My Favourite comedians
Lenny Henry - Comedians

Strangely, it doesn’t really change.

Richard Pryor

Number one is Richard Pryor, who was making Black Lives Matter jokes in 1973. Richard Pryor was making jokes about police brutality five decades ago, so it’s incumbent on black comics now to do the same.

Many of them are, but it is still incumbent on all of us to do material that isn’t just “black people are different from white people, etc”. There’s more to be said and more to be done in the realms of being a stand-up comic than just the stuff that Richard Pryor was doing over 40 years ago. Things have moved on and we should reflect that.

Steve Martin

Steve Martin was a huge influence on me. The suits, the music, the weirdness, the “in-between-ness” of his comments, the “in-quotes-ness.” This is a comedian in quotes.

As Pauline Kael said, “Steve Martin is pretending to be an entertainer who’s brilliantly good at his job. Only he isn’t as good as he thinks he is.” I’m paraphrasing, but the whole thing of “the best comedian in the world, thank you” – Steve Martin did that very well. It is best embodied in the film The Jerk.

Also, his album Wild and Crazy Guy is hilarious, although some jokes go for nothing because they’re visual jokes. But hilariously, he left the visual jokes on the album, thinking, “They’ll get them whatever happens.”

Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s album, Stand-Up Comedian, is also brilliant. The routines are beautifully written. All of them are like short stories, and every single joke lands.

Eddie Murphy

How old was Eddie Murphy when he did Delirious? He must have been 19. He started really, really young. Delirious is the one where he wears the red leather suit and probably sweats out 15 pounds during the performance.

That album is perhaps my favourite version of his stand-up. I prefer Delirious to Raw, actually. Delirious has got the ice cream man routine. It’s got his mum and the shoes and it’s got some eye-wateringly offensive homophobia, but some brilliant impressions, too. People forget what a good impressionist Murphy was.

Flight of the Conchords

These guys are ingenious. They call themselves “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”. They’re brilliant. My favourite tunes are “Business Time” and “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”. Both of them both rap really well, except Jemaine pretends not to be able to rap.

They’re great players. I was first introduced to them through their HBO special which was in segments on YouTube. I watched every single segment and fell in love with them.

I prefer them on stage to their TV show, but their TV show is still hot stuff. I love them on stage with that sort of passive-aggressive competitiveness that they pretend not to be doing. They are genuinely hilarious and they’re fantastic comedy songwriters.

Tommy Cooper

Of course, I love Tommy Cooper.

Anybody that can get a laugh from breathing out or from saying “spoon, jar, jar, spoon” is a genius in my book. He was troubled, he had issues, and he had bloody big feet.

When Tommy went on stage (eventually), he was amazing. But he used to do a bit at the beginning where the lights would go out on the audience and he would speak for 20 minutes non-stop about how there was a power cut and he couldn’t find the door and he didn’t know how to get to the stage. It was hilarious.

Eventually the lights would go on and he would appear on stage. Then the audience would be very pissed off because it seemed like he’d only done 50 minutes. But actually he’d done an hour and 10 minutes – he’d just spent the first 20 minutes in the dark, for God’s sake!

Morecambe and Wise

I think everybody in the country loved these two. Their Christmas specials were regularly watched by over 26 million people. Yes, they were song and dance men. They were sketch players.

But my favourite stuff of all was when they would do front-cloth work. That was them staying in front of the curtain, messing about and doing comedy routines like the one where Eric would be throwing an imaginary ball up in the air and catching it in a brown paper bag, or the one where Ernie would start talking and then Eric would walk on with a 50 foot ventriloquist dummy. These were marks of genius.

Clearly Eddie Braben, their principal writer in later years, had a lot to do with it. He defined their characters in a clearer way. But Eric and Ernie’s performance skills elevated the scripts to a whole other level.

Eddie probably may have been the architect of clarifying their characters, but Eric and Ernie grabbed those scripts, absorbed them and took them way, way, way above the bar. They did such memorable routines, like their version of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” peopled by newsreaders.

And the signature joke of Eric and Ernie in bed in their pyjamas reading was fabulous. In one priceless moment, they hear sirens going at speed past their window. Eric gets up, takes one puff of this pipe and says, “He’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed.”

Plus, they were really nice to me when I did my only show with them in Bournemouth. Eric was fantastic. Ernie didn’t have much to do with anybody. Maybe that was nerves or just wanting to be private.

But the minute I walked in and went backstage, Eric welcomed me. He took me into their dressing room and showed me the free drinks and told me that I was welcome to anything. I could watch their telly and eat their rider.

A Morecambe and Wise audience was a joy to work for because they just were full of love and warmth and wanted to laugh. I was supposed to do only 15 minutes, but I did 21 in the first show. Eric just said, “Don’t worry about it. They loved you”. He was incredibly generous. I’ll never forget that.

Chris Rock

I’m a huge fan of Chris Rock.

I love Bring the Pain, which is his breakthrough album. It’s really, really funny and speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement today. It speaks to what’s going on today in a kind of weirdly prescient way.

It’s got the signature routine which I won’t mention here because it involves the use of the N word, which can’t be arsed to do. But the performance is incredible.

Before Bring the Pain, Chris Rock was bumping along. His tenure on Saturday Night Live hadn’t gone that well. But that album returned him to “the sweaty gym”, as Seinfeld called it, which is basically just going back on tour, to find himself and to find what he actually wanted to say on stage.

He found a new performance style, which was basically preaching. He found this style of repetition and in his use of language and alliteration, he discovered this incredibly powerful way of addressing the audience. Bring the Pain was the fruition of that. It blew people away. It is one of the best stand-up comedy specials ever.

Mike Yarwood

Mike Yarwood was a major influence on me in the 70s.

Everything Mike Yarwood did, I copied. I was a mimic. The way I learned my mimicry was by mimicking Mike Yarwood doing mimicry.

That’s how I did it. That’s the truth.

Bill Cosby

It’s sort of impolitic to mention Bill Cosby now. But back in the day, the album Bill Cosby, Himself, particularly the dentist routine, was a kind of “how to” primer for a stand-up comedian.

His use of the mic, sound effects, storytelling, characterization are all on point here. It’s just a shame that latter day revelations have relegated his life’s work.

Jerry Seinfeld

Seinfeld is just a great technician. You can see the writing in his stand-up, working clearly. He famously sits down and does two to three hours of writing every single day. Because he reckons he can take a subject matter like think tanks or “how do they get the jam in Jammy Dodger?” or doing the laundry or washing your car and turn it into something special.

If you lock him in a room for a couple of hours with a cup of coffee and a biscuit, he will make meat and potatoes out of that and come up with a routine for everything.

Watching Jerry, his new stand-up special, is amazing because the laughs are constant. The stagecraft is exemplary. You can see his satisfaction at a job well done. He is 61, and he can still do it.

George Carlin

And in terms of still being able to do, you have George Carlin, too. In his younger days, he was filthy and transgressive. But as he got older, he became more lecturing. The routines were less funny. But oh my God, what a powerful speaker. He did routines about everything from gentrification to having a heart attack, to race to sexism.

He would talk about taboo subjects, like sexual assault. If he didn’t have a joke, he would just say what he thought. And that was just as powerful – very much like Dave Chappelle’s 8:46, which you must see.

Near the end of his life, George Carlin stopped worrying about whether something was funny or not. If something had to be said, he would say it.

Gina Yashere

Gina Yashere is my heroine. She gave up waiting to be discovered by UK broadcasters and decided to pack her bags and go to America to try her luck there.

She was always a very good stand-up. On my show, she played Tina, a ghetto girl who said, “I. Don’t. Think. So.” She was always really funny. The audience ended up liking her bits as much as mine on my show, and I was really proud to have her on because I just thought she was state-of-the-art funny. She had things to say and she wrote her own material.

Then she went to America, and she experienced what it was like to be a black woman in America. She did Last Comic Standing and got a very respectable placing. She was one of the first British comics to be on Def Comedy Jam. She was the British correspondent on the Trevor Noah Daily Show. And she’s been nailing it and smashing it out of the park ever since. Gina is a big star.

She is doing everything that I didn’t do in the 80s and 90s. She went to America, and she’s conquering it. She aims to stay, and I’m really, really proud of her.

Robin Williams

I miss Robin Williams.

New People.

I like a lot of the new people.

Romesh Ranganathan. Really funny. Laid back.

Lee Mack. Really, really smart comic. Brilliant on Would I Lie to You? (and on every panel show he does).

David Mitchell. Seems to be funny about anything.

Rob Brydon. Very funny.

Aisling Bea. She’s very good.

Phoebe Waller Bridge. Big fan of hers. And Fleabag.

Peter Kay. I really, really love him, particularly his routine about the dinner ladies at his school. He is very funny whenever he talks about his mum or people’s behaviour at weddings (especially love the kids sliding on their knees.)

He is also cheeky and transgressive whenever he does a talk show. He seems to break all the rules. Just a very funny man.

There are too many too many brilliant comics to mention them all. I have just scratched the surface here.