The Funniest People Then (1997) and Now

Yesterday I had my last Summer Friday of 2010, but I made the best of it.  I met up with good friends John and Robert in Queens to play the fastest growing lawn game in America: Mölkky.  Out of Finland, Mölkky is an extremely addictive hybrid of Darts, Bocci Ball and The Price is Right.  For a very creepy video of some gameplay click here, for actually information visit Mollkyusa.com.

On the way to the park John was explaining how last night he had watched a free dance concert at Lincoln Center and that the James Taylor Dance company was really great. Robert and I laughed, and Robert asked if he meant the Paul Taylor dance company.  John did mean Paul Taylor,  but I kept thinking about modern dance set to James Taylor music and was like: hell yeah.

I love slips like this. I think it’s so funny when people misremember, or replace a name with something more familiar to them.  And oddly, the first example of this from television that i could think of was Tim Allen in Home Improvement.  About once per episode he would have a conversation with Wilson over the Fence. Wilson would talk wisely about thespians and reincarnation.  Moments later Tim would come inside and in a very knowledgeable tone tell his wife about how he might be re-incinerated and come out a lesbian.  (I actually cracked myself up just typing that).

Now, all of this thinking about Tim Allen reminded me of a magazine article I read a long time ago in which they ranked the funniest people alive (or on earth, or something like that) and Tim Allen was #3. I also remembered that Jim Carey was #1, and the cast of friends collectively was #7.

I figured that this has to have been an entertainment weekly article, so I visited their main site and started flipping through there archives… what a trip that is! looking at the EW covers moving backwards. I passed cover stories on: Tom Welling, the first Harry Potter movie and the first Survivor, Twister, and Mark Wahlberg back when he was still Marky.

I never actually found THE article I remember, but I did find one from 1997 that still blew me away. In an article title The Funniest People Alive by Kristin Baldwin and David Browne lay out the following list:

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

2 JERRY SEINFELD – The titan of trivialities

3 ROSEANNE – Head of the crass

4 JIM CARREY  - Manic of a thousand faces

5 ALBERT BROOKS  - Neuroses by any other name…

6 EDDIE MURPHY  - The nutty transgressor

7 GARRY SHANDLING – Late-night parody animal

8 ROSIE O’DONNELL – The whirl next door

9 RICHARD PRYOR – Control and substance

10 HOMER SIMPSON – D’Ohs of reality

11 BOB NEWHART 12 MONTY PYTHON 13 GEORGE CARLIN 14 BILL COSBY
15 LEMMON & MATTHAU 16 CAROL BURNETT 17 WOODY ALLEN 18 DAVID LETTERMAN
19 ROWAN ATKINSON 20 MEL BROOKS 21 BILLY CRYSTAL 22 MARY TYLER MOORE
23 BILL MURRAY 24 SPINAL TAP 25 TRACEY ULLMAN 26 STEVE MARTIN
27 WHOOPI GOLDBERG 28 HOWARD STERN 29 ELLEN DEGENERES 30 TOM HANKS
31 BETTE MIDLER 32 DENNIS MILLER 33 BILL MAHER 34 KEVIN KLINE
35 LILY TOMLIN 36 RODNEY DANGERFIELD 37 GOLDIE HAWN 38 PENN & TELLER
39 JANEANE GAROFALO 40 STEVEN WRIGHT 41 ALAN KING 42 TIM ALLEN
43 JACKIE MASON 44 BEN STILLER 45 CONAN O’BRIEN 46 DANA CARVEY
47 PAUL REISER 48 NATHAN LANE 49 JOAN RIVERS 50 BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD

Poor Tim Allen doesn’t show up until the 40′s on this list. Then I found an EW list from 2009.  This list is the top 25 (counting down) funny people 12 years later- one decade if you round down. So check it out:

25 Will Ferrell 24 Catherine O’Hara 23 Sarah Silverman 22 Dave Chappelle
21 Demetri Martin 20 Diablo Cody 19 Craig Ferguson 18 Jack Black
17 David Letterman 16 Amy and Dave Sedaris 15 Sacha Baron Cohen 14 Ricky Gervais
13 Ellen Degeneres 12 David Cross 11 Conan O’Brien 10 Kristen Wig
9 Larry David 8 Amy Poehler and Will Arnet 7 Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) 6 Chris Rock
5 Steve Carell 4 Jon Stewart and the Daily Show Team 3 Tina Fey 2 Stephen Colbert and the Colbert Report Team
1 The Judd Apatow Posse

Names in red appear on both lists. why such major turnover?  and what was the secret to Ellen, Dave and Conan’s staying power?

I suppose one big catch in this research is that we are trusting EW to tell us who is funny, and they can’t keep publishing the same list… that would be idiotic. But assuming they even somewhat represent the trends of the time – we are a finicky bunch.  Attractiveness clearly changes with age. I think it’s more understandable to say that someone used to be hot rather than they used to be funny.  Are our comedy taste so different now? Are we changing the definition or do funny people just lose it?

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