The 25 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2017

Comedy Lists Best of 2017
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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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