Did you know you’re currently living through what many comedians consider the second big comedy boom? Stand-up, improv and sketch might be bigger than ever right now, thanks in part to an explosion in distribution channels. Anybody with minimal resources can upload a video to YouTube or make a podcast. Stand-up shows long ago escaped the two drink minimum clubs they were confined to, and if you live in a major city, you can probably find stand-up at any number of unexpected venues, from barber shops to laundromats. Comedy is everywhere right now, and there’s no end to the list of comedians, both aspiring and established, reaping the rewards.
It’s not just amateurs or younger comedians benefiting from this expanded comedy ecosystem. If you’re a dedicated professional you have more avenues for a stand-up special than ever before. Classic stalwarts like HBO and Comedy Central now must contend with Netflix, Epix and other upstart programmers. It felt like there was at least one major stand-up special premiering every week this year, and yes, that can get hard to keep track of. We’ve watched almost all of them here at Paste, and can definitively state that these 10 specials were our favorites of the year. And for our purposes, that also makes them the best of the year.
10. 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
9. Paul F. Tompkins: Crying and Driving
Paul F. Tompkins has fully merged into being a storyteller comedian. It has been taken to another level with his latest special, Crying and Driving. There’s no microphone in his hand. The stage is almost entirely sparse. It’s just Tompkins and his fancy suit and his dapper mustache and a few stories about his life as a middle-aged man. Tompkins is able to pepper his running monologue with funny turns of phrase, which he is a master of, and amusing line deliveries. His physicality, while subtle, adds to many jokes. Tompkins is still one of the better stand-up comedians working today.—Chris Morgan
8. Eugene Mirman: Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store
This special is a great way to see how confident Eugene Mirman is onstage. He’s never been a retiring type, but he’s willing to roll with the punches of a riotous Q&A segment and willing to pull people onstage to stage a fake wedding with him as the officiant. And he doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life has changed now that he’s a public figure that can hobnob in Mexico with the former members of R.E.M. and can get recognized in a Guitar Center for his work on Delocated. Mirman is thus at the perfect place for a comic: he can fill up a small theater in Tucson, Arizona to film a stand-up special, and keeps getting interesting work, but isn’t so famous that he can’t see the absurdity in some of the things happening around him.—Robert Ham
7. Kyle Kinane: I Liked His Old Stuff Better
Kyle Kinane’s latest special provides some great evidence of how he is growing as a writer. Previous specials and standup appearances balanced out his look at life’s absurdities and the little moments of wonder/confusion that he stumbled upon. Here, the focus is almost entirely inward, digging out the moments of joy and sorrow and weirdness that he had a stake in.—RH
6. Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo
It’s weird that Amy Schumer’s first HBO special feels anticlimactic. She’s already bigger than stand-up. Instead of announcing her arrival at the top, Live at the Apollo feels like a victory lap. Through it all it feels like she’s both playing a character but also being honest, exaggerating her own desires and behavior and talking about them in a matter-of-fact and conspiratorial way that makes her relatable. She’s doing what great comedians have done for generations, playing an outsized version of herself while telling stories that may or may not be true but easily feel like they could be. She’s not really trying to shock as much as she used to. It makes her feel more honest, and also proves how she’s matured as a comedian—she’s able to get bigger and better laughs with material that’s a little bit subtler than in the past.—GM