The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2018

Comedy Lists Best of 2018
The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2018

Comedy split into two camps in 2018: Those who thought stand-up could encompass the kind of raw emotion and anger displayed in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, and those who were wrong.

Nanette dominated the conversation about stand-up in a way few specials ever have, but Gadsby wasn’t the only comic to experiment with the typical hour-long format this year. Drew Michael released a striking special on HBO that dispensed with a stage and an audience and embraced cinematic flourishes and an approach that directly addressed the home viewers. James Acaster released an entire young career’s worth of specials at once, with four hours debuting simultaneously on Netflix. Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher celebrated their honeymoon with a short series of half-hours that included copious crowd work. And Netflix turned the kind of abbreviated stand-up set that used to be a key component of late night talk shows into a destination of its own, with the 15-minute anthology series The Comedy Lineup.

Critics and comedians have long been waiting for the current comedy bubble to burst, but as long as comics and distributors are willing to take chances like this there could still a good amount of life left in the current stand-up wave. And the scene can only be strengthened by strong new specials from proven pros like Tig Notaro, John Mulaney and Chris Rock.

Here’s what impressed us here at Paste in 2018.

20. Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

As a variety show this hour is inherently hit-or-miss, but the live lineup features some of the best stand-up comedians working today, including Michelle Wolf, Tiffany Haddish, John Mulaney and Sarah Silverman. (And yes, Michael Che’s there, too.) Wolf and Mulaney carve out sharp seven minute servings from their full sets, with Wolf, the host of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, landing hard with incisive comments on sexual harassment and the immigration debate. Haddish reasserts her hard-earned status as everybody’s newest favorite human by showing the same kind of candor and charisma that has made her a highlight of Saturday Night Live, the Oscars and every other place she’s been invited over the last year; her set feels less like stand-up comedy than a conversation with a hilarious friend who wants to tell you about that time she got to party with Beyoncé after the Academy Awards. And Mulaney’s set on Timothée Chalamet—or, as he calls him, “The Boy”—hits home for anybody whose significant other has ever set eyes on that kid. There’s a lot of nonsense to fast forward through, but the half-hour of stand-up here includes three of the best sets of the year.—Garrett Martin

19. The Comedy Lineup on Netflix

Photo courtesy of Netflix

It might be a cheat lumping all these 15 minute micro specials together, especially since some are much stronger than others. The value here is in the cumulative impact—The Comedy Lineup is a well-rounded, smartly balanced overview of the current crop of comedians ready for the national stage. It’s far from comprehensive, of course, but like any great, scene-defining compilation record it does a great job introducing you to comedians you should know about, including Ian Karmel, Jak Knight, Sam Jay, Emma Willmann, Josh Johnson, Tim Dillon, Kate Willett and more. And at 15 minutes apiece, it’s a perfect show to dial up on Netflix when you’ve got just a little bit of time to kill.—Garrett Martin

18. Iliza Shlesinger – Elder Millennial

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Few comedians who traffic in relationship material do it as specifically and deliberately as Iliza Shlesinger. From her live performances to the various TV shows she’s hosted in her time, she’s managed to elevate the familiar rhythms of “fellas, you know when…” and “ladies, you ever…” setups with more articulate observations and pieces of advice than you normally get here, with a performance style that’s just a more interesting version of the bravado comics usually employ to sell it. Her newest special, Elder Millennial, feels like the culmination of this, though I doubt she’s going to hang this particular hat any time soon. The main thrust of the special is that in advance of her impending nuptials, Shlesinger wants to pass along her collection of revelations on sex, dating and relationships from her 20s. It’s a nice slightly-narrative-mostly-not framing device for the whole thing, and it allows for particularly joke-dense segments surrounding Shlesinger’s questionable life choices, some more transparently fictional than others. “He broke up with me because I slept with his brother,” she says of one boyfriend. ”Well, they’re twins, they should wear different colored hats or something.”—Graham Techler

17. Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher – “The Honeymoon Stand Up Special

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

The enfant terrible dynamic between newlyweds Leggero and Kasher is the star of The Honeymoon Stand Up Special, a collection of half-hours, and is the element that holds the series tightly together when other elements falter. The main event is the collection’s third part, a series of improvised roasts/therapy sessions with various couples in the audience. Though it’s essentially a crowd work exercise, both Leggero and Kasher thrive on each other’s rhythms and clearly delight both in putting these poor people in the hot seat (their patients include a woman who admits to not feeling any emotion) and in giving them a thrill. This framing device plays to the couple’s strengths: a podcaster’s ability to draw a guest in and a roaster’s proclivity towards knocking them down as specifically as possible. Also, I don’t know, call me old fashioned, but there’s something beautiful in the real look of love Kasher gives a newly-Jewish Leggero when she refers to the Holocaust as a “membership dropoff.” These two are just in awe of each other’s abilities.—Graham Techler

16. Kyle Kinane—The Standups

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

Kyle Kinane’s no stranger to our year-end lists. He’d probably rank a good bit higher if we got a full special from him in 2018. Instead we got a fantastic half-hour of Kinane’s gruff but grounded storytelling as part of Netflix’s The Standups anthology. It’s a bit more timely and political than his usual material, and his trademark combination of mocking himself while also calling out the idiocy and bullshit of everybody else in the world is a perfect way to address the real problems facing the world we live in. From mass shootings to the KKK, Kinane somehow stomps all over third rails without ever getting shocked; he’s a smart and experienced enough comic to know how to joke about such fraught topics without coming off as too disrespectful or flippant.—Garrett Martin

15. Adam Sandler – 100% Fresh

Photo courtesy of Netflix

100% Fresh is incorrectly named. Not because it isn’t good, but because it suggests a tone of ironic bitterness that isn’t represented in the special. Directed by Sandler’s frequent collaborator Steven Brill (with some sequences filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson), 100% Fresh contains one small dig at Rotten Tomatoes (an aggregate website that collects reviews from outside sources), but is otherwise shaggy, earnest and inventive. Sandler grins and mutters his way through it all, but he seems to be having fun, and it unlocks much of his old charm in an instant. Sandler’s giggling rubs off on you. The off-kilter songs are back, with lyrics like “I guess that calls for a death pillow over your face.” There are duds every once in a while. But then Sandler does a song about Chris Farley. It’s funny, sweet and sad. And when he sings “I wish you were still with me, and we were getting on a plane to go shoot Grown Ups 3,” it’s chilling, but also humiliating. Because somehow we never thought to think about how a guy who lost someone so young like that might want to spend his adult life making as many movies with his closest friends as possible.—Graham Techler

14. Aparna Nancherla – The Standups

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

13. Demetri Martin – The Overthinker

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Demetri Martin has always been interested in pushing form, and he hasn’t gotten quite the recognition he deserves for it. He’s certainly well respected, but in the mid-2000s, with his Beatles haircut, guitar and live cartoons, some people misdirected the label of hipsterism onto him, instead of his imitators. Martin’s new special for Netflix, entitled, appropriately, The Overthinker, doubles down on those kinds of muted comic flourishes, with Martin providing soft voiceover to represent his own thoughts during his set (solely for the benefit of Netflix viewers, not the live audience) and having contradictory subtitles pop up every now and again to call him on his shit. But Martin earns every big swing he takes here, and sits in his choices so confidently that you can’t call them twee affectations. He’s staking out a little new territory for a comedy special in the way that the best of these new Netflix specials have done.—Graham Techler

12. W. Kamau Bell – Private School Negro

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Staged in the round (as was Jerrod Carmichael’s 8, which similarly breaks up the predictable proscenium rhythms a lot of specials fall into), Private School Negro gives off a town hall impression, and Bell effectively leads one. He wears his status as a voice-of-reason comedian like a loose shirt, presenting plenty of ideas that earn applause breaks but not without playfully undercutting them. For example, his salient points about free speech, namely that “you have the right of freedom of speech, but you don’t have freedom of consequences from that speech,” is only half of his characterization of the alt-right, the other half being “they wish they were a little bit taller, they wish they were ballers. If they had a girl they’d call her.”—Graham Techler

11. 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

10. Fred Armisen – Standup for Drummers

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

9. Ali Wong – Hard Knock Wife

Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

8. Cameron Esposito – Rape Jokes

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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

7. 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

6. James Acaster – Repertoire

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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

5. 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

4. Tig Notaro – Happy to Be Here

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

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. John Mulaney – Kid Gorgeous at Radio City

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

2. Chris Rock – Tamborine

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

1. Hannah Gadsby – Nanette

Photo courtesy of Netflix

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

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