We’re all familiar with the phrase “we laugh to keep from crying.” Sadly, 2016 was such an unrelenting vortex of dark, dangerous, depressing bullshit that even with a surplus of top-tier comedy films, TV shows, and standup specials to engage with, our country was collectively crying a lot more than we were laughing.
But comedy has always been humanity’s port in the storm; whether it takes shape as a temporary buffer from personal pain or a giant middle finger flicked towards a Fascist president-elect, the ability to laugh in the face of tragedy is a much-welcomed form of empowerment. So in a year defined by a political (and existential) crisis, let’s be grateful that there are still artists willing to sit down and construct hour-long specials specifically designed to make us smile, even as everything burns down around us. We need that now more than ever.
Here are the best five comedy specials of 2016 (all available on Netflix now):
5. Michael Che – Michael Che Matters
As a Daily Show alumni and current Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchor, Michael Che is no stranger to political satire. The New York native cut his teeth mocking the absurdity of American politics, but his first Netflix special Michael Che Matters proves he is no one-trick pony, as he offers some hilariously original theories on relationship dynamics, sex, and whether or not Jesus was a good carpenter or not.
But as the title of the special suggests, Michael Che Matters does not shy away from the polarizing issues most American’s squirm in their seats over. Che is at his most confident and poignant when dismantling the head-in-the-sand mentality of white America’s silence on police brutality and the racist hypocrisy of the “All Lives Matter” crowd. “They tell us to never forget 9/11. Well, actually, All Buildings Matter.”
Aside from few uninspired takes on Trump, Michael Che Matters is a standup special that hits the most important target with ease: our funny bones.
4. Ali Wong – Baby Cobra
“If you haven’t gotten HPV yet, you’re a fucking loser.” That’s comedian Ali Wong’s beautifully deadpan humor in a nutshell: trafficking in the raw and raunchy without ever drowning out the honesty and humanity of it all. Wong also decided to film this hour-long special at the Neptune Theater in Seattle while seven months pregnant—a first-time feat in the comedy world. She not only offers side-splitting insight on material ranging from feminism to the pleasurable perils of rough sex, but Wong’s self-awareness of her pregnant body allows her to slyly punctuate each punchline with physical humor (a bit involving a reenactment of her “twerking” during sex is a comedic gem).
But to describe Wong’s wheelhouse as just raunchy would be reductive. In Cobra she offers sensitive, perceptive analysis on racism and gendered double-standards, with “lean in” feminism getting ferociously lampooned from a very unexpected angle. We can only hope Wong continues on this upward swing from the writers’ room to the mainstage and blesses us with more brilliant specials in the future. Baby Cobra’s hysterical bite will stay with you long after the credits roll.
3. David Cross – Making America Great Again
Whereas most comedians opt to be “equal opportunity offenders”—which, let’s face it, is cowardice disguised as diplomacy—David Cross has long been American comedy’s bully against the bullies. He only punches up; up at authority, up at oppressive institutions, up at the thread of evil anti-intellectualism that has somehow been rewarded with power in this country. We hear the word “eviscerate” a lot on Twitter, and sadly it’s been neutered of its meaning. But Cross has done just that throughout his career and especially so in Making America Great Again, which finds him eviscerating the sanctimony of the religious Right, the militarization of racist police forces and, of course, Donald J. Trump and his congregation of sheep.
Cross isn’t above going silly, of course, offering self-deprecating jabs at his Arrested Development character Tobias Fünke or nightmare scenarios at a tattoo parlor. But it’s his razor-sharp social commentary that punctures the jugular. Making America Great Again might have the most hard-hitting “Blue Lives Murder” bit you’ve ever heard. However, his magnum opus is a prolonged, graphic bit about an NRA-backed Senator who loses a child to gun violence. It’s beyond uncomfortable, as if Cross is daring you to laugh through the tension. The camera even follows audience members as they bolt out of the theater from the discomfort.
Comedy at its best can speak truth to power, and David Cross’ truth can hurt.
2. Reggie Watts – Spatial
You can tell right off the bat that comedian and multi-instrumentalist Reggie Watts’ special is going to be a unique experience as soon as you see the small, intimate crowd sitting on beanbags. But just how unique of an experience Spatial turns out to be is damn-near unquantifiable. It’s a surreal blend of experimental theater, rock and hip-hop concerts, Mr. Show/Comedy Bang-Bang sketch, and space-time-continuum-bending dance party. It’s unlike any comedy special you’ve seen before, which is very on brand for Watts, who has continually redefined himself as an entertainer (and redefined what entertainment can mean) over a career that spans two decades.
Spatial is a marvel to behold that feels like the literal definition of poetry in motion. But it’s not just a gimmicky spectacle. The jokes kill (Watts has one of the best weed-related anecdotes I’ve ever heard) and the meta improv show feels as authentic as one you’d watch at the UCB Theater.
1. Bo Burnham – Make Happy
Unlike every other comedian mentioned on this list, Bo Burnham was born directly out of the Internet. Making silly YouTube videos in his bedroom as a young teen to being one of the early adopters of Vine (RIP), Burnham’s sensibilities were informed by the Digital Age. He is a new breed of comic, one whose thick skin was not built by hecklers in comedy clubs but by tens of thousands of faceless, anonymous trolls in comment sections. Burnham also has a much more nuanced understanding of how the Internet functions, compared to the old men comics shaking their fists at the clouds about “kids these days and their technology.” Burnham uses this perceptiveness to create a post-post-post-modern masterpiece in Make Happy. It’s a comedy special that simulates the online experience while satirizing the performative nature of social media, the illusion of autonomy and individuality on the Internet, and how art and audiences have been divided instead of brought together in the age of connectedness.
I mean, Make Happy is old-school Brechtian Theater. It constantly shatters the fourth wall to implicate the audience in the jokes they are laughing at. The show itself is even anthropomorphized with a disembodied, omniscient voice that calls Burnham slurs anytime he tells a bad joke. Burnham deconstructs the comedy right before your very eyes, like a magician prematurely revealing his trick, yet still manages to wow you. If this all sounds like heady stuff, fear not. There are hilarious bits on white privilege, identity, and pitch-perfect parody song recreations (did I mention Burnham is a musical genius?) that expose some of your pop culture favs.
Watch Make Happy not now, but right now.