From the time you’re born, people try to make you laugh. That’s because there’s not much better than laughter. Whether you’re giving or receiving laughter, it’s such a simple and human connection. We all learn about humor somewhere, and pop culture is an undeniable source. There are several actors (and otherwise) who taught me how to laugh. These are the first ten that come to mind.
From the late 70s until late 80s, Chevy Chase was an integral part of comedy, and that era just happens to be when I grew up. Whether he was stumbling around as President Gerald Ford; working his way around a country club as a skilled golfer and ladies man in Caddyshack; perfecting his craft as the Los Angeles equivalent of James Bond in the 1980s as Fletch; or desperately seeking the perfect family (and failing) as Clark Griswold, Chevy Chase dominated American comedy for a decade.
Nobody has pulled off smartass replies as well as Bugs Bunny has, and few characters in history have been as quick-witted. And for that matter, Bugs was a bit of a forerunner in the realm of pop culture satire. Bugs himself is a spoof of Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night (1934). For most people, Bugs Bunny is the gateway drug to the humor they’ll have for the rest of their life.
Speaking of satire, Mel Brooks is a master, having tackled silent films, Hitchcock films, Universal’s classic monster movies, Westerns, Nazis, science fiction, and sweeping epics. And they were all hilarious. Along the way, he borrowed heavily from other masters of the comedy genre. The Marx brothers and Buster Keaton instantly come to mind.
Belushi’s whole existence revolved around a perfect dichotomy. He was an oafish slob, but he was also nimble and capable of nearly impossible facial contortions. Belushi’s gift was making people laugh without saying a word. All he needed was an arched eyebrow, a look of shock, or a wild physical contortion to make his audiences laugh. It’s pure comedy.
My appreciation for Keaton’s humor came later in life but it was quite a wave. Keaton taught me that there’s something magical in the willingness to do anything to make people laugh. I could stumble around for superlatives to describe how amazing I think that is, but let’s put the thesaurus aside for a minute. Let’s look at the reality of it. Buster Keaton’s objective in life was to make people laugh, and he was so dedicated to it that he didn’t care if he died doing it. That’s a hero. That’s a legend.
Carol Burnett encompasses most of what makes comedy great. Specifically, she was great with satire, she was willing to sell out as much as possible for laughs, and her timing was immaculate. Her comedy was equally smart and relatable.
What I love about Larry David is that he found gold in the seemingly boredom-filled machinations of everyday life, both in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Let’s face it- the minutiae of human existence is ridiculous and few are as good at exposing it as Larry David.
It has become fashionable in recent years to bash Kevin Smith. I understand and even agree with some of that point of view. Yet, Smith’s underdog, pop culture-infused early comedies were a significant part of what the 1990s were all about. Whatever else you say about the guy, he’s hilarious.
I’ve spoken quite a bit about selling out for comedy in this article and it’s an art that Lucille Ball perfected. That she did what she did in an era where the boys club dominated makes it all that much more impressive. Everyone has seen episodes of I Love Lucy and everyone has felt the influence of her comedy.
Grouch Marx was a comedy machine gun, firing off one one-liner after another for an entire career. He was in tune with everything around him and could turn anything into a yuk. That his antics were accompanied by his equally genius family is the icing on the cake.
35 responses to “10 People Who Shaped My Sense of Humor”
The two biggest comic influences in my sense of humour are probably Larry David and George Carlin. I’ve tried many-a-time to emulate either of them, and they’ve also shaped the way I look at the world. Great men, both.
Larry David is a riot. I could watch and re-watch Curb episodes again and again.
I agree with Tyler. Carlin is probably the greatest influence on my jaded sense of humor. Bill Murray would probably be a close second.
Murray is a great one. If you grew up or were less than 20 in the 80s, you couldn’t miss him. And it’s gotten better as the years have gone on, with Groundhog Day and the Wes Anderson movies.
These are all good choices. When i was 8 years old, I found my parents’ copy of “Richard Pryor’s Greatest Hits”. I dropped it on the turntable, put the earphones on and my life changed. It made me smarter, deeper and yes, profane. Some nights, I still dream in Pryor.
Pryor was hilarious, a total legend.
His daughter, Rain, lives in Baltimore. I run into her now and again.
Did she follow her father into comedy?
Yes, she runs the Strand Theater-she also performed a kind of famous one-woman show called, “Fried Chicken and Latkes”. She was even on a sitcom back in the late 80’s or early 90’s.
I was hoping you would mention Lucille Ball and you did! Fantastic list.
It’d be impossible not to. She was so influential, and great at what she did.
love this post.
For me it’s the following
The Marx Bros
and many others
That’s a really great list. There are a handful of Woody Allen films that have made me laugh as hard as I’ve ever laughed.
Fantastic list, my comedy heroes though go back a little further than yours, I remember laughing at the Goons and Spike Milligan carried this to his autobiographies Adolf Hitler, My part in his downfall and Goering, Gunner who? John Belushi, amazing talent but he was also American as were most, if not all from your list, but Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers were both magical comedy series and the British equivalent of Saturday Night Live at the time. Who can forget John Cleese in the Life of Brian? or now for something completely different? The Marx Brothers were terrific at the time and their comedy has lasted to find new audiences through the years
Python is wildly popular. One of my brothers could quote it all day long.
Thanks for the perspective- it’s great to hear from someone a little older (and I’m guessing it’s not by much).
I would like to complain about you once again leaving Kurosawa off the list. He was hilarious and deserves a place on this list…even if it is your own personal list.
The Kurosawa joke never gets old.
I personally think George Carlin did more to shape my inner-cynic than anybody else. Not only did he shape my sense of humor, he really shaped my view of the world as a whole.
I can see that, big time.
As an 18 year old comedy nerd from the UK, the people who shaped my sense of humour are people who have been hugely influenced the same people as you. People like Ricky Gervais, Stewart Lee, Doug Stanhope and Ross Noble were huge for me.
The UK has some really great comedy. Gervais and Merchant/Pilkington, Bill Bailey, the Edgar Wright gang, the Black Books gang, etc… I have loads of respect for UK humor. It’s kind of a shame that if you bring up “British humor” in the US, most people assume that you’re talking about Monty Python and Benny Hill. Nothing against Python and Benny Hill, but I much prefer the other stuff.
I think the people who most shaped my sense of humor early on were Matt Groening and Larry David
Groening is a huge one. He would’ve been #11.
i love lucille ball! my parents, in their increasing age, have sparked a new flirtation tactic by calling each other lucy & dezi…oh boy.
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It’d be tough for me to narrow this down, but a few…
The Simpsons (huge influence)
David Spade/Chris Farley
I love all of these, although mine would have more of a British twist with added John Cleese, Pete and Dudley, and probably Only Fools and Horses (I am cheating witht eh last one, but that show was hilarious)
I need to check out those last two you mentioned. I’ve never heard of ’em but I have every ounce of faith they’ll be good.
Ah, now we know why you’re so darn witty, John. Carol Burnett is a riot, I always laugh even just seeing her as she has this look on her face that’s just hilarious. Humor is so subjective though, but yeah I think someone like Lucille Ball and Chevy Chase are universally funny.
I can never think of Burnett without thinking of her ridiculous Scarlett O’Hara imitation, with the curtain rod propped up on her back.
Yes, that the episode I remember as well. She’s such a hoot!!
It’s hard for me to really think about who shaped my sense of humor. It terms of movies and actors, I’m all over the place. Bill Murray stands out, though.
I hear Murray a lot. It’s a very good answer. Whether it’s stuff like Stripes and Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, or his later roles with Wes Anderson, I find it impossible not to like the guy.
Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Don Rickles, Jon Stewart, Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, and definitely Bugs Bunny.
Lenny Bruce! Don Rickles! Those are awesome choices. I really dig the Jon Stewart choice, too. I envy that you more or less grew up with Stewart.