In a sea of talent competition shows, Last Comic Standing has had difficulty finding its footing. The idea seems simple enough: Assemble a group of rising and established stand-up comics, and have audiences and judges pick the funniest. But after 13 years on the air—with only nine seasons in that time—and a slew of format changes, the show has gone through ups and downs trying to figure out how to work its best asset, laughter.
No matter the changes, it’s hard to deny the cultural impact the show has had, which is perhaps why NBC brought it back from cancellation in 2006. Whether it’s giving newer comics a greater edge by helping them bypass years of work on the road, or exposing viewers to names they might not otherwise learn about, has provided a different way to find talented comedians. Among the big names who have appeared on the show, but who haven’t won, are Amy Schumer, James Adomian, Nikki Glaser, Rachel Feinstein, Doug Benson and Gabriel Iglesias.
The winners haven’t always leapt from the competition to immediate stardom, but those who exhibit enough pluck, work ethic and determination have certainly carved out a space for themselves alongside their more established colleagues. Here are the nine LSC winners, ranked from our least favorite to our favorite.
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9. Dat Phan: The competition's very first winner, Dat Phan beat out runner-up Ralphie May for a surprise upset. The young comedian, who was born in Vietnam but predominantly raised in America, used his family's racial identity to inform much of his comedy. Doing accents, characters, and more, Phan exploded stereotypes, called attention to nuances within Vietnamese culture, and always paid attention to the way those traditions rubbed up against American mannerisms. He eventually faced criticism for exploiting rather than exploding Asian stereotypes, and since winning the competition in 2003 hasn't seemed to stretch his comedic muscles in new directions. Since winning Last Comic Standing, Phan released two specials, Dat Phan: Live and You Touch, You Buy. Although he still performs, it seems as though Phan has refocused his efforts to television and film. He appeared on Bones in 2015 and Scorpion in 2016.
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8. Jon Reep: With a thick North Carolina accent, Last Comic Standing's fifth season winner could easily fall into that staid brand of comedy that defined many a "Blue Collar" comic in the 1990s. But thankfully, he brings a slightly sharper edge to his observations about the south and the many characters who populate the region. Reep has built up a comedy resume between his appearances on Comedy Central's Premium Blend, his own Comedy Central Presents special, and Jon Reep: Metro Jethro. Like many on this list, Reep isn't content to do stand-up alone. He's ventured into acting territory as much as he keeps touring and performing comedy. Playing a character usually described as "dim-witted" or "good-natured," Reep has appeared on Eastbound and Down and even gained national recognition for appearing in a Dodge commercial as the "Dodge Hemi Guy."
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7. John Heffron: Heffron touts himself as an accessible comic whose material spans the typical comedian's gambit: personal fare and observational bits about everyday life. Hailing from Detroit, Heffron honed his chops at the University of Michigan before becoming Danny Bonaduce's radio sidekick, and eventually using his sense of humor to win Last Comic Standing's second season. After winning the competition, Heffron put out a good deal of material, including his filmed special Middle Class Funny, four stand-up albums, two Comedy Central stand-up specials and even an advice book, I Come to You From the Future: Everything You'll Need to Know Before You Know It. Plus, he's still touring widely. It's not the kind of comedy that makes critics sit up and take notice for being cutting edge, politically astute or culturally relevant, but Heffron brings his wry middle-class white guy take to a range of subjects that consistently draw laughs.
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6. Felipe Esparza: When Esparza walks out onstage, audiences aren't quite sure what they're going to get. Even after he opens his mouth and his Mexican accent with a large side of chill comes pouring out, he'll be the first to admit that he doesn't exactly fit any specific mold. It's that kind of mystery combined with Esparza's self-deprecating charm that helped him win Last Comic Standing's seventh season. Simply put, Esparza isn't afraid to tell it like it is, and audiences eat up his laid-back stage presence and cutting observations. Like Dat Phan, Esparza mines his family and the characters he encounters for comedy, but he's willing to work against stereotypes. Esparza filmed a special for Showtime, They're Not Going to Laugh at You, which is now streaming on Netflix. He also oversees his own podcast "What's Up, Fool?" based on one of his more famous catchphrases, and still widely tours.
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5. Josh Blue: Denver-born comedian Blue won Last Comic Standing's fourth season based on his willingness to turn adversity into laughter. Born with cerebral palsy, Blue turns his unique experience into self-deprecating comedy. But Last Comic Standing wasn't his first comedy competition rodeo. He made a name for himself before his national television debut by winning accolades at a handful of college and regional comedy competitions. Since Last Comic Standing, Blue released a Comedy Central Presents special, the stand-up special Good Disc, Bad Arm and a special for Showtime, Sticky Change, which Netflix is currently streaming. Blue turns whatever lingering bitterness he may have once had into charged humor aimed primarily at himself, creating a warm environment that crackles with a wry good nature. Like others from the show, he's done film and television, but it's clear stand-up is where he shines best. Blue still tours extensively.
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4. Clayton English: Last Comic Standing's most recent winner, English has been performing comedy for over a decade while working a series of odd jobs to support his aspirations. His comedy ventures into riskier waters than has often been seen from the show's other finalists. It's not that comedians appearing on the show won't get political, but it's rare to see them take the top prize, if only because of Last Comic Standing's primetime spot on broadcast television. Reaching mainstream America takes a more middle of the road comedy, but English has refreshingly taken things in a new direction. After a year full of widely publicized racial tensions, English wove his own perspective—political and socially informed as it is—into his set, which set audiences roaring from the mix of humor and poignancy. There are moments where his delivery tends to draw upon Dave Chappelle's, but if you think he's borrowing from the past to define his present, think again. English is very much his own personality.
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3. Alonzo Bodden: After coming in second place on Last Comic Standing's second season, Bodden made a victorious comeback by winning the third. Listening to his most recent stand-up, it's clear why. His delivery contains an exasperated humor, calling attention to the bullshit he sees in some of the past times he enjoys most, like sports and the network that covers them most. Calling the majority of athletes "incredibly talented criminals," Bodden not only makes audiences laugh, but produces sharp, biting commentary about the athlete-celebrity and their role in society today. It's subject matter that might arise in other comedians' sets, but under Bodden's careful thumb it reveals his growth since his appearance on the competition, the true mark of a talented comedian. In addition to releasing a comedy special on Showtime, Historically Incorrect, Bodden has held numerous hosting gigs and appeared in many films. He still performs stand-up regularly.
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2. Iliza Shlesinger: The show's first and only female finalist, Shlesinger's comedy has grown by leaps and bounds since she first started performing. But it was clear from the get go that she had an approach audiences favored. Perhaps it was her devil-may-care attitude—that ability to be herself no matter what that looks like—which helped win her the title, and that attitude has only sharpened as she's grown more comfortable with herself. Shlesinger displays a more physical brand of comedy, replete with characters, voices and more. A comic attuned to the gender divide and all its frustrations, she's earned a place among her peers for adeptly picking up on women's neuroses and the men (and other women) who cause them. With two Netflix specials under her belt, War Paint and Freezing Hot, and another on the way, Shlesinger proves she not only has staying power but a relevant and distinct punch to offer audiences as well. Her stand-up has also landed her opportunities beyond the stage, including hosting TBS' Separation Anxiety, and penning a soon to be published book.
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1. Rod Man: There are comedians whose material outshines their personality—their delivery hanging back enough to let the content soar—and there are comedians whose personalities outshine their content. Rod Man has struck that sweet spot between the two, where his personality defines his comedy, and his comedy defines his personality. Talking about all manner of topics, he always couches his observations not in objective perspectives but in his own Rod Man point of view. Talking about his problems with babies, credit card machines and more, Rod Man delivers a truly distinct set. That singular approach became one of the reasons he consistently had both the judges and the audiences in stitches during his Last Comic Standing appearance on season 8, which he won. Although he's appeared in numerous venues and late night shows, Rod Man has yet to release a full stand-up special even though he tours quite extensively.