David Letterman, Bill Cosby, and Jim Carrey are only some of the people who made our list

By Kristen Baldwin and David Browne
April 18, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Just think of this year’s Academy Awards show. There, as legions of tweedy Brits lined up to collect their English Patient Oscars, stood Jim Carrey basking in the glory of his new movie’s indisputable triumph — Liar Liar had just grossed $31.4 million in three days — and his imperial grin instantly put all the back-patting indie smugness into perspective.

Oscar be damned: Comedy rules, and its kingdom is larger than ever. A renaissance in animated comedy — The Simpsons and King of the Hill may be as poorly drawn as TV’s The Flintstones, but they’re far smarter — has transformed TV’s prime-time schedule. Howard Stern has made the nearly impossible leap from radio to the big screen. Ellen and Ellen come out of the closet, land on magazine covers, and deftly turn controversy into comedy, and vice versa.

In the waning years of the 20th century, comedy is not only all-pervasive, but all-seeing. The new humor bristles with reflexive knowingness. Once the province of highbrow comedians like Nichols and May, irony is now everywhere. To watch an episode of The Simpsons is to absorb countless embedded mini-parodies of every aspect of society. To love Tom Hanks is to appreciate a classroom smart aleck poking holes in his own stardom. To laugh at Jim Carrey is to thrill at the sight of a man consciously throwing nuance out the window.

That arch awareness signals a break with the comedy of the past, and it is why we are feting the 50 Funniest People Alive, recognizing those who have created our current comedy universe, who are working within that context, and who are hammering at its boundaries.

Nearly all of the 50 Funniest are outsiders, with the sensibilities of those gazing in at the feast. It is no coincidence that much of American comedy is ethnic comedy (much of it Jewish comedy). Beyond any theories of innate tribal shtick, it should be pointed out that movies and vaudeville were initially lowbrow ventures in which immigrant newcomers had little to lose. Comedy history may seem academic, but it doesn’t take a comedy scholar to see the clear throughlines from vaudeville (Jack Benny) to today (Jerry Seinfeld). Charlie Chaplin once said that all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” Yet that covers only the holy trinity of setting, authority figure to be flummoxed, and goal to be won. What happens in that park will always change with the years. Here’s who’s living, and playing, there now.


The #1 funniest person alive: A mad ad-libber for the sound-bite generation

He is the Tasmanian Devil of comedy, a Shakespearean fool on speed, the id at play. At the mike or in front of the camera, he spins out jokes like flying beads of sweat, pouring out impressions, one-liners, and non sequiturs as his hands trace frantic parentheses in the air. A manic mass-culture Mixmaster, Robin Williams embodies our information-overload, short-attention-span times better than anyone else in the business.

It seems impossible that two dimensions could contain him, yet Williams has spent 20 years conquering TV and screen with roles that capitalize on his hyperkinetic style. His 1978 TV breakthrough, as the alien Mork from Ork on Mork & Mindy, was fitting indeed; he has always seemed to be channeling signals beamed from some bizarro planet — an approach inspired by his hero, Jonathan Winters. Good Morning, Vietnam‘s DJ Adrian Cronauer and Aladdin‘s Genie are anarchic jesters, minor variations on Williams’ stage persona. And in Hook and Jack, Williams plays an irrepressible child trapped in a man’s body; his comic art imitates life again.

In more recent years, the Juilliard-trained Williams has been abandoning his inner clown for more sober performances in films such as Dead Poets Society and The Birdcage while still favoring us with wacky scenes now and then — Mrs. Doubtfire‘s blazing bustline, Armand Goldman’s Birdcage choreography sampler. But the world already has plenty of Serious Actors; here’s hoping the Tasmanian Devil never gets fully tamed.

Essential Williams: Good Morning, Vietnam (Buena Vista, video); Mrs. Doubtfire (FoxVideo, video); An Evening With Robin Williams (Paramount, video); Robin! Tour de Face! (Vestron, video)