Somehow comedy survived 2021. It didn’t thrive, but it also didn’t give up in the face of overwhelming odds. Good job, comedy! The stuff that was good wasn’t just good but also important—and not in some kind of sociopolitical way, but because it helped keep all of us reasonably sane and healthy during an incredibly trying year. 2021 was tough, and would’ve been a lot tougher without all the comedians below, who left an indelible impression at a terrible time. Thanks, comedians—we couldn’t have made it without you. And I’m not just thanking the names below, but every comedian, or at least the ones who are actually funny, and the ones who didn’t keep spreading Covid like it was nothing, and the ones who didn’t get paid millions to let conspiracy theorists lie about the vaccines on their Spotify podcasts, and the ones who didn’t try to write off consequences for unacceptable behavior as some kind of mythical “cancel culture,” and the ones who didn’t harass their colleagues or their fans or anybody else. Basically, thank you, comedians, who aren’t massive assholes; I’m sure there are more than just a few of you.
So hey, let’s do it. Here are the best comedians of 2021, according to one guy on the internet.
Tim Robinson pulled off one of the trickiest moves in pop culture today: he avoided the backlash. The second season of his massively viral hit sketch show I Think You Should Leave is just about as beloved as the first one. There was no widespread disappointment, only the same kind of instant and overwhelming memification that happened to almost every sketch from the first season. Robinson’s brilliantly absurd sketches (co-written by Zach Kanin and John Solomon, and with help from guests including Patti Harrison, Mike O’Brien, and Brooks Wheelan) stretch everyday annoyances and awkwardness to ridiculous lengths, with Robinson more often than not playing a fool who can’t admit he’s a fool. The new season might’ve landed during that brief window of false hope about the pandemic during the early summer, when vaccines made it seem like things were returning to normal, but it’s so thoroughly rewatchable that it helped ease us back into a lockdown mentality even after already seeing every episode a half-dozen or so times. Robinson’s show helped us a lot in 2021.
2020 was Ziwe’s breakout year for those in the know, as her scathingly hilarious Instagram Live show became a viral sensation. That set her up for a huge 2021, where she launched her own Showtime show that parodied the inanity and excesses of pop culture, while also playing a comedian and TV host very similar to herself on an episode of Succession. Ziwe asks guests the hard questions about our culture and the systemic injustice of our society, and although there’s an undeniable element of confrontation in her approach, and the results can be deeply uncomfortable, she never loses sight of what’s funny. So hey, thanks, Ziwe! Keep it up in 2022.
Comedy specials aren’t really supposed to have the kind of impact Inside did when it was released at the end of May. For many, Burnham’s one-man film sums up not just the pandemic experience better than any other piece of media, but the entire dumpster fire that is our culture over the last few years. Part of Inside’s instant acclaim was that it landed at a time when many felt the pandemic was ending; its conclusion, with a haggard Burnham warily leaving seclusion for the first time in a year, resonated with audiences at the start of what we thought would be a summer of renewal. Instead some are now waiting on a sequel that addresses the last few months of a reinvigorated pandemic. Inside reminds us of how acutely and how painfully comedy can capture the spirit of our time. Burnham’s inventive staging also deserves as much praise as his painfully on-point comedy, as Inside was one of the most well-produced performances you’ll ever see on your TV screen.
The show’s called I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, but they might need to add Patti Harrison’s name to the title, too. After a breakout sketch in season one, Harrison almost stole the whole damn thing out from under Robinson in the second season. She might’ve only appeared in two sketches, but they’re among the season’s very best, and in each one she creates an unforgettable character in just a few minutes. Her turn as a wine-obsessed victim of a mishap involving a Charlie Brown parade balloon in the “Capital Room” sketch would be a career highlight for any comedian, but she one-ups it a few episodes later with her role as a woman whose job is tables in the pitch perfect and entirely unhinged “Drivers Ed” sketch. And we haven’t gotten to her team-up with Ziwe yet or her acclaimed role in the dramedy Together Together. Harrison had a pretty damn good year.
The eternally delightful Joe Pera Talks with You returned to Adult Swim in 2021 with its third season, and it was somehow even more beautiful and wistful than the first two. Once again Pera’s good nature and patience served as the show’s backbone as it grew darker and more serious, with thoughtful explorations of mental illness, depression, and alcoholism. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the pain and exhaustion of the pandemic, or simply an acknowledgement of how harsh a Michigan winter can be. Either way, that unspoken sense of loss and yearning that has always existed on the show’s edges was more pronounced than ever this season. It made Pera’s almost child-like warmth and positivity seem more inspiring than usual; anyone familiar with Pera knows that what might seem like naivety at first is actually a mix of confidence and unassuming wisdom, and as his show ventured into sadder territory, Pera’s strength only increased. Joe Pera might be the perfect comedian for our sad, stressful, overwhelming times.
Tig Notaro has been a sturdy stand-up pro for years, turning her significant personal tragedies into hilarious stories through the steeliest deadpan since Newhart, and producing a generous stream of specials, documentaries, and TV series along the way. In 2021 she did something different, though: she released a full-length stand-up special that was entirely animated. Drawn isn’t the first stand-up special to use animation, but it’s the most elaborate and artistically successful example yet, custom-picking different animators and animation styles to emphasize each one of Notaro’s stories. It’s a treat for fans of both stand-up and animation, and more proof that Notaro is one of the very best comics of her day.
Conner O’Malley was involved with three of our four funniest shows of the year, as a writer for How To with John Wilson, a writer/performer on Joe Pera Talks to You, and as a memorable guest star on I Think You Should Leave. Even if none of that stuff existed, though, he’d probably be on this list on the strength of his original YouTube videos, which represent some of the smartest, weirdest, and most biting satire of today’s culture. Just take a look at Endorphin Port, his YouTube video ranking public supplies of pulled pork at tourist trap haunted houses, or his announcement of his own crypto, Fuck Coin. O’Malley is a brilliant and belligerent critic of all the bullshit we’ve surrounded ourselves with, and the only account worth following on YouTube.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.