Our collective perception of time has been severely warped by the last couple years, so I’m just as surprised as you to discover that we’re halfway through 2022. Comedy clubs have opened up once again, including those that were more pandemic-conscious, and as a result we’ve a whole new influx of comedy specials.
Setting aside Netflix’s ill-advised spending on unfunny millionaires, there’s a whole lot to love here. Whether you’re looking for an incisive takedown of comedy’s biggest creeps or a silly set of sketches that’ll make you crave hot, melted caramel, comedians have proven just how beautifully bizarre and varied the genre is in 2022. Here are our 10 favorite specials so far this year (and please note that these are specials, which is why you won’t see the fabulous comedy albums that’ve come out in 2022 here):
10. Taylor Tomlinson: Look at You
The most brilliant part of Look at You comes when Tomlinson launches into an extended analogy about mental illness being akin to not knowing how to swim: “It might be embarrassing to tell people, and it might be hard to take you certain places.” But taking medications, or wearing water wings in Tomlinson’s metaphor, eliminates the latter and alleviates the former—and anyone who makes fun of you for wearing water wings obviously doesn’t care if you drown and die.
The pièce de résistance comes when Tomlinson talks about those who don’t use water wings when they know they need them—people who cling to a lifeguard, drowning their would-be savior as they claim they’re fine. Self-deprecatingly, Tomlinson uses the moment to talk about a few lifeguards she’s drowned, but the moment is more poignant than that. With the rise in acceptance of mental illness and the understanding that it’s not “all in your head,” the other piece often left unsaid is: self-awareness isn’t enough—you have to act. It may not always be water wings, but if you know you can’t swim and aren’t using any aids, you probably shouldn’t get in the pool.—Brooke Knisley
9. Ms. Pat: Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?
On February 8, comedian Ms. Pat’s first full-length stand-up special, Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?, premiered on Netflix. Ms. Pat’s led a rough life, to say the least—she had two children, fathered by a man eight years her senior who had sexually abused her since she was 12, and by age 15 and started selling crack to support them. She started making fun of her experiences onstage at age 30, after her caseworker suggested she try it. As a longtime fan of Ms. Pat, I was pleased to see her genuinely having a good time in this special, maintaining her consistent comedy thesis: “I don’t dwell on shit I don’t have control over.”—Brooke Knisley
8. Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous
Cohen theatrically exudes confidence but delights in oversharing about the vulnerable details of her life. Over the course of the hour and the seven songs within, she discusses validation, internalized fatphobia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and sex, all with her own ostentatious flair.
Part of that flair is Cohen’s mile-a-minute joke telling; every throwaway line is its own gag. The titles of her poems are one-liners (“Poem I wrote after you went down on me and then called me ‘dude’”), and the sheer amount of goofs she crams in means that this special is well worth a rewatch to see what you missed the first time around. In some ways the speed of The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous reminds me of 30 Rock (the sexy baby voice bit brought me back to Jenna Maroney’s invention of it), though Cohen’s humor and style is much more millennial and self-assured (even if self-deprecating) than Liz Lemon’s sad night cheese schtick.—Clare Martin
7. Ronny Chieng: Speakeasy
Chieng’s comedy is always intelligent, even though it occasionally veers into the holier-than-thou territory common on The Daily Show (on which he’s a correspondent). It’s still fun to follow along, though, whether he’s ruminating on why D students are now clamoring to be at the front of the class during the pandemic or explaining the complexities of birth control pills. His jokes about contraception are not just hilarious, but also informative—I didn’t learn that gastrointestinal issues dampen the pill’s effectiveness until a few years into taking it. In all honesty, Chieng could be saving someone’s skin here. Also, he gave us the term “diarrhea babies,” and for that I’ll always be grateful.
Some of the special’s most satisfying moments involve elaborate set ups on Chieng’s part, and he’s a master of ramping up the tension in the room. One of these extended bits, all about why Chieng doesn’t like the UK, also manages to incorporate his friend James Acaster’s unfortunate history with Mr. Bean (for more on that, check out Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 by Acaster himself). It’s the type of niche crossover that may not pay off for the entire audience, but lands for comedy nerds tuning in. And that’s not even the actual punchline of the bit, just a nice stopover partway through.—Clare Martin
6. Josh Gondelman: People Pleaser
Gondelman’s new comedy special People Pleaser is sure to endear him to fans both new and old. His delivery is at times self-conscious, not in a way where he lacks confidence, but highlighting just how aware he is that this is a performance. Gondelman easily interacts with the audience, calling out reactions to various subjects (the crowd is into moms and dogs, but not grandmothers, he observes), and it’s clear he doesn’t take his time on stage for granted.
His joke writing is exquisite: clever and creative, but still accessible. Certain moments of word play feel George Carlin-esque, particularly one where Gondelman analyzes the phrase “health scare.” While there are overarching themes to People Pleaser—namely the pandemic and his wife—the bits are fairly segmented and could stand alone, perfect for those short clips that are shared on social media. That’s not a criticism, either; Gondelman has his callbacks, and it speaks to his writing chops that his jokes can work both independently and as part of a whole.—Clare Martin
5. Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual
Kim Booster keeps the laughs coming throughout Psychosexual. The comedian quickly takes command of the room, shushing the crowd’s cheers or asking the camerawoman Janice (Is that her real name? Who knows, but it sounds good yelled from the stage) to zoom in on a particular audience member. His crowd work and rapport with the attendees make Psychosexual feel more electric and spontaneous than other comedy specials, which can fall into static, predictable patterns. And Kim Booster’s easy connection with the audience can’t be understated—he even gets one guy to share what he uses to clean up after masturbating. Not just any comedian could do that.
He hits punchlines home effortlessly throughout the hour thanks to his conversational delivery and clever writing. His jokes range from observational to absurdist; at one point Kim Booster repeats the phrase “girl’s butt” so much that the words almost lose all meaning. Whether he’s telling an off-handed one-liner, chatting with the audience, or launching into a physical bit about how straight men walk, he will put you in stitches.—Clare Martin
4. Alice Hamilton: Cex Kriminal
, a mini comedy special by Alice Hamilton (and named for a tweet she made about Louis C.K. back in 2018), is better than any roast I’ve ever seen because there is no claim of fondness here, just outright hate for the subject at hand, Chris D’Elia (among others).
Hamilton delivers jokes at a rapid-fire pace throughout Cex Kriminal, giving each one just enough time to land before moving onward and making it clear that she’s here for a good time, not a long time.
“But [D’Elia’s] not the only one who got in trouble, so let’s talk about the rest of them,” Hamilton says less than halfway through the show, taking a swig of water before embarking on her next verbal sprint. She knows how to sell a moment. Hamilton keeps up the clipped pace for the laundry list of other comedians she name checks (for various reasons, not all sexual assault-related), from Louis C.K., to Iliza Shlesinger, to Brad Williams.—Clare Martin
3. Kate Berlant and John Early: Would It Kill You to Laugh?
Would It Kill You to Laugh? is hilarious and deeply uncomfortable. The new sketch comedy special from collaborators (and best friends) Kate Berlant and John Early thrives on the same absurdism as I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (which both comedians appear in), but ratchets up the tension to the next level as the pair play comedy chicken opposite one another. The disparate sketches are loosely configured around a fictional John and Kate, touted as the greatest comedic duo on earth, who reunite on Meredith Vieira’s talk show Point of Vieira after a contentious lawsuit and two decades of separation since their sitcom, He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish, ended. Even when not related to this fantastically fleshed-out world (a girl cries to her parents about not getting to stay up for the reunion interview, a family crowds onto a sofa to watch together), the scenes are linked by bizarre and entertaining motifs, like a massive tome called Clancy’s Reward or the use of hot caramel as money.—Clare Martin
2. Ali Wong: Don Wong
Wong kicks off the hour hilariously outlining the double standards for female comedians, who do not nearly reap the same benefits as their male counterparts. Systemic misogyny is no new subject for Wong; she spent much of Hard Knock Wife (2018) pointing out how parenthood is far more taxing for women than men, who receive outsized praise for putting in much less effort. Wong keeps her bits on sexism fresh, though, by employing a new target and approaching the matter at hand with unmatched fervor. She takes us through the peaks and valleys of her voice, delivering punchlines with gusto.
Wong also spends a healthy portion of the special joking about wanting to cheat on her husband and sloughing off any judgment towards her for speaking her mind. She knows it’s not the most acceptable subject, but she simply doesn’t care. Wong doubles down, and the further she goes, the funnier the bit gets. By being utterly honest and not courting likability, Wong ends up more likable than ever.—Clare Martin
1. Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel
Carmichael’s comedy has always been defined by contrasts. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken, conversational comic whose gentle tone and drawled delivery teases out the audience’s attention, but he also has a contrarian streak. In his last HBO special, 2017’s 8, he’s low-key confrontational, challenging the presumed-to-be-respectable beliefs of a liberal audience, and highlighting how politics often lose out when pitted against comfort and convenience.
In Rothaniel, Carmichael doesn’t try to provoke his audience, but he still focuses on conflict. This time, though, it’s his own internal conflict as he learns to accept and open up about his homosexuality, while responding to his family’s lack of support and understanding of who he is. Along the way he delves into not just his own secrets, but those of his father and grandfathers, exploring the unique ability sex has to completely blow up a family.
Carmichael lays bare the trauma he’s experienced from telling his family who he really is, while also brilliantly exposing how society—and, crucially, his own mother—are more accepting of a straight man who serially cheats on his wife than they are a gay man simply existing. It’s both a refutation of the masculine environment Carmichael was raised in, and a brutally honest depiction of how difficult it is to escape the culture that formed you. It’s another reminder that the best comedy makes you experience something more than just laughter, and makes you feel something other than the anger, confusion, contempt, or superiority that so much stand-up comedy is based on. Rothaniel is a startling work of confidence and bravery, and so far the best comedy special of the year.—Garrett Martin