2020 hasn’t been a particularly fun or funny year. Honestly, it’s been downright miserable. Comedy can provide us with momentary reprieves from everything that’s happening in the world today, but it shouldn’t have to. At its most powerful it can help us make sense of recent events, while also maybe making us laugh. Not all the specials below attempt that, but in their own way they all have something to say about the world we’re currently living in. Here are the best stand-up comedy specials of 2020 so far.
1. Dave Chappelle: “8:46”
This short YouTube special is a furious, righteous, impassioned monologue on the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have sprung up throughout the country. In what’s easily the best work of his Netflix era, Chappelle doesn’t try to give voice to the movement or the justified rage rippling through America—as he says, “this is the streets talking for themselves, they don’t need me right now”—but focuses on his own rage, his own disgust, which drips from almost every word he says. It’s searing, powerful, and proof that Chappelle is absolutely still one of the most vital comedians around, no matter how disappointing and regressive his most recent special was.
Chappelle’s looseness greatly helps in this case. He mentions that he normally wouldn’t release something this hastily put together, but the whole spur-of-the-moment feeling about this video—like he’s not performing stand-up but just pouring out his heart and mind about the fucked up world we live in—is a huge reason that it makes such an impact. Whatever my criticisms with his recent specials, Chappelle has always been a smart, perceptive comedian with an innate grasp on how to speak to an audience; he’s also capable of being deeply sensitive, and that sensitivity returns in this video after being rarely seen in his latest full-length specials.—Garrett Martin
2. Maria Bamford: Weakness Is the Brand
As she points out in her new special, Maria Bamford’s stand-up has long focused on “mental health schtick.” She goes on to say that she’s a little worried, as she’s “been feeling so good the last several years [she doesn’t] have any new material about it.” She might be doing better, but the rest of us are doing so much worse now that Weakness Is the Brand can feel like not just a stand-up special but an encouraging bit of inspiration from somebody who knows what we’re going through. Bamford weaponizes her own self-loathing and depression, agreeing with her critics and the far right when they call her an idiot or encourages her to kill herself, and comparing herself to her blind and deaf pug when it gets stuck in the kitchen while searching for the doggie door—”hopeless [and] looking for leadership.” She once again finds a way to make her personal issues feel not just universal but integrally tied into the moment that we’re all living through, depicting the sadness and lack of confidence of our time with clarity and confidence.—Garrett Martin
3. Tom Walker: Very Very
Tom Walker devotes his entire set to mime, “the unlovable child of theatre and dance,” though he thankfully talks throughout the set. His physicality is scarily impressive, equal parts believable (you very rarely are lost in imagining what exactly he’s doing) and profoundly absurd (see: the entire bit where he has a giant retractable penis). Fans of more traditional stand-up are not completely left adrift, as Walker moves between short bits to longer skits and callbacks that reflect a more conventional set. Most of his goofs are inventive to the nth degree. His best continuous story involves a love story with a coat, which also showcases just how convincing he can be with his movements. Walker’s approach is a welcome reprieve from the same old schtick.—Clare Martin
4. Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything
On I Love Everything Patton Oswalt seems about as well-adjusted as he’s ever been. He’s always had the ability to take personal anecdotes and observations and turn them into long, increasingly hilarious stories with a larger ring of truth and a tinge of the absurd, and that’s still true on I Love Everything. He also delivers the Trump stand-up routine that should officially end all Trump stand-up routines, and criticizes Louis C.K. and other #MeToo comics in the kind of bit that too few comedians have done. Oswalt’s previous special, Annihilation, was a respectful and darkly hilarious way to deal with the tragedy of his wife’s untimely death, and on I Love Everything Oswalt deals with the lives he’s rebuilt since—both his and his daughter’s. The result is a thoroughly entertaining hour from one of the most consistent comedians of his era.—Garrett Martin
5. Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-Life Crisis
Quarter-Life Crisis is a hilarious and easy watch thanks to Taylor Tomlinson’s self-assured cadence. Her physical comedy is slight, but effective: the occasional flourish here and there to punctuate a bit, but nothing ever too over-the-top. Storytelling-wise, she is a natural and feels more akin to comedians from decades past rather than her peers. Tomlinson manages to marry her self-deprecation and self-confidence well, never coming off as too pathetic or too cocky. She sticks to relatable, tried-and-true topics—online dating, fucked-up childhoods—but keeps the material fresh nonetheless. You could call her the Goldilocks of comedy, the way that she ensures that everything, from the set up to the punchline, is just right. Many a millennial comedian tries to deconstruct the traditional comedy formula; Tomlinson decides to work within that frame, but make it entirely her own with gut-busting goofs.—Clare Martin
6. Eric Andre: Legalize Everything
The same wild ethos of The Eric Andre Show informs Andre’s first-ever stand-up special, Legalize Everything, which includes an awfully timely opening segment with Andre as an unruly New Orleans cop and anecdotes about the various drugs he’s taken. Legalize Everything anticipates what 2020 has become: a time to question authority and the racist systems we’ve been conditioned to accept, and also to be on a lot of drugs.—Clare Martin
7. Leslie Jones: Time Machine
Leslie Jones’ physical bits are Time Machine’s greatest standouts. This accomplishment is made all the more impressive by the fact that she has a knee brace visible over her jeans. She’s an indomitable force of nature as much as she is a comedian. After mulling over her five decades of life, Jones ends her special with the truism that we must live in the moment rather than become preoccupied with the past or future. In the hands of a lesser comedian, this “moral of the story” moment would feel trite and unearned. However, after an hour of Jones preaching to 20-year-olds about the importance of glitter and cocaine, it instead is imparted with all of the wisdom and good humor she possesses. This is surely a special that’s worth being present for.—Clare Martin
8. Hannibal Buress: Miami Nights
Hannibal Buress’s comedy has always been a bit shaggy. His personality is a huge part of his appeal—a little sleepy, a little laid-back, but able to point out idiocy and hypocrisy like a laser beam and efficiently tear it apart with his comedy. This is all on full display in Miami Nights, his new hour-long special that’s free on YouTube. There’s not a lot of traditional jokes here, but Buress’s delivery is so defined and unique that he can effortlessly get laughs just by how he says things. The long show-closing bit about his arrest in Miami and the absurdity of the cop who did it sums up the Buress style: yes, it’s a well-observed, highly detailed, perfectly timely tale, but it feels less like a structured piece of comedy and more like a friend rambling his way through a story. Perhaps this is why Miami Nights has such a notable and unique aesthetic—there are no crowd shots, Buress uses a large screen behind him to play different videos and slides that relate to his stories, and there’s a variety of post-production visual effects and graphics used for emphasis throughout. It all adds a bit of energy to a show that otherwise lacks it. It’s not Buress’s best special, but it’s definitely worth watching.—Garrett Martin
9. Sam Morril: I Got This
Morril explores touchy topics on his self-produced new special, but tension is a vital cornerstone for his style. His delivery is so effortless and casual that his performances would suffer without it, and he is clearly aware of this fact. One of Morril’s mantras is that while we may not like the content, the audience sure as hell has to admire the structure. Boundary pushing aside, Morril’s craftsmanship particularly shines during his long stories. His final bit, about a Cleveland vigilante who christened himself “The White Knight,” showcases his talents as a storyteller. Morril is pleasantly cynical on I Got This, the jaded barfly regaling you with jokes that make you laugh in spite of yourself.—Clare Martin
10. Hannah Gadsby: Douglas
Douglas is a funnier show than Nanette. That’s on purpose. It has more jokes, many of which are very good. There’s an extended section at the end where Hannah Gadsby speeds through a slideshow of Renaissance art while dropping one hilarious observation after another, often framed around how male artists depicted women and their lives, and thus how the patriarchy has tried to control women for almost all of history. This is a fast-paced, but very controlled bit of business, and proof of how Gadsby is an accomplished master of performance; it has the speed and flow of ‘80s Robin Williams stand-up without the mania or desperation. It’s really good comedy.—Garrett Martin
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.
No, they aren’t related.