When you think of comedy, you might still get mental images of clean-cut white guys in collared shirts doing their best Seinfeld homage in front of a brick wall. As fun as it might be to stay stuck in the club days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, comedy has exploded into a roiling free-for-all this century. There’s no one way to be funny. Potter Stewart’s decree in Jacobellis v. Ohio applies to comedy as much as it does obscenity: we know it when we see it. If it makes you laugh, it does its job—and maybe, if you’re lucky, it’ll also make you think a little bit, too. Whether it’s stand-up, sketch, sitcoms, podcasts, Twitter or any other kind of outlet, there are so many different paths a comic can take to connect with an audience today, and all of the comedians and writers below have excelled with their own unique voice.
Here are some of the most innovative comedians in the world today.
It’s amazing that late night talk shows even still exist in 2018, especially after Eric Andre has shredded the hidebound format on The Eric Andre Show for the last six years. Andre’s violent, confrontational approach to absurdity may not be for everyone, but between his destruction of the talk show and his rule-breaking stand-up, he’s proven his commitment to disrupting how comedy is performed and viewed in the 21st century.—Garrett Martin
Unfortunately for blurb writers, Kate Berlant defies description. Her work is theatrical, deranged, self-conscious, razor sharp—this barely begins to cover it. Consider her episode of Netflix’s The Characters, in which she plays the grandiloquent visual artist Denise St. Roy, her husband Brian, her slavishly devoted curator/dealer Rachel, and her competitor Lou Bradley. Or consider 555, the digital series she made with John Early that lampoons show business with maddening, precise idiosyncrasy. Or just watch any of her ”Banana Phone” sketches, which are pretty much what it sounds like. Her comedy comes from another planet, which seems like it’s probably a much better planet, so we hope she sticks around this one awhile longer.—Seth Simons
Jerrod Carmichael repeatedly plays this trick in both his stand-up and his late, lamented sitcom The Carmichael Show where he coaxes the audience into questioning their own assumptions about the world we live in. He’s not strident about his politics, but acts like a true devil’s advocate, almost seducing the audience into rethinking climate change, animal rights, or, on a memorable episode of his sitcom, even Donald Trump. Sometimes it’s a risky move that threatens to make Carmichael unlikable, but he’s a skilled thinker and orator who can always find the humor in every situation, even if you disagree with him.—Garrett Martin
Every day ClickHole finds new ways to do two very difficult things: deliver meaningful, incisive social commentary, and push the limits of absurdist satire. The results range from incredibly to immeasurably rewarding, be they as simple as a They Said What feature or as complex as one of the site’s sprawling oral histories. The internet may be very bad, but at least ClickHole is very good.—Seth Simons
Like his frequent collaborator Kate Berlant, John Early creates unforgettable characters that comment on the mysteries of modern life. From his insufferably “hip” millennial on TBS’s Search Party, to the Southern housewife stand-up comic from his episode of Netflix’s The Characters, to the pathetic show-biz wannabes of his webseries 555, Early has created a platoon of lived-in roles that feel human and even somehow relatable despite their pronounced flaws.—Garrett Martin
Nathan For You could have easily devolved into mean-spirited mockery of the real-life business owners it focuses on. Nathan Fielder isn’t interested in simply making fun of his subjects, though. As Seth Simons wrote in 2017, “what starts out as cringe humor never remains cringe humor, always probing its way to something more empathetic and human and totally bizarre. Fielder’s subjects reveal themselves to him in the strangest ways—often touching, often transcendently funny—and he remains deliciously unflappable through it all.” The beauty of Nathan For You isn’t just its critiques of advertising and capitalism—it’s also found in the thoughtful way in which it introduces its idiosyncratic guests to the world, teasing out their inner eccentricities without losing sight of their humanity.—Garrett Martin
Whereas 2016 was merely the year Jo Firestone hosted or appeared on every other comedy show in New York City, worked as a producer on The Chris Gethard Show and popped up in both The Characters and Don’t Think Twice, 2017 was the year she hosted or appeared on every other comedy show in NYC, released her Comedy Central half-hour and joined the writing staff of The Tonight Show. As we’ve noted many times here at Paste Magazine Dot Com Slash Comedy, Firestone is one of the strangest, most delightful voices working today; her work is worth seeking out wherever you can find it.—Seth Simons
Chris Gethard makes earnestness work, which is incredibly hard to do in the 21st century. His stand-up is practically a one man play, probing his own emotions and depression for universal insight into modern life. His eponymous talk show on TruTV finds catharsis in chaos, with Gethard’s endearingly sincere presence serving as a rock amid a swirl of absurdity inspired by public access TV and punk rock.—Garrett Martin
Oh how we’ve missed Atlanta, Donald Glover’s strange and brilliant meditation on race, fatherhood, the creative life and more. The series, at turns funny and deeply moving, follows Earn (Glover), a deadbeat father desperately trying to manage his cousin’s (Brian Tyree Henry) music career. But while Glover is ostensibly Atlanta’s lead, the show devotes unusual time and sympathy to its supporting cast. Zazie Beez’s Vanessa in particular is a wonder to watch, and Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius is low-key one of the funniest characters on television. Atlanta returns to FX in March.—Seth Simons
Twin brothers Keith and Kenny Lucas immediately stand out on a lineup today by performing at the same time. They hark back to when comedy duos were a standard sight on stage, but with a relaxed, cooperative stoner delivery that is their unique trademark. They complete each other’s thoughts, bounce ideas back and forth, and act like they’re coming up with jokes on the spot, often mining their own tumultuous upbringing in Newark for material. They turn real life tragedy, including the incarceration of their father, into deceptively sharp criticisms of the government and its War on Drugs, while remaining almost worryingly laidback.—Garrett Martin
Anxiety and despair have driven stand-up comedy for pretty much its entire existence, so it says something about a comedian’s skills when they’re able to find new and interesting ways to discuss them. Nancherla’s sharp tales of failure and discomfort will have you cringing from second-hand embarrassment and reliving your own awkward memories. Beyond stand-up, Nancherla’s built a budding career as a go-to comedy everywoman, popping up in HBO’s Crashing, Master of None, Inside Amy Schumer and BoJack Horseman, and starring in Comedy Central’s new sitcom Corporate.
If you’re tired of white men in suits clogging up the late night TV schedule, tune into Viceland and catch the funniest and most honest late night show running today. Desus & Mero has an off-the-cuff charm that can’t be faked—it feels like two friends hashing out the issues of the day because that’s largely what it is. Desus and Mero have been working together for years, on a variety of TV projects as well as the great podcast Bodega Boys, and that comfort and familiarity, along with their everyman personas, leads to comedy as effortless as it is original.—Garrett Martin
For some comedians, comedy is about dredging up your pain and anxiety and burning it down into something relatable, universal and, yes, hilarious. Few do that better today than Tig Notaro, who literally bared her mastectomy scars in a set discussing her battle with cancer. Notaro’s stand-up has grown increasingly personal since her diagnosis in 2012, which has imbued it with a power and poignancy that resonates with anybody who’s known pain and loss. Notaro’s matter-of-fact outlook on pain also drove her fantastic Amazon sitcom, One Mississippi.—Garrett Martin
Joe Pera’s all about commitment. No matter what medium he’s working in—stand-up, web videos, Adult Swim specials—he’s always playing Joe Pera, an exceedingly nice and polite young man with the warm demeanor of a Midwestern grandpa. With his halting delivery and earnest love for nature, pancake breakfasts, community events and the Buffalo Bills, Pera seems like a nervous open mic first-timer, when he’s actually one of the most confident comedians you’ll ever see. And unlike a lot of Andy Kaufman-esque performers who are clearly playing a character, Pera disappears into his role so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to separate the man from the role. The real Joe Pera probably doesn’t have the soul of a 90-year-old man, but I hope to God I never find out for sure.—Garrett Martin
Reductress is more than just a nightmarishly consistent satire machine, though it is indeed a nightmarishly consistent satire machine. (“I May Not Be the Prettiest Girl at The Bar, but I’m Also Not The Smartest.” “Wow! This Woman Hasn’t Listened to Any New Music Since 2008.” “Paint-and-Sip Class Finally Gets Rid of All That Tedious Painting.” Shall we go on?) It’s also behind the excellent podcast Mouth Time, and its editors (and founders) are the authors of How to Win at Feminism, the hardcover edition of everything Reductress does so well, that is, make fun of hyper-consumerist feminist media. Also, t-shirts!—Seth Simons
A good rule of thumb is that the worst podcasts involve a group of friends talking about whatever interests them, whereas the best podcasts involve a group of friends talking about whatever interests them. 2 Dope Queens falls into that latter category, and how. Phoebe Robinson (Broad City) and Jessica Williams (The Daily Show) are effortlessly funny comedians and equally adept hosts, as remarkable telling one-liners as they are spinning longer stories or answering listener questions. In February they make the leap to the silver screen with four hourlong specials on HBO, where they’ll be joined by such guests as Uzo Aduba, Jon Stewart, Tituss Burgess and Sarah Jessica Parker.—Seth Simons
Rory Scovel’s classification-defying comedy isn’t for everybody. His boundary-pushing Netflix special is a favorite among Paste Comedy’s editors, though, and a must-watch for anybody who thinks the tired conventions of stand-up need to be upended more often. From his infamous appearance on Conan where he performed simultaneously with another comic, to that ridiculous Netflix special, where he acts like he’s never done stand-up before despite a long, increasingly successful career, Scovel is determined to innovate how one person on a stage can make a room full of people laugh.—Garrett Martin
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim could have easily slipped into self-parody over the years, with their ‘90s VHS aesthetic and love of the perverse established as immediately recognizable calling cards well over a decade ago. Somehow they’ve remained fresh all this time. It helps that nobody else can do anything similar without feeling a bit like a rip-off, and also that nobody can match the duo’s eye for the absurd and grotesque. They continue to work with each other on Adult Swim shows like Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, but have also forged individual legacies, with Wareheim co-starring on Master of None and Heidecker ridiculing the rightwing with Decker and his recent album of anti-Trump parody songs.—Garrett Martin
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was cancelled before its time, but its spirit lives on—and then some—in BET’s freshman series The Rundown, created and hosted by The Nightly Show’s former head writer, Robin Thede. Airing every Thursday, The Rundown is both the only late night show hosted by a black woman and the only one geared toward a mostly black audience. Thede, a devilishly energetic host, spends each episode dashing through the week’s news, doling out generous helpings of incredulity and acid. The half-hour also features pre-taped sketches, musical guests and longer investigative pieces, such as an examination of Russian hackers’ “secret plot to infiltrate black communities.”
Saturday Night Live’s most original writer, who penned the as-yet uncontested funniest sketch of the season, also debuted his Comedy Central half-hour in October. If you love Torres’ sketch work, you won’t be disappointed by his stand-up. His tone is much the same—charming, surreal, unpredictable—though the material tends to be a bit on the sillier side, not that that’s a bad thing. His subject matter generally revolves around the absurdities of pop culture or the quirky niceties of human interaction; he operates with a light touch, dealing mostly in quick-hit two- or three-liners that proceed more often by feeling than logic. SNL should just put him in charge already.—Seth Simons