America’s Greatest Living Humorists: Parker and Stone, or Larry David?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 17 2011 1:14 PM

America’s Greatest Living Humorists: Parker and Stone, or Larry David?

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker were the big winners at the Tony Awards last weekend, as their hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon took home nine trophies, including the big prize for best musical. The pair isnow halfway to achieving the EGOT, the grand slam of Hollywood trophies thatincludes the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys. (Parker really should bethree-quarters of the way there already, but he was robbed of an Academy Award in 1999 by PhilCollins).

In a thought-provoking essay over at Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz uses the occasion of Parker and Stone's official conquest of Broadway to muse that the progenitors of Eric Cartman and Team America: World Police may well be the greatest and most consistent American humorists alive today.

I eagerly labeled Stone and Parker the greatest musical satirists of this generation in a video essay for Slate two months ago, but despite being a huge fan, I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're the country's greatest humorists, full stop. The competition is just too great, and their comedic achievements seem to me to be appreciated by too narrow of an audience. But the essay did get me thinking: If not to Parker and Stone, then to whom would I hand the title?

Going by the criteria Zoller Seitz set out "audacity, visual flair, musicalchops, verbal invention and gut-busting silliness, not to mention consistency of vision over time" I can think of a few other serious contenders, including Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, and Tina Fey. (Okay, so none of them have demonstrated "musical chops," per se, but that seems like a criteria designed specifically for Stone and Parker.)

If I had to pick one person, though, who has more thoroughly influenced the American comedy landscape and offered consistent laughs for an even greater length of time than Stone, Parker, O'Brien, Fey, or Stewart, it would have tobe Jerry Seinfeld's former partner, Larry David. Seinfeld, which David co-created, is regularly listed not only among the best sitcoms of all-time, but the best shows ever. The many classic episodes David wrote are still wildly popular insyndication and still hold up 20 years later, and after multiple viewings. Hissecond show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, meanwhile, is going strong as it enters its eighthseason.

David when he's not defending reality TV stars has continuously been able to combine insane premises (see "The Bubble Boy" episode of Seinfeld ), coherent storylines (see Curb 's season four The Producers arc), and side-splittingly funny set pieces (see all) as audacious, clever, absurd, and sophisticated as anything Stone and Parker have imagined, and he has done so without the nearly infinite liberty that animation provides. What clinches it for me, though, is the influence that David's work, specifically Seinfeld, has had over his fellow great humorists for the past two decades. If you lookat the hallmarks of today's best comedy shows, it's easy to see the shadow of Seinfeld: the meta self-referential jokes; the obsession with cultural minutia; the almost perverse loathing of cultural niceties; the cringe-inducing awkward situations and characters; the season-long story arcs; and the warped, id-driven characters we can't help but love. Larry David may not have invented these techniques, but he perfected them, made them mainstream, and continues to purvey them at a higher level than any of his comedic rivals. And because he is exactly the type of person who would rather quit working on something than see it grow stale, as long as he continues to write, David will remain master of his domain .

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Photograph of Larry David courtesy of Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images. 

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Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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