Ranking comedy specials this year was a pretty Sisyphean feat for us. Comics shared so many funny and insightful project in the last 12 months. Some of them broke the traditional stand-up mold, while others showed how the format consistently delivers laughs in 2022. Intimate, sophomoric, goofy, dry—these releases really run the gamut.
The pandemic is, naturally, still a huge subject for comedians, and the performers featured below on this list managed to make this all-too-familiar and often painful topic a hilarious part of their routines. Each of these specials stands out from other offerings this year thanks to the unique perspective of these comedians and how they give us new ways to laugh at the absurdity of life.
(Also, please note that we haven’t yet reviewed Atsuko Okatsuka’s HBO special The Intruder, which would likely make it onto this top 20 list. Sorry, Atsuko, it’s been crazy around here lately.)
Feast your eyes on our selection of the 20 best comedy specials of 2022 (and if this isn’t enough for you, go on and check out the best comedy albums of the year here).
20. Matt Braunger: Doug
After reassuring the audience that yes, he is the guy from the 2007 Halloween episode of iCarly, Braunger spends the first sixteen minutes of Doug talking about hot dudes. Yes, hot dudes like Patrick Swayze in Road House and the stars of the overtly horny action movies of the 1980s like Jean-Claude Van Damme. His take on making straight dudes uncomfortable by objectifying them doesn’t feel like a new concept, but it’s Braunger’s delivery that will make the insecure men in your life squirm.
Like so many Gen X comedians, Braunger has become a dad, though, as he points out, a bit later in the game than most. His pivot from jokes about flipping sexism on its head to fatherhood is a bit jarring, mostly because he’d just spent a decent amount of time talking about balls before bringing up having to change the loaded diaper of his daughter, who came from said balls, in a family restaurant/biker bar. It’s clear, however, that Braunger’s material touches on some things more personal to him. He has always been a delightfully silly stand-up, but Doug has moments that share a softer side of Braunger: being happily married, traveling with a newborn, those moments of pandemic togetherness that happened in that strange time when the world was first turned upside down. Braunger’s love of the absurd still triumphs over everything, but these brief moments of sincerity strengthen his comedic storytelling.—Jack Probst
19. Nick Kroll: Little Big Boy
Performing at the Warner Theatre in DC, Little Big Boy feels like a comfortable mix of a resoundingly assured comedian with a noticeably odd crowd. The bane of most comedy hours these days seems to be how often a set is engineered to elicit completely disruptive and gratuitous applause or whooping for very tame social observations, but Little Big Boy proves that even if a set doesn’t seek to provoke such reactions, audiences are happy to supply them anyway. Other than that, the crowd’s occasional silence is probably the blame of Netflix’s flattening sound-mixing, yet none of this stops Kroll from completely debasing himself in heightened fashion.
Having your first love and heartbreak back-to-back in your early thirties would be a lot for anyone, let alone a perennially insecure, self-confessed manchild; it’s clear that Kroll’s state of arrested development has affected a lot of his adult life. The past 10 years for Kroll have been part endless spiral, part ticking clock—all in service of figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Self-deprecation is at the bedrock of all Kroll’s reflections, never afraid to point a finger at him even in his most privately vulnerable moments. But the confidence of his performing persona and the sharpness of his observations makes his confessions, both hilarious and wounded, feel lightweight, rarely deflating the silly mood.—Rory Doherty
18. Ian Lara: Romantic Comedy
Lara is casually self-assured during the 38 minute-long set, the type of easy presence that’s earned over years of performing. While he doesn’t go for any over-the-top physical comedy or vocal changes, Lara has the natural timing of a born comedian. He eschews crowd work, but even when he sticks to his routine, his delivery still makes everything feel off-the-cuff.
In case the title didn’t tip you off, Romantic Comedy (directed by fellow comedian Aida Rodriguez) mostly centers around the minutiae of modern dating (sex updates, birth charts, you name it) with some detours into pandemic life and what vacation was like as the son of Dominican immigrants. The way Lara discusses current sexual politics—as he sees it, women are in control of the dating sphere while men want to settle down—seems like the type of stance that could quickly devolve into incel territory, but thankfully he’s too clever for that. Instead, Lara calls out men’s inflated confidence and posits that the reason women seem to get over men so quickly is because they can meaningfully discuss relationships together (“You ever had a good conversation with a man about anything?”). Sure, it may seem a bit heteronormative, but that’s where Lara’s coming from, and he avoids most of the major pitfalls of other straight guy comedians.—Clare Martin
17. Chris Redd: Why Am I Like This?
From the outset, Redd prioritizes connecting with the audience, an aspect of his comedy we didn’t get to see during his tenure on SNL. Ultimately, though, this fast-and-loose approach he has with crowd interaction comes from the same qualities that make him an excellent improviser; whether he’s complimenting a woman’s enthusiasm about therapy or answering a person’s retort about airlines, Redd shows off just how game he is for going off track and embracing spontaneous hilarity. His exuberance is infectious, buoying his every movement.
It’s no wonder that Redd’s confident onstage, but it’s a real treat to see him finally shine on his own and within his own framework (however loose that may be). Redd shows off his impressions, nailing the cadence of a pilot announcing a delay over the intercom and his old white lady therapist, and his physical comedy also proves impressive. He can mimick an orgy, or Jesus Christ on the cross, or even just throw in a moonwalk for the hell of it. Beyond these bigger goofs, Redd also thrives in quieter moments, like a throwaway line that just brings the joke home. Redd has range.—Clare Martin
16. 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
15. 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
14. Katrina Davis: Figuring It Out
Davis is engaging and enthusiastic right off the bat during her hour, which was filmed at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The LA-based performer recounts hilarious experiences and concocts ridiculous and evocative terms, like “sad timelapse lasagna” to describe how people are buried on top of each other in shared graves (an image that will continue to disturb me). Davis is relatable not because she’s catering to a common denominator, but because she comes across as so herself as she shares her own idiosyncratic world view. It’s just so fun to look at things from her perspective, whether she’s discussing numbers’ personalities, her obsession with chicken pot pies, or what it’s like to date as the product of cat calling. She also discusses topics that often are overlooked by comedians, namely the struggles of women with big boobs and how as someone related to those ladies you take on that concern yourself (acting as an emotional bra, one might say). Davis’ singular voice reels in the viewer during Figuring It Out.—Clare Martin
13. 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
12. 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
11. Danny Jolles: You Choose
Like the name suggests, You Choose allows the viewer to determine how Jolles’ set plays out. Do you care about the fact that he recently got engaged? Do you love or hate David Blaine (personally, the latter since he was accused of sexual assault)? These options change the trajectory of the special and which of Jolles’ jokes you get to enjoy.
Let’s be clear: this is no Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Paste’s Jacob Oller rightfully criticized the Netflix offering as having “no point beyond itself; it’s merely an exercise in ‘can I do this?’” Jolles, on the other hand, has an aim beyond using the unconventional structure to stand out from the rest of the stand-ups. He ends the special by explaining to the live audience that he’s done two versions of each joke—he either loves veterinarians or hates veterinarians, high school was terrible or not-so-bad, etc.—as a demonstration of how we shouldn’t simply trust what people say, but rather their actions. The dual approach shows the manipulation at play when you just listen to someone’s words. His delivery is so full-throated that he seems to really believe what he’s saying… until you watch the alternate version, which is just as convincing. Jolles’ emphasis on learning and “showing your work” rounds out the choose-your-own-adventure construction into something more than a mere gimmick.—Clare Martin
10. Sheng Wang: Sweet and Juicy
The Houston-raised comedian, who previously wrote on Fresh Off the Boat, delivers story after story in a relaxed manner that swiftly puts the crowd (and the viewer at home) at ease. He’s somehow both silly and matter-of-fact at the same time, maintaining his good-natured persona even when he’s giving out about our fundamentally broken healthcare system. Every joke has time to breathe, making Sweet and Juicy an especially serene and satisfying watch.
Throughout the hour, Wang focuses on the banal, forgoing any bombast or shock value. Instead, he taps into quotidian pleasures and problems, like office printing privileges (“Have you ever thrown away warm paper?”) or the perils of washing a cookie sheet. It could be difficult to draw in an audience with such milquetoast subjects, but Wang’s genius operates outside conventional confines. Between his creativity and lackadaisical onstage energy, he renders even a seemingly dull topic a comedic goldmine.—Clare Martin
9. 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
8. Jena Friedman: Ladykiller
“If you don’t laugh you’ll cry” is pretty much how Jena Friedman’s stand-up works, and she aptly references the phrase in her newest comedy special, Ladykiller. Having produced The Daily Show and written for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Friedman is more than adept at poking fun at America’s many, many, many faults.
Ladykiller is no exception to Friedman’s signature style. She sold the special before becoming pregnant and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but by the time she took to the stage she was 27 weeks along and the rest of us soon could be, thanks to the dinosaurs on the Supreme Court. As a result, Friedman ruminates on abortion, motherhood, and America’s general disdain for women for much of the hour.—Clare Martin
7. Liz Miele: The Ghost of Academic Future
After starting off with her usual self-deprecation (“That’s enough,” she chides the crowd at New York Comedy Club), Miele launches into a bit about personally needing the pandemic. COVID may be a dead horse of a subject, but she makes it worthy of revisiting with her refreshing sense of humor. In fact, most topics she jokes about during the special are common comedy fodder—dating, sobriety, living on a meager income while being crushed by capitalism—but it’s to Miele’s credit that they don’t feel overdone. Her instantly quotable lines, elaborate metaphors, and hilariously strange tangents all bring new life to the familiar. The ability to render everyday issues funny and engaging again is the hallmark of a great comedian; these problems aren’t going away, so we may as well laugh at them.
One of Miele’s best metaphors is a longer joke about a codependent relationship and an ex’s inability to let her in. She describes him feeling better as a room that she was always attempting to break into by any means possible—and that he still felt she didn’t try hard enough to enter. Miele takes umbrage with the idea that she should have to be an “emotional ninja” to be there for him. “I shouldn’t have to dodge lasers to connect with you,” she yells exasperatedly, a sentiment that will surely hit home for anyone with an emotionally unavailable ex. Putting such a frustrating—and also frustratingly common—relationship problem into words is a talent in and of itself.—Clare Martin
6. 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
5. 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
4. Kurt Braunohler: Perfectly Stupid
Most of Perfectly Stupid involves Braunohler doing what he does best: making us laugh. This time, the subject of his jokes is his family, both the one he was born into and the one he and his wife started together. Braunohler’s late mother was a loving single parent, while his father hasn’t even necessarily memorized his son’s features. He spends much of the hour poking fun at himself and his own dad, though their shortcomings as parents are on completely different scales. Braunohler delves into his childhood, from his time embodying a divorced dad at the Dayton airport to his stint delivering hot bags of blood in a hospital.
The rest of the special is strung together with Braunohler’s signature absurdity. He paints a picture of embarrassment that’ll stick with you far beyond the show, makes the best of HarperCollins’ copyright constraints, and conjures up a hilarious description of Shel Silverstein’s overly aggressive The Giving Tree author photo. All of these bits are told in such a funny, immersive way, that you hardly notice he’s building to a larger point.—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 a startling work of confidence and bravery, and so far the best comedy special of the year.—Garrett Martin