We’ll just go ahead and spoil this for you right here: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is the best stand-up special of the year so far. That’s partially because it’s an often hilarious hour of comedy, but also because it’s so much more than that. Gadsby’s fiery feminist polemic on trauma and misogyny isn’t the only stand-up special that directly addresses the #MeToo movement this year (Cameron Esposito’s great Rape Jokes explores similar territory) but it is the smartest and most powerful. Along with Esposito’s special and Hari Kondabolu’s Warn Your Relatives, Nanette proves that comedy still plays an important role in addressing the political issues of the day, even if the larger political comedy scene has become a lifeless, self-congratulatory bore in the Trump era.
Not every great special so far this year has been political, of course. James Acaster released a four-special tour de force of silliness on Netflix. John Mulaney once again proved himself a modern master of stand-up, while Chris Rock dealt with the personal as much as the political in his first special in a decade. Ali Wong found new success in revisiting her breakout special, while Fred Armisen released an hour full of the most Fred Armisen-y material imaginable.
And pretty much all of this was on Netflix. The streaming giant has squarely conquered the stand-up world, releasing not just hour-long specials from big names and up-and-comers, but half-hour (and now fifteen-minute) specials from comedians at various stages in their careers. Only one of the ten specials on this list wasn’t released by Netflix. At this point the other traditional outlets for stand-up are little better than footnotes in an industry thoroughly dominated by Reed Hastings.
Let’s get to it, though. Here are the best new stand-up specials from the first half of 2018, every one a must-watch for any comedy fan.
10. Aparna Nancherla – The Standups
Maybe this says more about me than her, but Aparna Nancherla continues to be just about the most relatable comedian working today on her half-hour Netflix special. She’s basically an artist of awkwardness, finding new and more endearing ways to get confused by the world we’re living in today. Somehow it’s comforting for us, the viewer, to see how hilariously uncomfortable Nancherla is.—Garrett Martin
9. Fred Armisen – Standup for Drummers
The title isn’t just a gag. Armisen, who was a professional drummer for indie rock bands before segueing into comedy, devotes a solid chunk of this hour to jokes that will mostly be appreciated by drummers or anybody who’s ever been in a band with one. He riffs on awkward soundcheck banter between drummers and sound men, about the common nuisances of touring with a drum kit, and about how bad non-drumming members of a band are at keeping time. This has to be the only stand-up special to start with a drum solo, include jokes about paradiddles, and feature cameos from Sheila E., Blondie’s Clem Burk, Green Day’s Tre Cool, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and legendary session drummers Thomas Lang and Vinnie Colaiuta. Early on Armisen talks about the pride of being a drummer, and how it means “you’re just better than everybody.” That pride suffuses the entire special, undercut only slightly with a touch of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery.—Garrett Martin
8. Ali Wong – Hard Knock Wife
In Hard Knock Wife, a spiritual companion to her breakout special Baby Cobra, Wong revels in the truths about motherhood that no one will talk about in public. This is one of those rare situations where “telling it like it is” is actually a good thing, as opposed to how too many other comics use that phrase to justify bad and/or problematic jokes. There’s real perspective and purpose to the shock value in Wong replicating what is possibly (probably?) the longest queef in comedy history, beyond just being funny. And Hard Knock Wife is incredibly funny, building on Wong’s uncompromising statement with a wealth of observational specificity and reliable bite. Many comics can become quickly alienating when they first become famous, but Wong’s reaction to her own fame (she watched her own special on her sister’s Netflix login) grounds her and opens her up to further reflection.—Graham Techler
7. Cameron Esposito – Rape Jokes
Esposito’s darkly hilarious special about sexual harassment, abuse and rape is deeply personal but also universally relevant in these days of the #MeToo movement. Building up to a frank discussion of Esposito’s own history with abuse, Rape Jokes aims to both reclaim the conversation surrounding rape for the victims, while also pushing it beyond what she calls the media’s SVU-style depiction of rape as violence committed by strangers on darkened streets. Esposito remains masterfully confident throughout, broaching difficult subjects with a tone that veers from the performative to the conversational. It’s one of the most crucial hours of comedy you’ll see this year.—Garrett Martin
6. James Acaster – Repertoire
Acaster has the casual confidence and slightly buzzed, motormouth tendencies of clear influences Dylan Moran and Stewart Lee, which extends to a certain loose-fitting, corduroy-heavy wardrobe—straight out of a less aggro era of British alternative comedy. Recognise, the first of four hours in Repertoire, rolls along as many specials from that era did, and it’s a wonderful, tipsy, bubbly ride with no clear moment-to-moment form but a remarkably cohesive worldview by the time he wraps it up. It’s pretty amazing how formally assured it eventually reveals itself to be, given that Acaster seems constantly bored by our expectations of where we think the show might go.—Graham Techler
5. Hari Kondabolu – Warn Your Relatives
Anointed voice-of-their-generation comedians can sometimes stumble when initially thrust into the cultural spotlight—as Hard Kondabolu has been with the fallout from The Problem with Apu. Not this time. Warn Your Relatives, his first Netflix special, is a searingly confident statement from an extremely, proudly political comedian who injects his rapid material with a strong current of justified anger. “My stand-up isn’t for everybody,” he says, to laugher at such a ballsy statement from an outwardly nerdy persona. “It’s okay, it’s okay. That’s why it’s good.”—Graham Techler
4. Tig Notaro – Happy to Be Here
Notaro, one of the true masters of deadpan, seems almost comfortable with her life on her latest special. Sure, she’s still self-effacing, to an extent, and still approaches her celebrity and success with a bemused distance, but she positively beams when she talks about her marriage and her two young twin sons. After all the grief that she mined for her career-making stand-up specials and sitcom, Notaro has more than earned the confidence and joy she shows in Happy to Be Here. Also fans of the Indigo Girls absolutely need to watch this special.—Garrett Martin
3. Chris Rock – Tamborine
Tamborine proves that Rock’s comedy is just as smart and sharp as it’s always been. He immediately starts off by talking about cops shooting black kids, wasting no time to dive right into one of the most depressing problems undermining our country. He effortlessly cuts through the feeble “bad apples” defense regularly carted out by police departments when this happens, and calls for a “world with real equality”—one where as many white kids are shot by police each month as black kids. From here he segues into gun control, and then into an extended bit about how one of his main goals as a parent is to prepare his kids for the white man and also making sure they get bullied enough. As he puts it, the main reason Trump is president today is because we no longer know how to handle bullies. Rock hits on one hot button issue after another, regularly flirting with jokes that some might be offended by, but with a perspective that’s so thoughtful, original, and, in its own wicked way, respectful that it would be hard to argue that he ever crosses a line, even if you believe there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.—Garrett Martin
2. John Mulaney – Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City is of a piece with his last two specials. As before he doesn’t tell jokes, per se; he weaves long, elaborate stories out of his daily life, both now and as a child, focusing on how absurd the mundane can be. That might make him sound like some kind of Seinfeldian observational comic, but he avoids the clichés of that genre. It’s not the observation that makes Mulaney funny, or the recognition we might have for whatever he’s talking about. It’s the level of detail that he goes into, like when he talks about elementary school assemblies. He doesn’t just bring up that familiar setting and tell a few broad jokes about kids, teachers and school. He goes deep into one specific assembly he had to attend every year, describing in detail the Chicago police officer who specialized in child homicide and would give annual presentations on how to avoid or escape “stranger danger.” Mulaney creates a whole tableau out of this assembly, from the outlandish appearance of Officer J.J. Bittenbinder, to the cop’s increasingly ridiculous scenarios, with the comedy growing with every new detail. There’s no conventional setup or punchline, and little reliance on the universality of his topic; it’s just a story ostensibly pulled from Mulaney’s life and told in a fantastic fashion.—Garrett Martin
1. Hannah Gadsby – Nanette
Nanette grows past the confines of a comedy special and into something completely different—a riveting screed against misogyny in all forms that utterly abandons its reliance on jokes. It is, despite being extremely funny, the anti-comedy special. That’s not a label I’m putting on it—Gadsby announces her intentions for the special very clearly. It’s a work of art that—as someone who both loves comedy and often feels conflicted about its place in our cultural landscape—I’ve been waiting for for a long time without even realizing it.
It is an extremely angry hour, an extremely cathartic one and an extremely necessary one. An art form cannot thrive if it refuses to look itself in the face and question its own necessity. If it does, it might emerge on the other side stronger and more vital.—Graham Techler