None of you are going to agree with me on this list. And that’s okay.
It’s not easy to do a year-in-review Top 10 List (or whatever arbitrary number Buzzfeed picks that day). The sheer volume of stand-up produced this year made things even more difficult. I watched every qualifying stand-up special that came out in 2018. Every. Single. One. I don’t like Top Anything lists because, it’s like, you didn’t try to watch everything. So I did. And it was brutal. All in all, I watched 60 specials. Don’t worry—I didn’t finish all of them, but I gave every special a fair shot.
I did this because I didn’t want someone who released a quality special not on HBO or Netflix to be overlooked. I didn’t want to skip over someone I personally hadn’t heard of. I didn’t want to give you a Top 10 list you could have made without watching anything based on name recognition and how much people are tweeting about it.
Of course, I had to narrow down what we’re talking about. First, we’re dealing with stand-up. That threw out things like Steve Martin and Martin Short’s An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Lives, which was more of a two-man performance than stand-up, and Trevor Moore’s Story of Our Times, which was a compilation of music videos rather than him performing on a stage. Adam Sandler’s 100% Fresh has plenty of classic stand-up in Sandler’s unique voice around his funny songs, so he’s in. So is The Honeymoon Special from Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher. They each do a half-hour of stand-up and then spend an additional half-hour inviting couples on stage for a good ol’ fashioned roast. Crowd work in a comedy special is far from unusual. These were all at one recording and they each spend an hour on stage, so I’ll allow it.
Next was time. We’re talking here about ‘hourlong’ stand-up specials. Technically, I wanted to see at least 42 minutes. That’s the length of a standard Comedy Central ‘one-hour’ special. Those comedians are typically submitting more than 42 minutes to the network, but that’s what it gets edited down to for commercials. We’re also tossing out the half-hour specials, the 15-minute showcase sets, and, sadly, Drew Michael’s eponymous HBO special (he only does 35 minutes of actual comedy—the rest being scripted cutaway video chats with a significant other). Someone like Ali Siddiq also has cutaways throughout talking to inmates and prison employees, but his actual stand-up time is about 45 minutes. I want to note that Drew Michael would have been in our top 10 had he done seven more minutes of material.
We’re also only going to look at English-speaking specials. My roommate likes to watch everything with subtitles, but I’m not a fan. It’s awesome that Netflix has committed to putting out so much stand-up in other languages for the world to enjoy and to expose to Americans. Next year a separate list for the subtitle-reading crowd is definitely due!
I judged these specials on how much I laughed and how fresh the material is. I gave bonus points for innovation or a really solid pre-special sketch. The thing that separates a special from an album, in my opinion, is the visual component. As such, I think these are noteworthy factors. It’s what makes a special…special. I didn’t penalize anything that was traditionally shot or lacked visual aids, but it certainly acted as a tiebreaker for several situations.
Below you’ll see what I think are the 20 best specials of the year, specials you should certainly check out. I don’t expect you to watch all 60—or even all 20—but hopefully this list assists you through decision paralysis when you’re laying around at home on a Friday night. If you want to know what I thought about the specials that didn’t make this list, you can read all of my notes here. Feel free to yell at me why I’m wrong in the comments.
20. Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars (Comedy Central)
19. Gad Elmaleh: American Dream (Netflix)
18. Kevin Smith: Silent But Deadly (Showtime)
17. Ted Alexandro: Senior Class of Earth (All Things Comedy)
16. Tig Notaro: Happy To Be Here
15. The Honeymoon Stand Up Special – Natasha Leggero & Moshe Kasher (Netflix)
14. Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable (Netflix)
13. Russell Brand: Re:Birth (Netflix)
12. Iliza Shlesinger: Elder Millennial (Netflix)
11. Sam Morril: Positive Influence (Comedy Central)
10. Demetri Martin: The Overthinker (Netflix)
This is one of those specials I put on late at night to get out of the way because I didn’t think it was going to make the top 10. For me, his specials tend to fall in the category of “Oh, I should watch that, but not right now.” Demetri Martin comes in with a masterful hour of tight jokes and original thoughts in The Overthinker. Martin is one of those names that brings consistent A-material that we sometimes forget to talk about. One of the original alt scene guys who broke mainstream, he leaves the dry erase board at home and instead utilizes an overhead TV screen to show his punchline illustrations.
I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to laugh at something so PG-13, but Martin made me laugh loudly and consistently, even if I wasn’t expecting it. Heightening the at-home comedy special experience, the New York native adds voice-over commentary to portions of the show, delivering jokes to Netflix subscribers that his in-person audience never got to hear. If you also tend to pass over Martin’s specials, this one will be your favorite surprise of the year.
9. James Acaster: Repertoire (Netflix)
Like any snot-nosed American, I thought to myself, “Who is James Acaster and how is he dropping four hourlong sets all at once?” Repertoire is one of these new multi-episode comedy specials. Acaster’s shows are a culmination of his work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe over the last several years. The first three shows—Recognize, Represent, Reset—are tied together thematically with a final show Recap that calls back to the other shows. These specials look amazing. His outfit matches the backdrop and, at times, the microphone and mic stand in each special in such a purposeful fashion. He makes the British stage tradition proud with his use of space, props, and setting.
For comedy purists, don’t worry: The material is brilliant. It’s silly and fun and builds up to big laughs. Recap is a bit difficult to watch, as you have to remember the other three shows well enough to understand the callbacks. However, I won’t penalize someone for having an okay hour after a jaw-dropping three. Any of the first three would be worthy of this list. Though they are the culmination of years of work, each show is written in about a year for Edinburgh. I find myself captivated by his goofy performances, defying my desire to include a more comfortable name in the rankings. What makes this guy stand out? You know he’s funny but you can’t pinpoint why, which is the sign of a truly unique POV stand-up.
8. Dave Smith: Libertas (GaS Digital)
Original jokes. Unique point of view. A comfort on stage that doesn’t care whether or not you approve of him. Dave Smith possesses these core characteristics of a strong stand-up comedian. Stand-up relies on independent thinkers to deliver us truly original material that makes us think, like a modern-day philosopher. I think Smith is one of those low-key killer comics who, if he had different politics, could be all over the place (though I’m sure he’s doing quite well co-hosting with Legion of Skanks, appearing frequently on Fox News, and touring regularly).
Some would call the proud Libertarian an edgelord—someone being edgy for the sake of being edgy. There’s too much craft and purpose and contempt for mob mentalities to simplify Smith’s act in that way. Though he has ample privilege that allows him to look past certain tenets of feminism (the part of about the ‘feminization’ of our culture reeks of toxicity), you know what this man thinks when he’s on stage. His refusal to pander to the left or the right displays an integrity that is sometimes lost in this industry. Comedy purists will appreciate this special. You’re welcome to disagree, but you’d have to watch Libertas first to make that informed opinion.
7. Jim Jefferies: This Is Me Now (Netflix)
Jim Jefferies is starting to become famous enough that he can talk about his own fame. He opens the special describing the difference between “rich and famous” and “poor and famous.” Turns out that ignoring the business in show business can make you a late night talk show host who shops at the dollar store (or in London, ‘pound shop’). The storyteller continues his crusade against guns through humor as people continue to request encores of his infamous gun control routine from 2014’s Bare. If that’s what the people want, that’s what they continue to get with Jefferies. “How about we propose a law where you’re allowed seven?”
The bits are nothing but original thought from an overactive comedic brain and This Is Me Now offers absurd stories of marginal celebrity. The audience gets to enjoy Jefferies’s flagrant disregard for nondisclosure agreements, allowing us to hear about an epic dinner party gig at Mariah Carey. We even get some celebrity impressions out of him! Fans of the Australian will enjoy knowing he is capable of pumping out quality specials at a consistent rate. If you’re unfamiliar with this guy, start with This Is Us. It’ll certainly ease you into him before you watch him do seven minutes of Bill Cosby rape jokes in Freedumb.
6. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous (Netflix)
John Mulaney delivers the fantastic laugh-out-loud comedy special we’ve come to expect from the seasoned stand-up. The former Saturday Night Live head writer comes back in Kid Gorgeous from, in my opinion, a slight dip with his previous Netflix special The Comeback Kid. His childlike “Uh, oh!” cadence never feels too childish for the 36-year-old man as he shares quirky stories of his father’s psychological warfare and how old emails could come back to get you. Whether comparing Making a Murderer’s Brendan Dassey to spending $120,000 on an English degree or being in Connecticut “doing white people stuff,” you can expect Mulaney’s usual high laughs-per-minute stories with well-executed side tangents.
5. Chris Rock: Tamborine (Netflix)
This is by far Chris Rock’s best-looking special thanks to director Bo Burnham—but that’s not what lands the living legend in our top five. Rock has always talked about the same things: race, politics, parenting, and how men and women are =gasp= different. He somehow keeps stale topics fresh in Tamborine, with his point of view evolving from a freshly married 34-year-old man in Bigger and Blacker to a newly divorced father in his early 50s.
As a lifelong Chris Rock fan, I found Tamborine to be a more vulnerable version of the Grown Ups star. An intense revelation about his marriage is paired with an intimate zoom-in that captures your attention as he dives into his shortcomings as a husband. It’s difficult to publicly say, “I messed up.” For once, Rock finds the humor in personal suffering instead of broader cultural tragedies. For that reason and more, the Top 5 director cracks our top five.
4. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix)
It’s the special that launched a million-and-one angry male opinions. It doesn’t matter where I rank it; I’m going to get flak for putting Nanette on this list. You can’t ignore what may be the most talked about comedy special of 2018. “There aren’t any jokes!” one might complain. If you didn’t identify jokes in the first 45 minutes, then that says way more about your gender politics (or stance on Pablo Picasso) than Hannah Gadsby’s comedic abilities. The Australian comedian’s one-woman show challenged what a comedy special is ‘supposed’ to be. Never have I heard more conversations debating if a comedy special is until this past summer when Nanette hit Netflix.
Few comedians command such mastery of tension than Gadsby. When you laugh, she meant for you to laugh. When you’re not laughing, she meant for you to be silent. When you want to cry, you were supposed to empathize with her. As she explains and demonstrates the purpose of comedy—building and releasing tension—she is finally able to release her own tension of sexual assault and internalized homophobia. Her final punchline is that there is no punchline. At the end, she forces you to hold the tension she’s held onto for decades in the name of making you laugh. In a way, it’s her break-up letter to comedy.
Many formed an opinion about Nanette without finishing Nanette. Of course, I didn’t finish all of the specials I watched to make this list. Then again, I don’t remember a bunch of people talking about how hilarious Woke-ish is, so I think I’m safe. A brilliant comedian makes you laugh and think and feel. It’s not the funniest comedy special of the year, but it is one of the best.
3. John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (Netflix)
John Leguizamo’s Tony-nominated show is a love letter to his bullied son and to his heritage. Masked as a hilarious history lesson, Leguizamo mixes historical observations with personal stories. The ‘ghetto klown’ showcases a passion for where he came from and a commitment to exposing the erasure of Latinx contributions to this not-yet-great-again nation. Leguizamo has always produced epic one-man shows. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone—his career and position in the comedy world has hardened like the cement around his future handprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
I saw Latin History for Morons in 2015 when he was workshopping the show at The Creek and the Cave in New York City. At the time, it was just a string of historical act-outs and humorous revelations about his people. Since then, it has gained a heart—a throughline of a parent trying to connect with his children. This show has all the classic Leguizamo hallmarks: ample characters, lighting cues, jokes, a slight contempt for white people, and a brief dance solo. His lessons on Latino generals in the Civil War and Cortez’s genocide of indigenous Latinx people will leave you laughing and fascinated by all the history you didn’t know you didn’t know.
2. W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro (Netflix)
It’s amazing what happens when you work on your material instead of farting out an hour every 10 months. Private School Negro makes you forget that this guy is best known for a show on CNN. W. Kamau Bell continues to tackle racism and privilege in a Netflix special that will please the comedy purists. Sometimes I’m not sure if he’s the smartest comedian or the funniest college professor. He’ll hit you with an act-out about an app that reminds him to, as a black man, run (“It doesn’t even say why!”) and then calmly lecture viewers that “you have the freedom of speech. What you don’t have are the freedom of consequences from that speech.”
His jokes are so unique from such a specifically him point off view that I find it innovative without any bells and whistles, although I do enjoy a central stage encircled by audience members. Black men talking about racism is nothing new. Creating such fresh and original material about the topic is less common. There’s a bit halfway through the special that caused me to pause writing this very sentence just so I could stop chuckling in a coffee shop. Without giving it away too much, be ready for him to make you excitedly wonder, “Does he have another tag?” When Bell begins to look like one of those car dealership Wacky Wavers, you’re in for a goddamn delight.
Every joke is solid. Every joke will make you laugh out loud. After watching it three times this year, the staying power of this special proves its superiority to nearly every stand-up special of 2018. I’d rank this as the best special of the year if it were not for…
1. Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh (Netflix)
I’ll be perfectly honest: When it was announced that Adam Sandler would release his first stand-up special in 25 years, I was massively underwhelmed. I almost didn’t watch it. Based on the hit or miss quality of his recent string of movies, I didn’t think a guy out of stand-up for a couple of decades who is best known for making silly faces and funny sounds would produce such an epic hour of material. I was blown away by a bit about his father interrupting a test at school and I bounced up and down while laughing at the lyrics to a song about the daily essentials of life. His tribute to the late, great Chris Farley continues to bring me to tears.
Much of the first third feels like Sandler talking to himself in the shower. The Sandman does not utilize segueways between short spurts of song, stand-up jokes, and goofy cutaways. This is one of those specials you want to watch as if you were in a movie theater: one sitting, no phone, a snack so large you’d be ashamed to eat it in the light. Shot in a wide variety of locations, from the cozy Comic Strip Live—the comedy club where Sandler got his start—to massive outdoor concert venues, his team pulls off the multi-venue editing that Chris Rock’s Kill The Messenger could not quite nail. It’s almost a shame this was not released as a stand-up concert film a la Kevin Hart.
What I love about 100% Fresh is how much fun the Saturday Night Live alum is having. Known for his epic breaks on SNL, he does not reign it in for his super important Netflix special. He laughs at his own jokes as if he wrote them for the first time in front of us, even though he’s performed the bits now countless times. When thought of in the context of his career—a career predicated on making funny shit with his friends for decades—it is difficult to not feel like his final song is a culmination of everything. Though we all know Sandler’s career is far from over. 100% Fresh is a fun special by a massive comedy star who didn’t need the money. Maybe starring as a former stand-up-turned-blockbuster movie star in Funny People gave him the itch again. Watching this confirms what we’ve heard many big-time comedians who transition to film and TV say on so many podcasts: I can always go back to stand-up.
100% Fresh is pure joy. In such divisive times, a weird, heartfelt, silly-as-fuck Netflix special has to be the best one of the year because it might be the one special we can all watch and, for one hour, forget that we hate each other.