Comedy in the 1980s was characterized by a rich diversity of styles and voices, transforming the landscape of humor in ways that continue to echo in the present day.
From the sharp wit and observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld to the raw and incisive social commentary of Richard Pryor, the comedians of the 80s tackled a broad range of topics, blending humor with critiques of society, politics, and everyday life.
Stand-up comedy came into its own during this time, proving itself to be a powerful medium for entertainment as well as a platform for exploring the complexities of the human condition.
Let’s dive into a list of the 10 best comedians from the 80s!
10. Jay Leno
Jay Leno, born James Douglas Muir Leno, was a significant figure in the comedy scene of the 1980s and beyond.
He began his career in stand-up, performing in clubs around the country and making numerous television appearances.
His down-to-earth, observational comedy, which often focused on everyday experiences, resonated with a wide range of audiences.
This everyman approach to comedy made him a hit on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where he frequently guest-hosted before eventually taking over as host in 1992.
Leno’s style was less controversial and more universal than some of his peers, focusing on relatable humor rather than pushing boundaries.
His long-standing career in late-night television testifies to his wide appeal and his enduring impact on comedy.
His passion for cars also became a part of his public persona, leading to the creation of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” a web and TV series.
9. Roseanne Barr
Roseanne Barr, born in Salt Lake City, Utah, rose to fame in the 1980s with a brash comedic style that broke the traditional mold for female comedians.
She was unapologetically herself, delivering caustic humor and blunt observations about domestic life, often drawing from her own experiences.
Her comedy routine caught the attention of television producers, leading to the creation of the sitcom “Roseanne” in 1988.
The show, which portrayed a working-class family, was a hit and ran for almost a decade.
Barr’s portrayal of a strong, outspoken woman resonated with many viewers and broke new ground for female characters in television comedy.
Despite controversies throughout her career, Barr’s impact on comedy and television is significant.
8. Whoopi Goldberg
Whoopi Goldberg, born Caryn Elaine Johnson, is a versatile talent whose career spans acting, comedy, television, and even social activism.
Her comedy career took off in the early 1980s with the creation of a Broadway one-woman show that showcased her wide range of comedic and dramatic abilities.
The show featured different character monologues dealing with various social issues, a testament to her ability to combine humor with commentary.
Her performance caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who cast her in “The Color Purple,” a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Goldberg’s ability to bring humor to dramatic roles and tackle significant issues through her comedy has made her a unique figure in the world of entertainment.
7. Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy (brother of Charlie Murphy) is one of the most recognizable comedic actors of the 1980s, whose career skyrocketed after joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live” at just 19 years old.
Known for his wide range of characters and impressions, including memorable roles as Gumby, Buckwheat, and Mr. Robinson, Murphy brought a fresh and energetic style to the show.
His comedy often includes raunchy humor, impressions, and vibrant storytelling, making him a standout figure in the 1980s comedy scene.
Murphy later transitioned into film, starring in a number of successful movies like “48 Hrs.,” “Trading Places,” and “Coming to America.”
His ability to transition from stand-up comedy to film while maintaining his distinct humor style has solidified his legacy in comedy.
6. Robin Williams
Robin Williams, with his quick wit and manic energy, was a dominant figure in 1980s comedy.
Known for his improvisational skills and diverse range of characters, Williams could make audiences laugh, cry, and think often all in the same performance.
He began his career as a stand-up comedian before transitioning to television with the hit show “Mork & Mindy.”
His comedic style was so unique and powerful that it was often hard for directors to keep him on script, a testament to his creative mind.
Williams was not just a comedian but also a talented actor, with roles in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “The Fisher King” showcasing his wide range.
His contribution to comedy is significant and continues to influence comedians today.
5. Billy Crystal
Billy Crystal, born in Long Beach, New York, is one of the most enduring comedians to rise to prominence in the 1980s.
Crystal’s witty, character-driven humor caught the public’s attention when he became a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” in 1984.
His subsequent roles in movies like “When Harry Met Sally” and “City Slickers” further solidified his place in the comedic world.
His relatable and often poignant humor, which centers on relationships, aging, and everyday experiences, is beloved by many.
In addition to his acting and stand-up comedy, Crystal is well known for hosting the Academy Awards nine times, a testament to his universal appeal and quick wit.
His impact on comedy, television, and film is considerable, spanning over four decades.
4. Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld is an American stand-up comedian known for his observational humor.
His comedy often focuses on personal relationships and mundane, everyday occurrences—elements that formed the core of “Seinfeld,” the highly successful sitcom he co-created with Larry David.
Premiering in 1989, “Seinfeld” was unlike any other sitcom on television, famously being a “show about nothing.”
However, its humor was relatable, reflecting the absurdities and humor found in everyday life.
Seinfeld’s stand-up routines are known for their clean humor and focus on the minutiae of daily life.
His influential work, especially “Seinfeld,” continues to resonate with audiences and inspires many comedians today.
3. Steve Martin
Though Steve Martin’s career began in the ’70s, his influence and popularity carried well into the 1980s and beyond.
Known for his absurdist humor, physical comedy, and self-deprecating wit, Martin was a frequent host of “Saturday Night Live,” making several appearances in the 1980s.
His stand-up shows, marked by their wild and crazy antics, sold out arenas.
Martin is not just a comedian but also an accomplished actor, writer, and musician, with successful ventures in all these fields.
His comedy albums, such as “Let’s Get Small” and “A Wild and Crazy Guy,” were smash hits, and his writings, including plays and novellas, showcase his wide range of talents.
2. George Carlin
George Carlin, known for his edgy, provocative humor, was one of the most influential stand-up comedians of the 20th century. His impact on comedy was significant in the 1980s as well.
Carlin’s comedy often focused on social commentary, language, psychology, and taboo subjects.
His famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine challenged societal norms and landed him in a Supreme Court case.
Even in the 1980s, Carlin continued to push boundaries with his “Carlin at Carnegie” and “Carlin on Campus” specials.
His ability to blend humor with sharp social and political critique left a lasting legacy in the world of comedy.
1. Richard Pryor
While Richard Pryor’s career began in the 1960s and ’70s, his influence remained potent in the 1980s.
Pryor was known for his uninhibited style of comedy, which tackled issues of race, the realities of life in the inner city, and his personal life, often with brutal honesty and poignant humor.
He seamlessly blended comedy and social commentary, making audiences laugh while also making them think.
Pryor’s impact on comedy was substantial, influencing many of the comedians on this list.
His 1982 concert film “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip” is a standout from this period, showcasing his ability to tackle tough personal issues through humor.
Despite his struggles with addiction and illness, Pryor’s legacy in comedy is monumental, and his influence can still be seen in comedians today.
The 1980s stand as a golden era of comedy, a time that launched the careers of many of today’s most revered comics.
The work of these comedians still resonates today, their humor continually providing laughter and insight into our lives.
These ten comedians not only left an indelible mark on the 80s but also continue to influence the craft of comedy today.
From stand-up stages to television sets, they reshaped our understanding of what comedy can be, reminding us of the power of laughter to both entertain and enlighten.