The 25 Best Comedians of 2016

Comedy Lists Best of 2016
The 25 Best Comedians of 2016

2016 is over, long live 2016. With it died every good celebrity and Nancy Reagan. Gawker is gone and Green Room had a shitty third act. Global temperatures are rising, ice sheets are melting, water tastes just a shade more metallic than it used to. What slivers of light remain are those few beamed from satellite to iPhone, through fiber optic cables and network airwaves, bathing us all in the sweet glow of warm, buttery pop culture. If there was nothing else good about this year, at least there was good comedy, and plenty of it—in just about every form imaginable, from virtual reality to regular reality. Here, in the interests of nostalgia and ad revenue, are the 25 comedians who most entertained us this year, whether it be through stand-up, sketch or plain old acting. Obviously not everybody who made us laugh could make this list, so we looked not just for quality but also volume, and focused on those whose work was available for a large audience and not just whoever had the best live show we saw this year. Caveats aside, let’s relive (and relaugh!) the immediate past.

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25. Joe Pera

A recipient of the illustrious Andy Kaufman Award and staple of the NYC stand-up scene, Joe Pera made his cable and network debuts this year. First there was his dreamy meditation of an Adult Swim special, Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep; then, his tremendous tight five on Late Night with Seth Meyers offered a flavor of character humor unlike anything else on that show. Next week Adult Swim will air his newest special, Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree. What a time to be alive.

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24. John Early

The physical manifestation of every meme about millennials, John Early lent his ever-charming support to some of 2016’s most interesting comedies. His episode of The Characters was one of the funniest of that bumpy anthology, if for this sketch alone, and his turn as the self-absorbed Elliott provides a source of unending joy in TBS’s Search Party. We’re especially looking forward to his return as the drama nerd Logan in Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later sometime next year.

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23. Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black had as busy a year as anyone on this last—he released a special, published a children’s book, starred in The Jim Gaffigan Show, and appeared in a tidy handful of films, tweeted back at a million trolls—but we’d give him this slot solely on the merits of his endlessly delightful turn as the butler Peepers in Another Period, one of the third- to fifth-funniest shows on TV.

22. Patton Oswalt

Twitter is a double-edged sword, and few people prove it as much as Patton Oswalt. His torrents of tweets can include some legitimately disagreeable business, but when he’s on he’s one of the funniest social and political critics on the internet. If he was just a social media invective machine he wouldn’t have made this list, though. He released another fine stand-up special, Talking for Clapping earlier this year, was a highlight of Funny or Die’s Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie as Merv Griffin, and made another 100 or so memorable appearances on such shows as Archer, Lady Dynamite and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$.

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21. Jo Firestone

Jo Firestone hosts just about every third comedy show in New York City, and appears in perhaps every fourth web sketch worth watching past the first thirty seconds. In 2016 she also popped up in The Characters and Don’t Think Twice, while serving as a producer on The Chris Gethard Show. And we’d be remiss not to mention Womanhood, the lo-fi deadpan masterpiece of a web series she made with Aparna Nancherla. Very good and great!

20. Ali Wong

Baby Cobra, which Ali Wong recorded while seven months pregnant, was one of our favorite specials of the year. She hasn’t slowed down since, except for a brief break after her daughter’s birth: Wong is currently starring on ABC’s American Housewife, still writes for Fresh Off the Boat, and is in the midst of a sold-out tour. Don’t worry—she has a nanny.

19. Rachel Bloom

Call us crazy, but we’re kinda holding out hope that Rachel Bloom will do for network comedies what Louis CK did for cable comedies, and in two or three years every other show will be a musical. What if!! Can you imagine?? No, but, also Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is in the middle of a lovely second season, and the first earned Bloom a pile of awards on par with that treasure trove at the beginning of Aladdin—including the Golden Globe for Best Actress. More more more!

18. Fred Armisen

The more you do the higher we’ll rank you, basically, as long as what you’re doing is the good stuff. Documentary Now might have been the best stuff, and between that and Portlandia Armisen was responsible for two of the funniest shows of the year. He was legitimately touching as the pathetic sadsack in the Doc Now episode “Globesman,” and his turn as a pretentious art rocker sellout in that show’s Stop Making Sense parody was an instant classic Armisen character. Toss in a fine job hosting Saturday Night Live’s season finale and his regular appearances on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and you’ve got a big year for the former Mr. Sally Timms.

17. Scott Aukerman

As soon as Scott Aukerman wrapped the final season of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang!, which concludes tonight, he leapt into a globetrotting live tour of the long-running podcast. But CBB is just one outpost of Aukerman’s network-spanning comedy empire: This year alone, he served as executive producer on Seeso’s Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ (created by his wife, Kulap Vilaysack) and Take My Wife, wrote for the Academy Awards, and produced Hillary Clinton’s comedy debut. He also told the AV Club yesterday that he’s got a hush-hush project coming out in February, which we’re all hoping has something to do with Mike Detective

16. Kyle Kinane

The gruff, no-nonsense Kinane released what might be the best stand-up special of the year with Loose in Chicago, and that’s no surprise—he’s been one of the most consistent comics throughout this decade. He’s a master storyteller whose surly exterior hides a pragmatic Midwesterner able to isolate exactly what makes any situation funny or absurd

15. W. Kamau Bell

Bell bounced back from the untimely death of his old FXX show by launching an eye-opening new documentary series on CNN, United Shades of America. His latest special and album, Semi-Prominent Negro, and his various podcasts are crucial listening for our racially divided times, and that will probably only grow truer once Trump actually takes control. Bell doesn’t just mock or belittle the opposition—he genuinely wants to try and understand them, and is kind enough to invite us along for the ride.

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14. Hari Kondabolu

Bell’s co-host on the Politically Re-Active podcast, Kondabolu is another smart and funny comic examining America’s current political climate and all the racial and cultural implications that entails. He also released one of the year’s best stand-up albums, Mainstream American Comic, which former assistant comedy editor Gita Jackson called “an unflinching examination of our country’s politics.” In a year absolutely full of political comedy, Kondabolu proved himself to be one of the smartest and sharpest political commentators around.

13. Issa Rae

Whereas HBO’s Divorce started high and has since sunk inexplicably low, Insecure opened strong and rose consistently to its stellar finale. This, we would venture, is largely due to the strength and idiosyncrasy of Issa Rae’s voice, which she’s been cultivating for years online and in her bestselling memoir. HBO has a rocky record with half-hour comedies—we’re looking at you, The Brink—but from the outset Insecure felt right at home among Silicon Valley and Veep.

12. Louis CK

Few comedians are as skilled at keeping quiet and keeping busy as Louis CK. This year he produced and starred in the strange, affecting Horace and Pete with nary a word of forewarning. He also helmed FX’s Better Things, with his friend and frequent collaborator Pamela Adlon, which was one of 2016’s best shows in any genre. What else is he hiding from us?

11. Seth Meyers

Though late night comedy couldn’t save us from the Trump Administration, it went a hell of a long way in keeping us sane these last eighteen months. Or, at least, Seth Meyers did, turning a doggedly skeptical eye toward the candidates while his peers played games with celebrities in the background. And somehow he still managed to produce a sterling season of Documentary Now!, one of our favorites of 2016.

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10. Leslie Jones

Thank goodness for Leslie Jones. Faced with a revolting stream of abuse from the worst of the internet, she could easily (and justifiably) have retreated from the public view. Instead she rose above, speaking out against cyber bullying and landing a cushy gig as the Olympics’ funniest commentator. Oh, and that Ghostbusters movie was pretty good, too.

9. Chris Gethard

Finally, an orange-haired maniac who isn’t an evil psychopath. This was a banner year for the kindest guy in comedy, as Gethard had some form of success in nearly every medium: His cable talk show The Chris Gethard Show returned for an deliciously unpredictable second season, his off-Broadway debut Career Suicide has been extended until January, he launched a hit podcast, and he had his biggest feature role yet in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. At this rate he’ll be a virtual reality porn star by the end of 2017.

8. Wyatt Cenac

Cenac was pretty much everywhere this year—even Paste’s food section, where he learned how to make a porky melt. His first comedy album of the year, Furry Dumb Fighter, can be quietly devastating. His Seeso stand-up series, Night Train with Wyatt Cenac, showcases both his own comedy and some of the best comedians today in a casual, low-key setting in Brooklyn. He’s the lead in People of Earth, a weird and occasionally brilliant alien abduction comedy on TBS. And he was one of the first comedians to directly respond to Trump’s election with the EP One Angry Night in November, which was recorded the week after the election and released for free through his mailing list a week after that. He doesn’t scream or cry or swear, but he doesn’t downplay the brutal days we might have ahead of us. I don’t think anybody would call it a tight set, but over these resigned, sometimes rambling 17 minutes Cenac helps us deal with the unthinkable at least a little bit. 2016 might’ve been a bad year for humanity at large, but for fans of Cenac and comedy in general, there was at least a lot of great material to sift through.

7. Hannibal Buress

There’s not a lot of justice in this world, but there is a little justice in this world, and in 2016 it came in the form of two Netflix specials from Hannibal Burress. (Also the Cubs winning the World Series). Sure, one was a behind-the-scenes documentary about his run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but even that was an illuminating, often thrilling glimpse into his life and work. Meanwhile the traditional release, Comedy Camisado, was one of his finest works yet—second only to his cameo as a giant bee in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.

6. Maria Bamford

Lady Dynamite, her effervescent sitcom-memoir, portends an exciting new phase in Maria Bamford’s career. She also released another fine album, but Lady Dynamite alone would have gotten her on this list. For years she’s been one of the most original voices in stand-up, and an endlessly productive voice and character actress. Now, she’s a leading lady as well. It’s been a long time coming.

5. Aparna Nancherla

There were a lot of excellent albums out this year, or like five excellent albums out this year, and Aparna Nancherla’s Just Putting It Out There was the best: an hour of casual, unassuming spirals from everyday anxiety into Beckett-ian existential despair, disguised within her signature loopy drawl. This was also the year she released a Comedy Central Half Hour, produced Seeso’s Debate Wars with Brian McCann and Michael Ian Black, and made appearances in shows like Netflix’s The Characters and Inside Amy Schumer. And, sure, okay, we already mentioned her and Jo Firestone’s web series, but here it is again.. Very great and good!

4. Donald Glover

2016’s best new comedy was also one of its best new dramas. Atlanta, an enigmatic and frequently opaque rumination on race, class and art, blew nearly all its contemporaries right out of the water. It’s zeitgeisty to lavish praise on every comedy that dabbles in darkness and sadness, and most shows that get this praise take a cartoonish approach (granted, some are cartoons) that tempers their darker elements in a comic frame—as if to apologize for getting serious. By foregoing sitcommy humor in favor of the experimental storytelling pioneered by Louie, Atlanta feels magnitudes more serious, and thus magnitudes more funny when it chooses to be. And that cast! Pretty much every choice Glover made with this series was a wise one, but one of the wisest was putting himself so often on the sidelines. “Value,” which gave much-needed attention to Zazie Beetz’s Van, was one of the finest episodes of television this year. Here’s to many more.

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3. Kate McKinnon

We at Paste are certain of two things in this life: Saturday Night Live will always be rocky, and Kate McKinnon will always be a shining beacon of grace and joy, the Gatsby’s green light toward which all comedy strives. This year she finally won the Emmy for her performance on SNL (she’d previously won the award for Best Original Music), while also lending her signature deranged charm to Ghostbusters and the crime-gone-wrong flick Masterminds. And she was in Finding Dory! Did anyone else see Finding Dory?

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1-2. Samantha Bee and John Oliver (tie)

In 2016 The Daily Show’s most memorable correspondents rightly took their place as the most vital voices in late night television. Their playing field is crowded and often, well, totally lame: The major network hosts range from occasionally incisive critics to completely forgettable court jesters, but Bee and Oliver consistently deliver informative, rigorously researched commentary with welcome bombast. As grim as the next few years may look, we’re glad to have these two lighting our way.

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