2019 is when Netflix’s constant deluge of new stand-up started to feel normal. When the streamer’s weekly release model started up a few years ago it felt destined to fail—were there really enough good comics with enough good material to keep up a weekly schedule of hour-longs, in addition to the specials released throughout the year by HBO, Comedy Central, Showtime, Amazon, and whoever else? The expectation was that comedians who weren’t quite ready for an hour would wind up getting one anyway just to fill up all the slots in all the available outlets. And then, when that steady stream started to really pour, it became a little overwhelming. So much stand-up, every single week. Netflix did pull back a little in 2019, but that’s not the only reason this new stand-up ecosystem finally felt normal last year; it’s also not just familiarity. I took some flak throughout the year for repeatedly noting that comedy is better than it’s ever been, but I don’t see how anybody could disagree with that statement. So many comedians who never would have had an opportunity at the spotlight in the past are taking advantage of the extreme amount of content now needed to keep the TV industry spinning by producing great specials that maybe wouldn’t have existed just a decade ago. The stand-up renaissance continued apace in 2019, and here’s the proof.—Garrett Martin
“My name is Allen Strickland Williams and I’m going to tell you 21 jokes.” Nobody is better equipped to take advantage of a half-hour special than a one-liner comic. Despite his limited runtime, Strickland Williams’ set feels like a full-fledged hour as it’s peppered with short, precise jokes free from unnecessary exposition or throwaway commentary. Not everything is a quick quip though, the comedian slyly makes a case for why nighttime is better than daytime on one of his lengthier bits to open the special on a high note and perfectly sets up a well-paced half-hour of silly comedy.—Olivia Cathcart
The latest special from Ron Funches starts with a guest appearance from Ric Flair, the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who’s so flashy that he makes those megachurch prosperity gospel preachers seem downright ascetic. Flair’s not just there because Funches is a fan, but to act as a living symbol of the confidence that Funches aspires to. If Giggle Fit is any indication, Funches is running pretty close to that mark. Funches is in the best shape of his career, physically, mentally and comedically, in what is easily his most assured special yet. His unique delivery is as inherently funny as ever, and his bits on his son Malcolm and how his weight loss has effected his relationships with friends and dates are personal yet relatable. Like Funches himself, Giggle Fit is a delight.—Garrett Martin
Mike Birbiglia employs callbacks regularly in The New One, his one-man play about becoming a father, but with a significance that these references usually lack in lesser performances. Yes, occasionally they’re just for laughs, but in the show’s most meaningful moments, Birbiglia harkens back to earlier jokes to demonstrate how he’s grown from a man all but sure he doesn’t want to be a father, to a dad that embraces his new, utterly changed life. He tracks this progression in tandem with his love for his couch, represented onstage by a stool. It’s a funny, appropriate modern metaphor; the couch symbolizes the state of his life and, coincidentally, is where he spends much of his time. Soon it is commandeered by his daughter Oona, who loves sleeping on it, and likewise his marriage and daily routine aren’t as they used to be. The show is well-crafted in every dimension. The title itself can refer to his new couch, his newest family member (Oona quite literally means “one”) and his new life.—Clare Martin
Wanda Sykes has never been one to dance around a point, and lands many direct hits throughout Not Normal, her new special for Netflix. The title refers to the state of the nation under Trump’s presidency—“It’s not normal that I know that I’m smarter than the president,” she says—and material about Trump dominates the first section of the hour. Trump’s presidency hasn’t aged him, she argues, but it’s aged us. The tough thing about comedians addressing Trump is that it still feels that this must be addressed at some point in order for the special to be valid. The perfunctory-ness of this trend and the common approach it generates does often affect the performances. One of the successes of this special is that it largely avoids this, and though some jokes at Trump’s expense can still feel like the kind of surface-level late night barbs that feel ineffective after a few years of being inundated with them, Sykes generates her criticisms from an extremely sharp place, and it shows.—Graham Techler
Ice Thickeners lives up to its name. Heller skips the small talk, diving right into topics like politics, exercise, therapy and masturbation. While such content is nothing out of the ordinary in stand-up world, that’s not necessarily a drawback here. There’s a reason we all ruminate on relationships and mental health and the state of our world—they’re universal concerns. She doesn’t plumb the subjects she covers too deeply, but Heller makes these well-trodden paths silly and insightful, frequently throwing out lines that feel instantly GIF-able. Her analogies for Trump—including him as Air Bud or an enchanted toilet/train conductor—are particularly inventive. Her focus on politics in the special only extends to her contemplation of a Trumpian world, but her feminist perspective is pervasive throughout. In a set all about getting down to brass tacks, Heller jokes that not only does she not care what men think, but that she flat-out hates them. It’s the type of comedic misandry that is both laughable and, in this day and age, utterly believable. Heller’s clearly a comedian ready to be center stage after over a decade of stand-up.—Clare Martin
Nate Bargatze’s new Netflix special, The Tennessee Kid, brings with it a proportional helping of the fidgety energy that made his episode of Netflix’s The Standups so enjoyable. It’s a special filled with quiet, shifty confrontations with authority, all of which leave Bargatze displaying the nervous confusion of a smart kid who knows what the adult in the room is saying doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t know if it’s worth it to correct them. It’s this disbelieving attitude that makes Bargatze an extremely agreeable presence, especially since he doesn’t put the kind of spin on the ball that would turn the approach sour or smarmy. This all makes The Tennessee Kid a real leisurely Sunday Brunch of a special.—Graham Techler
In her new Netflix special, Joke Show, Wolf jumps into her set immediately—no introductions, no opening goofs to ease us in, just straight into an otter rape bit. It’s about as jarring as it sounds, but in Wolf’s seasoned hands, her most abrasive jokes are also the funniest. Part of why this works is her quick connection with the audience. She’s not necessarily going to hold our hands, but she’s ready with a flashlight to guide us through the dark places she’s taking us, and it’s always worth the journey (no matter how vaguely uncomfortable).—Clare Martin
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a special from a voice of reason who actually comes across as reasonable. Too often, a comic will position himself as someone who “tells it like it is” in order to present a reactionary argument as tough love. Roy Wood Jr. has always avoided this kind of condescension, even as he adopts a firm position, as he certainly does in No One Loves You. This is the kind of political comedy that actually addresses the country’s divide, as opposed to simply mining it for material. I wish we had more of that, and I hope Wood has more of it for us.—Graham Techler
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
My Favorite Shapes starts with Torres discussing his favorite shapes. He sits at a conveyor belt that he operates with a foot pedal, presenting different objects and props and describing them in increasingly absurd ways. One is an oval that sadly stares at its reflection wishing it was a circle; another is a random collection of geometric objects that Torres says is an exact scale model of Tilda Swinton’s apartment. At one point we hear excerpts from a cactus’s diary, and anybody who struggles with mental health or self-doubt will relate to it. Most of these descriptions share a tone familiar from Torres’s SNL work, like ”Wells for Boys” and “Diego Calls His Mom”—goofy, sad, and surreal, but a recognizable enough version of real life to make immediate sense.
Torres eventually does stand up and move about the stage, but it never has the energy or pacing of a traditional stand-up set. When he does impressions, they’re not of people but of objects and concepts, like a Britta filter, or the curtain that separates first class from coach. He has a skill for mining the ridiculous out of quotidian objects, almost like he’s updating the bland observation humor of somebody like Jerry Seinfeld into a form of comic magic realism. There’s a bit where he presents shapes of animals he’d like to see at the zoo, and one of them might be the most perfect joke for understanding his point of view: it’s a porcupine who had its quills removed so it wouldn’t injure its lover, and now no longer recognizes itself. Torres loves instilling animals and inanimate objects with the sadness and insecurities of humans, in a way that’s both very specific and yet universal, and also never corny.—Garrett Martin