Where does comedy’s line exist? “That’s what you always have to think about when you’re writing jokes,” Mike Birbiglia says in his new Netflix special Thank God for Jokes. “‘Where is the line?’ You don’t want to cross it, but you want to go near it and it’s subjective.”
At the forefront of that line and its ever-changing guard exist “blue” comics, who unrepentantly flirt with the limits of acceptability. Growing out of vaudeville and bawdy humor, “blue” comedy toys with matters of decency. More than peppering their sets with obscenities, though, blue comics focus their gaze on subjects that test the limits of taste because what’s in “poor taste” is often just what people really talk about in private.
While sex, bodily fluids and other corporeal matters have long informed blue comedy, it’s also been a platform to discuss issues steeped in social taboos. Great comedy pushes the envelope by challenging accepted notions, but blue comedy gets there a little faster, pushing a little further, by constantly asking, “Why do you think that?” Today’s blue comics are able to tell the jokes they tell because of the trailblazers who never stopped questioning comedy’s relationship to freedom of speech. Here are the 15 best blue comics.
15. Gilbert Gottfried
Known for his physical mannerisms—which include squinting and screeching—Gottfried doesn’t shy away from tackling subjects like euthanasia, prison rape, racial differences and more. But his biting tongue has gotten him in trouble before. Following 9/11, he landed in hot water for joking, “I have to leave early tonight. I have to fly to L.A., but I couldn’t get a direct flight. I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” Gottfried isn’t just comfortable crossing the line, but leaping over it.
14. Bob Saget
Perhaps best known for playing family man Danny Tanner on Full House and as the host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, Saget actually began as a stand-up before landing either of those opportunities. Once Full House ended, he returned to the stage and made sure no one confused him with his former “nice guy” characters, lacing his stand-up with obscenities to underscore the explicit material he discussed. Saget has a biting tongue that’s quick to call bullshit.
13. Eddie Murphy
Like a few names on this list, Murphy rose to fame on Saturday Night Live, but he originally got his start in stand-up. He built on SNL’s success by returning to the stage in triumphant specials like Delirious and Raw. Following in his idol Richard Pryor’s footsteps, Murphy enjoyed pushing the limits and remains a legendary “blue” comic for that reason. But his older material also provides a close study concerning the pervasive sexist and homophobic attitudes that reigned in the 1980s.
12. Sarah Silverman
seems to have two settings: Dirty and Dirtier. She even confesses to her blue comedy status in the very first chapter of her book The Bedwetter, which she subtitled, “My Life Started by Exploding Out of My Father’s Balls, and You Wonder Why I Work Blue.” Silverman never shies away from talking about body parts, sex, religion, race and more in a no holds barred honesty that seems all the more striking because she delivers so much of it with a smile.
11. Chris Rock
Rock began in the 1980s before he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and used that show as a springboard back into stand-up. Following his time on the series, he released specials that helped him build on his name as a brutally honest comic. It didn’t matter what Rock talked about onstage, whether it was race, women vs. men, marriage, rap or American values, his directness served up thought-provoking points time and again.