When you imagine a stand-up special, you might think about Eddie Murphy in a skintight leather suit or Richard Pryor directly in a spotlight against a black background or George Carlin standing in front of a huge USC mural. These are the images that tipify the modern comedy special. When audiences tune into Comedy Central or HBO, they expect a (cough) man, a microphone, and the laughs of a roaring crowd over sharp jokes. But as stand-up comedy got more popular, so did the stand-up special. Now there is a seemingly endless list of new comedy specials to watch. Streaming sites like Netflix have produced more specials in the last few years than audiences have ever had before (in fact, they released a new comedy special every week in 2017). With the influx of new specials, many have started to play with both the limits of structure and content when crafting their hour. From sincerity about hard subjects to the complete lack of an audience, these 8 comedians challenge the limits of what a comedy special can be:
8) Neal Brennan: 3 Mics, Netflix (2017)
Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics deconstructs three types of comedy. He labels each mic: one-liners, stand-up, and “emotional stuff.” By labeling the mics and physically moving in between them, he makes the audience hyperaware of the types of performance they are watching. While most stand-up specials will naturally have at least a little bit of all three categories, Brennan seems to be teaching the audience how to understand the comedy writing process. While the three modes are completely different, his crass one-liners, his tight stand-up, and his honest look at depression meld together to paint a full portrait of the comedian.
7) Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn (2014)
Wyatt Cenac’s Brooklyn could have been a very traditional stand-up special. But Cenac made it unique by not only taping it in a tiny Brooklyn venue, but also acting out a handful of his jokes with puppets superimposed over his set. The puppets break the confines of the club and introduce an element of imagination and whimsey while Cenac is talking about heavier topics like the death of his father when he was a child. If it wasn’t hipster enough, Cenac released a limited edition vinyl album if puppets weird you out.
6) Judah Friedlander: America is the Greatest Country in the United States, Netflix (2017)
Judah Friedlander created a truly DIY special. America is the Greatest Country in the United States was filmed over a collection of nights at the famed Comedy Cellar in New York City. The first stand-up special from the self-proclaimed “world champion” is comprised almost entirely of crowd work. Filmed on a shoestring budget in black and white, the special feels like a mix between a documentary and a found film. Some jokes are repeated. Different nights are smashed together, creating an absurdist picture of political comedy in a post-Trump America.
5) Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special (2012)
Maria Bamford was already a celebrated stand-up in 2012 for her less-than-conventional approach to comedy, but The Special Special Special played with the very concept of what a comedy special can be. Filmed entirely in her California home with only her mother and father in the audience, Bamford creates an often uncomfortably intimate space. Jokes that should have had uproarious laughter by a crowd are instead punctuated by a single chuckle from her dad. While The Special Special Special doesn’t contain many of the mental illness-related jokes she would later be praised for, its tone is fascinating and unshakable. Her newest special, Old Baby, continues to challenge the form as she performs in a wide range of different venues from a living room to a library to, yes, a bowling alley.
4) Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, Netflix (2017)
For stand-ups, a microphone in hand can almost be a security blanket. But not only does Minhaj not need the crutch, it would have held him back in his first Netflix special Homecoming King. He moves around the stage quickly, at times running and jumping. He shows the audience family photos on the giant screen behind him. While most comedians tell jokes about their families, Minhaj pushes it further. At times, Homecoming King feels like a memoir reading or a one-man show. Not every story is happy—much of the special revolves around being brown in a post-9/11 world. While Minhaj tries to punctuate each story with a joke, the realities of racism leak into this special in a way that forces you to think and remember and examine what it means to be a person of color in America.
3) Bo Burnham: Make Happy, Netflix (2016)
Musical comedy specials have always felt a little different, but Make Happy stands out for its last 15 minutes. Bo Burnham explains in the special that he has been performing since he was a teenager and this is all he knows. He asks the audience, “What? Do you want me to be funny and make a point?” And then he goes on a 10-minute Kanye West-style rant which starts about Pringles and ends in an opus on the nature of the relationship between performer and audience. He captures the feelings of a clown that is trying to give the audience the happiness that his declining mental health won’t let him have. Make Happy follows his 2013 special What?, also on Netflix, where he truly broke free from ‘guitar guy’ criticisms, masterfully blending stand-up, song, and performance art.
2) Drew Michael, HBO (2018)
Drew Michael has a frenetic energy that leaves the watcher in a suspended state between agitation and alarm. Michael forgoes both audience and theater and instead performs in a space that looks like a photographer’s studio on a spaceship. Directed by fellow comedian Jerrod Carmichael, the look is unlike any special you’ve ever seen. His intensely personal jokes are intercut with FaceTime conversations with a girlfriend-type, but the most striking thing about the special is his delivery. Michael approaches extremely well-written jokes with a delivery so angry that the special feels like a psychotic take on a one-man show. Without an audience, all the viewers hear are their own laughs; the audience gets to decide what is funny without feeding off of a larger audience. Drew Michael is an experience. As Michael says in the special, if a joke isn’t for you, ignore it and let it hit the person that it is meant for. Drew Michael isn’t for everyone and that might be the most revolutionary thing about it.
1)Hannah Gadsby: Nannette, Netflix (2018)
Truly the stand-up special that launched 1,000 opinions. Is it comedy? It has all the trappings of a comedy special. There is an audience. It is taped inside a large theater. Comedian Hannah Gadsby—previously an unknown here in the States—even starts with typical stand-up material. It isn’t until the last third of the special that the intensity ramps up as she starts expressing her personal trauma and you see the special for what it really is: a discussion of comedy as a coping mechanism. Parts of the special feel like Gadsby is putting comedy on trial. Other parts feel like she’s putting men on trial. But more importantly, Nanette is a love letter to women in the #MeToo era.