There are hundreds, even thousands, of stand-ups performing across the United States. Few of them make it big, and even fewer join the ranks of George Carlin and Richard Pryor as comedy legends. But some of the best and most promising comedians today aren’t playing it safe on stage. They’re talking about difficult, and sometimes controversial, subjects regarding current events, politics, and especially diversity.
These are 8 of the best (and most promising) stand-up comedians who aren’t afraid to talk about their backgrounds, social change, and what makes them different.
1. Ali Wong
Ali Wong is one of the most popular comedians in the biz, so it’s hard to believe she was relatively unknown just a few years ago. Her Netflix stand-up special Baby Cobra introduced the comedian, who was seven months pregnant at the time it was filmed, to a national audience.
Ali is unfiltered when it comes to talking about her dating history, marrying her Harvard Business School graduate-husband, and pregnancy, but she’s just as open when talking about her Chinese and Vietnamese background. Rather than avoid or reject stereotypes, she makes light of them. As one critic put it, “Instead of trivializing Asian-American culture, she attempts to normalize it.”
2. Hannibal Buress
Hannibal Buress is arguably the biggest name on this list, but his success in television shows including Broad City and films Daddy’s Home and Tag hasn’t stopped him from performing comedy regularly.
Originally from Chicago, Hannibal began this stand-up career at an open mic and has since become known for his observational comedy style. In 2014, he spoke about the sexual allegations against Bill Cosby. That routine unintentionally inspired more women to come forward with their stories, making it a prime example of a time when stand-up didn’t just make people laugh; it was a vehicle for good.
You might recognize K-von from MTV’s Disaster Date or Last Comic Standing, but Kevan "K-von" Moezzi has been performing stand-up internationally for years, having shared the stage with the likes of Russell Peters and Daniel Tosh. While K-von talks about current events, it’s his unique cultural background that he often focuses on, poking fun at himself and his experiences growing up with a Persian dad and a Caucasian mom in Las Vegas.
K-von also has a popular comedy YouTube channel where he posts comedy bits as well as travel vlogs. He recently released his first book, Once You Go Persian: A Survival Guide from a “Half”.
4. W. Kamau Bell
W. Kamau Bell has established himself as one of the most prominent comedic and political voices in America. After garnering success in the San Francisco stand-up scene, he released his first comedy album One Night Only in 2007 and has since followed it up with a string of comedy albums and specials.
A self-described “sociopolitical” comedian, Kamau is the host of the Emmy Award-winning CNN docu-series United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, in which he travels the United States to explore race-based subcultures. He has also hosted three different podcasts, including Politically Re-Active with fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu, who is next on our list.
5. Hari Kondabolu
Born in Flushing, Queens to Indian parents, Hari Kondabolu got his start in Seattle’s alternative comedy scene. After winning a spot to perform at the HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen, Hari made his television debut performing a five-minute set on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and has made numerous television appearances since.
A former immigrant rights organizer with a Masters in Human Rights, Hari’s comedy often centers on social issues like racism and xenophobia. His latest special Warn Your Relatives debuted on Netflix in May 2018.
6. Sam Jay
Sam Jay is a comedian on the rise. This past year alone she released a comedy album and made an appearance in Netflix's The Comedy Lineup, a show in which up-and-coming comedians perform 15-minute stand-up sets.
As an openly gay African American, she made history when she got a writing job at Saturday Night Live, the famed comedy show also notorious for its lack of diversity. Jay told Paste Magazine that she thinks the point of a comedian’s job is to “pick the risky thing to say” and that she prefers “to talk about things from every possible angle.”
7. Michelle Buteau
Michelle Buteau is a stand-up comic, actress and the host of Late Night Whenever, a podcast from the producers of 2 Dope Queens. She’s toured the country performing at colleges, clubs, and festivals and has made appearances on Key & Peele.
Born in New Jersey to Caribbean parents, Michelle covers a variety of topics in her comedy, including relationships, body image, and diversity. She was recently featured in The Comedy Lineup alongside Sam Jay.
8. Joel Kim Booster
“As you can imagine, it was a little weird growing up in the Midwest with this face and that family. I literally knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian,” Joel Kim Booster tells Vulture about growing up with his adoptive parents who happen to be white, religious conservatives.
But unusual upbringings can make for comedy gold, which has been the case for Joel. He began doing stand-up in Chicago, but his career didn’t really pick up steam until he moved to New York. Since then he’s performed on Conan, written for Billy on the Street, and his Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents half-hour special premiered last year.