I’ve said it once and I will say it again: 2018 was an insane year for stand-up comedy. We saw dozens and dozens of hourlong specials, and even a ton of shorter specials, non-stand-up live performances, and more. Netflix is partially to blame for what some mistakenly see as an oversaturation of the market. They’ve dumped an impressive amount of money into stand-up that has made them the de facto king of comedy, leapfrogging over Comedy Central and HBO. It’s not just that they’re giving us a lot of comedy—they’re giving us a lot of types of comedy.
This year-end list is about the different kinds of comedy specials we saw this year. The boundaries that define stand-up are fading away as artists mix and alter and omit some of the traditional tenets of the medium. Hannah Gadsby ditched the idea of a closer on purpose. Drew Michael ditched the entire audience. Jeff Ross has launched careers through roasting. Networks and streaming services are granting specials of various lengths, allowing more opportunities for rising comics to get that first credit.
From set-up/punchlines to jokes you’ll need subtitles for, here are the 10 types of comedy specials we saw in 2018.
Comedy purists complain that the PC Police is ruining comedy and tend to poo-poo anyone who brings a guitar on stage or cuts away to puppets. Despite their concerns, traditional jokes and original points of view are still going strong in the comedy ecosphere. People like W. Kamau Bell, John Mulaney, and Iliza Shlesinger focused on killer jokes in 2018. Old favorites made comebacks and didn’t pick up props during their absence from your Netflix watch list. If anything, the overwhelming amount of stand-up available is raising the bar on those who focus on a set-up and a punchline.
Once considered the easiest applause break hack, musical comedy appeared many of the past year’s specials. Demetri Martin has yet to ditch the acoustic guitar for his string of one-liners. Other comics incorporated music in less-than-traditional ways, too. Tig Notaro incorporates an epic mini-concert at the end of Happy To Be Here. Fred Armisen leaned heavily into music in Stand-up For Drummers by doing stand-up for an audience of actual drummers and doing drummer-specific material. Adam Sandler and Todd Glass found the need to have background music and instrumental assistance from a permanent onstage pianist or band. 2018 showed comedians somehow experiment with an already-alternative comedy form and it was pretty awesome.
Roast battles have become all the rage this decade and have solidified themselves as more than ‘just a fad.’ Before there were roast battles, however, there were roasts. Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher incorporated roasting into their Honeymoon Standup Special on Netflix by spending a half-hour on stage inviting couples from the audience to join them and receive ‘relationship advice.’ Things take a shocking turn when one married pair reveal that a break-up might be their best course of action (before Leggero nervously reminds them that their dysfunctional love is valid).
Also from Netflix, Bumping Mics with Jeff Ross and Dave Attell show the two friends roast each other and their drop-in guests. Comedy Central, who introduced a younger generation to the concept of loving insults, released the third season of Roast Battle as well as the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis. It seems that being mean isn’t going anywhere as we head into the new year.
Not Just Stand-up Stand-up
Many comedians are including pre-special sketches these days. They’re a fun way to introduce the viewer to the performer or to the type of stand-up they’re about to watch. In 2018, we saw quite a few specials that included cutaways to short sketches or comedic pieces that added to the overall experience. These, sometimes coming in the form of brief documentary-style segments a la concert films, are what make a special special. Ali Siddiq, who performed in the prison that incarcerated him for six years in the ’90s, included frequent cutaways to conversations with employees of the prison and groups of current prisoners. This included a piece during his big closer that cuts between Siddiq on stage and Siddiq in a prison cell acting out parts of the story to the camera. This enhanced the bit for the at-home viewer.
We also saw this in Drew Michael’s eponymous HBO special and briefly in Adam Sandler’s 100% Fresh. Though not an hourlong special, Netflix recently released Brian Regan’s Stand-up and Away!, a series which incorporates sketches that stand-in for act-outs. Good or bad, these experiments continue to let artists explore what they are capable of.
Whether you’re Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher sharing the stage as newlyweds or Jeffrey Ross and Dave Attell bumping mics, 2018 showed us that some comics are willing to share the spotlight. These aren’t longstanding duos like the Lucas Brothers or the Sklar Brothers or another pair of twins. Solo comics teamed up for one-offs or short tours as they explored where stand-up ends and two-person improv begins. Steve Martin and Martin Short teamed up for their Netflix special An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Lives. Adam Sandler and Todd Glass had onstage musical talent while Fred Armisen and Tig Notaro allow on-stage celebrity cameos.
Some of the strongest specials of 2018 were one-person shows. Part-stand-up, part-storytelling, comedians like John Leguizamo and James Acaster have built careers with these particular performance styles. The one-person show is hardly a new format, but we saw a wave of them hit our screens on Netflix. 2019 looks promising as Mike Birbiglia currently performs his new one-man show The New One and Colin Quinn’s Red State Blue State will begin live performances in January. Hopefully, both shows find streaming homes for those of us who can’t see it live.
Many were likely confused when Dave Chappelle first showed up on their Netflix screen last year and they saw the word ‘episodes,’ but we soon caught on. This year James Acaster dropped an astonishing four-episode special Repertoire comprised of his four one-man shows that thematically tie into each other. Daniel Sloss, a Scot who wants you all to know that jokes are ‘just jokes,’ also released a two-episode special—with hours titled DARK and Jigsaw—that caught Netflix’s attention. Bumping Mics and The Honeymoon Standup Special were also multi-episode engagements one can choose to binge or spread out over several days.
Is it a way to show off how much material you have or innovation of the artform? That’s still to be determined, but it appears that Chappelle has given people permission to drop what could be multiple hours of mediocre material all at once instead of honing in a tight hour of jokes. We hope this trend will stay reserved to those who can carry multiple hours.
Non-English Language Stand-up
This may come as a surprise to many Americans, but stand-up comedy exists in non-white countries in a plethora of languages. Netflix led the way in non-English stand-up specials, releasing hours from Malaysian, French, Spanish, and Swedish comedians. Even HBO Latino dropped a half-hour from Orlando Leyba this year. Netflix certainly has no plans to slow down! On January 1, they will drop a global comedy event, Comedians of the World, which will showcase 47 comedians from 13 regions in 8 languages. America will be represented by Neal Brennan, Chris D’Elia, Nicole Byer, and Nick Swardson, but comedy nerds can watch stand-up from Australia, South Africa, Canada, the Middle East, India, Brazil, Mexico, and more!
The Comeback Special
This year a slew of comedians put out new material after a prolonged absence—including an epic 25-year hiatus from Adam Sandler. Ellen DeGeneres and Kevin James returned with their first specials in over a decade. Chris Rock, who ranked number 5 on the Laughspin Top 20 list, delivered his most vulnerable hour of material to date. This year showed us what many big-time comedy stars have said on countless podcasts: I can always come back to stand-up.
The Half-Hour Special
The calling card of many rising comedians used to be the Comedy Central Presents half-hour special. Comedy Central continues to put these out, but Netflix joined the game with another season of The Standups and their ‘dirty comic’ series The Degenerates. The streaming giant also released The Line-up this year, which showcased shorter 15-minute sets from stand-ups, though how they drew the distinction of who gets which length seems to remain opaque. It appears the half-hour special may become a dumping ground for strong comics who want to build a new hour for their first big special, but don’t want to completely ditch the old material that got them recognized in the first place.