The 50 funniest comedians of the 21st century

The 50 funniest comedians of the 21st century
The 50 funniest comedians of the 21st century
50 best comedians
50 best comedians

This list is a bit of a joke. This sort of list always is. Rank the 50 best anything – novels, crisps – and people start ­fuming. “Why isn’t Middlemarch #1?” “How dare you snub Wotsits?”

Comedy is, as any fule kno, ­subjective. Stand-up is a broad church, taking in character ­comedy (the Pub Landlord) and musical ­parody (Bill Bailey). But we had to set limits somewhere, so ruled out troupes and groups (sorry, Pappy’s; farewell, Flight of the Conchords).

This is not a list of the funniest sitcom actors, scriptwriters or podcast hosts. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play Fleabag was a hilarious piece of theatre, and a ­terrific 12 episodes of television, but it wasn’t a stand-up comedy gig.

We bent our own rules slightly to acknowledge recorded shows made in lockdown – that awful moment when a laptop became the closest thing to a comedy club. But ­otherwise, this list is based purely on shows four comedy ­junkies have seen (and loved) since the turn of the millennium on stages across the UK, in pubs and clubs, attics and basements, ­community centres and West End theatres. The UK has the world’s best live comedy circuit, and we wanted to celebrate it.

Performer of boundless ambition: Mark Watson
Performer of boundless ambition: Mark Watson - Matt Crockett

50. Mark Watson

Some comedians appear to feel most at home on stage. So it is with Watson: in recent years his shows – shambling but joy-filled confessionals – have felt like an act of catharsis following the 43-year-old Bristolian’s tussles with ­alcoholism and an acrimonious divorce. From hit lockdown sets to 24-hour ­comedy marathons, he is a performer of boundless ambition. SL

49. Shazia Mirza

After Mirza made a name for herself in the wake of 9/11 (sample joke: “My name’s Shazia Mirza – at least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence”), she went on to define the era with a funny, unflinching account of her strict Islamic upbringing in ­Birmingham and, later, with ­scathing material on Islamic State and its female acolytes (“They’re not religious, they’re horny”). She’s bright, brave and deserves more praise. DC

Deadpan: Fern Brady
Deadpan: Fern Brady - Raphaël Neal

48. Fern Brady

Caustic, deadpan and unfazeable, Brady cuts through cant and hypocrisy in an inimitable West Lothian growl. The bisexual, autistic, lapsed Catholic ex-stripper has a bottomless well of life experience on which to draw – a widely acclaimed memoir proved she’s just as funny and unflinching on the page – and I’ve a hunch her best work is still ahead of her. TFS

47. Omid Djalili

Is there a more confident, capable or likeable comedian in the UK than Djalili? You have to wonder. A Briton of Iranian descent who often riffs on matters of race, the 57-year-old has been going for decades, but has never lost his eye for an ­eloquently crafted, slyly wrong-footing gag, nor his ­infectious appetite for good-natured naughtiness. MM

46. Jenny Eclair

Eclair, a pioneering presence on the 1990s stand-up scene, was the first solo female act to win the Perrier award in 1995. But it’s more recently that she has carved out a niche as one of the great moaner-groaners of her generation, speaking out with elan about the downsides of ­menopausal life. The “grumpy old woman” tag belies an audience ­rapport and observational acuity that has her running rings around comics half her age. DC

45. Micky Flanagan

Like Frank Skinner and John Bishop, Flanagan was a relative late-comer to comedy, starting in his 30s. Like Skinner, he has a scampish charm, but isn’t so defined by smut; like Bishop, he’s great on domestic travails, but dares to think aloud more – East End wide-boy meets have-a-go Wittgenstein. Gifted with the gab, his famous 2010 catch-phrase “out out” (defining degrees of going out) has entered the lexicon. DC

44. Kate Berlant

A warped mirror for millennial smugness, 36-year-old Berlant’s narcissistic persona and fast-paced, deadpan delivery have inspired a host of great younger acts ­(including Leo Reich). Her ­half-improvised, stream-of-­consciousness patter is a kind of thrilling comedy glossolalia, while her mind-reading routine is some of the funniest failed ­stage-magic since Tommy Cooper. The ­American’s luvvie-mocking ­Broadway show Kate (directed by Bo Burnham) arrives in London next month. Fight for a ticket. TFS

43. Jordan Brookes

A fantastically weird overthinker who turns his darkest impulses into comic gold. Brookes created a kind of high-tech immersive comedy with his unforgettable Bleed ­(putting the whole audience in headphones to hear his ­despairing “inner monologue”), then ditched the gimmicks for an hour of ­near-magical crowd work that won the 2019 Edinburgh ­Comedy Award. He’s called himself the “existentialist Michael ­McIntyre”, but his rubber-limbed physical comedy, lurching around like a “hipster Gollum”, makes him more of an avant-garde Lee Evans. TFS

42. Ricky Gervais

Not all of Gervais’s live shows have been vintage, but the age of cancel culture has made him a vital comic force. Even before that storming Golden Globes speech in 2020 that crushed the hypocrisies of the sanctimonious Hollywood elite, he was, with hours like Humanity, making articulate, passionate defences of freedom of speech, context and nuance, and calling for an end to the cult of victimhood. He’s a flag-bearer for common sense and sanity. SL

41. Rose Matafeo

Warm and personable, the 31-year-old New Zealander arrived on the UK scene fully formed – earning raves for her 2016 Edinburgh solo debut, Rose Matafeo is Finally Dead, which saw her imagine her own funeral, but broke through with 2018’s Horndog, an endearingly garrulous hour of niche Noughties references and sexual self-revelation. After two series of the likeable, London-set romcom Starstruck, greater ­stardom beckons. DC

40. Mark Thomas

“Investigative comedian” Thomas has a level of productivity that’s inspiring whatever your political persuasion – not just producing new shows, but entire campaigns, usually taking on vested interests. In the 2000s, he protested the building of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, exposed dodgy UK arms traders, and trekked the UK during the credit crunch in search of a ­“people’s manifesto”, while making people laugh. He’s still going, he’s still funny and he still matters. DC

Lawyer-turned-stand-up: Alice Fraser
Lawyer-turned-stand-up: Alice Fraser - Steve Ullathorne

39. Alice Fraser

A philosopher-comic with a poet’s flair for language, Fraser crams a thousand ideas into every show. The Australian lawyer-turned-stand-up can knock out terrific one-liners, but in her stage shows she’s up to something subtler: ­intimate, mesmerising long-form storytelling. Savage, about her mother’s death, beautifully ­balanced laughter with tears, but her new show, Twist, about ­motherhood, is even better. TFS

38. Reginald D Hunter

Since 2006, the smooth-talking Atlantan with the killer punchline has been wooing UK audiences with his intoxicated (and intoxicating), testosterone-induced scrapes. For all the mischief, though, Hunter is one of the most thoughtful comics around: he once semi-joked that he wanted to replace comedy clubs with ­“interesting clubs” – a tantalising idea indeed. SL

Inimitable repartee: Jordan Gray
Inimitable repartee: Jordan Gray - Dylan Woodley

37. Jordan Gray

The Essex-born wag, who realised she was transgender while chopping firewood in Sweden aged 24, had a starmaking Edinburgh hit last year with Is It a Bird?, a ­superlative round of Russell Brand-esque swagger, Tim Minchin-like songs and inimitable repartee that ended with a literal denouement – reprised (to controversy) on Channel 4. It feels like we ain’t seen nothing yet. DC

36. Nick Mohammed

Long before we saw him in Ted Lasso, this loveable Loiner was delivering hilariously silly ­character-based romps in the guise of low-rent variety show diva Mr Swallow. As with all great shows that go wrong, Mohammed’s are underpinned with incredible skill – he’s been a roller-skating Dracula, performed magic tricks with panache, and is not averse to a bit of gymnastics. SL

Self-deprecating: Nish Kumar
Self-deprecating: Nish Kumar - Idil Sukan

35. Nish Kumar

His name alone is enough to turn some people puce with anger, but Kumar is one of the finest political comics we have. He’s famous for his fast, ­furious tirades about the state of the world, but his funniest gags all come at his own expense. His most recent tour show, a self-deprecating set about a disastrous Christmas ­charity gig, was his best yet. TFS

34. Kevin Bridges

Being a famous lad from a deprived area of Glasgow has given Bridges plenty of material about the class divide for his twisty, vividly detailed routines. With his bonafide mainstream appeal and that ­indelible accent, he might just be the new Peter Kay. SL

33. John-Luke Roberts

In 2018, Roberts hinged an entire delightful show on the premise that there are 24 missing Spice Girls – Mels A and D-Z. Since then, the wildly inventive, ­mercurial, ­high-concept absurdist has been increasingly exploring the ­mechanics of comedy, joke-­telling and punchlines, ploughing a unique and fascinating comic ­furrow for himself all the while. MM

32. Katherine Ryan

The waspishly amusing Canadian moved to the UK in 2008, and has thrived ever since, picking up television work and honing an act that ­combines off-hand charm, ­lightning-sharp comic reflexes, and a Joan Rivers-esque relish for the unsayable. She’s always droll, and often bang-on, as in her skewering of “a certain type of man” who “doesn’t feel he has eaten unless something has died”. DC

31. Larry Dean

Glaswegian Dean says you can use any noun in the English language to describe someone as gay – in fact, the skinhead “picnic basket” (his words) has lots of things to say about coming out and bucking stereotypes. It’s seemingly ­effortless, easygoing stuff – and a sheer delight to encounter live. SL

30. Lara Ricote

The irresistibly goofy Mexican comic may live in Amsterdam, but she made her name in the UK, scooping 2021’s Funny Women award in London and Best ­Newcomer in Edinburgh just months later. Her risqué routines about her deafness (there’s one about why she takes out her ­hearing aids during sex) are pure joy. Still only 26, she’s a star in the making. TFS

Master craftsman: Joe Lycett
Master craftsman: Joe Lycett - Ollie Millington

29. Joe Lycett

Don’t let the affable, camp ­demeanour fool you – when it comes to stand-up, Lycett is a ­master craftsman with nerves of steel. Well-calibrated stunts and a dogged determination to hold power to account have seen him evolve into a shrewd consumer champion and comedian of the ­people. SL

28. Ciarán Dowd

Since arriving on the scene in 2018 like an atom-bomb of idiotic braggadocio, Don Rodolfo – AKA Dowd, late of the sketch trio Beasts – has fast become one of the most cherishable live acts around. This natural-born showman is so ­marvellously funny in character as the ludicrous, libidinous, narcissistic swordsman-turned-priest-turned-king that he could probably bring the house down by simply reading out his gas bill. MM

27. Michael McIntyre

One of the richest arena-friendly comics around, and one of the most reviled – on account of his ­phenomenal success – McIntyre has dominated the live scene over the past 15 years with his chortling presence and unabashedly middle-class preoccupations. He makes being dependably funny look easy, but few have his gift for timing, physicality, or Midas-like ability to turn the minutiae of everyday life into relatable master-strokes of human observation. DC

26. Archie Henderson

One of the newest kids on the A-list comedy block, Henderson’s Jazz Emu is a sublime creation, his songs absolute knockouts of musical comedy. Last year’s deliciously off-kilter show You Shouldn’t Have was a conceptual, logistical, musical and above all comic bull’s-eye, propelled by Jazz Emu’s operatic ­delusions of coolness and Henderson’s remarkable one-man-band performance. MM

25. Elf Lyons

The antithesis of a bloke in a suit, the elfin Lyons recently roared to the front rank with a show that affirmed her originality, imagination and chutzpah. Edgily experimental and giddily enjoyable, Raven was her response to the work of Stephen King. Gifted, and (if there’s any justice in this life) going places. DC

Trenchant comic: Chris Rock
Trenchant comic: Chris Rock - Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix

24. Chris Rock

Rock has long been one of ­America’s funniest and most trenchant comics, with a point of view that combines hard-won truths – especially about race relations – with his own distinctive, light-hearted perspective. Witness his line about being slapped by Will Smith at the Oscars: “My parents taught me, don’t fight in front of white people.” His recent ­take-downs of corporate virtue-­signalling and woke grievance-­culture may not be radical, but they affirm a refusal to toe the line that keeps him fresh. DC

23. Richard Gadd

It was Gadd’s remarkable 2016 show Monkey See Monkey Do (performed while running on a treadmill) that bagged him the world’s most coveted comedy award – but the previous year’s Waiting for Gaddot was even better. This Free Fringe creation was stand-up comedy as absurdist ­theatre; an hour in which Gadd, though barely on stage at all, ­nevertheless controlled everything like a wicked puppeteer. It felt ­genuinely new and exciting, the sort of late-night underground ­discovery that makes the skin prickle with delight. MM

Outrageous character comedy: Natalie Palamides
Outrageous character comedy: Natalie Palamides - Soho Theatre

22. Natalie Palamides

Palamides is a young American whose stock-in-trade is outrageous character comedy, along with ­audience participation of frankly terrifying intimacy and extremity. Fond of diving face-first into the most daunting sexual-political mires, she spent (in 2017’s Laid) almost an entire hour with an immense fish hidden in her underwear, a feat that alone deserves some kind of special award. MM

21. Al Murray

“I’m not sexist – I’m not!” Murray’s Pub Landlord once bellowed at his audience. “That’s why I let my female workers work longer than the men, so they can make the same money.” Since he was conceived by Murray (Oxford-educated, staunchly Europhile) in 1994, backstage, seconds before he had to compère at a Harry Hill show, the character has evolved as the most adaptable, ruthlessly funny, downright necessary takedown of little-England insularity this nation has. MM

20. Dara Ó Briain

The hulking Irishman was on the verge of giving up trying to crack the UK scene at the start of the ­century, but – assisted not least by hosting Mock the Week – he has become a familiar fixture and one of the brightest, brainiest stars in the firmament. He thinks on his feet with a Riverdance frenzy, has a choice way with words, and his warmth is second to none. DC

19. Kieran Hodgson

A year or three before Hodgson was entertaining millions with his Prince Andrew: The Musical, his role in BBC Two’s Two Doors Down, or his sparkling little online  send-ups of The Crown et al, he was emerging as a live ­performer of rare intelligence and ambition. The Oxford-educated ­linguist has repeatedly taken improbable topics (Lance ­Armstrong, musical failure, Brexit) and woven hugely ambitious, exquisitely burnished entire shows around each. MM

Prodigy: Daniel Kitson
Prodigy: Daniel Kitson - Edinburgh Festival

18. Daniel Kitson

Likened to an “Open University ­lecturer who’s been dragged through an Oxfam shop ­backwards”, the Yorkshireman was a prodigy who won the Perrier award in 2002 in his mid-20s. But he has since forged a counter-­cultural path. His integrity is of a piece with his ­comedy, which can prompt the loudest belly-laugh and open eyes to the most nuanced detail. A sensitive soul who’s not above bawdy, he’d hate to be on this list – but that’s partly why he is. DC

17. London Hughes

A struggling comic for years, Hughes had a host of odd jobs – presenting on both CBeebies and adult channel Babestation – before breaking through in magnificent fashion with her hilariously filthy 2019 show To Catch a D*ck, a Netflix hit first staged in a poky 40-seat attic in Scotland. A superstar in the making, she has since moved to the US to work on a sitcom about her life, and claims to have left Blighty behind for good. If she has, it’ll be our loss. TFS

16. James Acaster

It’s easy to take Acaster for granted – he’s constantly on panel shows and podcasts. But his 2018 stand-up shows (collected on Netflix as Repertoire) are works of borderline genius; baroque puzzle-boxes, all buried callbacks and high-concept whimsy. If he once seemed a bit aloof and impersonal, that mask fell with his most recent West End show: a confessional tour-de-force about being dumped by his girlfriend for Rowan Atkinson. TFS

15. Simon Amstell

Few do neurotic journeys of self-discovery as well as Amstell, and while he can easily command the big stage, there’s nothing better than catching his wry confessions in an intimate basement space. The former Popworld presenter is still both the coolest cat in town – now far too cool for television, evidently – and the best friend you didn’t know you had. SL

14. Dylan Moran

Forget Black Books: Moran is ­funniest on stage, a living ­torrent of delirious word jazz, a ­Samuel ­Beckett character shambling toward the abyss. His shows ­Monster (2004) and Like, Totally (2006) were as good as stand-up gets, while Off the Hook (2015) somehow made existential despair funny. The bedraggled Irishman’s last tour, about falling off the wagon, was a bitter ­disappointment, but when he’s on form he’s unbeatable. TFS

13. Nina Conti

Tom Conti’s daughter has been on the circuit for ages – plying her trade in ventriloquism, with the foul-mouthed Monkey the foil to her beaming, agreeable ­presence – but her act and ­audience interaction skills continue to go from strength to strength. Her last tour, turning volunteers into living puppets for a dating show, ventriloquising ­several audience members at once, was a head-spinningly clever new peak, confirming her position as one of the marvels of the modern comedic age. DC

12. Bill Bailey

With his musical joyfulness, lightly worn smarts and mean quickstep, it’s no wonder the Strictly ­winner is a national treasure. Thirty years since Bailey first landed on the ­circuit, he’s still full of surprises, every show a cerebral, audio delight – who else could get our brains fizzing with birdsong and theremins? SL

Razor-sharp: Frankie Boyle
Razor-sharp wit: Frankie Boyle - Dean Belcher / Channel 4

11. Frankie Boyle

As razor-sharp as he is foul-mouthed, and far more morally driven than many seem to ­realise, Boyle also – crucially – sets the gold standard in his live shows for the sheer quantity of first-rate gags he lands. How can you not admire someone who, faux-apologising in advance for his swearing, quips: “In Glasgow, the word f---ing is just a warning that a noun is on the way.” MM

10. Bridget Christie

Irresistibly self-mocking, and ­perpetually fuming at women’s standing in the world, Christie struck gold 10 years ago with her award-winning show A Bic for Her, and a full decade of world-class shows has followed. In her 2021 celebration of the menopause Who Am I? (which in spirit has now metamorphosed into Channel 4 series The Change) she said she’d rather “snap in half from osteoporosis” than give up the new ballsiness that has come with her midlife hormone shift. Amen to that. MM

9. Billy Connolly

Connolly started the century as the country’s best-known stand-up – a natural story-teller with an ­unfailing, twinkling eye for the ridiculous and cross-generational appeal – and has remained at the top of his game into his 80s. His ­creeping infirmity and the sad onset of Parkinson’s may have made him a stiller, more commanding presence on stage. His last show proved that his gag rate hasn’t dipped (“I know a Scottish guy who loved his wife so much he actually told her one day”) and with its pathos and ­hidden depths, confirmed him anew as one of the greats. DC

8. Adam Riches

His award-winning 2011 show Bring me the Head of Adam Riches may well be the single funniest hour of live stand-up I have ever seen, and the quality of Riches’s ­giddily audience-participatory sets has barely dipped since. His ­brilliance lies in his ability to ­conjure up operatically ludicrous characters, inhabit them with such brio that you barely even notice the sharpness of his writing, and all the while radiate such charm that you almost hope he will hoik you up on stage to be part of the deranged fun. MM

Powerhouse of live comedy: Eddie Izzard
Powerhouse of live comedy: Eddie Izzard - Eddie Izzard

7. Eddie Izzard

Izzard has been a powerhouse of live comedy for at least three decades now, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Preferring female pronouns these days ­(having long favoured women’s clothes), she has also recently, ­astonishingly, performed entire routines in French, Arabic, German, ­Russian and Spanish. Her charmingly surreal, often zoologically minded humour is often mimicked, but never bettered. MM

6. Mae Martin

Only 36, but already a veteran – having started improv at 13, and doing four stand-up shows a week by 15 – this Canadian school drop-out makes storytelling look easy. Whether lusting over Bette Midler, or opening up about a teenage drug addiction, the winningly awkward Feel Good star spins yarns that keep the audience hanging on every word. SL

5. Tim Minchin

The kohl-eyed, frantic-haired ­Aussie already felt like the ­finished article when he parachuted into the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe with his sensational debut, which ­parodied teen popstar dreams with precision-tooled, beat-perfect musical numbers. Almost two decades later – after stage-musical success with Matilda and Groundhog Day – his live shows come with more ­contemplation and political edge, but that twinkly-eyed mischief is still there. Minchin evolves with age, and is all the better for it. SL

4. Maria Bamford

A critic once called Bamford ­schizophrenic. She corrected him: “That’s not my mental ­illness! ­Schizophrenia is, of course, ­hearing voices, not doing voices.” An ­impressionist whose vocal ­acrobatics are usually used to ­imitate her own family, Bamford can be surreal, confessional or ­staggeringly dark (especially stories about her time “in the psych ward”), but is always ­thrilling. Her rare ­performances – in her own front room, car parks, or to just one ­audience member at a time – are unique. Wildly original, and a crucial influence on countless young British acts, she is, to my mind, America’s greatest living stand-up. TFS

3. Tim Key

Telly addicts will know Key best from This Time with Alan Partridge and The Witchfinder, but they’re not a patch on his live shows. With ­delicious disdain, he uses poetry like a bad chat-up line, teasing you with preposterous scenarios, more ­questions than answers and a ­smidgen of sleaze. The thrill is in the juxtaposition of exquisitely crafted language, languid ­delivery and daft props – an irresistible ­combination. SL

Meta-minded sourpuss: Stewart Lee
Meta-minded sourpuss: Stewart Lee - steve ullathorne

2. Stewart Lee

Lee is the internecine, meta-minded sourpuss of stand-up, never ­happier (if that’s the word) than when mercilessly ripping other ­comedians, audiences and, for that matter, The Telegraph to shreds. I fondly (if that’s also the word) remember an hour at the Edinburgh Fringe spent squirming quietly in my seat as, well aware that I was “in”, he tore into this august ­publication – along with people who’d come because they’d seen him on the telly (hates them) and his loyal fans (“cackling sycophants”).

As those jibes suggest, the 55-year-old Shropshire native is also brilliant: there’s a magnificence to his point-blank refusal to ingratiate himself, great subtlety in the comic stances he takes, spectacular imagination and variety in his material. He’ll probably despise us even more for not putting him in first place. MM

1. Bo Burnham

Burnham is the 21st-century ­comedian. Recorded in his ­bedroom, the razor-sharp New ­Englander’s piano-driven songs made him a ­YouTube sensation by the age of 19, at which point, in 2010, he ­astonished British audiences with an almost bewilderingly precocious stage debut, Words, Words, Words.

His follow-up, What, was better yet, a royal-flush hour of ingeniously sly musical, character and meta-comedy that was the undisputed hit of 2013. As he told me at the time, “I do hope my sort of frantic, the-floor-is-lava type of comedy is a mimic of what it feels like to be alive now.” Indeed it was, and, although panic attacks took Burnham away from the stage for some years, he blithely whipped up the acclaimed feature film Eighth Grade in 2018, and three years later returned to the public eye with the Netflix ­special Inside.

This was locked-down comedy – as “live” as it could be at the time – about the misery, isolation and gnawing insecurity of being a young comic unable to perform, so finely observed, intricately ­constructed and beautifully ­written it made your head spin. In terms of capturing that bizarre moment, mining it for laughs, and speaking both to his own generation and to all of us imprisoned in our own homes, no one else even came close. MM

The Edinburgh Fringe runs from Friday-Aug 28 (

Who is your favourite comedian? Did they make the list? Join the conversation in the comments section below