The 15 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2020

Comedy Lists Best of 2020
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The 15 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2020

2020 wasn’t a great year. It wasn’t even a good one. It straight up sucked, honestly. Sorry to be a bummer, but it’s true: this wasn’t a very funny year. I mean, it was absolutely hilarious in one sense—the darkest, bleakest, blackest sense possible—but if you aren’t into gallows humor you probably struggled to find much to laugh about in 2020. It sucked. It still sucks. It’s going to suck for a while. Shit!

Still, there was comedy this year. Some of it was good—great, even. The nature of the pandemic put a bit of a squeeze on the number of stand-up specials released during 2020’s second half—it’s not a coincidence that most specials on this list were recorded in 2019 or early 2020, before the lockdown—but there was still a solid number of stand-up sets worth watching, by a diverse group of comedians. Here are our favorites: the 15 best stand-up specials of 2020.

15. Sam Morril: I Got This

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Morril explores touchy topics on his self-produced new special, but tension is a vital cornerstone for his style. His delivery is so effortless and casual that his performances would suffer without it, and he is clearly aware of this fact. One of Morril’s mantras is that while we may not like the content, the audience sure as hell has to admire the structure. Boundary pushing aside, Morril’s craftsmanship particularly shines during his long stories. His final bit, about a Cleveland vigilante who christened himself “The White Knight,” showcases his talents as a storyteller. Morril is pleasantly cynical on I Got This, the jaded barfly regaling you with jokes that make you laugh in spite of yourself.—Clare Martin


14. Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

Douglas is a funnier show than Nanette. That’s on purpose. It has more jokes, many of which are very good. There’s an extended section at the end where Hannah Gadsby speeds through a slideshow of Renaissance art while dropping one hilarious observation after another, often framed around how male artists depicted women and their lives, and thus how the patriarchy has tried to control women for almost all of history. This is a fast-paced, but very controlled bit of business, and proof of how Gadsby is an accomplished master of performance; it has the speed and flow of ‘80s Robin Williams stand-up without the mania or desperation. It’s really good comedy.—Garrett Martin


13. Leslie Jones: Time Machine

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Leslie Jones’ physical bits are Time Machine’s greatest standouts. This accomplishment is made all the more impressive by the fact that she has a knee brace visible over her jeans. She’s an indomitable force of nature as much as she is a comedian. After mulling over her five decades of life, Jones ends her special with the truism that we must live in the moment rather than become preoccupied with the past or future. In the hands of a lesser comedian, this “moral of the story” moment would feel trite and unearned. However, after an hour of Jones preaching to 20-year-olds about the importance of glitter and cocaine, it instead is imparted with all of the wisdom and good humor she possesses. This is surely a special that’s worth being present for.—Clare Martin


12. Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-Life Crisis

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Quarter-Life Crisis is a hilarious and easy watch thanks to Taylor Tomlinson’s self-assured cadence. Her physical comedy is slight, but effective: the occasional flourish here and there to punctuate a bit, but nothing ever too over-the-top. Storytelling-wise, she is a natural and feels more akin to comedians from decades past rather than her peers. Tomlinson manages to marry her self-deprecation and self-confidence well, never coming off as too pathetic or too cocky. She sticks to relatable, tried-and-true topics—online dating, fucked-up childhoods—but keeps the material fresh nonetheless. You could call her the Goldilocks of comedy, the way that she ensures that everything, from the set up to the punchline, is just right. Many a millennial comedian tries to deconstruct the traditional comedy formula; Tomlinson decides to work within that frame, but make it entirely her own with gut-busting goofs.—Clare Martin


11. Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything

On I Love Everything Patton Oswalt seems about as well-adjusted as he’s ever been. He’s always had the ability to take personal anecdotes and observations and turn them into long, increasingly hilarious stories with a larger ring of truth and a tinge of the absurd, and that’s still true on I Love Everything. He also delivers the Trump stand-up routine that should officially end all Trump stand-up routines, and criticizes Louis C.K. and other #MeToo comics in the kind of bit that too few comedians have done. Oswalt’s previous special, Annihilation, was a respectful and darkly hilarious way to deal with the tragedy of his wife’s untimely death, and on I Love Everything Oswalt deals with the lives he’s rebuilt since—both his and his daughter’s. The result is a thoroughly entertaining hour from one of the most consistent comedians of his era.—Garrett Martin


10. Tom Walker: Very Very

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Tom Walker devotes his entire set to mime, “the unlovable child of theatre and dance,” though he thankfully talks throughout the set. His physicality is scarily impressive, equal parts believable (you very rarely are lost in imagining what exactly he’s doing) and profoundly absurd (see: the entire bit where he has a giant retractable penis). Fans of more traditional stand-up are not completely left adrift, as Walker moves between short bits to longer skits and callbacks that reflect a more conventional set. Most of his goofs are inventive to the nth degree. His best continuous story involves a love story with a coat, which also showcases just how convincing he can be with his movements. Walker’s approach is a welcome reprieve from the same old schtick.—Clare Martin


9. Hannibal Buress: Miami Nights

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Hannibal Buress’s comedy has always been a bit shaggy. His personality is a huge part of his appeal—a little sleepy, a little laid-back, but able to point out idiocy and hypocrisy like a laser beam and efficiently tear it apart with his comedy. This is all on full display in Miami Nights, his new hour-long special that’s free on YouTube. There’s not a lot of traditional jokes here, but Buress’s delivery is so defined and unique that he can effortlessly get laughs just by how he says things. The long show-closing bit about his arrest in Miami and the absurdity of the cop who did it sums up the Buress style: yes, it’s a well-observed, highly detailed, perfectly timely tale, but it feels less like a structured piece of comedy and more like a friend rambling his way through a story. Perhaps this is why Miami Nights has such a notable and unique aesthetic—there are no crowd shots, Buress uses a large screen behind him to play different videos and slides that relate to his stories, and there’s a variety of post-production visual effects and graphics used for emphasis throughout. It all adds a bit of energy to a show that otherwise lacks it. It’s not Buress’s best special, but it’s definitely worth watching.—Garrett Martin


8. Eric Andre: Legalize Everything

The same wild ethos of The Eric Andre Show informs Andre’s first-ever stand-up special, Legalize Everything, which includes an awfully timely opening segment with Andre as an unruly New Orleans cop and anecdotes about the various drugs he’s taken. Legalize Everything anticipates what 2020 has become: a time to question authority and the racist systems we’ve been conditioned to accept, and also to be on a lot of drugs.—Clare Martin


7. Rose Matafeo: Horndog

Horndog is goofy all the way through, but always personal, taking our expectations of what it means to be horny and turning it into an earnest, lovely portrayal of what it means to love something so enthusiastically that you simply cannot contain it. “This show is about love,” Matafeo tells the audience. “So if you did come tonight expecting, you know, like a sexy sex show, so sorry!” Like the reconstruction of the word horny, the audience’s expectations are altered to think they’re getting one thing, but they end the hour with something more poignant and sentimental.—Christian Becker


6. Maria Bamford: Weakness Is the Brand

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As she points out in her new special, Maria Bamford’s stand-up has long focused on “mental health schtick.” She goes on to say that she’s a little worried, as she’s “been feeling so good the last several years [she doesn’t] have any new material about it.” She might be doing better, but the rest of us are doing so much worse now that Weakness Is the Brand can feel like not just a stand-up special but an encouraging bit of inspiration from somebody who knows what we’re going through. Bamford weaponizes her own self-loathing and depression, agreeing with her critics and the far right when they call her an idiot or encourages her to kill herself, and comparing herself to her blind and deaf pug when it gets stuck in the kitchen while searching for the doggie door—”hopeless [and] looking for leadership.” She once again finds a way to make her personal issues feel not just universal but integrally tied into the moment that we’re all living through, depicting the sadness and lack of confidence of our time with clarity and confidence.—Garrett Martin


5. Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning

On her first-ever Netflix comedy special Sam Jay continues to hone her reputation as a hilarious truth-teller, but this time regarding the world around her rather than herself. She begins in familiar territory, talking about what it’s like to be a Black lesbian and reworking old bits, taking them to new heights. Jay then uses her relationship as a jumping-off point to discuss white feminism, flying fears, the Me Too movement and the powers of trans women, to name a few. Jay is clever about the placement of more sensitive subjects, saving them for the latter half of the special when the audience has grown to trust her. Most of these moments from near the end of the set are filled with tension, usually ending up with the crowd in stitches. 3 in the Morning leaves you walking away with more questions than answers, which is exactly what Jay is trying to do. Jay isn’t afraid to make a special that’s funny yet challenging, proving herself one of the most intriguing voices in comedy today.—Clare Martin


4. Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One

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Whitmer Thomas refers to himself as “pre cum Jim Carrey,” which is hilarious and accurate. In his HBO special he wants to make sure you’re having fun as he walks you through all his traumas, and guess what: you do. The Golden One (referring to his late mother’s daunting nickname for him) is part stand-up, part documentary, part DIY show. Filmed at the historic Flora-Bama (a bar that straddles the line between Florida and Alabama), Thomas returns to the South to parse through his unique childhood, which includes one kidnapping, a family of musicians, drug and alcohol abuse, abandonment, and skateboarding. Directed by his long time best friend and creative partner Clay Tatum, the two go back to the place that shaped Thomas. Having worked together on creative projects together for a long time, the pair brings a signature sense of absurdity and balance to the special. After singing a song called “Eat You Out” (about guess what!), we immediately cut to Thomas saying, “It’s funny that my mom died.” We get a sense of their intimate relationship in the first scene when Thomas is going through old photos and naming the people in them, then hands one to the camera and says, “And that’s you. When we were like twelve.”

The jokes are compact and funny but leave you with more questions than they answer, and then the songs really dive in and paint the picture. After briefly mentioning that he’s sober, in “Partied to Death” Thomas explains it’s because his mom died of addiction, then he makes the audience sing the chorus “Now I can’t party cuz my mom partied to death” back to him. This is cathartic even as an audience member, and makes you feel participatory in Thomas’s journey.—Julie Mitchell


3. Beth Stelling: Girl Daddy

Beth Stelling’s sets are lean and sharp, even when she’s expounding on a single topic or story for minutes on end. She peppers her observations with pointed one-liners that often twist in unexpected directions, or that quickly reframe a familiar premise in an original and keenly observed new light. How many times have you heard a comedian talk about the differences between how men and women view sex? Yeah, that’s like Stand-up Stereotype #1, something so thoroughly strip-mined by decades of comedians that it almost feels like an act of genius when Stelling is able to put her own personal stamp on it.—Garrett Martin


2. Natalie Palamides: Nate: A One Man Show

Nate: A One Man Show is a daring farce about consent and machismo that’s often hilarious and always provocative. Don’t expect anything like a traditional stand-up show, which is one of its strengths. Natalie Palamides is far more outrageous and boundary-pushing than those jurassic stand-up bozos who act like racism, sexism and homophobia are somehow still shocking after being the standard for most of human history, and she raises serious questions about real issues along the way. It’s not as tense, transgressive, or hilarious as seeing it live, but it’s still one of the most unforgettable things you’ll watch on Netflix.—Garrett Martin


1. Dave Chappelle: “8:46”

This short YouTube special is a furious, righteous, impassioned monologue on the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have sprung up throughout the country. In what’s easily the best work of his Netflix era, Chappelle doesn’t try to give voice to the movement or the justified rage rippling through America—as he says, “this is the streets talking for themselves, they don’t need me right now”—but focuses on his own rage, his own disgust, which drips from almost every word he says. It’s searing, powerful, and proof that Chappelle is absolutely still one of the most vital comedians around, no matter how disappointing and regressive his most recent special was.

Chappelle’s looseness greatly helps in this case. He mentions that he normally wouldn’t release something this hastily put together, but the whole spur-of-the-moment feeling about this video—like he’s not performing stand-up but just pouring out his heart and mind about the fucked up world we live in—is a huge reason that it makes such an impact. Whatever my criticisms with his recent specials, Chappelle has always been a smart, perceptive comedian with an innate grasp on how to speak to an audience; he’s also capable of being deeply sensitive, and that sensitivity returns in this video after being rarely seen in his latest full-length specials.—Garrett Martin

Whitmer Thomas photo by Megan Thompson, courtesy of HBO
Sam Jay photo by Marcus Russell Price, courtesy of Netflix
Tom Walker photo courtesy of Amazon
Hannah Gadsby photo by Ali Goldstein, courtesy of Netflix
Leslie Jones photo by Bill Gray, courtesy of Netflix
Taylor Tomlinson photo by Allyson Riggs, courtesy of Netflix
Patton Oswalt photo by Kent Smith, courtesy of Netflix
Eric Andre photo by Brian Roedel, courtesy of Netflix
Beth Stelling and Rose Matafeo photos courtesy of HBO Max
Natalie Palamides photo courtesy of Netflix
All other image are YouTube screencaps

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