For all the innovation and daring that Louis C.K. brings to his titular sitcom, he’s a bit of a traditionalist at heart. If you don’t agree, give a look at one of the nine stand-up specials he has released over the last two decades. Though he’s gone out on a limb and self-financed and self-distributed some of them through his website, daring the gatekeepers at EPIX, HBO and Showtime to blink, he’s still gone back to those network wells and still sticks to the standard stand-up schtick: just a man with a microphone and a skewed point of view.
And for good reason. He is, without question, one of the best comics out there, more than happy to tear himself apart for a laugh, and even more happy to hold a mirror up to society to remind us how stupid we all are. It would be painful if it weren’t both true and brilliantly funny. As tough as it was to rank his specials considering how fundamentally great they all are, we took a swing at it anyway. Your mileage may vary, and we trust you’ll let us know if you disagree.
1. Hilarious (2010)
Where 2008’s Chewed Up was the breakthrough moment for Louis C.K., Hilarious was the special that pushed him into the upper echelon. Filmed in Milwaukee at the end of a long tour, C.K. proved himself to be a sharp commentator on modern life (his riff on cell phones and entitlement rightfully became a viral success) and smart enough to know, and somehow appreciate, when he’s being really, really dumb.
2. One Night Stand (2005)
Having survived the crash and burn of his directorial debut Pootie Tang (look it up…it’s amazing), C.K. was putting his all into his stand-up work. And you can tell on this hour-long special for HBO. He paces the stage, adrenalized and bristling with ideas about sucking demon dick in hell, looking for a place to masturbate at home, and other non-penis related matters.
3. Chewed Up (2008)
C.K. is at his best when he’s pointing the spotlight as his own failings as a father and a human. He throws himself under the bus beautifully on this special, as he works to accept his useless body while also drinking the warm jizz that is Cinnabon frosting. His discussion of white privilege should be required listening for any paleface walking this planet.
4. Live at The Comedy Store/Live At Madison Square Garden (2015)
I’m combining these two because both specials share a lot of the same material, as C.K. was working the kinks out of his set at the smaller Comedy Store before taking it to the gargantuan stage at MSG. In both locations, though, he is sharp as a dagger, filleting the overacting of Ray Bolger, Jr. (The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz), watching rats in the subway fuck, and people overcomplicating what he calls “this life shit.”
5. Live at the Beacon Theater (2011)
The unassuming way that C.K. takes the stage in this self-financed, self-distributed special—no announcement, no shutting off of the house lights, no opening act—says everything about how much confidence he had stored up at this point. He’s conversational, silly, and cares little about segues as he describes someone’s asshole exploding and then drops some anecdotes about his kids.
6. Shameless (2007)
C.K. is clearly gaining power and energy in this stand-up special, originally filmed for HBO. It just takes him a while to get there. It’s about two-thirds of the way through the hour when he finally gets a fire in his belly, getting mad at the terrible hand job his wife administered to him one afternoon, and dealing with his crazy daughters. Everything leading up to that moment works, but when he finally takes off, he soars.
7. Oh My God (2013)
Not a terrible special by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely lacking in the razor edge of C.K.’s best work. Perhaps the result of his burgeoning acting career (he was just coming off filming Blue Jasmine and American Hustle) and his busy schedule writing, editing and acting in Louie, even the funniest moments in Oh My God feel fatty and a little malformed.
8. HBO Comedy Half-Hour (1996)
With wisps of a goatee on his face and dressed up more than we’ve ever seen him, this is C.K. still finding his real comedic voice. The bitterness and frustration is there, but the material is far less personal and far less pointed. Unlike all the specials above, you could envision a dozen other comics delivering these same jokes to the same response from the HBO audience.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.