The 25 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2017

Comedy Lists Best of 2017
The 25 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2017

Maybe there isn’t a comedy bubble?

I took over this section at the beginning of 2015. I’ve interviewed dozens of comedians since then, and almost every conversation has eventually come around to discussing the “comedy bubble.” There are more people doing comedy in more venues and through more media outlets than ever before, and so many comedians are positive that this can’t last much longer. There’s going to be a crash, they think, usually soon, and they’re trying to position themselves as strongly as possible within the industry before that happens.

If any year was going to prove that thesis right, it should’ve been 2017. Netflix released a brand new hour-long stand-up special every week this year. They scooped up rights to new specials from the biggest names in comedy, from returning legends (David Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow), to now-disgraced marquee attractions (here’s looking at you, Louis.) And on top of that HBO, Comedy Central, Showtime and other networks continued to release new stand-up specials throughout the year. Network execs and TV critics might worry about Peak TV, but Peak Stand-up has been here all year. And because Netflix doesn’t release much in the way of viewership numbers, we don’t have that scientific of a way to measure how successful this strategy has been. How many people have watched the Netflix special from, say, Rory Scovel, a great comedian with cachet in alternative scenes but not much in the way of a mainstream profile? It’s safe to assume that audience was smaller than the one for Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix special, but how much smaller? Did Netflix see any benefit, according to its metrics, from paying Scovel a higher-than-usual sum (because yes, Netflix pumps out the money even to smaller comics) for an exclusive special that it didn’t do that much to promote and that was followed by another new special just a few days later? How long will that weekly schedule last, if 2017 winds up being considered a failure by Netflix based on numbers that it doesn’t share? We have no way of knowing. In trying to capitalize on the current comedy boom, Netflix might hasten its collapse.

One result of Netflix’s stand-up spree: the streaming service locked down 17 slots on this list, for whatever that’s worth.

As overwhelming as this glut can feel to comedy fans (in the past it was pretty easy to watch every major special that aired; in 2017, that would require a real commitment), and as questionable as some programming decisions might seem to us here at Paste, it still led to a year full of more great comedy than usual. Last year our year-end list had 10 stand-up specials; this year we had to cut it down just to get to 25. All of them are worth watching if you’re a fan of stand-up, and illustrate how wide-ranging and diverse this kind of entertainment has become.—Garrett Martin

25. Marc Maron: Too Real

What wraps Too Real all together is some extended commentary on getting older and dying. Maron imagines his brave death, hanging from a cliff before finally letting go. He also uses it as the perfect excuse to get out of watching a movie he doesn’t want to watch or going out to see a shitty band because he doesn’t know how much time he has left. And it’s what fuels his mixture of excitement and fear about going to see the Rolling Stones in concert. He knows it will be fun but he also doesn’t want to watch these old men embarrass themselves in front of thousands of people. The trick is how nimbly Maron pivots from that to accepting his fate as someone who was more excited that they skipped out during the encore to beat traffic than the actual show he just left. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll relate. And if you’re not, give it time.—Robert Ham

24. Roy Wood Jr: Father Figure
Comedy Central

[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 standup 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

23. Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive

It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time, which if true, makes Tracy Morgan a gold mine of laughs. Netflix’s Staying Alive is being packaged as Morgan’s big stage comeback after a fatal road accident that put him in a coma and nearly ended his life. After fighting the good fight, Morgan is back and ready to prove that he hasn’t lost a single beat. Morgan has made appearances here and there over the past few years, most notably back on the Saturday Night Live stage (which also earned him an Emmy nomination last year). While his guest appearances are beloved, this special puts Morgan right back in the mix with the comedy community, using his near-death experience as a means to make us laugh.—Christian Becker

22. Judd Apatow: The Return

The most successful material in The Return is the stuff that both has nothing to do with Apatow’s career and feels pleasantly nostalgic for the kinds of comedic discoveries Apatow would make as a younger man (noting that when a man has an orgasm he’s “succeeding and failing at the same time”). There’s also a healthy helping of the Apatowian themes you’d expect from 2017 Judd—how anxiety fuels dysfunction which fuels family is, of course, present, with the Apatow family gathering around supercuts of Jennifer Aniston’s nipples as a new yule log. He is reliably astute when it comes to identifying how your aging affects your kids as much as yourself (he can’t get high with his daughters, he’d freak out and tell them “you used to live in my balls”), but also gives us glimpses of insight into the source of that anxiety, giving a reading of a depressing poem he wrote about his parent’s divorce as a teenager. “Don’t be sad,” he tells the audience, when they tense up, “I’m rich, I’m very rich.”—Graham Techler

21. Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust

In A Speck Of Dust, Silverman has found the sweet spot in crafting the ideal stand-up special. Give your fans exactly what they came for, while also throwing in a few new ingredients to come off looking just fresh enough. While her jokes don’t always stick the landing, and she ends the show on a bit of low note, there is plenty to take away from her performance style and from her self-aware humor, which is part sarcasm, part confidence, and all Silverman.—Christian Becker

20./19. Dave Chappelle: The Age of Spin; Deep in the Heart of Texas (tie)

Chappelle is still at the top of his class, wholly at ease onstage and mischievous as ever. His winding stories have the same unscripted, manic feel as his classic material, perfectly crafted without seeming crafted at all. [Chappelle has] a tireless drive to play out his tiniest impulses to their most absurd conclusions.—Seth Simons

18. Joe Mande: Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special

The bulk of the material in Award-Winning Comedy Special similarly plays with our expectations of what stand-up is and how we should be reacting to it. The common formal approach of peppering long-form jokes with short punchlines is turned on its head by Mande, who will either end a bit abruptly, with no warning, or bring it back to pick up where he left off when we’re least expecting it. It’s pleasantly jarring, and keeps the audience on its toes. With stories and perspectives revolving around MTV’s Next, his short-lived experimentation with dick pics and a cringe-worthy experience at a Jewish summer camp, Mande is able to let the audience get a little bit ahead of him only to pull back and reveal how far ahead of them he actually is.—Graham Techler

17. Kurt Braunohler: Trust Me
Comedy Central

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

16. 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

15. 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

14. Jim Gaffigan: Cinco

Gaffigan remains pervasively aware of his jokes. As he says moments after walking onstage, “Lower your expectations.” His self-deprecation forms an integral part of his comedy, shielding him from whatever potential criticism might come his way. By whispering in his well known falsetto-like rasp, as if he were a member of his own audience, he calls attention to his failures and turns the joke around on himself. Where his topics might feel like retreads at times, Gaffigan’s voice work serves his comedy well and keep things moving. Leave the heckling to the man onstage because he’s well aware how he’s doing. It’s a path he’s walked many times before.—Amanda Wicks

13. Neal Brennan: 3 Mics

In 3 Mics Brennan boils stand-up comedy down to its three major components: one-liners, “emotional stuff” and traditional stand-up, each corresponding to one of the three mics on his stage. Brennan begins by sharing one-liner after one-liner, each written on an index card, before the screen fades to black and he reappears on the opposite end of the stage in front of the “stand-up” mic. There, he dives headfirst into terrorism, religion, guns, sports scandals, student loans, slavery and more.

Brennan’s deconstruction has a clever ring to it, but one that could easily grow tired without some greater point. After all, stripping down any cultural medium to its constituent parts hopefully reveals some greater truth about it. That truth comes about when Brennan steps before the “emotional stuff” mic located at center stage and veers away from more expected fare, both in terms of subject matter and delivery.—Amanda Wicks

12. Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’

Kirkman balances the style and point of view that drew [audiences] to her comedy in the first place: It’s a conversational 70 minutes brimming with biting honesty. Take, for instance, her reckoning with the term “ma’am.” She’s more than happy when someone lobs it her way since it only means she’s had a “rich and storied life.” As she pointedly says, donning a kind of verbal armor by way of outlook, “I don’t want to look like I have four roommates and shitty towels.” Preach.—Amanda Wicks

11. Beth Stelling: The Standups

What’s surprising about Stelling’s set is that her topics, while familiar, go in different directions that separate her jokes from the rest of the pack. How many times have you heard a comedian talk about their travel experiences at the airport? You’d probably need at least six hands to count those. But Stelling sets her sights on current frustrations with the TSA, specifically calling them “performance art.” This point of view immediately had me go from rolling my eyes to laughing with renewed interest, because while I’ve heard an endless list of airport routines, I had never heard of the TSA being described this way. Purposely breaking the three ounce rule while going through security and preferring a male agent for her full body search because it “shakes things up a bit” are refreshing takes on a tired bit.—Christian Becker

10. Jo Firestone: Comedy Central Stand-up Presents
Comedy Central

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

9. The Lucas Bros.: On Drugs

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 Bros. 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 Bros. 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

8. 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

7. Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes

[Birbiglia’s] as funny here as he’s ever been. We generally think of comic timing as a matter of degrees of speed, but Birbiglia understands that the real measure of timing is in the ratio of speed to agonizing slowness. He is excellent at breaking down a moment to its smallest components and walking us through it, as in anecdotes featuring Jared Leto, the Muppets and the hilariously mundane elements of Birbiglia’s marriage.

But what makes this hour truly special is his ultimate point: Jokes are not always good or always bad, but they do bring us closer. This sounds more saccharine than it is. Birbiglia avoids the “we need jokes because people need laughter” cliché. He’s more interested in jokes literally as an act of strange intimacy between the person telling it, the person it’s about and the people observing—and how messy that gets when all three camps are in the same room.—Graham Techler

6. Julio Torres: Comedy Central Stand-up Presents
Comedy Central

If you love SNL writer Julio Torres’s sketch work, you won’t be disappointed by his stand-up. His tone is much the same—dreamily detached, charmingly arrogant, placid and ethereal—if the material is usually a bit sillier. (Not that “Wells For Boys” isn’t silly, but it’s a much more grounded sort of silly). 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: A doctor tells him he’s underweight, so he responds, flirtatiously, “Stop it. Shut up. You’re underweight.” At a work party a guy asks if he’ll stick around or if he has to run away to some rave; he takes this as an affront until he remembers that at the last party, he said he couldn’t stick around because he had to run away to some rave. Torres excels in joke structures like these—“A, B, A” or “A, B, D”—that transform quotidian situations into expressionistic landscapes governed by the rules of his own bizarre imagination.—Seth Simons

5. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation

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

4. 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

3. 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

2. 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

1. Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Like her demeanor, Bamford’s material ranges from the intimate to the grandiose. An early joke, delivered to her husband and their pugs, pokes at the apologetic language people use to describe their relationships. “Um, well we just met, and we genuinely liked each other, and, you know, there’s ups and downs, but we like each other, so we stay together,” she intones, in character, her tone painfully earnest. Then her face turns cold and stony; she’s back to herself: “Oh, I’m sorry—if you’re bored with your miracle!” Her husband chuckles, patting the dog. You can tell he’s heard this joke before but it’s not a pity laugh. The beauty of their domestic setting is that it’s imbued with context, from the painting of their dog to the little bride-and-groom figurines resting atop the couch. This feels like any old day for them, just hanging out and goofing around.—Seth Simons

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