2020 will always be remembered as the pandemic year, no matter how long COVID drags on, but 2021 will hopefully be the apex of the pandemic’s influence on stand-up comedy. Almost every single special below is defined by the pandemic, whether it’s a traditional stage show that jokes about the weirdness of COVID-era living, or a more conceptual work that couldn’t exist without it, like Bo Burnham’s Inside or Carmen Christopher’s Street Special. If you were hoping to use comedy to escape from the unique stresses of today, this was not the year for you, as pretty much every bit of filmed stand-up released anywhere this year had that debilitating worldwide public health emergency as one of its focuses.
Of course, comedy tends to work better as catharsis than escape, anyway. Stand-up is often at its best when it doesn’t run from the world, but embraces it, and tries to find humor from the pain and trauma of everyday life. I’m not saying all the specials below do that—and I’m also not saying good comedy needs to acknowledge the issues facing society. I’m especially not saying that should be its primary focus. But a comedy special released in 2021 that didn’t address the pandemic would seem fake—untrue—afraid of the world it exists in and the one universal constant impacting everybody who lives in that world. Those are all bad things, if you can’t tell.
With all of that said, let’s get down to business. Here are the best new stand-up specials of 2021, pretty much all of which can be found on one of the major streaming services.
The most remarkable part of Mary Lynn Rajskub’s latest special isn’t any particular bit, but its format. Throughout the pandemic, comedians have been trying to figure out how to safely perform and release stand-up sets—or have decided to selfishly flout health advice and perform indoors, even at risk to themselves and audience members. Rajskub’s decision to film Live From The Pandemic in her garage with no audience at all is thus the safest choice pandemic-wise, but the riskiest in terms of comedy. It’s a bold and admirable decision that may not exactly stick the landing when it comes to punchlines, but nonetheless sets the standard for how comedy should be created during a time when we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of people to coronavirus in this country alone.—Clare Martin
Did Drew Michael predict the COVID-era stand-up special? His 2018 HBO hourlong was filmed without an audience, with Michael standing alone in front of a blank backdrop and talking directly into the camera. Having already gone the crowdless route once, Michael doesn’t repeat himself for his actual pandemic stand-up special, which features a small audience. Michael, about as introspective a comic you’ll find today, delves into how childhood trauma impacts not just the person you become but how you relate to other people as an adult, including romantic relationships. Just when Michael seems close to getting too serious, he’ll tackle the lack of substance in pop culture, with a long, violent riff on Jimmy Fallon’s “effusive nothingness.” Sure, it’s an easy target, but Michael makes it count, and his contempt for Fallon brings some variety to the emotional tenor of the show.—Garrett Martin
Like almost every special on this list, Nate Bargatze’s shaggier-than-usual special, recorded outdoors during the height of the pandemic in front of a sparse and masked audience at Universal Studios Hollywood, will go down as a Covid-era curio. This hour is full of sharp observations and hilarious insights into regular life, from what it’s like to watch your parents age, to the depressing, lawless land that is a Chuck E. Cheese. Bargatze’s understated mockery of lax Covid protocols will land for anybody who’s ever had to get their temperature taken by an indifferent teenager making minimum wage, and he nicely taps into that curious sense of relief felt by those born in the two-year gap between Generation X and Millennials. It’s slightly looser and more shambolic than Bargatze’s previous specials, but still a refreshing hour of comedy.—Garrett Martin
Ed Hill’s first ever comedy special, originally slated to tape in March of 2020, received the COVID treatment. In his case, this meant a closed set for filming with just a handful of family and friends. They sit in a circle for the entirety of the set, AA-style, facing Hill. The Taiwanese Canadian comedian maximizes the emotional impact of this support group-type set up, and his hour is all the better for it. This isn’t a laugh-a-minute set, and that’s not Hill’s aim, either. He takes his time letting anecdotes unfurl themselves. Candy and Smiley is loosely structured around nuggets of wisdom Hill imparts about goodbyes, differences and other certainties of life. None of them are particularly earth-shattering, but most truths in life aren’t. Hill himself knows that well; he recalls vowing as a teenger that he’d be different from his parents, who themselves immigrated to Canada in search of a different life. No matter how much we try to separate ourselves from our origins, those inevitabilities catch up with us sooner or later.—Clare Martin
Being a comedian isn’t easy these days. That’s a bit of an obvious statement, but it bears repeating in light of comedian Jessica Watkins’ new documentary SPECIALish. The Nashville-born performer recognizes the need for comics to have some sort of edge to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. The fact that she decided her schtick would be walking across the United States—an arduous trek that reportedly goes unfinished by about half of the people who start it—speaks to the all-or-nothing mindset needed to pursue comedy.
Watkins documented her long, meandering journey for SPECIALish, beautifully integrating stand-up and self-exploration. This is a story about Watkins finding something—strength, resilience, peace-of-mind—on her own. The comedian wrote, directed and produced the entire documentary herself with a deft, if occasionally heavy, hand. Some moments that feel like they should be shown and not told, whether through interviews with other people or clips of Watkins on the road, but are instead relayed from the relatively sanitized backdrop of her talking head. In general, though, Watkins succeeds as a storyteller, whether she’s doing it from behind a camera or a mic.—Clare Martin
Hughes’ storytelling style slaps a fresh coat of paint on familiar avenues, as she takes us back all the way to her grandmother’s relationship history to explain the origins of her own dick-catching adventures. She guides us on a journey from past to present, inviting us in on the revelations she’s had along the way. The overall narrative she weaves may not be the most tightly constructed, but it gives us a clear idea of Hughes the person as well as the performer. Her bits are made all the better by the singing and dancing she integrates enthusiastically into the set, making one-liners into playful chants. By the time the special ends, she collapses onto the stage, and it’s well deserved. She put her all into it.
The real draw here, though, is Hughes herself. Charisma doesn’t even begin to describe how magnetic and electrifying her presence is. The opening skit before the special starts shows her basking in Meg Stalter-like overconfidence, and she regularly brings that same energy throughout the special as she declares herself “Comedy Beyonce” and “The Female Richard Pryor.” She’s one of those rare people who seems to have been born with a mic in hand.
(Note: Hughes’ special was released on Netflix on Dec. 22, 2020, after the deadline for our “best of 2020” lists; as such, we’re considering it for our 2021 year-end coverage. It’s like with the Grammys, and how their year seems to run from like August of one year through November of the next, only with this one special. Thanks for understanding.—Editor)
Chris Gethard’s public persona is as much about human connection as it is about his comedy career. His podcast Beautiful Anonymous allows strangers to talk to him for an hour, about anything. His comedy itself is built on his frank discussion of mental illness and suicide. Half My Life keeps this signature humanity at its core, including behind-the-scenes moments where Gethard laments being away from his family or goofs off with tour opener Carmen Chrisopher (who you may recognize from the bachelor party episode of Joe Pera Talks with You, or another comedy special from this very same list). Spending an hour with Gethard is both grounding and side-splitting.—Clare Martin
Like pretty much everything else on this list, Josh Johnson’s first hourlong special addresses the pandemic head on. Johnson looks at COVID with the same kind of clever, genial silliness that permeates the rest of the special, which makes his occasional forays into the explicitly sociopolitical land even harder when they pop up. Talking about how the apocalyptic nature of the early days of the pandemic means somebody, somewhere, must have eaten somebody else is funny, but it’s also a self-assuredly glib way to set up the observation that “nothing prepares you for a pandemic in America like being black in regular America,” with Johnson citing joblessness, poor medical treatment, and shortages of basic necessities in stores, among other issues. Through it all Johnson remains an incredibly likable and charismatic presence, the kid in class who’s cool with every member of every clique. He’s able to touch on serious topics without losing his charm or reassuring smile, which helps Hashtag feel important without getting weighed down by it.—Garrett Martin
Filmed on Johnson’s 40th birthday, Love Joy is a slice of classic stand-up, exploring dating, family, bad roommates and therapy, to name a few. She has no need for gimmicks. Johnson is simply a funny storyteller, through and through. She’s effervescent, the type of person you can imagine being the life of the party. Beyond her inherent likability, Johnson’s impressions of her spoiled students or a grammatically lacking would-be date are executed flawlessly.
A self-professed word nerd, her clever turns-of-phrase amplify an already funny set, without making it esoteric. Johnson’s set is clearly meticulously crafted, from her pacing to her word choice, but she delivers every line with incredible ease. It’s like watching a ballerina gliding across a stage en pointe; she makes it look effortless despite all the practice required.—Clare Martin
You won’t see the real Notaro once in Drawn, which is now streaming on HBO Max. Instead you’ll see several different animated versions of Notaro in various stylish shorts based on her stand-up. When Notaro opens with a deep rumination upon the daily life of the Kool Aid Man, we see that old commercial mascot in action, lurking behind walls and fences while waiting for somebody, anybody, to pour a glass of Kool Aid. The animation isn’t just part of the special’s intro, or used to break up different segments within; the animation is the special.
Despite what you might think, Drawn is not a response to the pandemic. Notaro is performing in front of an audience, and even does a fair bit of crowd work. This project has been in the works for years, with Notaro’s performance assembled from various stand-up sets recorded over a five-year span. The audio recordings were handed off to animator Greg Franklin and his studio Six Point Harness, who animated it into a stylistic mixtape with about a dozen distinct aesthetics. It’s a bit like watching one of those old alternative animation compilation films that used to tour art houses in the ‘90s, or shows like MTV’s Liquid Television or Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots—just a jumble of different animation styles—only with a single consistent throughline of Tig Notaro’s stand-up.—Garrett Martin
Roy Wood Jr. is a talented comedian, and he’s skilled at crafting jokes that work on multiple levels. And when he tells jokes that could be offensive if taken too seriously, he doesn’t hiss at the audience for pulling back. Yet, I can only remember “awwws” coming once, and they were more groans at the system and expressions of empathy than bitterness or disappointment toward the performer. His jokes aren’t shock-jock comedy—he’s just talking about the nature of racism in the United States. There are jokes about performative allyship, police code words, and legislative ineffectiveness; there are stories about interacting with the police as a young comedian on tour. He makes nuanced jokes about nuance. He talks about the positive impact police could have by “just doing their jobs,” though he neglects to focus much on their abuses of power. He draws from a broad pool of references so that the show is timely without being so locked-in that it will be no fun to watch in a few years. There’s probably no way for comedy to be fully immune to the ravages of time, but a good enough joke can be resistant to erosion, while informing its audience about the time it was made in.—Kevin Fox, Jr.
With multiple successful podcasts, roles on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Unicorn, and the reboot of Rugrats, and a slew of other voice and live credits to her name, it is high time the world gets to experience an hour of Nicole Byer’s stand-up. In her new special she touches on the political without being overcome by it; she’s poignantly observational and occasionally prescriptive without ever being lecturous. Byer discusses the emotional toll of life in the pandemic and popular response to COVID-inspired recommendations and regulations, chiefly through anecdotes about her own experience. Her performance is highlighted by incredible voice work, including utilizing yelling and screaming in an effective way that reminds one just a bit of the Sam Kinisons of the world, though it’s always an accent and never a crutch.
She also expresses a combination of exuberance and world-weariness that comes across as incredibly authentic. Byer reminds her audience of things possibly forgotten, like uncertainty about the Post Office around the 2020 election, or Rachel Dolezal. She tells a truly incredible story about the harrowing nature of the U.S. medical system—from price to racial discrimination in the prescription of medication—and keeps it funny the whole time.—Kevin Fox, Jr.
Uncomfortable exchanges are the heart of Street Special, wherein Carmen Christopher performs uninvited and unwanted stand-up on the streets of New York during the height of the pandemic. Despite the show’s pop-up, semi-confrontational nature, Christopher’s less interested in Borat-style guerilla pranks than in criticizing the concept of stand-up itself. With Street Special he mocks the self-impressed and obsessive mentality that dictates so much of stand-up culture, primarily the notion that stand-up is some kind of elevated life calling that pushes everything else to the background. Christopher implicitly targets self-aggrandizing stand-up shibboleths like the belief that simply telling jokes on a stage makes somebody a vital truth-teller, or that you have to constantly perform every night in order to be a serious comedian, even during a deadly pandemic. By forcing his comedy on those who don’t want it, he’s parodying the self-importance and selfishness of comedians who acted like the world couldn’t survive without their stand-up for even a few months—those comics who started booking shows again just a couple of months after the pandemic really started. Christopher makes himself look pathetic in Street Special, but it’s really the culture around stand-up that’s far too often embarrassing and cringeworthy.—Garrett Martin
Bo Burnham’s expertly edited suite of silly songs and sketches about the pandemic, depression, and the vapid and aimless state of today’s almost certainly doomed culture is the comedy hit of the season, capturing the late pandemic zeitgeist in a way that clearly resonates with a large audience. Burnham constructs a façade of profundity to point out how thoroughly unprofound pretty much every aspect of life is today, a technique best crystallized in the song “That Funny Feeling”. He punctuates certain songs and moments with prolonged shots of himself staring sadly into the distance, and underscores the isolation of the pandemic and the passage of time through his increasingly haggard appearance and depressed countenance. Burnham knows how to give the special an artificial weight, the sense that he’s saying something big and timely and evocative, while revealing how easy it is to use the language of film to make something seem wiser or more important than it actually is. Inside and Burnham, like all of us, are trapped by the terminal superficiality of modern life, and although that means this comedy special is ultimately a sad, draining bummer of a show, that makes it more self-aware than a lot of comedy. And hey, it’s funny, too, which has gotta count for something.—Garrett Martin
Acaster plays with perspective throughout Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, arriving on stage in sunglasses and trying on a new persona that’s all bravado and four letter words—to get rid of the old people and “Chrizzos” (a term for Christians I’m tempted to start using). His switching of viewpoints for comedic effect and deconstruction of certain bits adds an extra dimension of cleverness to a show that was already good to begin with, elevating it to the next level.
The real focus of the show is Acaster’s relationship with his mental health. Many of his stories center around being a relatively successful comedian, including his stint on The Great British Bake Off, but these bits remain relatable because he zeroes in on his human issues amidst the limelight. Acaster presents his own struggles as hilarious, but also holds up a necessary mirror to the audience as we laugh at situations with grim contexts. This isn’t to guilt us, but rather to remind us that behind every dark meme, there’s a real person going through some very real shit.—Clare Martin