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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Working as a writer, an actress and a comic throughout her career, Sykes’s no nonsense approach is just as quick to laugh along with the audience as she is to lay bare the truth. Where she used to focus her stand-up in the early 1990s around having been married, Sykes came out in 2008 and continued to build her comedy around experiences she faced as a gay black woman. No matter what her material focuses on though, Sykes approaches each topic with a refreshing frankness that continues endearing her to audiences. She speaks boldly no matter what.
Housewife turned comic, Barr differed from similar comics like Phyllis Diller by being brutally honest about her domestic life. She didn’t look, sound or act like the typical housewife splattered across print ads and on TV programs, and she used that juxtaposition to upend society’s notions about femininity and a woman’s place in the home. Her loud mouth and the gripes she had about her husband and children became the answer to any male comic who referred to their wife as a “ball and chain” and landed her squarely in the blue zone.
Chappelle gets brutally honest about typically blue subjects like race and sex in his stand-up, and his audiences love him for that candor. But it’s his biting eye towards society, politics and the mess both typically make that land him on this list. In fact, his shows continue to sell out because of the way he uses one form of blue to inform another, like the time he equated voting for Hillary Clinton with (imagining) eating Halle Berry out only to have her fart in his face.
No topic is off limits for Louis C.K., who has tackled everything generally considered taboo over the course of his career and continually gone even farther. Empathizing with child molesters? Check. With a whip smart sensibility and a natural curiosity about people’s pervasive notions, Louis is comfortable making people uncomfortable. His material tackles all manner of blue topics, but it’s always in the service of moving beyond the status quo and digging deeper into people’s—and society’s—belief systems.
Whether he was talking about assassinating artists like Barry Manilow or George Michael, condemning Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush for their morally corrupt behavior or talking about the most effective way to market products (it involves naked women fondling themselves), Hicks’ act was as much social commentary as it was stand-up comedy. It often enraged him that he seemed to be the only one paying attention, but when he shared those observations with the audience he didn’t pull any punches and his stand-up succeeded for that very reason.
The first comic to record and release his acts as albums, Foxx had a risqué quality that distinguished him from other, cleaner comics working the Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. Before Richard Pryor busted the door open on race and other taboo topics, Foxx was there with the key. Over the course of his career, Foxx recorded an impressive 50 albums, which touched on topics like race and sex even while keeping cursing to a minimum. Later that became a different story, though, with albums like You Gotta Wash Your Ass (1976).
Coming from a traumatic background (she lost both her parents in horrific accidents and was raped twice by age 14), Mabley developed her comedic instincts out of self-preservation. It was a method that loosened her tongue so she spoke freely and honestly. Mabley performed a lower class, disheveled character, which allowed her to say what she wanted. “You ain’t gonna hear nothing you ain’t gonna hear in the streets,” she said of her comedy while appearing on The Merv Griffin Show.
Carlin’s act picked up where Lenny Bruce’s left off and continued pushing the boundaries when it came to language and acceptability. His famous 1970s bit about the seven words you can’t say on television (“shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits”) now seems tame by comparison, but it underscored the importance of context. Besides lacing his act with obscenities to defend the freedom of speech, Carlin toed the line between blue material and social commentary for an insightful look at all the world’s bullshit.
Pryor began by posturing himself after the great comics of his time, which included Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, but once he broke away and found his voice, he came into his own as one of the sharpest comics of all time. From the numerous characters he performed onstage—each a slice of black life in America—to the original perspective he offered audiences, Pryor tore wide the veil on race and opened America to some honest to goodness truth.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Bruce’s act, which included thought provoking material about religion, government and more, came under fire because it exceeded the limits of free speech at the time. He was arrested for obscenity in 1961, 1962 and 1964 and would go on to spend his time and money fighting those charges before he overdosed in 1966. Bruce is certainly not the raunchiest comic on this list, but as the highest profile to stand up and question what it meant to “cross the line” at a pivotal moment in history, he’s by far the most important.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.