There was a glut of standup specials in 2017.
Between Comedy Central’s half-hours, HBO and Showtime’s hour-long specials, and a healthy hybrid of the two across subscription-based streaming sites (RIP Seeso), trying to keep current with an accelerated output of comedic content from a crop of comedians both new and old might’ve felt less like a euphoric drug and more like an anxiety-inducing chore. Like Rita Rudner once declared during the standup bubble of the early ’90s, “There are too many comedians! Pretty soon the government is going to pay you not to be a comedian the same way they pay you not to grow wheat.”
Rudner’s joke is especially germane because the cultural climate in which she wrote it is strikingly similar to today’s: We’re still stumbling to adjust to the void created by the departure of a Late Night demigod. We’re still witnessing local brick-and-mortar comedy clubs shutter at an alarming rate as technology forces consumer habits to evolve. We’re still in Iraq. You get the picture.
But the upside to our current comedy bubble is the variety afforded by its elasticity. The bubble has expanded to the point where exclusionary industry gatekeepers’ firewalls have burned down, allowing for more diverse voices, inclusive experiences, and experimental styles to slip in, set up shop, and become the rule rather than a marginal exception. And the glut of standup specials this year put these hilarious and innovative voices on prominent display. It feels miraculous that comedy in 2017 managed to be defined by both quantity and quality.
Sometimes a glut is good.
10. Sasheer Zamata, Pizza Mind
Just months before bidding farewell to Studio 8H and her SNL family, Sasheer Zamata released Pizza Mind, her very first special, on the now gone-too-soon Seeso. A genre-blending affair, the special finds Zamata liberated from the collaborative limits of short-form sketch comedy. Taking the DNA of Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic and running even further with it, Pizza Mind uses traditional stand-up, animated reenactments of particular bits and a grand finale musical number to showcase exactly what made Zamata such a creatively instrumental (and criminally underused) utility player on SNL. Her voice and point of view are undeniable, whether she’s unflinching in her mocking of the commonplace of workplace racism or hilariously detailing a failed make-out attempt on mushrooms.
Sasheer Zamata’s has a lot to say that she couldn’t under Lorne’s lording. We were long overdue to hear a piece of her mind.
You can stream Pizza Mind on Amazon Prime.
9. Joel Kim Booster, Model Minority
As far as debut comedy albums are concerned, Joel Kim Booster’s Model Minority ranks among the most memorable and distinctive. Even if you aren’t familiar with Booster’s story (because you’ve been living under a rock and missed his spectacular sets on Conan or his Comedy Central half-hour), Model Minority lays bare his life experiences, warts and all. With rich detail and a disposition which can be described as “self-deprecatingly cocky,” Booster opens up about what it was like for him growing up gay in an Evangelical household, how he grappled with identity as an Asian man with white parents, and his observations on the minutiae of the millennial experience. But Booster possesses the comedic gift of making hyper-personal experiences feel instantly universal, highlighting the hilarity in any sort of grief and stripping that grief its power by poking fun at it and allowing us to join in. Thanks to Booster’s ebullient voice, sharp bite, and a perceptive knack for witty wordplay (a great bit about Confederate statues and participation trophies stands out), Model Minority is a refreshingly warm welcome into a bold young comedian’s mind.
You can listen to Model Minority on iTunes.
8. Norm MacDonald, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip, and Trickery
Buried beneath the cynicism, the deadpan delivery, and the artifice of anti-comedy, lies a classical, almost-Vaudevillian-playfulness to Norm MacDonald’s humor. But instead of slapstick or anything close to physicality, Norm lets a sly side-eye or a beat of silence punctuate a punchline. And that’s what makes Norm’s breezy Netflix special Hitler’s Dog, Gossip, and Trickery so great. It puts to bed any misconception that he’s a relic of comedy’s past who couldn’t evolve with the times or aged out of an art form that favors the young. There’s a timelessness to his craft. He’s as loose as ever—yet there’s a polish too—and you can see how much fun he’s having on stage. Plus, the special is peak Norm: he’ll apologize for getting “too political” before cracking wise about World War 2; he’ll dive into dark but poignant territory while discussing the sexy allure of suicide and how it easy it is to go to the “rope store” then over to the “rickety stool store”; then he’ll undercut it all by threading in a broad reenactment of autoerotic asphyxiation.
Sometimes an old dog doesn’t need any new trickery.
You can watch Hitler’s Dog, Gossip, Trickery on Netflix.
7. Rory Scovel, Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time
Rory Scovel is one of the most finely tuned joke-writers and fiery joke-tellers working in comedy today. He’s all whiskey-soaked Southern rage with a ginger chaser of smarts and sensitivity. The enlightened absurdist self-awareness of Steve Martin with a sprinkle of Bill Hick’s nihilism. Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time is a monument to the many comedy masks he’s able to wear at once, where he can joke about anal sex and gun violence in the same breath without coming off idiotic or insensitive. (“If you believe Jesus is white you’re not allowed to have an opinion on gun control”). The special also leaves room for him to satirize the structural state of stand-up specials. After an clean run of bits and crowd work, Rory shatters the fourth wall to cut to a tongue-in-cheek interstitial where he and Jack White are participating in a Q&A just to pad the time of an hour special. I wish more comedians acknowledged the fact that a lot of hours are plagued with filler, and that in the age of streaming, there’s no need to cling to these arbitrary run times. Rory sticks the landing on his “first” attempt.
You can watch Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For The First Time on Netflix.
6. Tiffany Haddish, She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood!
Who’s had a better year than Tiffany Haddish?
Not only did she become a household name thanks to an instantly iconic performance (*ahem*, Academy) in this summer’s smash hit Girl’s Trip, but Haddish also released one of the most genuine, intimate, and funny standup specials in recent memory. Where her earlier work on the Def Comedy Jam stage was defined by attitude and raw, unrelenting energy, She Ready! finds a much more focused Tiffany as she intensely dials in on her intricate storytelling abilities without feeling rigid or restrained. Haddish has this uncanny ability to elicit pathos with verbal stories about her time in foster care, then immediately disorient you with her hysterical physical prowess as she reenacts her modeling career at the Slauson swap meet.
Tiffany Haddish is not just charming, charismatic, and a commanding presence, but she’s one of the more versatile comics working today. She’s more than ready to be mentioned with the same veneration as her fellow Def Comedy Jam alums like Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence.
You can watch She Ready! From The Hood to Hollywood! on Showtime.
5. Julio Torres, Comedy Central Presents
Julio Torres is the delightfully demented mind behind some of SNL’s more memorable pre-taped sketches—most recently “Wells For Boys” and “Papyrus”—and he brings his trademark energy (somehow both eerie and ethereal) and esoteric observations to his Comedy Central half-hour. His writing is much like the style of his delivery: deliberate, economical, and lean. Every prolonged silence, every stutter, every syllable of Torres’s soothing speech pattern has a purpose. That makes his set so enthralling—you’re hanging on to his every word, hypnotized as he apologizes for being vegan or for explaining how a doctor visit got extremely awkward. You can never guess where his jokes are going, which adds an air of silly suspense to every punchline.
You can watch Comedy Central Presents Julio Torres on CC.com.
4. Mario Bamford, Old Baby
The term post-modern gets tossed around so much that it’s become an impotent catch-all phrase for any piece of art that feels even remotely reflexive or avant garde. But the comedic deconstruction Maria Bamford showcases in Old Baby is truly pure post-modern craftsmanship at work. Old Baby upends the hierarchy of the performer-audience relationship as Bamford performs her act fluidly while her venues change in size as the special progresses (it starts with her performing in front of the mirror and ends in a packed theater). Bamford is about creating a communal comedy experience, one that promotes parity between performer and viewer; because to Bamford, they need one another. We complete each other. And you’ll see how transcendent, touching, and truly funny that connection can be once you see her “One Big Blob” bit in Old Baby.
You can watch Old Baby on Netflix.
3. Neal Brennan, 3 Mics
Another special that toys with format and structure in order to get to deeper emotional truths, Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics could’ve easily been reduced to a gimmick in execution but instead reveals itself a cathartic triumph. With three microphones on stage—one for one-liners, one for traditional stand-up and one for brutally vulnerable confessions—Brennan explores the symbiosis of his mental health struggles and his joke-writing in real time. There is no artifice whatsoever—just a man and his multiple mics, tracing the roots of his depression to his family trauma back to his comedy, and how the latter provided him a life preserver so he wouldn’t drown in the former. All of Brennan’s sadness, his success, his silly dick jokes... they inform one another. Everything fucking matters.
You can watch 3 Mics on Netflix. Read our interview with Neal about the special HERE.
2. Jerrod Carmichael, 8
An anxiety-ridden masterpiece, Jerrod Carmichael’s 8 opens with an extreme close-up on the young comedian’s concerned face. After a beat of silence that feels like an eternity he asks, “Are we gonna be okay?” It’s a loaded question, and one that Carmichael doesn’t (or can’t) answer by the time the special is over. And the spectre of that uncertainty—the uncertainty of Trump’s America, the uncertainty of whether his opinions are even worth unpacking, the uncertainty of if the themes he’s exploring can even be considered funny—feels like an electrical current jolting you as a viewer. Don’t get me wrong, 8 is funny as hell, but Carmichael luxuriates in the awkward silences and discomfort of his audience as he pokes the proverbial hornet’s nest of political correctness and the illusion of proper performer etiquette. There’s a brilliant mind at work here, one that’s more interesting in investigating truth in real time in his own rhythm than getting a cheap laugh every 15 seconds. 8 will get under your skin and bludgeon your funny bone in equal measure.
You can watch 8 on HBOGo/HBONow. Read our interview with Jerrod about the special HERE.
1. Judah Friedlander, America is the Greatest Country in the United States
There’s something inherently Western about a guy getting up on stage and talking about himself for hours on end. Self-proclaimed World Champion Judah Friedlander understands that, as well as the absurdity of jingoism and the failures of late capitalism, better than any political humorist working today. That’s how he was able to create a masterpiece of standup comedy with America is the Greatest Country in the United States.
Intercut with club sets that Friedlander performed both before and after the election, political dread of course undergirds the proceedings. But the key to the special’s inventiveness lies within its formalism. There’s a magnetism to its minimalism. Shot in black and white, America is the Greatest Country in the United States captures Friedlander casually and calmly standing on stage as he engages in extended crowd work. The tone begins to shift, and his interaction with the audience transmutes into what can readily be described as a heightened town hall meeting. He opens the floor for their political inquiries, and he’ll perforate the façade of American exceptionalism by riffing on how much “better” we are than other countries. His explanations prove to have the opposite effect and highlight just how depraved this country really is (a great bit about solving Hollywood’s racism by invading and bombing Sweden crystallizes this perfectly).
Even though his satirical responses are mostly extemporaneous, it feels as if Friedlander has given a lot of thought to them and manages to make salient sociopolitical points. Unlike the smug irony of Stephen Colbert’s conservative Colbert Report character that felt distant behind the artifice of a talk show, Friedlander’s performance is urgent and immediate and visceral. There’s no ironic detachment here. There’s a searing sincerity to his leftist politics that makes his fuck-you to Trump much more grounded, and his humor much more potent.
In the post-election vignettes, Friedlander is noticeably more direct, agitated and sad compared to the material he shot in early 2016. (“I wanted love to win but love didn’t even make it to the finals”). And with impossible poise, he was able to use his comedy to transfigure that pain into the best standup special of the year.
You can watch America is the Greatest Country in the United States on Netflix.