers is extremely talented, and sure he accomplished a lot – but was his influence so otherworldly that he really CHANGED THE GAME?
    My personal answer to that (obviously) is “no,” and my answer to “In which year would you make Hedberg MVP?” is 1999 – his breakout year.
    In my opinion, while your list is excellent overall, it seems far too heavily biased in favor of those comics/actors who, in a given year, made a shit-ton of money by making a huge commercial splash in their respective fields with one or two major excellent projects.
    And while there’s certainly something to be said for making a huge splash, I think there’s something even more impressive that ought to be said about those comics who actually ELEVATED the entire art form, and for those whose work ENDURES the test of time.
    Woody Allen did it.
    Richard Pryor did it.
    George Carlin did it.
    And Mitch Hedberg most definitely did it, as well.
    You did concede that Hedberg “certainly made an impact on stand-up comedy.”
    I would argue that post-bust, Mitch Hedberg made the BIGGEST positive impact on the world of stand-up comedy out of any human being on the planet.
    He raised the comedic bar by such a tremendous degree – he invented and improved upon so many different devices for writing and telling jokes – moreso than any other comic I can think of in the past 20-plus years.
    And by doing so, he challenged other comics to write smarter, more original jokes, too.
    And since we’re making this list NOW, and we have the benefit of hindsight, I think that it’s appropriate to ask the following question.
    In which hypothetical comedy world would most of us prefer to live:
    One in which “Austin Powers” was never made?
    Or one in which Mitch Hedberg and EVERY SINGLE COMIC WHO HAS EVER BEEN HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY HIM (MANY of whom are now superstars in their own right) never existed?
    Doug Stanhope has publicly opined that Mitch Hedberg is the greatest comic ever.
    David Letterman has publicly stated that Mitch Hedberg is his favorite comic whom he has ever had on his shows.
    Dave Attell spent a tour ending every single one of his shows with a toast to Mitch Hedberg.
    A while back, a comic by the name of Louis CK was writing a movie with another comic by the name of Chris Rock – according to CK, they “went to Mitch Hedberg‚Äôs site and watched one of his Letterman sets. At the time, Chris and I were (and are) both wind-bag, stage-stalking, hammer a premise to the ground comics. We watched Mitch, who just fired beautiful fastballs one after the other. Joke joke joke. All solid. All amazing. Non-stop. Five minutes of it. We were in awe of it. Much respect to Mitch Hedberg.”
    Has any other comic garnered so much praise from so many OTHER COMICS who were/are at or near the apex of the world of stand-up comedy?
    Leaving him MVP-less would be like retrospectively giving out MVP awards for every single year for excellence in writing and leaving William Shakespeare entirely off the list.
    Mitch Hedberg elevated our entire art form.
    Give him ONE MVP.
    You can file it under “D.”
    For “Deserved.”

  10. Damn Eric, calm down, we get it, Mitch Hedberg freaking rocks.
    LOL at Sean, i could tell through your subtle shots that u are not a fan of Bill Simmons. I am a Laker fan, so that really cool with me.

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