The 10 Best Comedy Specials of 2023 (So Far)Photos by Rob Holysz / Greg Endries Comedy Lists best of 2023
The post-lockdown comedy boom continues to rage on. Since comedians have been able to record their specials in relatively normal environments (I’d say safely, but that’s not still the case for many immunocompromised folks), they’ve finally has the chance to regale us with their takes on masks, forced isolation, and, thankfully, subjects beyond coronavirus, too. As a result, it’s felt at times like an inundation of stand-up, especially as many comedians—particularly well-established ones—begin to stretch beyond the typical 60-minute mark.
If that sounds a bit intimidating, though, never fear. We here at Paste have raked through the mountains of stand-up to bring you the best comedy specials of 2023, in ascending order:
10. Marc Maron: From Bleak to Dark
Marc Maron’s new comedy special, From Bleak to Dark, is about as him as a show can get; that is, a mix of the brutally honest and the utterly devastating. He jokes about Christian fascism, how to rebrand abortion clinics, and his own personal life. Some of Maron’s most refreshing material comes from his criticism of conservative or so-called anti-woke comedians, who are just annoyed that they now have to deal with the consequences of their actions.
“I think that the first third of the special when I dealt with cultural issues, that that would provide some people with a reaffirmation of their own point of view, which sometimes can get kind of solitary, especially if you’re dealing with this sort of bullying, dominant, libertarian, or right wing perspective of things. It’s very intrusive,” Maron explains to me over Zoom while smoking a cigar on his porch. He’s just as cool as you’d imagine.
He then adds, “Somehow or another, I find that I give voice to people and make them feel a little less alone around certain things.”
One of the ways Maron makes people feel less alone in From Bleak to Dark is by talking frankly about the death of filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who was his longtime partner. She died of leukemia in May 2020 at only 54. He spends much of the hour talking about missing Shelton, as well as joking about the myriad strange ways losing someone affects you.
“I thought that the open discussion and the humor that I found within that process, and within loss and grief, would provide some relief for people who have also dealt with that, which is going to be almost everybody at some point in time,” Maron says of including Shelton in the special. —Clare Martin [Full interview]
9. Josh Johnson: Up Here Killing Myself
New York-based comedian Josh Johnson describes growing up poor with candor and, of course, humor during the first part Up Here Killing Myself. Whether recounting the seamless bag his family’s cereal came from or the questionable quality of their local pharmacy, he paints an effective picture. His stories involve people in rough circumstances trying their best—himself included—and he shows an inherent empathy to these individuals. To Johnson, the reason is simple: things that are traumatic can be very, very funny, and so laughter is just part of the healing process.
Up Here Killing Myself establishes Johnson as a naturally gifted storyteller. His turn of phrase is conversational yet inventive, elevating stories that were already funny to begin with. Johnson’s physical comedy is the cherry on top, as he dances or leans slyly to sell a moment. And that’s not to mention his voices—his affectation as his mother is subtle but distinct—and hilarious facial expressions. Even though occasionally you can tell where a joke of his is going, Johnson is so fun and genial that you’re just happy to be along for the ride.
Johnson’s also adept at structuring his stand-up, a trait he exploits to the max. He ends the special with a divisive joke after an hour of building up good will and making you laugh. Johnson knows he’s won you over and that something controversial will stand out; there’s no way you’re forgetting his performance any time soon.—Clare Martin [Full review]
8. Brad Wenzel: joke. joke. joke.
joke. joke. joke. is just that—a succession of hilarious bits without any segues, Wenzel’s good-natured laughter acting as the glue that holds it all together. Watching Wenzel feels like hanging out with your funniest, weirdest friend; it’s relaxing and utterly enjoyable. The special’s 40 minute length is just right for Wenzel’s type of comedy, not overstaying its welcome or leaving us feeling shortchanged.
Wenzel employs his signature meta-commentary during the taping at The Comedy Fort, much like he did in Sweet Nothings. He breaks the fourth wall, pointing out his unstructured structure and telling us right off the bat, “I’m just gonna say a bunch of funny stuff. That’s how I like to do it.” Wenzel sure as hell lives up to that promise. It’s a half-awkward, mostly charming mechanism that puts the audience at ease. These moments, sharing with us which jokes he knows are a stretch and which ones he thinks the audience “is doing too well for,” make us feel like we’re in on the mischief.
As for the jokes themselves, they’re simple, goofy, and satisfyingly funny. Wenzel approaches the world from a delightfully skewed perspective, dreaming up what life must be like for non-Pennywise clowns stuck in storm drains and other absurd scenarios. Wenzel’s delivery is decidedly unassuming and casual, but his observational humor is filled with a sense of wonder at the world. Wenzel’s imagination is one of his greatest assets.—Clare Martin [Full review]
7. John Mulaney: Baby J
The beginning of Baby J, John Mulaney’s new special, is a bit disorienting. We dive right into it with Mulaney’s voice talking over a black screen, then the camera pans down to show him already in the groove of his set. Very rarely do comedy specials start without some sort of introduction—a sweeping shot of the city, a little scene of them backstage, or at the very least, footage of the comedian walking to the microphone. Yet here is Mulaney, already performing in a bright mulberry suit, far bolder than any of his previous navy or gray looks, signaling that yes, this is the same comedian, but a lot has changed.
To his credit, Mulaney acknowledges the odd introduction (including an extended riff about attention that leans a bit dark towards the end), noting that it would be even more odd to start super upbeat before diving into the crux of why we’re all here. Mulaney, the catalyst of a thousand discussions about parasocial relationships, overcame a drug addiction, went to rehab, got divorced, and had a child with Olivia Munn, all within the span of five years. He knows his reputation is different now, and he is ready to talk about it.
Before you ask—he doesn’t touch on the divorce, nor does he mention his new relationship or his decision to have children. What he does discuss, at length even, is his struggle with addiction and his time in rehab. Viewers of his Seth Meyers interview have already heard the story of his star-studded intervention, but in this special he chronicles the night and following days with more details, and more frank confessions about his drug-fueled self. “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikable that story is,” he notes after a particularly egregious anecdote, “Just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”—Michelle Cohn [Full review]
6. Nate Bargatze: Hello World
Because he’s Southern, self-effacing, and a “clean” comic you might be tempted to call Nate Bargatze an “aw shucks” kind of guy, but he’s definitely no modern Hee Haw huckster for whatever we’re calling The New South these days. Hello World reminds us of the tension between his decent Everyman persona and the mockery and disdain he has for the fools of the world—a tension he tries to diffuse with his extremely dry, understated delivery and by making himself into the biggest fool of all, but a tension that nevertheless persists. He hammers down on his own dumbness—“I say a lot of dumb stuff. I try to keep it in front of large groups; it seems to go better that way,” he says early in the special—while lightly ragging on his parents for his strict ‘80s upbringing, and it doesn’t just endear Bargatze to the audience but also softens the strain of light cynicism that sometimes bubbles through his work. And although Bargatze has proven himself to be a great storyteller in the past—go listen to his Cape Fear Serpentarium material if you haven’t yet—his best stuff in Hello World are his stray observations, like how everybody driving a boat on a lake is either 11 or drunk, and how oldest kids are raised so strictly while younger children are basically raised by their best friends. He makes his observational humor feel personal and original, which is pretty hard to do in 2023.—Garrett Martin
5. Mae Martin: SAP
It would be a gross disservice to relegate Martin to a “type” of comedy when their work is so intimate. But addiction and queerness are paramount to their storytelling, onstage, onscreen, and in print, as they also penned the 2019 novel Can Everyone Please Calm Down: A Guide to 21st Century Sexuality. As such, the comedian-writer-actor has accrued a decidedly queer following, the likes of which eagerly packed into Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall for their new show SAP.
With SAP, Martin launches into new material—the plight of being conceived doggy-style, snowglobe insignia, fabled moose encounters, and the non-binary potential of Beauty and the Beast’s Lumière are all highlights—as well as past anecdotes about daytime rehab and being a long-limbed pubescent. The show is thematically lighter than Martin’s past work, with the title’s double meaning of sticky, romantic sappiness and literal tree sap being plucked from a Buddhist parable about finding the good in impossibly bad circumstances.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Martin’s comedy hopeful; their humor seems to percolate best with anxieteens, but still see-saws between conceptualizing the future as a throbbing question mark and a kinder, remediable place. Even post-COVID, their approach doesn’t clamor onto isolation politics or doomism (“Well, well, look who’s inside again,” et cetera). Rather, it signals a turn toward something warmer, unmarred by present divisiveness though still clearly politically conscious.—Saffron Maeve [Full review]
4. Emma Arnold: Myself
Sometimes you watch a comedy special and you just want to wrap it around yourself like a warm blanket, basking in its silly stories and charming moments. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that way—watching stand-up for your job can take the magic out of it sometimes—but Emma Arnold’s new hour Myself made me laugh and immediately conjured a cozy sense of comfort.
Arnold released her fifth comedy album, Myself, via Blonde Medicine and the special on YouTube. Arnold has been through some shit in her life, but by her own admission is in a better place than ever as she performs her latest hour at The Infinity Room in Salem, Oregon. She takes to the stage with the ease and joy of someone who loves what they do. Myself is thoroughly hilarious and disproves the tired thinking that artists must suffer to make something great—a notion that Arnold plays with as she jokes that she should quit comedy now that she’s so happy.
That happiness shines through and becomes infectious as the special continues. Arnold finds pleasure in what some people might call the little things, but which are not so little after all and certainly not to be taken for granted (namely thinking of her mentioning dental insurance). She also manages to mine the humor in deep pandemic life with three teenage sons in a two bedroom apartment, her right-wing neighbor, and her kids’ various rebellions against authority. Arnold has some truly wild tales to tell. There’s no bells and whistles here, just an exceptional storyteller gracing us with her talent.—Clare Martin [Full review]
3. Wanda Sykes: I’m An Entertainer
Not Normal started off with the mind-boggling strangeness of the Trump presidency, and Sykes breathed new life into a subject that felt utterly exhausted at that point. Likewise, Sykes’ ruminations on the pandemic in I’m An Entertainer are effective, and in this instance it’s because of the specificity of her stories. Her tales of increasingly debaucherous online church attendance and sneakily smoking weed while isolating both work because they’re so singular, so her, and therefore much more hilarious than banal, sweeping statements about lockdowns. It helps that Sykes’ impeccable comic timing and exasperated expressions are tailor-made for giving out about anti-vaxxers and the generally bananas state of the world.
Coronavirus is just the beginning here for Sykes; she kicks off with the pandemic, moving smoothly into tough topics like homophobia, transphobia, the murder of Black people in America, the insurrection on January 6th, and white supremacy as a whole. Her points are woven together with stories about herself and her family, because for Sykes many of these subjects aren’t simply political—they are deeply personal. Add to this her keen ability to get straight to the core of something—stand-outs here include reparations and Republicans opposing critical race theory—and you’ve got a special that pulls no punches. By centering her individual perspective, Sykes injects humor and newfound vigor into conversations that fall flat in a lesser comics’ hands.—Clare Martin [Full review]
2. Hari Kondabolu: Vacation Baby
New parent comedy could be its own subgenre—one that can certainly be enjoyed regardless of whether or not you actually have a child—and Hari Kondabolu (known for The Problem with Apu) recently added to that hallowed canon with Vacation Baby.
The last few years have seen some of Kondabolu’s peers contribute formidable entries to the new parent comedy category. For Mike Birbiglia there was The New One, in which he delved into his own trepidation about becoming a parent; Kurt Braunohler joked about trying to be a good dad in Perfectly Stupid despite not having a great role model himself; and Jena Friedman found many a barbed laugh in Ladykiller, grappling with the strange position of expecting a kid amid Roe v. Wade being overturned. And though the subject matter is the same, the perspective obviously varies from person to person; having a new kid allows these comics to explore self-growth, or our desire to outrun our parents’ missteps, or the feeling (and reality) of impending political doom.
Kondabolu’s comedic approach to becoming a dad falls closest to Friedman’s, as he tries to capture what it’s like to have a kid in a COVID-ridden world, when hope is often hard to find, even post-lockdown. (And, like Friedman, his special was filmed shortly after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.) The comedian doesn’t endorse despair or unbridled optimism during his set, but finds humor in every situation, no matter how bleak. His main through line, that of attempting to find the perfect metaphor for having a kid during a pandemic, is just focused enough to keep Vacation Baby on track, while also giving him enough leeway to get plenty weird and go off on tangents.—Clare Martin [Full review]
1. John Early: Now More Than Ever
John Early’s new special, Now More Than Ever, opens with artifice. The camera is positioned behind a door, and we spy (voyeuristically) on Early transferring some lemon squares from a plastic container to a plate. He quickly covers them with saran wrap, disposes of the plastic box evidence, and enters the greenroom, triumphantly announcing that he made his “famous lemon squares” for the members of his band. This scene is a quintessential example of Early’s comedy, reveling in the contrast between who we are and who we want other people to think we are. His characters try desperately to be perceived a certain way (cool, personable, intelligent) yet they are completely unaware that their brazen overtures often give off the opposite of their intended effect. Unlike other comedians who strive for the relatable or the authentic, Early embraces hyperbole, finding truth in caricatures and camp.
Each element of this special allows Early to flex different performance muscles, including the precision with which he is able to use his voice and body to convey his ideas. He tucks his hair behind his ears in a way that perfectly distills adolescent anxiety. He pulls and twists phrases like taffy, moving from falsetto to a vocal fry. At one point, he uses movement to describe what people mean when they say to “be yourself,” and he is able to encapsulate an entire industry of self-help books, motivational posters, and Instagram platitudes into a series of swift head nods and body rolls. He is a world of comedy within himself, and seeing him step into his own for his first special will surely win the approval of audiences, including Toni Colette.—Michelle Cohn [Full review]