Did you know you’re currently living through what many comedians consider the second big comedy boom? Stand-up, improv and sketch might be bigger than ever right now, thanks in part to an explosion in distribution channels. Anybody with minimal resources can upload a video to YouTube or make a podcast. Stand-up shows long ago escaped the two drink minimum clubs they were confined to, and if you live in a major city, you can probably find stand-up at any number of unexpected venues, from barber shops to laundromats. Comedy is everywhere right now, and there’s no end to the list of comedians, both aspiring and established, reaping the rewards.
It’s not just amateurs or younger comedians benefiting from this expanded comedy ecosystem. If you’re a dedicated professional you have more avenues for a stand-up special than ever before. Classic stalwarts like HBO and Comedy Central now must contend with Netflix, Epix and other upstart programmers. It felt like there was at least one major stand-up special premiering every week this year, and yes, that can get hard to keep track of. We’ve watched almost all of them here at Paste, and can definitively state that these 10 specials were our favorites of the year. And for our purposes, that also makes them the best of the year.
10. Nate Bargatze: Full Time Magic
Beneath Southern born Bargatze’s low-key charm and common guy demeanor lies a sharp mind and a keen eye for the life’s minor absurdities. And if that sounds like the liner notes to a stand-up album from fifty years ago, well, there is a bit of a throwback appeal to Full Time Magic. Bargatze proves you can be hilarious without working blue or fixating on sex, but it’s not like he’s a puritan or a moralist, or anything. He’s just an affable guy with great timing and some hilarious stories to share.—Garrett Martin
9. Paul F. Tompkins: Crying and Driving
Paul F. Tompkins has fully merged into being a storyteller comedian. It has been taken to another level with his latest special, Crying and Driving. There’s no microphone in his hand. The stage is almost entirely sparse. It’s just Tompkins and his fancy suit and his dapper mustache and a few stories about his life as a middle-aged man. Tompkins is able to pepper his running monologue with funny turns of phrase, which he is a master of, and amusing line deliveries. His physicality, while subtle, adds to many jokes. Tompkins is still one of the better stand-up comedians working today.—Chris Morgan
8. Eugene Mirman: Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store
This special is a great way to see how confident Eugene Mirman is onstage. He’s never been a retiring type, but he’s willing to roll with the punches of a riotous Q&A segment and willing to pull people onstage to stage a fake wedding with him as the officiant. And he doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life has changed now that he’s a public figure that can hobnob in Mexico with the former members of R.E.M. and can get recognized in a Guitar Center for his work on Delocated. Mirman is thus at the perfect place for a comic: he can fill up a small theater in Tucson, Arizona to film a stand-up special, and keeps getting interesting work, but isn’t so famous that he can’t see the absurdity in some of the things happening around him.—Robert Ham
7. Kyle Kinane: I Liked His Old Stuff Better
Kyle Kinane’s latest special provides some great evidence of how he is growing as a writer. Previous specials and standup appearances balanced out his look at life’s absurdities and the little moments of wonder/confusion that he stumbled upon. Here, the focus is almost entirely inward, digging out the moments of joy and sorrow and weirdness that he had a stake in.—RH
6. Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo
It’s weird that Amy Schumer’s first HBO special feels anticlimactic. She’s already bigger than stand-up. Instead of announcing her arrival at the top, Live at the Apollo feels like a victory lap. Through it all it feels like she’s both playing a character but also being honest, exaggerating her own desires and behavior and talking about them in a matter-of-fact and conspiratorial way that makes her relatable. She’s doing what great comedians have done for generations, playing an outsized version of herself while telling stories that may or may not be true but easily feel like they could be. She’s not really trying to shock as much as she used to. It makes her feel more honest, and also proves how she’s matured as a comedian—she’s able to get bigger and better laughs with material that’s a little bit subtler than in the past.—GM
5. Louis C.K.: Live at the Comedy Store
If you needed more reason to admire C.K.’s understanding of stand-up, especially for someone at the level of success that he remains at, it’s that he almost completely avoids talking about his work on a TV show or in films. The comedy remains focused on himself and his wily view of the world: his failings as a father and a human being (“I’m 47 now…which you don’t get anything for that. When you’re 18, you get to drive. When you’re 21, you get to drink. 47? You get to keep being out of breath.”), his small and large frustrations with people, and a wonderful bit at the end about the overacting of Ray Bolger, Jr. in The Wizard of Oz.—RH
4. John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid
John Mulaney’s two comedic strong suits are his ability to dissect popular culture to hilarious effect (and this time Back to the Future’s Marty McFly and Doc Brown, as well as HGTV, end up on his skewer) and the yarns he spins from his own childhood and adolescent experiences. For his lengthier tales, which include Mulaney trying to be an alpha male of the house so his French Bulldog Petunia stops ruling the roost, and the time he met Bill Clinton when the Arkansas governor was running for president, he finds his footing more assuredly, reminding audiences why he does what he does so well. There’s humanity in laughter, and the kind of laughter Mulaney encourages seems imperative in the wake of recent world events.—Amanda Wicks
3. Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden
Aziz Ansari reveals a vital new strength in this special. He can comfortably broach serious, depressing issues and cut right to the heart of society’s ills without ever growing strident. He retains his effortless charisma and youthful exuberance even when talking about how horrible men are to women all of the time. He’s a more fully rounded comic now, a wiser and braver performer whose material now matches his stature, and one who has grown comfortably into his role near the top of the current stand-up hierarchy.—GM
2. Jen Kirkman: I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)
What makes this hour of material so refreshing is that everything Kirkman discusses are the sort of subjects that women are unfortunately supposed to be ashamed about in our culture. She’s supposed to be still reeling from her divorce and sad that she’s a childless single woman, living on her own at age 40 who will get discovered dead in her bathtub with her face eaten off by a cat. Instead, Kirkman is light on her feet, happy about her current situation and ready for the adventures that the second half of her life will bring.—RH
1. Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted
About two-thirds of the way through Tig Notaro’s first HBO comedy special, the 44-year-old stand-up removes her shirt to let the Boston audience see her mastectomy scars and completely flat chest, and then performs the rest of her set without commenting on it. It feels here like another great bit of conceptual stage work on the comic’s part. It is, like her insistence that she get a standing ovation at the end, a commentary on the nature of these kinds of standup performances. As great as they can be, standup shows can get routine because audiences are now trained to know what to expect. The truly outstanding comics are the ones that mess with the formula. Notaro dares to address this huge thing head on and dares to mine it for laughs.
That’s been the magic of Notaro’s standup work for her whole career, though. And why her current success feels so justified and so worthwhile. She’s been in the trenches for so long, it’s about time the world took notice of her flat, halting delivery and unique view of the world around her. It’s the kind of voice that can take what would be a plain anecdote like she and her friend trying to chase down a Santa impersonator and turn it into an ROTFL moment. It’s also the voice that elevates an already great story about bombing hard in Las Vegas with an ice cream moustache on her face to the level of breathless hilarity. Shirt on or shirt off, Notaro is still going to remain one of the best stand-up comics around.—RH