30. Jim Gaffigan – Noble Ape
Gaffigan’s massive crossover appeal is almost undervalued these days. He’s a sympathetic everyman who can poke fun at coastal elites in a way both those elites and citizens of the flyover states can appreciate (when faced with the possibility of a North Korean missile reaching the East Coast, he finally exclaims “well we gotta do something about this! Now we’re talking about real people!”) Noble Ape feels, and I don’t mean this as a reference to Gaffigan’s food material, like a full meal. Or at least, several different small, meatier courses. A big part of this is the presence of Jeannie Gaffigan, who has co-written all of her husband’s specials but steps into the director’s chair here. Given that much of the special concerns her cancer scare—during which Gaffigan re-purposes his eye for food material with a series of dark fruit-related similes—it’s appropriate that she’s helping pace the special, and does it with a deft hand.—Graham Techler
29. Amy Schumer: Mostly Sex Stuff
damns all things demure in her one-hour special Mostly Sex Stuff, which offers astute observation of awkward, personal matters mostly related to, you guessed it, sex. Recalling comedians likes Sarah Silverman and Whitney Cummings, Schumer’s jokes are a mash-up of girl-next-door charm and low-brow vulgarity, confronting an array of taboo subjects that society tends to dissociate with the female sex.
Therein lies Mostly Sex Stuff’s appeal. In it, Schumer makes seemingly female-centric observations universal across the sexes. Although a woman of comedy, she avoids being pegged as a “woman’s comedian”—which is not an easy feat in the very male-centric world of stand-up.
Regardless, Schumer maintains a sense of femininity throughout, perhaps in the assumption of her on-stage persona. She sends out ample “thank yous” following each roar of applause, in what become moments of utmost politeness amidst a set of free-flowing obscenities. She plays with her hair while delivering expletive-laced punch lines under her breath, and side notes are wrapped in nonchalant packaging and bowed with beat-changing “ums.”
Mostly Sex Stuff crowns the foul-mouthed Schumer as [the] queen of raunch. With an apt name that fits the special’s content—from quips about “Plan A” to half-improvisational commentary on “little brown coats”—Schumer demonstrates that all is fair in sex and stand-up.—Maren McGlashan
28. 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
27. Morgan Murphy: Irish Goodbye
The production value of Irish Goodbye is considerably lower than most specials you’ll find, but the material is worthy of an HBO check. While lighting or directing can often detract from an hour, Murphy’s sharp, dry wit rises above the technical flaws for a special that’s full of hard-hitting belly laughs. Murphy is the queen of “damn, I wish I thought of that” jokes. From recutting How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days into an efficient 16 seconds, to eye-opening bank statement reviews, Murphy is just as masterful in astute observational humor as she is with self-deprecating anecdotes.—Olivia Cathcart
26. 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 stand-up 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
25. Hari Kondabolu – Warn Your Relatives
Photo courtesy of Netflix
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
24. Drew Michael – Drew Michael
Photo courtesy of HBO
Drew Michael is a stark, polarizing special that you may fall to one side or the other on, depending whether or not you’re inclined to appreciate how directly the special asks you to reckon with it. Which it does, in a big way, with Michael delivering his act directly to the camera in a stark black room, with stressful light shifts that weave through the special and give the space occasional dimension. This is, in general, a tense and stressful comedy special to watch, though it is definitely a comedy special, and is frequently hilarious. The context does sometimes make you feel insane for laughing out loud, though.—Graham Techler
23. James Acaster – Repertoire
Photo courtesy of Netflix
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
22. Ramy Youssef—Feelings
Feelings is an incredibly low-key affair. Filmed at the Chicago Cultural Center instead of a traditional theater or club, it lacks the sound of bombastic laughter found in most specials. Even the biggest laughs often get muted by the tall ceilings of the beautiful room. But rather than hinder the show, they leave the focus on Youssef as he bounds from topics that are seemingly trivial to deeply personal examinations of his life as an American Mulsim. No other special in stand-up history has been so equally horny and spiritual, often at the same time. He’s constantly thinking about sex like most 20-somethings, often even as he’s tied to God. When a woman finds his continued attendance at Friday prayers after the Mosque shooting in New Zealand hot, Yousseff finds a newfound confidence. In the same spirit, his parent’s lack of sexual education training leaves him terrified of the consequences of unprotected sex. It’s beautiful how relatable the material is to anyone who grew up in a conservative religious tradition. The relatability of Feelings is its biggest strength. When someone says “why does this comic have to talk about race” they often ignore the reality that mainstream white comics are also talking about race and ethnic experiences. We’ve just been trained to accept the white point of view as an unspoken cultural default. People who complain about comics talking about race or identity are just asking “why aren’t they talking about me.” As a Southern Baptist white male, the commonality between our experiences made the moments I couldn’t relate to hit that much harder.
I’ve never watched another stand-up special that made me think about going back to church. It made me question if faith was easy to abandon because I’d never been forced to confront it. Feelings is deceptively subtle but deeply funny.—John-Michael Bond
21. Aparna Nancherla – The Comedy Central Half Hour
True story: Aparna Nancherla opened her set on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour with, “When you drop pills on the floor, there’s no way to pick them up without looking like a human red flag,” and I paused the video to put the cap back on my Wellbutrin. It set the tone for the following thirty minutes: real ass life advice delivered in a charmingly flat affect.
Nancherla doesn’t reinvent the wheel—this is observational comedy. But there’s something special here, in the way the she so succinctly reveals the surreality of being alive in the year of our lord two thousand and [fill in the blank]. Is it the way that she specifies that she got cat called “last summer?” Is it her long bit on the evolution of clickbait listicles (“Sometimes it’s like ‘Two Birds!’”)? More likely it’s in the way she says things like there’s nothing weird about them, the same way I can casually drop “my therapist said,” into conversations with my peers like that’s a really chill thing to do. We live in interesting times, and it seems counterintuitive not to just say that, and be saying it all the time. To paraphrase Nancherla, I’m not sure how you could read a newspaper and come to the conclusion that everything is fine.—Gita Jackson