Just like that: the comics who make other comics laugh

'Reader's Digest' readers voted Tommy Cooper the funniest comedian of all time last week. How did that go down with the professionals? Nicholas Barber reports

When the Reader's Digest released the results of its Britain's Best Ever Comedian poll last week, most people who scanned the top 10 list must have shaken their heads in dismay (Bob Monkhouse? Roy "Chubby" Brown??). No one, though, can have been especially surprised: Tommy Cooper was in first place, Billy Connolly was in third, and all the other performers on the podium were, likewise, the sort of Parkinson-approved old-stagers you could venerate even if you hadn't heard anything funnier than the weather forecast in the past 20 years. Except for one. In second place was Peter Kay, a comedian who's barely over 30. What was he doing there?

It's true that someone young and anomalous always does well in such polls, just because they're enjoying their 15 minutes of fame: think of Robbie Williams cropping up in World's Greatest Singer lists. But Kay is hardly a household name. He stars in Phoenix Nights, and his live act was shown on Channel 4 at the start of August, but he hasn't worked on any more mainstream channels, and there's no way he's more visible than Steve Coogan or Ricky Gervais, say, let alone David Jason. His inclusion in the list must be a genuine sign of how warmly regarded he is by Tommy Cooper fans. For a chunk of the population, Peter Kay is the second-funniest man that Britain has ever produced.

In our poll of "comedians' comedian", some of today's other comics are rated just as highly. Most stand-ups have been studying comedy obsessively since they were old enough to pull a Bill Cosby album out of its sleeve, and yet several of them cite their contemporaries in the same breath as they cite legendary American film stars of the 1930s. The message is clear: comedy currently operates at a level that's never been topped. I can only agree.

Anyone who goes to see live comedy would submit Bill Bailey and Al Murray, to name but two, as contenders for the title of Greatest Stand-up Ever, while seasoned TV watchers would say that the first series of I'm Alan Partridge, Marion & Geoff and The Office were as sophisticated and side-splitting as any sitcom in history.

Not many art forms are so healthy. Once a decade, Sight & Sound magazine asks critics and directors to nominate the 10 Greatest Films of All Time (although as films haven't been around for much more than a century, "of all time" seems a touch grandiloquent). Most recently, in 2002, the directors' top 10 featured no film made later than Raging Bull, which came out in 1980, while the critics' list didn't get any more modern than the The Godfather: Part II, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. For decades, the Greatest Ever Film (Citizen Kane) and Greatest Ever Band (The Beatles) have been set in stone, but comedy progresses more like sport does: world records are always being broken.

There are other ways in which comedy is closer to an Olympic event than an art form. In a stand-up show, as in a race, all that counts is one person's ability, preparation and performance-enhancing drugs (in comedy's case, that usually means nicotine and caffeine). Also, the measures of success in sport and comedy are so fundamental that there's never any debate about whether someone's doing well or not. The audience either laughs or it doesn't, and if someone doesn't think a joke is funny, you can't change their mind with reasoned argument. It's this basic gauge that explains why, by and large, the cream rises to the top of the comedy milk bottle. Artists, musicians, film-makers and playwrights might persuade an audience that their work is intellectual and avant-garde, even if the audience is desperate to get out of the building before the pubs shut. But it's impossible for a comedian to bluff his or her way to fame and fortune. No one leaves a stand-up show muttering, "Well, I didn't really understand it, but maybe I'm just not clever enough to pick up on the references."

Several of the comics we polled refused to pick a Worst Comedian Ever, while those who did name names either despised their nominee's politics or admitted to having a blindspot of their own. Very few successful comedians would denigrate another successful comedian's skills - a reluctance you'd never get from pop stars, for instance. It's taken as read that a band can be hugely popular even if it's hugely terrible - indeed, sometimes that's an advantage. As long as musicians have looks, fashion, marketing, and a shadowy clique of producers on their side, their own talent, or lack of it, needn't be a factor. In comedy, on the other hand, you have to be talented to survive.

Although a few people have built careers on their friendships with superior comics - Ernie Wise, David Frost and David Baddiel are obvious examples - they're the exception rather than the rule. A bad but thriving stand-up makes as little sense as a bad but thriving footballer.

It's comedy's meritocratic nature that ensures that the quality is as high now as it's ever been - if not higher. Of course, it's still possible to see a respected comic do a routine that's as rib-tickling as toothache. But it's also possible to see a 31-year-old comic from Bolton and to believe, hand on heart, that he's the second-funniest man in British history.

The fun ones - and the worst in the business

Rory Bremner

Best: Peter Kay - incredible warmth; Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble - boundless invention; Eric Morecambe - visually funny; Billy Connolly - personality combined with pure rage. Worst: Pass.

Alexei Sayle

Best: Richard Pryor When I first saw him I was very impressed. I had never seen that kind of anecdotal comedy before, as American comics weren't very big in Britain.

He's been very influential towards me, which is why I consider him the best comedian ever. Worst: Pass.

Jeremy Hardy

Best: Kevin McAleer

Worst: Jim Davidson Everything he's ever done has been poor from beginning to end.

Adam Hills

Best: The Marx Bros. Because of the intelligence and the silent comedy and the character comedy all combined: the wit of Groucho, the physical comedy of Harpo and the character comedy of Chico. And because of the general mayhem and disregard for authority which all good comedians should have. Worst: Pass

Tony Law

Best: Sean Lock and Simon Munnery They surprise and go the road less ridden.

Worst: Anyone who takes themselves too seriously or is a button-pushy hack.

Helen Lederer

Best: Dawn French. She can reliably make any situation funny from the inside and outside. A gift. Worst: Harry Worth. Because his hapless persona made me want to slap him and tell him to brace up.

Dara O'Briain

Best: Jackie Mason. He's the master. He defines rat-a-tat-tat delivery - joke after joke after joke the whole way through. He's a glorious craftsman of the building laugh. You can feel the years of experience. Worst: Pass.

Lucy Porter

Best: Woody Allen. He's the funniest writer ever.

Worst: Jim Davidson. Where do I begin...?

Will Smith

Best: Stan Laurel. The greatest ever film comic. I love looking at pictures taken of him off camera. On screen he could empty his eyes to give that blank, dopey look. Off screen his eyes have a strong and focused intelligence.

Worst: Fox executives who refused to give Laurel any say over scripts or editing of the features he and Hardy made. Their arrogance and ineptitude are astounding and I can still get angry at how miserable they made the boys, and how they denied us all another five years' of astounding film comedy.

Brendan Burns

Best: Andrew Maxwell and Richard Pryor. I've been following this art form since I was nine years old, and these are the only people I've ever seen who can do it all. Pryor is number one, and Maxwell is number two. Worst: Pass.

Jeff Green

Best: Richard Pryor. He's the most honest, trail-blazing comic who manages to combine comedy and pathos brilliantly.

Worst: Charlie Chaplin. I just never got it.

Jeremy Dyson (League of Gentlemen)

Best: Les Dawson. Les Dawson always comes very high up my list just because of all that warmth and complexity wrapped up in someone so accessible to everybody. It's a rare and wonderful thing when just the thought of somebody makes you smile. Peter Kay has a similar ability to hit the mass funny bone.

And people forget what a fantastic comedian Woody Allen was. He was an impeccable stand-up, and so influential. When you watch BBC3's comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm you're watching Woody Allen, basically. Worst: Pass.

Janey Godley

Best: Billy Connolly. He's straight-up and naturally funny.

Worst: Roy 'Chubby' Brown. Fat and stupid.

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