you can't really compare Nicholson and Ledger. different directors, different decades, different views, different styles, it just can't be done.
While I agree it may be tough to say which one was a better joker overall, it is not impossible to compare the two in terms of... Jokerism.
Lets look at a few key points in the Joker repertoire and do a comparison:
-------------- SPOILERS!!??!! (Should have been obvious... but hey)--------------
1. Funny Factor = Obviously the Joker has to make you at least smile or else he wouldn't be the "Joker."
Nicholson- He had a few props, he always wore a smile, and nothing was serious. Everything needed a punch line and it worked in contrast to Batman's stern and almost melodramatic seriousness. Flowers squirting acid and the good old "joker venom." Gags are more the Nicholson style.
Ledger- While not as blatently a clown there is no denying the sheer brilliance of his magic pencil trick. Also when he goes to slick back his hair to meet Rachel a smile has to appear on your face. And even though the Joker nurse may make you smile again, the rest of his performance is creepy, dramatic, and chaotic. Not as much gag joking, but smiles interrupt the insane tirade.
More comic book joker goes to Nicholson, but Ledger's subtle humor comes close and adds a very nice touch to the character.
2. The Laugh = No Joker is complete without the perfect laugh. While nobody can laugh like Mark Hamill (the joker's voice on most TV shows) both Ledger and Nicholson TIE in my book in this department. Ledger's laugh pierces your heart and makes you cringe while Nicholson's makes you realize he just doesn't care what happens, and that is scary in its own way.
3. Batman's Archenemy- Joker is Batman's rival because he is so much different in terms of tone, yet so much alike that it actually scares Batman. Nicholson's joker really didn't have much in common with Batman as he was a little less psychotic genius and a little more mobster. Ledger's Joker literally states that the two share a destiny and that Batman is, "A freak" like him to the people of Gotham. The ways they mirror eachother in planning and concise action are well done and yet the nature of their moral codes sets them so far apart. They are destined to fight to eternity.
In the end... I can't pick a "better" Joker, not because they are so different, just because they are both so good. I appreciate Ledger's performance because I am older now and the movie is a little more profound, but Nicholson nailed the Joker's "comic book clown" persona. If I had to choose a winner I would say Ledger... but just by a red fuzzy nose.
Sev Fett wrote:
Nicholson was more of the BANG out of the end of the gun Joker. And Ledger pushed the insanity to an extreme much like when Joker made a comeback to be Batman's major villain in the 70's and during the entire killing Joke thing.
While you're on the right track, I think the grenade pin Ledger's Joker pulled as he drove away on the bus (which only emitts smoke) in the very beginning of Dark Knight is too close to a "Bang Flag" gun for your metaphor to work...
Good... Bad... I'm the one with the gun.
Hail to the King Baby!!