From the personal to the political to the downright silly, these were the best stand-up specials of 2017.
2017 has decidedly not been a great year in about a million ways. One bright light in the darkness has been the amount of stellar stand-up specials produced over the last twelve months. Popular art has gained a new level of consciousness this year, and this is most clearly seen in the realm of stand-up comedy. The following seventeen comics all have material that has been released during the current social and political climate for a reason. Not all of these comics blatantly call for a massive overhaul of the government—in fact, none of them do. What they do call for is each viewer to think about what’s wrong with the social structure we live in, whether it is sexism, and racism, religion, or even the aversion to caring about anything.
17. Brent Weinbach – Brent Weinbach: Appealing to the Mainstream
Wow, on the first entry I’m already breaking my “stand-up this year is super social and political” thesis. Brent Weinbach’s special is just that: special. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was having trouble picking out what it was that was so unique until Weinbach explained it in one of his bits—he doesn’t like jokes. That is, he doesn’t like to tell jokes you could read in a joke book. His most concise illustration of his brand is when he says that words change meaning depending on the way you say them. He gives an example by saying the word couscous—once in a normal speaking voice and once in a “silly voice” punctuating the word by widening his eyes and sticking out his tongue. It’s a simple, some would say stupid, bit, but his delivery and the show’s structure allow for it to receive a huge laugh.
16. Vir Das – Abroad Understanding
I was completely unaware of Vir Das before watching his special. You probably have seen his thumbnail on Netflix. I had glanced at it, but with Netflix’s mission to release a new comedy special every week for the better part of a year, Das’s hour got lost in the shuffle. The concept of the special is great: a show intercut between a small comedy club in New York and a stadium in New Dehli. Das comes out swinging saying, “Let’s get this out of the way: I have an Indian accent. This is the next hour of your lives. This does not change. I’m not doing a bit. I’m not impersonating a hilarious relative. There’s no fucking Apu from The Simpsons joke coming up. Tonight for the first time in your life maybe the Indian accent can be a perspective, not a punchline.” He hits hard.
15. Brian Regan – Brian Regan: Nunchucks and Flamethrowers
Brian Regan is responsible for some of the funniest hours of comedy ever aired on TV. He’s one of the greats: a lot of comics mention him in the same breath as Jerry Seinfeld, but after six specials you kinda know what you’re going to get. However, with this special Regan breaks new ground. He has stayed away from politics for the majority of his career, but in Nunchucks he takes aim at the ridiculousness of local government. In one of his best bits, he recounts a proposal to erect a skyscraper hundreds of feet over the city’s building code limit. The speaker proposed a compromise that still heavily favored the developer. Regan’s analog involves him proposing to rob only half the liquor stores he initially proposed to the city council. He’s not calling out Trump, but he is subtly broadening his horizons.
14. Joe Mande – Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special
Netflix loves to give context to each stand-up through a pre-set cinematic intro. Some are better than others, and Joe Mande’s is one of the best. In an attempt to receive the American Humor Award for his first special, Mande enlists the help of his famous friends including Bo Burnham and Blake Griffin. Their advice is a mix of funny and practical, and it gives the special a narrative thrust that sets it apart from the pack. His best bit comes in the form of musings about how well made ISIS’s videos are, but he continues by bringing up some constructive criticism. The ISIS section segues into a section on China in which he says to the Chinese government in Chinese, “I am a good boy. Please protect me… thank you.” His mix of subject matter from a dating app he wants to get funded to global politics accurately portrays a comedic version of what many millennials think about every day.
13. Beth Stelling – The Standups: Beth Stelling
On top of releasing a new hour every week, Netflix released a series of half-hours—a couple of which were some of the best specials of the year. Beth Stelling’s half-hour is one that makes you wish Netflix had doubled her time. One of the most personal specials on this list, Stelling uses her time to challenge male perspectives. She’s sharp, confrontational, and self-deprecating, which ends up being an accessible mixture for the viewer. Her tongue-in-cheek humor is most quickly conveyed through her bit about weight loss. “I was tired of being brave at the beach,” she quips.
12. Rory Scovel – Rory Scovel Tries Standup for the First Time
John Mulaney (the funniest stand-up in the world right now) calls this special, “The funniest special in the world.” Need I go on? Ok, fine. Scovel’s best bit is his impression of OJ Simpson’s friend on OJ: Made in America—the best line being, “Growing up, OJ was always murdering people.” His absurdist impression encapsulates the majority of his comedy. However, he also touches on politics as well, finding the bright side of Trump’s election, namely, “We’re all going to get to die at the same time.”
11. Jen Kirkman – Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin?
Jen Kirkman is a storyteller. Her bits feel longer than the standard comic’s, but you’re glad they do because you don’t want them to end. The overarching theme of the special is how an individual makes meaning for him or herself. Whether that means buying a meditation chair to make you feel like you actually meditate or thinking about what street harassment feels like to both the giver and the receiver, Kirkman dissects the subjectivity of meaning in this special. Her strongest material is delivered in her section on street harassment where she tries to explain to a male friend what it feels like to be harassed by a man as a woman. Her solution to street harassment is not to end it but to limit it to purely compliments about clothing. She demonstrates, “Sweetheart. Hey, honey, that little bow matches that detail on your shoes. That is not lost on me, baby. Love a good accessory.”
10. Mike Birbiglia – Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes
Technically this is a one-man show and not a stand-up special, but to be honest, it’s one of the best things released this year, so how about we relax on the rules. To say that this show is a product of 2017 would be disingenuous. Birbiglia has had some of this material for five years and has even performed it in other outlets such as This American Life and The Tonight Show. But really, very little of the material in the other acts featured in this list was written this year—the reason it was released this year is that it speaks to the time we are living in now. What Birbiglia’s show speaks to in the public zeitgeist is our longing for community. His stories all demonstrate a search for community, sometimes he finds it, other times he has to confess his sins to a very sketchy priest. His punchlines come in quick succession. You can feel the care he put into writing each line of the show. For example, the line describing a relationship with Jesus reads, “It starts innocently enough—as innocently as man-boy love can start. You accept there’s this guy Jesus and he loves you but he’s dead and he’s bleeding but he’s in great shape.” Every turn of phrase gets a laugh.
9. Neal Brennan – Neal Brennan: 3 Mics
With 3 Mics, the setup is simple: each microphone allows Neal to perform a different type of comedy. The left mic provides one-liners, the right mic facilitates standard stand-up jokes, but the middle mic turns a spigot in Brennan’s mind and personal stories flow. His one-liners receive laughs, and his stand-up receives applause, but his stories receive thoughtful silence. He performs a type of comedic poetry about depression and the emptiness of achievement seeking. He’s incredibly funny while never making light of his illness. He recalls how black men like the way he acts when he is depressed. He theorizes that the reason behind this is because “Black dudes aren’t allowed to be sad in public. The only way a black dude can openly express sadness in public is if he does it with a saxophone.” His honesty is jarring but beautiful.
8. The Lucas Brothers – Lucas Brothers: On Drugs
The Lucas Brothers’ first Netflix special begins with archive footage of Richard Nixon declaring the War on Drugs. Text informs the viewer that many of the twins’ family members were sent to prison because of this war. The special is equally filled with humor of both the socially conscious and stoner variety. The brothers explain the woes of doing mushrooms with someone that looks exactly like you in one section and then discuss an overhaul of the way the US pays teachers in the next. Their best work comes in the section about joining the Black Panther Party, “You can’t just smoke weed and listen to Deion Sanders hip-hop videos.” They go on to discuss why Scream 2 is the perfect movie to watch in the company of Black Panthers due to the high mortality rate of white characters versus black characters, “After the killer kills the only two black people, he’s going to kill at least twenty white people. That’s a ten to one ratio if you’re doing the math.”
7. Maria Bamford – Maria Bamford: Old Baby
Maria Bamford’s special is another that stands out in its presentation. She performs her set to a series of larger and larger audiences starting with just herself in a mirror, hitting its climax in a theater full of people. Her best material comes in the story of a meeting with her psychiatrist. The doctor Googles her to make sure she is not delusional for saying she is a comic, and this incites Bamford’s response: she did not say she was Richard Pryor. She runs a scenario where she can perform Pryor’s well-known stand-up, “or perhaps more weirdly been able to quote some of his lesser-known material about the difference between beating white women and black women. Doesn’t age well.” Her masterful writing folds two targets into each other making one punch line hit both of them.
6. Ryan Hamilton – Ryan Hamilton: Happy Face
Sometimes people just want to laugh. Ryan Hamilton gives those people exactly what they want. It is irksome when a comic does not address current issues, that is, most of the time. Hamilton is decidedly apolitical, a trait that is helped by his physicality. He sets the tone for the special when he quips, “I think I could sell ice cream in the 50s.” He seems to be from the time of Leave it to Beaver, and for an hour you’re not reminded of the last insane thing you read in the news today. It’s pure escapism, and sometimes you really just need that. He addresses his escapist quality when telling a nearly ten-minute story about hot air ballooning. When a couple at a show were upset with him for making fun of hot air balloons he jokes, “I have finally become the edgy, boundary-pushing comedian.”
5. Roy Wood, Jr. – Roy Wood Jr.: Father Figure
Roy Wood, Jr.’s material gives a distinct image of life as an African American man. The thread of the hour is information Wood would like to tell his infant son. In case he doesn’t live to see his son grow up, his son will be able to get wisdom from this special. This is put across in the intro—immediately the viewer is reminded of the high mortality of African American men. His best material is about missing Obama’s inauguration both times. He says his excuse was the cold. “I had four years to buy a coat,” he reflects, “I gotta be accountable for my absence.” This line hits harder than any other in the hour, and it acts as a call to action not only to people of color but to anyone feeling apathetic in the current political climate.
4. Nate Bargatze – The Standups: Nate Bargatze
Nate Bargatze’s half hour is the second episode of The Standups to make this list. Bargatze has mentioned in interviews how long it takes him to hone bits, so my theory is that Netflix wanted an hour but Bargatze only had material he felt was ready for half an hour. Instead of an hour of some great bits and some that are only middling, Bargatze produces a tight half-hour set of explosive stories and jokes. Though his cadence is slow the laughs come quickly, and they don’t stop. He is at his best when confused by other people’s behavior. When a friend says he’s going to lose weight for their twenty-year high school reunion Bargatze responds, “Why don’t you lose it for the people that were in your life every day for the past twenty years?” His friend’s response, “No, I’ll just save it for the people I hate.”
3. Sarah Silverman – Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust
Sarah Silverman has been at the top of her game for twenty years, and somehow her onstage persona has not become tired. Even if you don’t agree with her political leanings you cannot deny that Silverman is incredibly smart, well informed, and most of all hilarious. A big theme of her hour is open dialogue or lack thereof. At one point she tells a story of a less-than-fruitful interaction with protesters outside a benefit show, and at another, she asks a Christian in the audience a question about God he probably has never been asked before. On the surface, Silverman is a sweet-looking woman saying dirty jokes, and the cinematography accentuates this character—it almost looks like the DP smeared Vaseline on the lens before the show, giving the comic a Golden-Age of Hollywood glow about her. This detail is the key to the point I think Silverman is trying to make—we are dichotomies of social consciousness and extreme self-centeredness. She even goes on in her act to say, “You don’t even get it. We’re breathing egos acting like we aren’t a speck of dust on a speck of dust on a speck of dust hurtling through outer space. We’re nothing. And then in the very next moment, I’ll be like, ‘I want my face on money.’”
2. Chris Gethard – Career Suicide
Chris Gethard is having a mid-life renaissance—in the entertainment industry at least. He has been telling stories in New York for over ten years. He even created The Nights of our Lives, one of the best storytelling shows in the city. So, it’s not surprising that his stories, some of which have undergone years of rewrites, are stellar. His battle with depression and self-medication speak to so many people dealing with the exact same thing, along with friends and loved ones of those affected. His aggressive honesty and almost cringe-worthy frankness captivate. One of the many gut-wrenching points of the one-man show is the moment when his doctor refuses to prescribe more of the heavy medication that is keeping his suicidal thoughts at bay. As Gethard is describing the conversation his breathing gets shallow, and the camera makes a slow push into a close-up while Gethard takes a couple staggered steps toward the audience which causes the camera to lose focus for a second each time. It’s a lesson in how stand-up acts and one-man shows can be elevated to a visceral experience.
1. Jerrod Carmichael – Jerrod Carmichael: 8
I saw Jerrod Carmichael perform this special in front of about eighty people at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles at 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening. Bo Burnham was there and explained that they were rehearsing a new special he and Jerrod were going to film the next week. You could feel the weight of the project when you walked into the small theater. Burnham paced the room swapping out lenses on his DSLR camera, shuffling down isles already full of audience members to see how this lens would look at that distance. They tried their best to make it feel like a theater in the round. I came away from that show feeling like I had seen history in the making.
The special itself is extraordinary. Burnham’s directing accentuates the meaning of every nuance in Carmichael’s material. His first line, “Are we gonna be OK?” is delivered in a claustrophobic close up. The long shot shows an audience dressed in suits and fancy dresses. The theater décor is straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. Carmichael is surrounded, standing on a small stage in the center of the room, compelled to defend his apathy to the audience as he says, “I wish I felt things.” His opinions rub the audience the wrong way on multiple occasions, but really in almost every subject he touches, his reasoning for why he feels the way he does is relatable. His comedy has the power to make you say that’s exactly what I feel but I haven’t found a way to express it. The laughs he receives aren’t uproarious—they’re involuntary. Honestly, it seems like the audience doesn’t want to give him a lot of the laughs they do, but it’s not their decision. They see themselves in his material and they have to respond. That’s what the best special of 2017 is—undeniable.