The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2017 (So Far)

Comedy Lists stand-up
The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2017 (So Far)

2017 has seen more new stand-up specials than probably any other year in history. A lot of that has to do with Netflix. They’ve released at least one new special every week this year, in addition to the six-episode half-hour series The Standups. On top of that, Comedy Central, HBO and Showtime have premiered several new specials so far, with more to come. If you’re into pretty much any kind of stand-up comedy, 2017 has been almost overwhelming.

Let us help you pan through that stream and dredge up the flecks of gold. Here are Paste’s picks for the 20 best stand-up specials of 2017 so far, featuring some of the biggest names in the industry alongside some of the best up-and-comers.

20. Roy Wood Jr: Father Figure
Comedy Central

[Wood] is somewhat tempered by the strictures of the short form pieces that he does for The Daily Show, which is why it is especially great to see him stretch out within the borders of his first hour-long standup special. Father Figure features the same pointed social commentary and interest in racial politics but with the threads wound more tightly around observations from his own experience. It’s such a tightly-constructed hour that it feels strange to point out that it is his first stand-up special and to hear that Wood feels like he found his comedic voice in 2006, almost a decade after he started.—Robert Ham

19. Nate Bargatze: The Standups

This Tennessee native checks in with one of the strongest episodes of Netflix’s half-hour stand-up variety series. If you’ve seen his work before, you know that Bargatze is self-effacing and sarcastic but rarely cynical, telling stories where he shifts from the butt of the joke to an onlooker describing real-life absurdities. The highlight is a section about a makeshift reptile zoo in North Carolina with an incredibly lax attitude towards customer safety. At only a half-hour he doesn’t quite have enough time to get fully going, but it’s a breezy and hilarious taste of one of today’s more underrated comics.—Garrett Martin

18. Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive

It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time, which if true, makes Tracy Morgan a gold mine of laughs. Netflix’s Staying Alive is being packaged as Morgan’s big stage comeback after a fatal road accident that put him in a coma and nearly ended his life. After fighting the good fight, Morgan is back and ready to prove that he hasn’t lost a single beat. Morgan has made appearances here and there over the past few years, most notably back on the Saturday Night Live stage (which also earned him an Emmy nomination last year). While his guest appearances are beloved, this special puts Morgan right back in the mix with the comedy community, using his near-death experience as a means to make us laugh.

17. Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust

In A Speck Of Dust, Silverman has found the sweet spot in crafting the ideal stand-up special. Give your fans exactly what they came for, while also throwing in a few new ingredients to come off looking just fresh enough. While her jokes don’t always stick the landing, and she ends the show on a bit of low note, there is plenty to take away from her performance style and from her self-aware humor, which is part sarcasm, part confidence, and all Silverman.—Christian Becker

16. Louis C.K.: 2017

[On 2017] C.K. skirts closer to the edge without tumbling over and losing everyone’s trust in the process. While he’s there, he enjoys the weird ironies of loud party girl cheers in response to his defense of legal abortion, the palpable flutters of unease that he sets loose by jokingly calling his mom a whore. He’s been doing this long enough to know when to push the audience and when to pull them gently along with him. He’s smart enough to not risk the goodwill and cultural currency he’s earned over the past decade.—Robert Ham

15. Rory Scovel: Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time

This is the risk Rory Scovel takes with his absurdist approach to stand-up: our official review wasn’t especially kind to his Netflix special, even though our comedy editor (uh, me) finds it to be one of the smartest and most refreshing specials of the year so far. Scovel balances conceptual metacommentary on the conventions of stand-up with fully-formed political material as biting as any other comic working today in an hour that sends up the very idea of stand-up even while showing how powerful it can be.—Garrett Martin

14./13. Dave Chappelle: The Age of Spin; Deep in the Heart of Texas (tie)

Chappelle is still at the top of his class, wholly at ease onstage and mischievous as ever. His winding stories have the same unscripted, manic feel as his classic material, perfectly crafted without seeming crafted at all. [Chappelle has] a tireless drive to play out his tiniest impulses to their most absurd conclusions.—Seth Simons

12. Joe Mande: Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special

The bulk of the material in Award-Winning Comedy Special similarly plays with our expectations of what stand-up is and how we should be reacting to it. The common formal approach of peppering long-form jokes with short punchlines is turned on its head by Mande, who will either end a bit abruptly, with no warning, or bring it back to pick up where he left off when we’re least expecting it. It’s pleasantly jarring, and keeps the audience on its toes. With stories and perspectives revolving around MTV’s Next, his short-lived experimentation with dick pics and a cringe-worthy experience at a Jewish summer camp, Mande is able to let the audience get a little bit ahead of him only to pull back and reveal how far ahead of them he actually is.—Graham Techler

11. Kurt Braunohler: Trust Me
Comedy Cenral

Braunohler’s sudden turn to overtly political territory takes us off-guard completely, in a way that’s both refreshing and satisfying. His astonished appraisal of his own lucky circumstance as a tall, white man takes the form of very real, very specific and very disturbing statistics about police brutality towards black men. “The street I walk down is a fundamentally different one than a black man walks down, and a woman walks down,” says Braunohler, before launching into a series of absurd statements designed—in his words—to “undermine the authority given white speech.” Not to pat white men on the back for saying some basic human decency stuff, but this is a Comedy Central special, and I have to applaud Braunohler for using this particular platform so aggressively and responsibly, while never sacrificing the comic tone it’s in his best interest to cultivate.—Graham Techler

10. Jerrod Carmichael: 8

Jerrod Carmichael comes off as contrarian on his latest HBO stand-up special. It’s a tack he frequently takes on his great NBC sitcom: present a social or political issue, and then almost play devil’s advocate against the position you’d expect him to have. On 8 that means basically coming out against animal rights and climate awareness, not out of malice, but out of simple apathy and self-obsession. His strongest material focuses on the moral failings of our grandfather’s generation, with hints of Bill Cosby. What links all of this together is Carmichael’s patient delivery—he speaks softly, slowly, drawing the audience into a conversation that’s consistently funny without having much in the way of jokes.—Garrett Martin

9. Jim Gaffigan: Cinco

Gaffigan remains pervasively aware of his jokes. As he says moments after walking onstage, “Lower your expectations.” His self-deprecation forms an integral part of his comedy, shielding him from whatever potential criticism might come his way. By whispering in his well known falsetto-like rasp, as if he were a member of his own audience, he calls attention to his failures and turns the joke around on himself. Where his topics might feel like retreads at times, Gaffigan’s voice work serves his comedy well and keep things moving. Leave the heckling to the man onstage because he’s well aware how he’s doing. It’s a path he’s walked many times before.—Amanda Wicks

8. Neal Brennan: 3 Mics

In 3 Mics Brennan boils stand-up comedy down to its three major components: one-liners, “emotional stuff” and traditional stand-up, each corresponding to one of the three mics on his stage. Brennan begins by sharing one-liner after one-liner, each written on an index card, before the screen fades to black and he reappears on the opposite end of the stage in front of the “stand-up” mic. There, he dives headfirst into terrorism, religion, guns, sports scandals, student loans, slavery and more.

Brennan’s deconstruction has a clever ring to it, but one that could easily grow tired without some greater point. After all, stripping down any cultural medium to its constituent parts hopefully reveals some greater truth about it. That truth comes about when Brennan steps before the “emotional stuff” mic located at center stage and veers away from more expected fare, both in terms of subject matter and delivery.—Amanda Wicks

7. Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’

Kirkman balances the style and point of view that drew [audiences] to her comedy in the first place: It’s a conversational 70 minutes brimming with biting honesty. Take, for instance, her reckoning with the term “ma’am.” She’s more than happy when someone lobs it her way since it only means she’s had a “rich and storied life.” As she pointedly says, donning a kind of verbal armor by way of outlook, “I don’t want to look like I have four roommates and shitty towels.” Preach.—Amanda Wicks

6. Beth Stelling: The Standups

What’s surprising about Stelling’s set is that her topics, while familiar, go in different directions that separate her jokes from the rest of the pack. How many times have you heard a comedian talk about their travel experiences at the airport? You’d probably need at least six hands to count those. But Stelling sets her sights on current frustrations with the TSA, specifically calling them “performance art.” This point of view immediately had me go from rolling my eyes to laughing with renewed interest, because while I’ve heard an endless list of airport routines, I had never heard of the TSA being described this way. Purposely breaking the three ounce rule while going through security and preferring a male agent for her full body search because it “shakes things up a bit” are refreshing takes on a tired bit.—Christian Becker

5. The Lucas Bros.: On Drugs

[The political comedy in On Drugs is done] both incredibly casually and with discernible commitment. If sometimes it seems hard to tell whether the Lucas Bros. are making it look effortless or simply not trying, we never really get the sense that they themselves are too cool for this. As far as comedy duos go, they seem to have taken a few cues from another set of twin comedians that eschewed a straight-man/funny-man dynamic, and not just because both the Lucas and Sklar Bros. reportedly attended law school. Kenny and Keith will occasionally check in with each other on a given topic, agreeing to “smoke on it.” Their hive minded brotherhood is routinely delightful, whether they’re pausing a joke to wipe sweat off each other’s noses, or tag teaming a letter to republicans on gun control.—Graham Techler

4. Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes

[Birbiglia’s] as funny here as he’s ever been. We generally think of comic timing as a matter of degrees of speed, but Birbiglia understands that the real measure of timing is in the ratio of speed to agonizing slowness. He is excellent at breaking down a moment to its smallest components and walking us through it, as in anecdotes featuring Jared Leto, the Muppets and the hilariously mundane elements of Birbiglia’s marriage.

But what makes this hour truly special is his ultimate point: Jokes are not always good or always bad, but they do bring us closer. This sounds more saccharine than it is. Birbiglia avoids the “we need jokes because people need laughter” cliché. He’s more interested in jokes literally as an act of strange intimacy between the person telling it, the person it’s about and the people observing—and how messy that gets when all three camps are in the same room.—Graham Techler

3. Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

At this point in the Marc Maron/Louis C.K. era of oversharing onstage, let’s not pretend that there’s anything unattractive or taboo about admitting your neuroses and anxieties and darkest parts of your personality. But you can still do so dishonestly, and as it becomes more and more in vogue for comedians to get candid and dark, the more and more likely it will be that comics will use that as a shortcut to authenticity. Gethard does not do that. I would venture that with enough misinformation about depression and suicide out in the ether, being forthcoming about these experiences is actually very important in its own right. So yes, this show is significant and important for a whole hatful of reasons. But is it funny? Obviously. Gethard is a master storyteller, and this special elaborates on the essays from his book A Bad Idea I’m About to Do with a jittery, off-the-cuff charm. Out loud, his stories spill out in a barrage of words and qualifications before hitting a detail that neither Gethard nor we, the audience, were expecting.—Graham Techler

2. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King

Homecoming King has a lot to unpack and asks more of its audience than the average special. It isn’t afraid to enter dark territory where even a full minute goes by without a single joke. The reason this works is that first and foremost, Minhaj is an all-around great storyteller. The performance could have had zero jokes and still would be a compelling piece of work. Luckily, he’s a smart comedian who knows how to use his material wisely, even if that means holding back to let the important points hit home.—Christian Becker

1. Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Like her demeanor, Bamford’s material ranges from the intimate to the grandiose. An early joke, delivered to her husband and their pugs, pokes at the apologetic language people use to describe their relationships. “Um, well we just met, and we genuinely liked each other, and, you know, there’s ups and downs, but we like each other, so we stay together,” she intones, in character, her tone painfully earnest. Then her face turns cold and stony; she’s back to herself: “Oh, I’m sorry—if you’re bored with your miracle!” Her husband chuckles, patting the dog. You can tell he’s heard this joke before but it’s not a pity laugh. The beauty of their domestic setting is that it’s imbued with context, from the painting of their dog to the little bride-and-groom figurines resting atop the couch. This feels like any old day for them, just hanging out and goofing around.—Seth Simons

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