The Top 100 most influential people in comedy: 20 - 1
Andrew Mickel22 June 2012
The lists have been collated, the arguments are settled, it's time to see who is number one...
20. Steve Bennett
Despite young upstarts (cough, Such Small Portions, cough), Chortle is the daddy of live comedy websites, and that's down to one man: Steve Bennett.
Frank Skinner once quipped - at Chortle's own awards show - that Steve flew all the way to Canada 'simply to give me a bad review'. Comedians may love him or loathe him, but out of the 964 comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, all of them would dearly love a review from Chortle: it quite simply is the official logbook of the live comedy industry.
There's a reason that a good review from Steve will hit the top of any comedian's poster - audiences trust the opinions of the man who's seen more shows that you've had hot dinners.
Stand-up over the past decade would be a very different place without Chortle's input.
19. Richard Curtis
Britain's rom com - and with it, the entire British film industry outside of Danny Dyer flicks and things with bonnets - is down to one man, Richard Curtis.
Four Weddings, Bridget Jones, Love Actually and Notting Hill all have the same wipe-clean Blairite vision of London, but for all it is easy to take the mick out of them, they remain compelling box-office winners.
Let's also not forget the Vicar of Dibley, Blackadder and Mr Bean. The man's comedy CV is so robust that co-founding charity monster Comic Relief seems like an afterthought.
Read more about Richard Curtis here.
18. Caroline Raphael
Commissioning comedy on Radio 4 is a vast job - the 6.30pm weeknight comedy slot alone requires dozens of new shows every year.
While it was once home to a series of stale shows, the slot has been refreshed of late thanks to Raphael, and we've heard many of comedy's next big things make it to the air on a faster and faster basis.
That means old favourites like the News Quiz have been joined by leg-ups for Sarah Millican, Thom Tuck and Will Smith.
Read more about Caroline Raphael here.
17. Harry Hill
Until ITV1's recent decision to get back into comedy, Harry Hill's now-deceased TV Burp was the one comedy left on the station.
His cartoonish approach to everything from clothes to catchphrases made him a star with enough family friendliness to get repeats on Cartoon Network.
While his energy doesn't appeal to everyone, he's versatile to move from internet shorts to shilling peanuts - and all eyes are on him to see what he'll do next.
16. Chris Morris
The dearth of decent TV satire in Britain today is exacerbated by what came before it: a golden age of satire from Iannucci and Morris. The Day Today and Brass Eye remain the gold standard of journalistic pisstakes 20 years after On The Hour first made it to air.
Script editing on Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle have seen him keep his hand in the business, while Four Lions marked his feature film debut in 2009.
He's directed some of Veep, but it would be great to see a new project from him with more of a distinctive Morris authorial stamp on it. And by new project, we mean a 20th-anniversary revisit of The Day Today.
Read more about Chris Morris here.
15. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders
It's the curse of every female duo - and to a certain extent, all female comics - that they are compared, usually unfavourably, to French and Saunders.
While their influential legacy as a double act has been gloriously revisited on Radio 2, their solo work shows two performers who can stand on their own two feet.
French has long captured a mass appeal, with the Vicar of Dibley sealing a British public love affair that even the cultish Psychoville couldn't threaten.
As for Saunders, her writing on Jam and Jerusalem, Vivienne Vyle, Ab Fab (and Mamma Mia, we suppose, but let's stick with the other three) shows a writer who can capture many different combinations of steeliness and fragility of women of a certain age.
They're also among the few eighties alternative comedy scene performers who have moved with the times without selling out - a crucial skill to stay at the top of their game for thirty years.
14. Michael McIntyre
If it's boom time for comedy, then McIntyre is the genre's Rothschild.
As it's become increasingly necessary to point out, McIntyre wasn't an overnight star, but worked long and hard to get where he is. Inheriting the family favourite mantle from Lee Evans has taken him from Britain's Got Talent to sell-out shows at the Apollo, his comedy roadshow to record sales for his DVD.
He has plenty of haters, but his fan base is large enough that he's not going anywhere.
13. Hannah Chambers
Chambers Management may describe itself as a ‘boutique’ company, but on paper they are anything but.
Though she may choose her clients carefully, Chambers looks after no less than four of the comedians in our Top 100: Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican and Jack Whitehall, with Joe Lycett and David O'Doherty strong names to go stellar in the future.
Chambers’ rise through the comedy ranks since she started in 1998 has been impressive, and we expect her to be jostling for the top slots for the foreseeable future.
12. Victoria Wood
It was a strange moment when Victoria Wood won a British Comedy Award in December for best female comic (for a recording of the Angina Monologues on Sky 1), as she's been out of the limelight of late. Indeed, it feels like she seems more likely to turn up on BBC Four documentaries about the value of female comics than she is in new material.
But the combination of warmth and social ineptitude that she portrays in her comedy has inspired countless new comedians and is a pretty direct ancestor of Sarah Millican's current popular schtick.
Her inventiveness (Acorn Antiques setting the mould for bad TV micktakes) and bittersweet comedies and dramas, from Pat and Margaret to Dinnerladies, have helped her maintain audiences long after she's become an occasional presence on telly.
Read more about Victoria here.
11. Miranda Hart
You could tell that someone is trying to flag Hart up as a national treasure by her name being attached to both Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing in early 2012.
At the moment she's coasting on guest appearances, given that the second series of Miranda aired in 2010 and the third, due to air in late 2012, seems liable to slip.
But the show helped resurrect an old-style comedy sensibility that has helped win her a place in many hearts - and made her one of the BBC's (very few) safe comedy properties.
Read more about Miranda here.
10. John Lloyd
When John Lloyd declared last summer that BBC One comedy had become bland, people listened: the modern panel show wouldn't exist without him.
As a producer, he created The News Quiz in his mid-twenties and was there at the birth of Quote...Unquote; on TV he created Have I Got News For You and QI. He also produced Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and all of Blackadder, and even co-authored some of the radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In short, cerebral broadcast comedy owes its current shape to Lloyd. Trivia corner: HIGNFY was originally supposed to be hosted by Lloyd.
9. Stewart Lee
Stewart Lee himself has said that public taste for him goes through peaks and troughs, and it seems that recent triumphs - from the garlanded second series of his Comedy Vehicle to his fitful bouts of newspaper column-writing - might be tipping over into saturation with his much-copied style.
As comedy's anti-comedian, his current round of popularity must be in part a response to the bubble of so-called young men in t-shirts pointing things out.
But his influence stretches in directions that rarely get effectively quantified: from writing with Harry Hill, to providing the first Edinburgh platform for the Mighty Boosh's debut Edinburgh show, and from the controversial, spectacular Jerry Springer: the Opera to the still-quoted Lee and Herring, his current, easily-pastiched solo work hides a diverse network of influence on the current shape of British comedy.
Read more about Stewart here.
8. Monty Python
It has been over four decades since the Monty Python group’s combined wit and creative zeal delivered a renaissance of sketch, surreal and character comedy that still resonates across screens and stages worldwide.
The Lumberjack Song is 43 years old but wouldn't look out of place in a Tim Minchin show; the Ministry Of Funny Walks would easily slot into one of Iannucci's more surreal series; the Life of Brian is an establishment-baiting masterpiece that only Chris Morris could equal today.
While it's difficult to quantify the lingering effects of many comedians of the same age as Python, enough people still reference them today to show their continued direct effect - and they are one of the only acts on the list who do so for on both sides of the pond.
7. Richard Allen-Turner and Jon Thoday
We found a hilarious interview with Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner from a decade ago in the FT where they seem to cut just shy of turning over the journalist and shaking him out for his lunch money.
It's one of only a handful of insights into life with the men behind Avalon, the firm behind TV shows like Russell Howard's Good News, TV Burp and Absolute Radio's comedy output, and the live bookings for a couple of dozen of mid-size to major acts.
Frank Skinner in the piece referred to it as the 'most despised, ruthless and cynical comedy agency in Britain', but that's from the point of view of channel controllers: for the talent, there's a strong tradition of developing acts - just look at the number of formats Skinner has worked through to find more comedy gold.
The fact Thoday co-produced the TV version of Jerry Springer: the Opera shows they're not just in it for the money, either: there's an actual interest in good comedy.
They may have been eclipsed by Off The Kerb's deft handling of TV formats and mega-stars in the last five years, but Avalon remains one of the most respected - and feared - names in the industry for good reason.
6. Shane Allen
The BBC's ongoing comedy woes should have led to some easy Channel 4's comedy wins, but Sky is hitting it out the park on so many fronts that many shows have ended up there instead of on Four.
Top of that list is Chickens, but others, like This Is Jinsy and even Alan Partridge, are shows that seem like they could once have headed to Four. The network's head of comedy, Shane Allen, has certainly taken a fair few punts that deserve respect: the huge number of pilots on Four, E4 and online; having faith to back particular talents like Frankie Boyle (even if his Rehabilitation Programme didn't work out); and even the golden handcuffs deal for Micky Flanagan.
In short, the currently mixed roster of comedy seems more like a temporary blip than the new norm. And what with last year's unprecedented success of the Inbetweeners' Movie, there should be some well-replenished coffers to find a new hit in coming years.
Read more about Shane here.
5. Armando Iannucci
2012 is shaping up as a huge and hectic year for Iannucci. HBO series Veep is already starting to make waves in the US (the New Yorker profile alone is a coup) and will show on Sky Atlantic here, which is also the new TV home of Iannucci co-written evergreen hit Alan Partridge. And what is it that makes his work stand out so much?
There's not just an eye for comedy; there's a keen interest in looking at the details that make up the world that others fails to take account of, and then putting convincing characters to work among them. Who else can so readily quantify the beta male's fear of passing a football match in the park? Or convincingly capture the reductivist approach of opinion panels in policy circles?
The resulting shows provide a compelling mix of real-world detailing, human frailty, and heart. Now all we have to do is coax another series of the Thick of It out of him...
Read more about Armando here.
4. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
The criticism, low ratings and furore around Life's Too Short would be a big downer for most comedians, but Gervais has so many jobs going on both sides of the Atlantic that it has to be set in context.
2011 saw him pop up in everything from The Simpsons to Curb, Family Guy to a comedy-will-eat-itself appearance on the American Office, while 2012 is seeing him add the Wind in the Willows to his growing list of deftly-chosen bankable family film credits.
As for Merchant, his amiability is marking a popular contrast with the increasingly-arch Gervais, helping him fill the Apollo for ten straight days in the last year.
Together they casually creating Sky's stellar-rating An Idiot Abroad and the Ricky Gervais Show to fill out the most diverse CVs at the top of the comedy game. Don't count out Gervais just yet: a mix of creativity and canny self-promotion has put them at the top of the game for good reason.
3. Lucy Lumsden
Until two years ago, Sky's most famous comedy output was that sitcom about Hitler living next door to some Jews.
Now, it's the hottest new comedy spot on broadcasting, home to creative work like This Is Jinsy and Alan Partridge on Sky Atlantic, populist fare like Spy and Stella on Sky 1, and with upcoming shows like Parents and Chickens keeping the fresh comedy coming.
It adds up to the most exciting comedy portfolio by far of any broadcaster. In contrast to a risk-averse and process-heavy BBC and an uninspiring Channel 4, the rate of new productions has been dizzying, and that's in large part thanks to Lucy Lumsden and director of programmes Stuart Murphy, who both left the Corporation and taken a host of talent with them.
The talent have sung their praises for Lumsden and Sky's work, and while individual shows have picked up both good reviews and solid ratings, there's a strange blind spot in a lot of coverage of TV comedy to truly acknowledge Sky as a major player.
Still, the big question is what comes next: can decent ratings for the new shows translate into a long-term new home for comedy, or is this a short-term win that terrestrial will soon have licked?
Read more about Lucy Lumsden here.
2. Steve Coogan
The phone hacking scandal has taken scrappy hackee Steve Coogan everywhere from parliament to Newsnight, and has coincidentally helped point out just how far his comic creations are from the comedian himself.
We say creations: let's not forget that this is a man who had to launch a tour called 'Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters' (Tony Ferrino, anyone?). So if we're talking about a man with one major character to play with, why is Coogan the top creative on the list? Because Partridge has proven such a robust character that he's developed from being one-of-many Radio 4 characters into the core of several TV shows.
He's even single-handedly made British web series viable with Foster's (not to mention, surprisingly, leading him to take the Murdoch shilling and sign up with Sky Atlantic to make more Partridge). Baby Cow, the production company Coogan co-owns with Henry Normal, has been responsible for about half the BBC's decent comedy output of the last decade (Marion and Geoff, Nighty Night, the Boosh and Gavin and Stacey to name a few), making connections between some of the most creative people in the business.. That's without even mentioning his effective character contributions in Hollywood.
Indeed, it's probably the fact he's partially subsumed into his characters that he isn't always given the credit he deserves - but it's why he's number two on our list.
Read more about Steve Coogan here.
1. Addison Cresswell
It's a begrudged fact that money moves comedy, but the numbers involved at the top of the comedy game are still enough to make most comedians' heads spin. That's truer for mega-company Off the Kerb and its owner Addison Cresswell than anyone else.
His biggest acts command eight-figure sums, such as the estimated £20 million in revenue Michael McIntyre will be netting in his current tour, or the £18 million deal he negotiated for Jonathan Ross with the BBC.
Aside from the mega-tours, Off The Kerb run dozens of comedy clubs throughout the UK, which alone makes it one of the biggest comedy chains in the country.
But it's not just the effect that Cresswell has had on the live comedy scene which merits his position at number one: it's the ability to juggle the live comedy with TV, packing shows produced by the firm's production company Open Mike, like Channel 4's Comedy Gala and Stand Up For the Week, with Off The Kerb acts.
As if that's not enough, let's not forget it's McIntyre who rekindled TV commissioners' love for standup; and Cresswell could equally be considered a kingmaker for prime-time comedy presenters, with some tipping another of his acts, Dara O'Briain, as the BBC's next golden boy.
The mystique around the brand of Cresswell adds to the intrigue: he reportedly burnt money at at Edinburgh Fringe bar after signing the Ross deal, and according to the rumour mills, the stories he has kept off the front pages as well as the ones he has put on them have been elevated to almost mythical status.
It's a dazzling collection of roles (indeed, he only stopped serving as director on the Brighton Comedy Festival this spring) that puts him in firm control of the biggest comedy properties both on stage and on screen.
Read more about Addison Cresswell here.
That's it for the top 100 - but do you know what a lot of our list has in common? Read up on the Oxbridge connection, and check out all the lessons we've learnt while compiling this list...
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