What a year it’s been for the art of people speaking jokes at people from atop a stage. 2019 started with Netflix releasing four dozen comedy specials at the exact same time, and since then the streamer and outlets like HBO, Comedy Central, and Comedy Dynamics have unleashed dozens more. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the good new comedy coming out everywhere, so if we missed one of your favorites, well, too bad. Here are our picks for the best of the year so far. Hopefully the second half will be just as good.
Netflix rang in the new year with a massive project of new stand-up specials from around the world. Almost 50 comedians from 13 different regions contributed half-hour sets, headlined by the Americans Neal Brennan, Nicole Byer, Chris D’Elia and Nick Swardson. The quality level obviously swings hard from special to special, but overall it’s an important overview of the current state of stand-up across the globe. It also shows how stand-up is essentially a universal language, for better or worse—it’s fascinating to see how comedians from the Middle East, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere perform, and how similar their physicality and speech patterns are to American comics, even when they’re speaking different languages. Seek out the half-hours from Byer, Brennan, the UK’s Mae Martin, and Canadian DeAnne Smith, to start.—Garrett Martin
Right Here Around the Corner isn’t an important special. You won’t walk away changed, and you probably aren’t going to learn anything. But you will laugh, hard and deep at stupid things that are worth laughing at. And in a way, that makes it important. There’s a place in the world for theater shows and arena gigs, but stand-up is always at its best in a club. Seeing a voice like Ray Romano walk up to the mic in a room with a low ceiling and crowd fulfilling its drink minimum is special. Right Here Around the Corner captures the joy of a comedy club. If the only lesson you walk away with is how much fun a club show can be, that’s perfectly fine.—John-Michael Bond
If you’ve seen Hart’s stand-up, you’re fully prepped for Irresponsible. It’s another hour of Hart’s high-strung energy and anxiety, as he plumbs his experience as a husband and father and his own irresponsible behavior for relatable nuggets of comedy. With his focus on the tenuous and ever-shifting relationship between two parents and their children, Hart could be seen as a family-friendly comedian, if you’re cool with your family hearing a ton of cuss words and a list of sex positions. Irresponsible feels like a modern-day take on a pre-disgrace Bill Cosby’s special Himself, only instead of wanting chocolate cake for breakfast Hart’s kids are refusing to give him the passwords to their phones. (The password, of course, is “fuck you.”) It’s not the most cohesive hour of comedy—we’d wonder if Hart rushed into releasing another special, if it hadn’t been almost three years since his last one—but despite his antic persona Hart remains an assured and confident performer. The Kevin Hart engine keeps on humming even when it’s not firing on all cylinders.—Garrett Martin
Growing might become a lightning rod when it doesn’t need to be. Schumer, possibly the steeliest and most unflappable comedian working today, probably doesn’t care about this possibility, and Growing reflects that confidence. It’s a special that goes down very easy—a brisk sixty minutes that’s a nice antidote to the bloatedness that hinders a lot of Netflix specials that get a little too excited. It also basically eschews the rock star comedian treatment that can get a little exhausting and rob the special of its intimacy. Schumer is letting her audience in, and giving them the chance to watch her while thoroughly in her stride.—Graham Techler
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
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
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
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
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