Yes, comedy has persisted throughout the pandemic. It’s been harder hit than most of what we cover here at Paste, with most clubs shut down and touring not a viable option, but many comedians have found a way to still do stand-up, whether it’s the irresponsible tactic of doing traditional shows in front of an audience in states with lax Covid regulations, or experimenting with the form to account for the lack of a crowd. Still, there have been way less comedy specials than usual so far in 2021, making a list like this one more difficult to compile than usual.
Fortunately much of what has been released this year has been worth watching. Here are 10 specials we’ve enjoyed the most this year; together they illustrate some of the many ways comedians have tried to adjust to the pandemic, from sets filmed at home in front of family, to specials that are less stand-up than film.
Six Parts lives up to its name in that it was filmed at half a dozen locations on different nights (pre-COVID, naturally): a surf shop, a barbershop, a recording studio, a gym, an art gallery and a comedy club. Each setting is paired with a different topic, like “love” or “unpopular opinions”—nothing particularly groundbreaking, but hell, we just want something to laugh at. The segmented set is refreshing for anyone whose attention span has been ravaged by the pandemic. It’s slightly unconventional and keeps viewers’ attention, but isn’t so distracting or gimmicky that it takes away from Jolles’ actual bits, which are very, very good in and of themselves. (Easter egg: keep an ear out for a few ADR’ed bits covering swearing or updating the year to 2021.)—Clare Martin
The most remarkable part of Mary Lynn Rajskub’s latest special isn’t any particular bit, but its format. Throughout the pandemic, comedians have been trying to figure out how to safely perform and release stand-up sets—or have decided to selfishly flout health advice and perform indoors, even at risk to themselves and audience members. Rajskub’s decision to film Live From The Pandemic in her garage with no audience at all is thus the safest choice pandemic-wise, but the riskiest in terms of comedy. It’s a bold and admirable decision that may not exactly stick the landing when it comes to punchlines, but nonetheless sets the standard for how comedy should be created during a time when we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of people to coronavirus in this country alone.—Clare Martin
Like almost every special on this list, Nate Bargatze’s shaggier-than-usual special, recorded outdoors during the height of the pandemic in front of a sparse and masked audience at Universal Studios Hollywood, will go down as a Covid-era curio. This hour is full of sharp observations and hilarious insights into regular life, from what it’s like to watch your parents age, to the depressing, lawless land that is a Chuck E. Cheese. Bargatze’s understated mockery of lax Covid protocols will land for anybody who’s ever had to get their temperature taken by an indifferent teenager making minimum wage, and he nicely taps into that curious sense of relief felt by those born in the two-year gap between Generation X and Millennials. It’s slightly looser and more shambolic than Bargatze’s previous specials, but still a refreshing hour of comedy.—Garrett Martin
Ed Hill’s first ever comedy special, originally slated to tape in March of 2020, received the COVID treatment. In his case, this meant a closed set for filming with just a handful of family and friends. They sit in a circle for the entirety of the set, AA-style, facing Hill. The Taiwanese Canadian comedian maximizes the emotional impact of this support group-type set up, and his hour is all the better for it. This isn’t a laugh-a-minute set, and that’s not Hill’s aim, either. He takes his time letting anecdotes unfurl themselves. Candy and Smiley is loosely structured around nuggets of wisdom Hill imparts about goodbyes, differences and other certainties of life. None of them are particularly earth-shattering, but most truths in life aren’t. Hill himself knows that well; he recalls vowing as a teenger that he’d be different from his parents, who themselves immigrated to Canada in search of a different life. No matter how much we try to separate ourselves from our origins, those inevitabilities catch up with us sooner or later.—Clare Martin
Being a comedian isn’t easy these days. That’s a bit of an obvious statement, but it bears repeating in light of comedian Jessica Watkins’ new documentary SPECIALish. The Nashville-born performer recognizes the need for comics to have some sort of edge to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. The fact that she decided her schtick would be walking across the United States—an arduous trek that reportedly goes unfinished by about half of the people who start it—speaks to the all-or-nothing mindset needed to pursue comedy.
Watkins documented her long, meandering journey for SPECIALish, beautifully integrating stand-up and self-exploration. This is a story about Watkins finding something—strength, resilience, peace-of-mind—on her own. The comedian wrote, directed and produced the entire documentary herself with a deft, if occasionally heavy, hand. Some moments that feel like they should be shown and not told, whether through interviews with other people or clips of Watkins on the road, but are instead relayed from the relatively sanitized backdrop of her talking head. In general, though, Watkins succeeds as a storyteller, whether she’s doing it from behind a camera or a mic.—Clare Martin
Hughes’ storytelling style slaps a fresh coat of paint on familiar avenues, as she takes us back all the way to her grandmother’s relationship history to explain the origins of her own dick-catching adventures. She guides us on a journey from past to present, inviting us in on the revelations she’s had along the way. The overall narrative she weaves may not be the most tightly constructed, but it gives us a clear idea of Hughes the person as well as the performer. Her bits are made all the better by the singing and dancing she integrates enthusiastically into the set, making one-liners into playful chants. By the time the special ends, she collapses onto the stage, and it’s well deserved. She put her all into it.
The real draw here, though, is Hughes herself. Charisma doesn’t even begin to describe how magnetic and electrifying her presence is. The opening skit before the special starts shows her basking in Meg Stalter-like overconfidence, and she regularly brings that same energy throughout the special as she declares herself “Comedy Beyonce” and “The Female Richard Pryor.” She’s one of those rare people who seems to have been born with a mic in hand.
(Note: Hughes’ special was released on Netflix on Dec. 22, 2020, after the deadline for our “best of 2020” lists; as such, we’re considering it for our 2021 year-end coverage. It’s like with the Grammys, and how their year seems to run from like August of one year through November of the next, only with this one special. Thanks for understanding.—Editor)
Chris Gethard’s public persona is as much about human connection as it is about his comedy career. His podcast Beautiful Anonymous allows strangers to talk to him for an hour, about anything. His comedy itself is built on his frank discussion of mental illness and suicide. Half My Life keeps this signature humanity at its core, including behind-the-scenes moments where Gethard laments being away from his family or goofs off with tour opener Carmen Chrisopher (who you may recognize from the bachelor party episode of Joe Pera Talks with You, or another comedy special from this very same list). Spending an hour with Gethard is both grounding and side-splitting.—Clare Martin
Uncomfortable exchanges are the heart of Street Special, wherein Carmen Christopher performs uninvited and unwanted stand-up on the streets of New York during the height of the pandemic. Despite the show’s pop-up, semi-confrontational nature, Christopher’s less interested in Borat-style guerilla pranks than in criticizing the concept of stand-up itself. With Street Special he mocks the self-impressed and obsessive mentality that dictates so much of stand-up culture, primarily the notion that stand-up is some kind of elevated life calling that pushes everything else to the background. Christopher implicitly targets self-aggrandizing stand-up shibboleths like the belief that simply telling jokes on a stage makes somebody a vital truth-teller, or that you have to constantly perform every night in order to be a serious comedian, even during a deadly pandemic. By forcing his comedy on those who don’t want it, he’s parodying the self-importance and selfishness of comedians who acted like the world couldn’t survive without their stand-up for even a few months—those comics who started booking shows again just a couple of months after the pandemic really started. Christopher makes himself look pathetic in Street Special, but it’s really the culture around stand-up that’s far too often embarrassing and cringeworthy.—Garrett Martin
Bo Burnham’s expertly edited suite of silly songs and sketches about the pandemic, depression, and the vapid and aimless state of today’s almost certainly doomed culture is the comedy hit of the season, capturing the late pandemic zeitgeist in a way that clearly resonates with a large audience. Burnham constructs a façade of profundity to point out how thoroughly unprofound pretty much every aspect of life is today, a technique best crystallized in the song “That Funny Feeling”. He punctuates certain songs and moments with prolonged shots of himself staring sadly into the distance, and underscores the isolation of the pandemic and the passage of time through his increasingly haggard appearance and depressed countenance. Burnham knows how to give the special an artificial weight, the sense that he’s saying something big and timely and evocative, while revealing how easy it is to use the language of film to make something seem wiser or more important than it actually is. Inside and Burnham, like all of us, are trapped by the terminal superficiality of modern life, and although that means this comedy special is ultimately a sad, draining bummer of a show, that makes it more self-aware than a lot of comedy. And hey, it’s funny, too, which has gotta count for something.—Garrett Martin
Acaster plays with perspective throughout Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, arriving on stage in sunglasses and trying on a new persona that’s all bravado and four letter words—to get rid of the old people and “Chrizzos” (a term for Christians I’m tempted to start using). His switching of viewpoints for comedic effect and deconstruction of certain bits adds an extra dimension of cleverness to a show that was already good to begin with, elevating it to the next level.
The real focus of the show is Acaster’s relationship with his mental health. Many of his stories center around being a relatively successful comedian, including his stint on The Great British Bake Off, but these bits remain relatable because he zeroes in on his human issues amidst the limelight. Acaster presents his own struggles as hilarious, but also holds up a necessary mirror to the audience as we laugh at situations with grim contexts. This isn’t to guilt us, but rather to remind us that behind every dark meme, there’s a real person going through some very real shit.—Clare Martin