The 40 Best Stand-up Specials of the 2010s

Comedy Lists Best of the Decade
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 40 Best Stand-up Specials of the 2010s

10 years ago there were only a few outlets for stand-up comedy specials. There was Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime, and maybe a couple of the other, lower-profile pay cable stations, and that was it. Whatever editor at Paste had to assemble the “best stand-up specials of the 2000s” list had way less material to consider than we did today. Streaming has blown the comedy game wide open, with Netflix leading the pack, and Hulu, Amazon, and other (usually short-lived) outlets in pursuit. This is far from a bad thing, though—this explosion in distribution reflects the rapid growth in venues and other outlets for comedians to experiment, grow and prosper, and the result has been one of the deepest, richest, most varied and hilarious periods for stand-up ever.

When my assistant editor Olivia Cathcart and I started talking about what specials would make this list, we only had three rules. First off the special had to be released between 2010 and 2019, obviously. Secondly we could only include one special per comedian. And thirdly, it had to be something we personally liked. We weren’t interested in including specials because they were popular or “important” or anything like that; what matters is how much they made us laugh, how they made us feel, and what they made us think about. Hopefully you’ll see some of your favorites below.—Garrett Martin

40. Liza Treyger: The Half Hour


“Couples that don’t hold hands are like thin people that don’t dress well — you do not deserve that.” Treyger dishes out harsh criticisms of society, namely the patriarchy, without ever coming across as smug. The unapologetic comedian is not without flaws but is refreshingly shameless about them. Sharp-tongued and incredibly fun to watch, her first 30 minute special ends on the only sex-ed lesson a girl needs. It’s a half-hour that’ll send you to Google in hopes to binge more.—Olivia Cathcart

39. Nick Thune: Folk Hero


Nick Thune is not a “guitar comic” per se but he does deploy one as soothing background to a series of clever one-liners to open up his first special. Between the loungelike Brooklyn space, Thune’s folkish music and dapper, corduroy suit (“three quarters roy’s, one quarter mine”), Folk Hero stands out for its overall pleasant aesthetic in contrast to the typically loud and flashy vibe of its contemporaries. Thune manages to mixe short and long-form comedy while keeping the quality consistent throughout.—Olivia Cathcart

38. Ron Funches—Giggle Fit


The latest special from Ron Funches starts with a guest appearance from Ric Flair, the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who’s so flashy that he makes those megachurch prosperity gospel preachers seem downright ascetic. Flair’s not just there because Funches is a fan, but to act as a living symbol of the confidence that Funches aspires to. If Giggle Fit is any indication, Funches is running pretty close to that mark. Funches is in the best shape of his career, physically, mentally and comedically, in what is easily his most assured special yet. His unique delivery is as inherently funny as ever, and his bits on his son Malcolm and how his weight loss has effected his relationships with friends and dates are personal yet relatable. Like Funches himself, Giggle Fit is a delight.—Garrett Martin

37. Emily Heller: Ice Thickeners


Heller’s clearly a comedian ready to be center stage after over a decade of stand-up. She skips through her set with ease and keeps the crowd work to a minimum, which is a plus not because she’s bad at engaging with the audience (she does fairly well in this special), but because we simply don’t need the distraction. Heller is confident and times jokes with impeccable flair, going along at a fast enough pace that nothing ever drags but without being so quick that we miss the punchline. Watching this special is a bit like hearing a song for the first time and feeling like you’ve always known the tune, not just because it hits familiar beats, but because it’s so consistently good that it’s simply difficult to imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist. Ice Thickeners is a solid hour of what comedy should be in 2019: giving no fucks, hating men and just being damn funny.—Clare Martin

36. Michelle Buteau: The Comedy Lineup


Michelle Buteau does a whole lot in such little time. Part of the first wave of Netflix’s 15-minute specials, The Comedy Lineup, Buteau’s set serves an elaborate elevator pitch for comedy stardom. Buteau says turning 40 made her prioritize comfort over everything and she’s clearly comfortable in front of the cameras. The comedian exudes charisma as both a performer and a writer for one rousing show. Not a minute is wasted in her set and credit belongs solely to Buteau, not the runtime.—Olivia Cathcart

35. The Lucas Brothers: On Drugs

Thumbnail image for lucas bros on drugs netflix.jpg

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The political comedy in On Drugs is done both incredibly casually and with discernible commitment. If sometimes it seems hard to tell whether the Lucas Brothers are making it look effortless or simply not trying, we never really get the sense that they themselves are too cool for this. As far as comedy duos go, they seem to have taken a few cues from another set of twin comedians that eschewed a straight-man/funny-man dynamic, and not just because both the Lucas and Sklar Brothers reportedly attended law school. Kenny and Keith will occasionally check in with each other on a given topic, agreeing to “smoke on it.” Their hive minded brotherhood is routinely delightful, whether they’re pausing a joke to wipe sweat off each other’s noses, or tag teaming a letter to republicans on gun control.—Graham Techler

34. Jerrod Carmichael: 8


Jerrod Carmichael comes off as contrarian on his latest HBO stand-up special. It’s a tack he frequently takes on his great NBC sitcom: present a social or political issue, and then almost play devil’s advocate against the position you’d expect him to have. On 8 that means basically coming out against animal rights and climate awareness, not out of malice, but out of simple apathy and self-obsession. His strongest material focuses on the moral failings of our grandfather’s generation, with hints of Bill Cosby. What links all of this together is Carmichael’s patient delivery—he speaks softly, slowly, drawing the audience into a conversation that’s consistently funny without having much in the way of jokes.—Garrett Martin

33. Marc Maron – Thinky Pain


Is Marc Maron finally likable? Maron’s always been an incredible comedian and, in recent years, a talented and insightful interviewer on his podcast WTF. But those skills always came under a rage-filled veneer as Maron’s on-stage persona lashed out at the world around him, the women he dated and the goings on in his head. It was hilarious but a little off-putting. The Marc Maron in Thinky Pain is gentler, bringing a humility to his heady, introspective comedy that’s a welcome change. Starting with an anecdote about comedy legend Bill Hicks and continuing onto Maron’s fears of being an old dad or his midlife crisis, Thinky Pain still showcases all the best parts of Maron’s comedic voice, it’s just speaking a little softer. —Casey Malone

32. Jo Firestone: Comedy Central Stand-up Presents


Firestone’s debut stand-up special nimbly toes the line between her more absurd character-based work and traditional notions of stand-up. There’s more than enough evidence of what our assistant comedy editor Seth Simons calls “one of the strangest, most delightful voices working today,” but with a more straight-forward delivery than fans familiar with her writing and sketch work might expect. In this great half-hour Firestone proves she’s equally comfortable telling jokes as she is creating a ridiculous character or scenario.—Garrett Martin

31. Patton Oswalt – Annihilation

patton oswalt annihilation netflix.jpg

In defiance of the pain and anguish he is clearly still feeling, and as a mode of catharsis, he makes the discussion of his wife’s death the centerpiece of this hour. To watch him wrestle boldly with the emotions of that experience and the aftermath of it, while still finding those pockets of joy and strange humor, is affirming and beautiful. But it’s not easy by any stretch. That’s evident when director Bobcat Goldthwait pushes the camera in to focus on Oswalt’s face as he talks about the worst day of his life, which wasn’t the death of his wife, but having to break the news to their young daughter, Alice. We hang on his every word, following him as he takes his brave daughter back to school the next Monday. Then he pulls the ripcord, remembering getting peppered with questions by Alice’s classmates and learning a little too much about their home lives. The laughter that follows is so rich and relieving, like that first gulp of water after an hour on the treadmill.—Robert Ham

30. Jim Gaffigan – Noble Ape

Gaffigan’s massive crossover appeal is almost undervalued these days. He’s a sympathetic everyman who can poke fun at coastal elites in a way both those elites and citizens of the flyover states can appreciate (when faced with the possibility of a North Korean missile reaching the East Coast, he finally exclaims “well we gotta do something about this! Now we’re talking about real people!”) Noble Ape feels, and I don’t mean this as a reference to Gaffigan’s food material, like a full meal. Or at least, several different small, meatier courses. A big part of this is the presence of Jeannie Gaffigan, who has co-written all of her husband’s specials but steps into the director’s chair here. Given that much of the special concerns her cancer scare—during which Gaffigan re-purposes his eye for food material with a series of dark fruit-related similes—it’s appropriate that she’s helping pace the special, and does it with a deft hand.—Graham Techler

29. Amy Schumer: Mostly Sex Stuff


Amy Schumer damns all things demure in her one-hour special Mostly Sex Stuff, which offers astute observation of awkward, personal matters mostly related to, you guessed it, sex. Recalling comedians likes Sarah Silverman and Whitney Cummings, Schumer’s jokes are a mash-up of girl-next-door charm and low-brow vulgarity, confronting an array of taboo subjects that society tends to dissociate with the female sex.

Therein lies Mostly Sex Stuff’s appeal. In it, Schumer makes seemingly female-centric observations universal across the sexes. Although a woman of comedy, she avoids being pegged as a “woman’s comedian”—which is not an easy feat in the very male-centric world of stand-up.

Regardless, Schumer maintains a sense of femininity throughout, perhaps in the assumption of her on-stage persona. She sends out ample “thank yous” following each roar of applause, in what become moments of utmost politeness amidst a set of free-flowing obscenities. She plays with her hair while delivering expletive-laced punch lines under her breath, and side notes are wrapped in nonchalant packaging and bowed with beat-changing “ums.”

Mostly Sex Stuff crowns the foul-mouthed Schumer as [the] queen of raunch. With an apt name that fits the special’s content—from quips about “Plan A” to half-improvisational commentary on “little brown coats”—Schumer demonstrates that all is fair in sex and stand-up.—Maren McGlashan

28. Kurt Braunohler: Trust Me


Braunohler’s sudden turn to overtly political territory takes us off-guard completely, in a way that’s both refreshing and satisfying. His astonished appraisal of his own lucky circumstance as a tall, white man takes the form of very real, very specific and very disturbing statistics about police brutality towards black men. “The street I walk down is a fundamentally different one than a black man walks down, and a woman walks down,” says Braunohler, before launching into a series of absurd statements designed—in his words—to “undermine the authority given white speech.” Not to pat white men on the back for saying some basic human decency stuff, but this is a Comedy Central special, and I have to applaud Braunohler for using this particular platform so aggressively and responsibly, while never sacrificing the comic tone it’s in his best interest to cultivate.—Graham Techler

27. Morgan Murphy: Irish Goodbye


The production value of Irish Goodbye is considerably lower than most specials you’ll find, but the material is worthy of an HBO check. While lighting or directing can often detract from an hour, Murphy’s sharp, dry wit rises above the technical flaws for a special that’s full of hard-hitting belly laughs. Murphy is the queen of “damn, I wish I thought of that” jokes. From recutting How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days into an efficient 16 seconds, to eye-opening bank statement reviews, Murphy is just as masterful in astute observational humor as she is with self-deprecating anecdotes.—Olivia Cathcart

26. Roy Wood Jr: Father Figure


[Wood] is somewhat tempered by the strictures of the short form pieces that he does for The Daily Show, which is why it is especially great to see him stretch out within the borders of his first hour-long stand-up special. Father Figure features the same pointed social commentary and interest in racial politics but with the threads wound more tightly around observations from his own experience. It’s such a tightly-constructed hour that it feels strange to point out that it is his first stand-up special and to hear that Wood feels like he found his comedic voice in 2006, almost a decade after he started.—Robert Ham

25. Hari Kondabolu – Warn Your Relatives

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Anointed voice-of-their-generation comedians can sometimes stumble when initially thrust into the cultural spotlight—as Hard Kondabolu has been with the fallout from The Problem with Apu. Not this time. Warn Your Relatives, his first Netflix special, is a searingly confident statement from an extremely, proudly political comedian who injects his rapid material with a strong current of justified anger. “My stand-up isn’t for everybody,” he says, to laugher at such a ballsy statement from an outwardly nerdy persona. “It’s okay, it’s okay. That’s why it’s good.”—Graham Techler

24. Drew Michael – Drew Michael

Photo courtesy of HBO

Drew Michael is a stark, polarizing special that you may fall to one side or the other on, depending whether or not you’re inclined to appreciate how directly the special asks you to reckon with it. Which it does, in a big way, with Michael delivering his act directly to the camera in a stark black room, with stressful light shifts that weave through the special and give the space occasional dimension. This is, in general, a tense and stressful comedy special to watch, though it is definitely a comedy special, and is frequently hilarious. The context does sometimes make you feel insane for laughing out loud, though.—Graham Techler

23. James Acaster – Repertoire

james acaster repertoire netflix.jpg

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Acaster has the casual confidence and slightly buzzed, motormouth tendencies of clear influences Dylan Moran and Stewart Lee, which extends to a certain loose-fitting, corduroy-heavy wardrobe—straight out of a less aggro era of British alternative comedy. Recognise, the first of four hours in Repertoire, rolls along as many specials from that era did, and it’s a wonderful, tipsy, bubbly ride with no clear moment-to-moment form but a remarkably cohesive worldview by the time he wraps it up. It’s pretty amazing how formally assured it eventually reveals itself to be, given that Acaster seems constantly bored by our expectations of where we think the show might go.—Graham Techler

22. Ramy Youssef—Feelings


Feelings is an incredibly low-key affair. Filmed at the Chicago Cultural Center instead of a traditional theater or club, it lacks the sound of bombastic laughter found in most specials. Even the biggest laughs often get muted by the tall ceilings of the beautiful room. But rather than hinder the show, they leave the focus on Youssef as he bounds from topics that are seemingly trivial to deeply personal examinations of his life as an American Mulsim. No other special in stand-up history has been so equally horny and spiritual, often at the same time. He’s constantly thinking about sex like most 20-somethings, often even as he’s tied to God. When a woman finds his continued attendance at Friday prayers after the Mosque shooting in New Zealand hot, Yousseff finds a newfound confidence. In the same spirit, his parent’s lack of sexual education training leaves him terrified of the consequences of unprotected sex. It’s beautiful how relatable the material is to anyone who grew up in a conservative religious tradition. The relatability of Feelings is its biggest strength. When someone says “why does this comic have to talk about race” they often ignore the reality that mainstream white comics are also talking about race and ethnic experiences. We’ve just been trained to accept the white point of view as an unspoken cultural default. People who complain about comics talking about race or identity are just asking “why aren’t they talking about me.” As a Southern Baptist white male, the commonality between our experiences made the moments I couldn’t relate to hit that much harder.
I’ve never watched another stand-up special that made me think about going back to church. It made me question if faith was easy to abandon because I’d never been forced to confront it. Feelings is deceptively subtle but deeply funny.—John-Michael Bond

21. Aparna Nancherla – The Comedy Central Half Hour


True story: Aparna Nancherla opened her set on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour with, “When you drop pills on the floor, there’s no way to pick them up without looking like a human red flag,” and I paused the video to put the cap back on my Wellbutrin. It set the tone for the following thirty minutes: real ass life advice delivered in a charmingly flat affect.

Nancherla doesn’t reinvent the wheel—this is observational comedy. But there’s something special here, in the way the she so succinctly reveals the surreality of being alive in the year of our lord two thousand and [fill in the blank]. Is it the way that she specifies that she got cat called “last summer?” Is it her long bit on the evolution of clickbait listicles (“Sometimes it’s like ‘Two Birds!’”)? More likely it’s in the way she says things like there’s nothing weird about them, the same way I can casually drop “my therapist said,” into conversations with my peers like that’s a really chill thing to do. We live in interesting times, and it seems counterintuitive not to just say that, and be saying it all the time. To paraphrase Nancherla, I’m not sure how you could read a newspaper and come to the conclusion that everything is fine.—Gita Jackson

20. Eugene Mirman: An Evening of Comedy in a Fake Underground Laboratory


Stand-up is best experienced live and Eugene Mirman takes full advantage of the visual element of his comedy special. While many specials are produced with an audio-only album companion, An Evening of Comedy in a Fake Underground Laboratory gives Mirman proper space to fuck with the form. Mirman packages his absurdist brand of humor in a multitude of mediums ranging from visual aids to backing up jokes with a theremin. Like musical comedy, prop comedy often gets a bad rap but Mirman elevates it well beyond our expectations.—Olivia Cathcart

19. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King


Homecoming King has a lot to unpack and asks more of its audience than the average special. It isn’t afraid to enter dark territory where even a full minute goes by without a single joke. The reason this works is that first and foremost, Minhaj is an all-around great storyteller. The performance could have had zero jokes and still would be a compelling piece of work. Luckily, he’s a smart comedian who knows how to use his material wisely, even if that means holding back to let the important points hit home.—Christian Becker

18. Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour


I knew that Barry’s Crowd Work Tour—a set of dates where he took the stage with zero prepared material, interacting with the audience and using his quick wit as his guide—would be a raging success. And watching this film from director Lance Bangs, which follows the comedian on his West Coast run of dates, has proven me dead right.—Robert Ham

17. Kristen Schaal: Live at the Fillmore


Live at the Fillmore is one of the most unique and entertaining specials of the decade. Schaal is always redefining what stand-up (or a horse) can be, keeping you on your toes for 60 minutes of delightfully offbeat comedy. Her magnetic performance is immediately reminiscent of her Bob’s Burgers persona, deceptively coy then playfully mischevious. This devious hour wonderfully incorporates unique visual elements cultivating in a filmed segment to cap off her most absurdist bit.—Olivia Cathcart

16. Ali Wong: Baby Cobra

Baby Cobra is more than the product of a carefully honed craft. It is an unusual portrait of transition: from young adulthood to adulthood, single life to marriage, marriage into motherhood. It is also the first network special to feature a deeply pregnant comedian, which is not a gimmick but a very practical undertaking. Wong refuses to slow down for the simple reason that slowing down, especially for a woman and mother in Hollywood, is the first step in a long fade to obscurity.—Seth Simons

15. 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

14. Chris Gethard: Career Suicide


At this point in the Marc Maron/Louis C.K. era of oversharing onstage, let’s not pretend that there’s anything unattractive or taboo about admitting your neuroses and anxieties and darkest parts of your personality. But you can still do so dishonestly, and as it becomes more and more in vogue for comedians to get candid and dark, the more and more likely it will be that comics will use that as a shortcut to authenticity. Gethard does not do that. I would venture that with enough misinformation about depression and suicide out in the ether, being forthcoming about these experiences is actually very important in its own right. So yes, this show is significant and important for a whole hatful of reasons. But is it funny? Obviously. Gethard is a master storyteller, and this special elaborates on the essays from his book A Bad Idea I’m About to Do with a jittery, off-the-cuff charm. Out loud, his stories spill out in a barrage of words and qualifications before hitting a detail that neither Gethard nor we, the audience, were expecting.—Graham Techler

13. Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend


Sleepwalk With Me, Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show about a tough break-up and sleep disorder that he eventually adapted to a book and feature film, looked for a while like the defining work of his career. And yet My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Birbiglia’s new special/album, manages to improve on Sleepwalk in almost every way.

In it, Birbiglia tells us about coming to terms with the compromises in his romantic relationships, both today and as a teenager, as well as his views on marriage after the events of Sleepwalk, and it’s all wrapped in the story of a terrifying car accident that turns into a bureaucratic nightmare. Birbiglia’s an incredible storyteller, jumping from the present to his adolescence and to the recent past seamlessly, never dropping a thread and using every small tale to reinforce the larger story.

Thankfully Birbiglia makes this as hilarious as it is captivating—he tells everything with the frantic energy of a 10-year-old, his oversized silliness letting all his little observations sneak into your brain before you can notice how absolutely perfect they are. Birbiglia also makes tremendous use of the theater setting in the video special, spinning like a mad man during “The Scrambler” and projecting a particularly amazing piece of evidence onto a screen during the finale. Moving, masterful, honest and hilarious, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is Mike Birbiglia’s best so far. -Casey Malone

12. Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood


2017 was a huge year for Tiffany Haddish, and although Girls Trip might have been the highlight, her excellent Showtime special proves that wasn’t a fluke. Haddish worked hard to get this far, with over two decades in stand-up, and She Ready is basically a culmination of the first stage of her career. Her stories about growing up in foster care and struggling with homelessness in the early days of her comedy career are fundamentally depressing but you’ll be too busy laughing from Haddish’s constant punchlines and physical comedy to notice it. Haddish doesn’t bring up her life for easy sympathy, but to find the comedy behind the pain, and to show that anybody can make an impact if they’re good enough and work hard enough.—Garrett Martin

11. Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special


Lots of comics are celebrated for their perceived “edginess,” but few performers are willing to go to the avant garde extremes of Maria Bamford. In The Special Special Special, Bamford lays bare comedy’s Freudian core by recording an entire hour-long set in front of her parents (and only her parents) in her childhood home. The result is something like an HBO special as directed by David Lynch and one of the most original stand-up performances in recent memory. Whether The Special Special Special ultimately comes off as adorably intimate or just unsettling is up to the viewer, but either way it’s a hell of a high-wire act. —Hudson Hongo

10. Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats

chelsea_one_greats_decade_yt_screenshot.JPGAfter years of paying her dues, Chelsea Peretti has more than earned her moment in the spotlight. Considering the special’s title, it’s tempting to ask the obvious question: Is Peretti indeed one of the greats? Long answer—for anyone who has tracked her growth, it’s clear that she has always been a voice to be reckoned with. In this way, her special only reiterates what any serious comedy fan had long ago determined. Short answer—yeah, she’s pretty friggin’ great.—Mark Rozeman

9. Rory Scovel: Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time


This is the risk Rory Scovel takes with his absurdist approach to stand-up: our official review wasn’t especially kind to his Netflix special, even though our comedy editor (uh, me) finds it to be one of the smartest and most refreshing specials of the year so far. Scovel balances conceptual metacommentary on the conventions of stand-up with fully-formed political material as biting as any other comic working today in an hour that sends up the very idea of stand-up even while showing how powerful it can be.—Garrett Martin

8. Hannibal Buress: Live in Chicago


Like previous Buress routines, Live is an enjoyable mixture of bizarre anecdotes, cultural commentary and uniquely Buress-ian non sequiturs. Of course, given the comic’s rising star, the biographical humor concerns topics like international travel and an encounter with Scarlett Johansson instead of shitty roommates, but none of that has dulled Buress’ signature weird edge.—Hudson Hongo

7. Chris Rock – Tamborine

chris rock tamborine netflix.jpg

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Tamborine proves that Rock’s comedy is just as smart and sharp as it’s always been. He immediately starts off by talking about cops shooting black kids, wasting no time to dive right into one of the most depressing problems undermining our country. He effortlessly cuts through the feeble “bad apples” defense regularly carted out by police departments when this happens, and calls for a “world with real equality”—one where as many white kids are shot by police each month as black kids. From here he segues into gun control, and then into an extended bit about how one of his main goals as a parent is to prepare his kids for the white man and also making sure they get bullied enough. As he puts it, the main reason Trump is president today is because we no longer know how to handle bullies. Rock hits on one hot button issue after another, regularly flirting with jokes that some might be offended by, but with a perspective that’s so thoughtful, original, and, in its own wicked way, respectful that it would be hard to argue that he ever crosses a line, even if you believe there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.—Garrett Martin

6. Hannah Gadsby – Nanette

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Nanette grows past the confines of a comedy special and into something completely different—a riveting screed against misogyny in all forms that utterly abandons its reliance on jokes. It is, despite being extremely funny, the anti-comedy special. That’s not a label I’m putting on it—Gadsby announces her intentions for the special very clearly. It’s a work of art that—as someone who both loves comedy and often feels conflicted about its place in our cultural landscape—I’ve been waiting for for a long time without even realizing it.

It is an extremely angry hour, an extremely cathartic one and an extremely necessary one. An art form cannot thrive if it refuses to look itself in the face and question its own necessity. If it does, it might emerge on the other side stronger and more vital.—Graham Techler

5. Julio Torres: My Favorite Shapes


My Favorite Shapes starts with Torres discussing his favorite shapes. He sits at a conveyor belt that he operates with a foot pedal, presenting different objects and props and describing them in increasingly absurd ways. One is an oval that sadly stares at its reflection wishing it was a circle; another is a random collection of geometric objects that Torres says is an exact scale model of Tilda Swinton’s apartment. At one point we hear excerpts from a cactus’s diary, and anybody who struggles with mental health or self-doubt will relate to it. Most of these descriptions share a tone familiar from Torres’s SNL work, like ”Wells for Boys” and “Diego Calls His Mom”—goofy, sad, and surreal, but a recognizable enough version of real life to make immediate sense.

Torres eventually does stand up and move about the stage, but it never has the energy or pacing of a traditional stand-up set. When he does impressions, they’re not of people but of objects and concepts, like a Britta filter, or the curtain that separates first class from coach. He has a skill for mining the ridiculous out of quotidian objects, almost like he’s updating the bland observation humor of somebody like Jerry Seinfeld into a form of comic magic realism. There’s a bit where he presents shapes of animals he’d like to see at the zoo, and one of them might be the most perfect joke for understanding his point of view: it’s a porcupine who had its quills removed so it wouldn’t injure its lover, and now no longer recognizes itself. Torres loves instilling animals and inanimate objects with the sadness and insecurities of humans, in a way that’s both very specific and yet universal, and also never corny.—Garrett Martin

4. Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady


Political comedians and comedy shows, especially The Daily Show, have always had to navigate criticism of “clapter,” or: when an audience’s response to a joke is more that they agree with it than that they find it particularly funny. Here, Wolf assures us that she’s able to have it both ways. She’s both speaking so particularly to the audience’s concerns and frustrations that they frequently erupt into applause, but the building blocks of her comedy are all intrinsically funny on their own—there’s no inauthentic laughter. Though Wolf is still one of The Daily Show’s most reliable elements, Nice Lady announces her as a voice that well deserves its own platform—one where she can keep getting shit done.—Graham Techler

3. Kyle Kinane: Whiskey Icarus


Uncle BBQ tells his dumb-dumb stories in one of the most rewatchable comedy specials of the 2010s. Kinane’s first special, Whiskey Icarus, shows off everything audiences love about the comedian, namely his prowess at weaving intricately long, but not overdrawn, stories punctuated by his surly but sweet demeanor. As he regales the San Francisco crowd with tales of taking a cab to Wendy’s and witnessing someone eat pancakes on a plane, Kinane quietly displays his underrated acting chops with perfectly delivered micro-act outs. Whiskey Icarus honestly poses Kinane as the modern everyman exhibiting the duality of being either the smartest or sleaziest person in the room at any given time.—Olivia Cathcart

2. John Mulaney – New in Town


John Mulaney’s New In Town starts silly and doesn’t stop. Mulaney’s boyish energy and looks couple with his goofy inflection to give the entire special a high energy that the comic gently grounds by focusing on his life. Mulaney digresses, but each joke—including the definitive Ice-T on Law & Order: SVU routine—is so deftly weaved into the larger story that you never feel a single segue. Instead of a well-rehearsed performance, New In Town feels like an old friend showing up to dinner with stories he can’t wait to tell you. As a special bonus to those who would watch the special rather than listen to the record, the opening credits are done up like an early eighties sitcom, with a theme by Reggie Watts. —Casey Malone

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 stand-up 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.—Robert Ham