There are a lot of comedians working today. Between Comedy Central, Netflix, EPIX, HBO and whatever else I’m forgetting, there are countless channels for these comedians to do comedy on. This means there are more sketch shows than ever, more talk shows than ever and, naturally, more stand-up specials and albums than ever. You don’t need to be Richard Pryor or George Carlin to get yourself a nationally televised hour anymore; more and more upstart comics are now able to show the masses what they’ve got in the discipline’s purest form. This is a very, very good thing for people who love to laugh. There’s now a mouthpiece representing virtually anyone’s particular sense of humor, whether it’s politically oriented, sexually oriented, family-oriented or even dead baby-oriented. Just as with all media, niches are being carved out with greater and greater detail in the world of stand-up comedy in 2013.
This makes this task of narrowing down all the amazing stand-up specials and albums churned out this year to our favorite 10 nearly impossible. We did it anyway, though, because of course we did. Here are the results:
10. Pete Holmes – Nice Try, The Devil
Pete Holmes fans probably know him from much more intimate experiences than Nice Try, The Devil. Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird is a brutally honest one-on-one with another comic, and his previous record, Impregnated With Wonder, features Holmes so close to the audience that he gives one of them a nickname and pulls them on stage to deliver a punch line. So there’s a moment of trepidation when Nice Try, The Devil opens with a slick announcer and peppy intro music. Luckily Holmes immediately pushes that moment aside by cranking his energy as high as it can go, riffing bits about Austin, Texas and bursting into an acapella version of the opening song from The Lion King, never letting that energy dip once.
Holmes’ specialty is bouncing between silly, self-indulgent bits and moments of deep philosophical profundity, and Nice Try, The Devil is the perfect showcase for his strengths. Without blinking, Holmes switches between a scene of a video game character eating whatever he finds on the ground and otter-related questions about the nature of god. It works since he approaches both topics with equal excitement, often literally demanding you pay attention.
The album occasionally falters—a flat bit about boysenberries, three minutes where the spirit of Dane Cook unexpectedly takes over Holmes’ body—but while it’s not perfect, Nice Try, The Devil shows off Pete Holmes’ comedic voice hilariously, loudly and undeniably. -Casey Malone
9. Kurt Braunohler – How Do I Land?
Kurt Braunohler sees the sky and says, “That needs a joke written on it in jet stream, funded through Kickstarter.” Kurt Braunohler records an album and says, “That skywriting joke is my album cover now, also we’re selling the album as an optional package deal with a double-ended dildo.” Kurt Braunohler even creates a comedy album/double dildo package deal and says, “That’s shipping out with a joke from me engraved on it.” (...the dildo, although in a sense the whole album, too, I guess?)
The host of Bunk and co-host of long-running variety show Hot Tub, Braunohler’s mission in life is to go out and make everything around him as silly as possible, then return to us so he can record it for posterity (and for Bikini Kill’s record label). There’s a lot of light goofs here, like his rejected tweets and his alternative title for Californication. Braunohler just will. not. stop. goofing. around., even if he’s finding the right phrase for a louder orgasm while mid-orgasm, or picking the right part of Sacha Baron Cohen to lick clean in the biggest audition of Braunohler’s life. That element of risk makes this album better than good, and hopefully sets Braunohler up for a lot more solo work beyond his debut. -Alex Schmidt
8. Anthony Jeselnik – Caligula
You know you’ve made it as a comedian when you can walk out on stage, promptly and smugly call the audience a bunch of pieces of shit, and get nothing but laughs. As Anthony Jeselnik says a few minutes into his second stand-up special, Caligula, “I assume you guys all knew who you were coming to see tonight, and if you didn’t you sure a shit know now.” If you’re not familiar with how Jeselnik operates, prepare to be appalled. Literally every joke he tells, every perfectly timed punch line he delivers, is designed to offend the easily offended. Whether he’s talking about rape, dead babies, dead children, race, the mentally challenged or the inside of the Holocaust museum looking like “a Nike factory,” Caligula is a button-pushing exploration of the modern society’s most taboo subjects. It’s all a joke to Jeselnik, though, and the devilish shit-eating grin plastered across his face after every landed joke proves that he’s relishing every minute of it. -Ryan Bort
7. Amy Schumer – Mostly Sex Stuff
Amy Schumer 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 this year’s 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
6. Bill Cosby – Far From Finished
Bill Cosby did a Comedy Central special this year. His last special, 1983’s Himself, could have been on Comedy Central, too…except Comedy Central didn’t even exist in 1983. So it’s a real treat to find out that Far From Finished lives up to the name. Cosby’s famous timing is still there, he’s still a winning storyteller and his family and friends are still his richest material after all these years.
All that would be well and good and make for another solid Cosby album. What pushes this one to the next level, though, is that Cos discovered a secret: being an old married guy is like being a kid again. The wise fatherly Cosby and the Cosby who slept with his brother Russell can now dovetail into one seated comedy legend who knows the entire progression of a person’s married life from personal experience, but still can’t get away with a secret mission for chocolate chip cookies. Much like a current Louis C.K. special is proof of what a great can do in their intensely productive prime, this Cosby album shows how a legend can find their second wind by never losing their first one through half a century of touring and entertaining. -Alex Schmidt