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
[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
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