Joaquin Phoenix’s dark take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Joker has brought the legendary Batman villain back into the spotlight for the first time since …. well, since 2016, but the inexhaustible market for new iterations of the Joker is one part of what makes the character so legendary. The other part is the Joker’s trademark laugh. More than 25 actors have played the character in officially licensed Batman films, TV shows, and video games—not even counting Lego Jokers—and each one had his own spin on the Joker’s maniacal laughter. But who laughed best? For the purposes of comparison, we’ll be sticking to movie Jokers only, because it doesn’t seem sporting to compare a live-action performance to the work of someone like Ted Knight, whose Joker on The Batman/Superman Hour had to battle not just the Caped Crusader, but also Filmation’s limited animation pipeline. (He had a pretty good laugh, though!) Here, then, is the definitive ranking of cinema’s non–Lego-related Joker laughs.
9. Frank Sinatra, The Joker Is Wild
It turned out this was about a different Joker. Last place.
8. Jared Leto, Suicide Squad
This movie is two hours and 17 minutes long, and the closest the Joker gets to full laughter is in a mini-homage to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Leto’s Joker is maybe a little underrated because of the ridiculousness of the movie around him—he made a lot of big choices and some of them paid off—but judged strictly on the basis of the cawing, strangled cat of a laugh 40 seconds into the clip above, his Joker needed a little more time in the chemical vat.
7. Conrad Veidt, The Man Who Laughs
Conrad Veidt’s performance as Gwynplaine in Universal’s 1928 adaptation of The Man Who Laughs was the original inspiration for the Joker. Gwynplaine, a Glasgow-smiled sideshow attraction with slicked-back hair and rows of teeth, would appear basically unchanged in the first issue of Batman 12 years later. Veidt’s character is the hero, but The Man Who Laughs also has a Joker-like figure in court jester Barkilphedro, of whom we’re told, “All his jests were cruel, and all his smiles were false.” The scene in which Barkilphedro pantomimes Gwynplaine’s origin story will look familiar to Joker fans:
But inspiring the Joker only gets this film into the arena, and Veidt just doesn’t have what it takes to make it to the championship, for a very simple reason: The Man Who Laughs doesn’t, at least not audibly. All the audience can say for sure about Veidt’s laughter is that it almost certainly sounded better than Leto’s. Further hurting this otherwise excellent film’s chances in the Joker laugh contest is the unfortunate fact that Veidt is not playing the Joker.
6. Curtis Armstrong, An OnStar Commercial
This doesn’t technically count as a movie, but since it’s the only live-action Joker to use prosthetics to recreate the shape of the Joker’s head from the comic books and animated series, it’s very important that everyone know about it. Armstrong’s innovative approach was handicapped by the extremely short runtime of this OnStar commercial. But there’s more Joker laughter in these 30 seconds than in all of Suicide Squad, and you don’t have to imagine what it sounds like, giving his Joker a slight edge over Leto’s, Veidt’s, and Sinatra’s.
5. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Joaquin Phoenix’s laughter in Joker, like the rest of his performance, is disturbing and mesmerizing, a humorless series of squawks and yelps that seem to cause him physical pain. It also has a textual justification besides the natural exuberance of the Clown Prince of Crime: Phoenix’s character has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. That’d be disqualifying in a Joker laugh, but for most of the movie he isn’t the Joker, he’s a sad sack clown for hire named Arthur Fleck. His transformation happens late—around the time Phillips starts sprinkling a few flakes of The Dark Knight Returns on his microwaved Scorsese for flavor—and although this Joker is cheerful enough, he does more smiling and chuckling than outright laughing. When he finally lets loose the full peals of Joker laughter, there’s still more of Arthur Fleck’s pain than the Joker’s glee in his hiccupy delivery. So although this would undoubtedly be the definitive Arthur Fleck laugh even if it weren’t the only Arthur Fleck laugh, as a Joker laugh it’s middle-of-the-road.
4. Jack Nicholson, Batman
Jack Nicholson’s Joker laugh was not very far from Jack Nicholson’s Jack Nicholson laugh, and as a result, it has a lot more range than many other Joker laughs, running from the guttural I-just-heard-a-really-dirty-joke snicker he uses when he reveals his new look to Jack Palance all the way up to the hootin’ and a-hollerin’ on display in this clip. Nicholson’s Joker is on the sane end of the Joker spectrum in the sense that his laughter usually reaches his eyes: It’s not a psychotic tic but a genuine reaction to things that strike him as funny. But there’s a little too much Jack Nicholson and not enough Joker for this to rank higher.
3. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Ledger’s Joker is justly admired for being one of the most disturbing versions, a pure agent of chaos. But for all his complaining about other people being too serious, his Joker is also the most humorless, and the proof is that no other Joker in history would be able to listen to Christian Bale’s Batman voice with a straight face. Ledger only does a full Joker laugh a few times—see, e.g., when he believes he is falling to his death—and it’s not all that memorable a laugh, especially compared with the rest of his performance. But he moves up in the rankings for the sarcastic, deconstructed laughter he uses during his entrance in the scene above, one of the only true innovations in Joker laughter since the character was invented.
2. Cesar Romero, Batman
Cesar Romero’s Joker—seen here in a clip from the Batman TV show, but if you think he switched things up for the movie, you don’t know Cesar Romero’s Joker—is sometimes maligned because of his facial hair. But is there anything truer to the Joker’s chaotic spirit than shimmering greasepaint slathered on like frosting over a clearly visible mustache? Romero’s interpretation had an outsized influence on everyone who followed (there are only so many ways you can laugh maniacally, after all), but give the man his due: It’s a truly exceptional maniacal laugh, and would have worked fine in even the grittiest Batman story, whatever you’d have to adjust about the rest of his performance. Romero’s Joker is generous about his humor in a way that only Jack Nicholson really followed up on. Look at the way he makes sure his henchman sees the joy buzzer in his hand: He wants everyone to share in the fun, except for the people he electrocutes. What pushes this up to No. 2 is that, despite the fact that other Jokers know more about comedy—a significant portion have origin stories involving stand-up—Romero’s Joker was the only one to craft an insult as simple and effective as “Fatman and the Boy Blunder.” Diabolical!
1. Mark Hamill, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Mark Hamill has played the Joker more often than any other actor, and there’s a reason: He was in Star Wars, and there is a considerable overlap between those two fan bases. There’s also another reason, which is that he has the absolute best Joker laugh, a hyena-like howl in which each new peal of laughter begins with an actual scream. (Skip to the two-minute mark of this clip from 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm for a prime example.) Hamill, who had played Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway, brought some of that infantile love of mischief to the part, and his Joker laughs early and often. The degree to which Hamill’s performances are served by his animators varies, but the wide variety of Jokers Hamill has played, from the flat, kid-friendly look of Batman: The Animated Series to the 3D body horror of Batman: Arkham City, has a kind of cumulative effect: So many different Jokers sound like Mark Hamill that it’s hard not to conclude that Mark Hamill sounds like the Joker. What’s more, voicing so many Jokers by so many different writers over the years meant that Hamill was uniquely positioned to realize that the president of the United States was writing Joker dialogue on spec. That’s a joke worthy of the Joker himself, and it’d put Hamill over the top even if his exquisite Joker laugh hadn’t done it already. So congratulations, Mark Hamill: Your Joker laugh is the greatest of them all, at least until another actor takes on the legendary role, presumably sometime next month. Ha ha ha ha ha.