Now more than ever, it’s easy to miss a great standup special. Despite social media’s role as the new word-of-mouth, there are specials languishing in copyright hell, specials that never got a proper home-video (or online) release, and specials that just plain got trampled by the stampede of current ones.
But for casual comedy fans, it’s still worth digging up these gems, not simply to see certain performers hitting their stride in their early years, or to impress your friends with a potentially obscure reference, but to appreciate the breadth of standup outside of HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and Comedy Central’s greatest hits. And as these are filmed specials (and not simply audio albums, although the two often overlap) production values, a director’s touch, and overall aesthetics play as much of a role as the material and delivery.
Most of these hail from the last three decades, since the hour-long special didn’t become a defining achievement of many comics until the late 1970s and early ‘80s. But don’t let that stop you from digging even deeper.
9th Annual Young Comedians Special
There were so many of these Rodney Dangerfield-hosted showcases in the 1980s that it’s tough to pick a definitive one, but the 1984 version has arguably the best hit-to-miss ratio, helping it earn an online following and growing reputation as a curio among comedy nerds. The gamut runs from soon-to-be stars like Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson, and Yakov Smirnoff to a fresh-faced Bob Saget (already working on his lewd, button-pushing persona). There are hack moments aplenty, but the rapid-fire nature ensures an almost total lack of boredom. (Also of note: Other installments helped introduce the world to Bill Hicks, Andrew Dice Clay, and many more.)
Ellen DeGeneres, Here and Now
Some of the jokes in this cool, understated 2003 special age about as well as Seinfeld’s more Zeitgeist-y observations (which is to say, they’re instantly dated). But Here and Now remains a prime example of crackerjack pacing, gentle self-deprecation, and how to command a stage by pretending it’s not there.
Norm MacDonald, Me Doing Standup
The god of deadpan sarcasm was a comic’s-comic long before people started throwing that term at Bill Burr and Louis C.K., and it’s clear why on this 2011 special, directed by comedy lifer David Steinberg. MacDonald’s inscrutable but generally bemused persona gets a rare, hour-long airing as he explores sandwiches, the evening news, and more inherently mundane topics. Never the most kinetic performer on stage, MacDonald’s Standup builds in the same way as his internal logic: slowly and inexorably, resulting in laughing fits that you rarely see coming.
Chelsea Peretti, One of the Greats
At first blush, Brooklyn Nine-Nine ensemble player Peretti sports a hard-to-pin-down persona, but that only complements her skill in tampering with expectations. With the help of veteran director Lance Bangs, visual gags (like cutaway shots of an audience containing dogs, or babies, or herself dressed as a clown) play out in ways that no audio-only album could hope to. The editing becomes as much a part of the structure as Peretti’s delivery, but it would quickly collapse if not for the sturdy material.
Sam Kinison, Breaking the Rules
It’s tough to defend some of Kinison’s reactionary, small-minded material, but rebelliousness (as his mother points out at the beginning of the special) was pretty much baked into this comedy preacher from the start. Filmed in Hollywood in 1987, Breaking the Rules feels like a cross between a Motley Crue video and a therapy session held in a flaming wind tunnel. With drinks.
Women of the Night
Host Martin Short presents a stacked lineup of the standup boom’s most visible female comics in this special, the cheeky title of which still resonates, given many casual comedy fans’ ignorance of women’s skills in comedy. Very little of Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Judy Tenuta, and Lizz Winstead’s absurdist-leaning material comes off as niche or playing into expectations, despite the second-tier status female comics had under many club owners, male comics, and audiences of the time. Criminally out of print, it’s worth tracking down this 1987 time capsule in bits and pieces.
Bobcat Goldthwait, Share the Warmth
Goldthwait’s yelping stage persona, best known from the Police Academy movies, is in some ways not much different from today’s writer-director Goldthwait. Both push subjects past the brink and slide back as everything collapses around them, albeit in different ways. Share the Warmth is clearly indebted to Robin Williams’ ping-pong style, considering how the 1987 special features at least as much sweaty energy and carefully considered provocation as Williams’ signature work. But the hour-long, New York-filmed document is also more consciously rock ’n’ roll, and at least as gleefully exhausting as anything from that era.
Rob Delaney, Live at the Bowery Ballroom
If Twitter-famous Delaney is one of those comics you’ve heard about but never seen, 2012’s Bowery is an ideal staring point. Having little-to-no frame of reference for his silly, fantastically sarcastic (yet somehow deeply emotional) material allows his observations on fatherhood, neck tattoos, sex, fashion, and bodily functions to land with a flattening force. The unadorned stage and nonexistent back-lighting similarly makes the verbal gymnastics and squishy sound effects jump out all the more.
David Cross, Let America Laugh
Singling out this 2003 concert film/road doc, which acts as a companion to Cross’s landmark Sub Pop album Shut Up You Fucking Baby, is less an endorsement of Cross’s ranting style and more a nod toward his material, tone, and approach, which is consistently and unapologetically subversive. Alt- and indie-comedy also had a genuine moment of clarity here as Cross toured rock venues with the band Ultrababyfat, and it’s worth remembering how influential the album/tour was to the current crop of DIY standups (Neil Hamburger’s entire career notwithstanding).
Chris Rock, Big Ass Jokes
How can this 1994 special, which preceded the brilliant, genre-shifting Bring the Pain, not be overshadowed by its younger, more muscular brother? It can’t. But even pre-Bring the Pain Rock has something to offer, as Big Ass Jokes’ relationship, sex, food, and race jokes zoom by like a high-speed commuter train. We get to see Rock’s style evolving before our eyes as he burns through material on the way to a more confident, less eager-to-please comic mind.
Dana Gould, Let Me Put My Thoughts in You
Don’t simply watch this 2009 special because of its attendant credibility, like the fact that Gould has helped produce, direct, and write some of the funniest TV shows in recent memory, or that Bob Odenkirk directed it, or that it was filmed in Chicago’s legendary Second City Theater. Watch it because you’re afforded the rare glory of Gould’s sick brain working on itself like a drill through styrofoam, his hang-ups with stupid people, elderly people, and gross people (see a theme here?) leading only to more apoplexy. The weirdly reserved (or perhaps just small) audience and even weirder retro backdrop only reinforce the shambolic, overworked-salesman vibe.
Paul F. Tompkins, Laboring Under Delusions
Tompkins’ ubiquitous podcast presence and voice work on Bob’s Burgers and Bojack Horseman have increasingly pushed him out of the realm of comedy nerds. But the crisp professionalism and charming confidence on this 2012 standup special, which recounts his many, consistently horrible jobs, still deserves a wider audience than it’s gotten thus far.
Doug Stanhope, Before Turning the Gun on Himself
Stanhope’s comedy is often bleak, if that wasn’t clear from the title of this 2012 concert, filmed in Salt Lake City. But as a sprawling document of social critique, Before Turning handily eviscerates rehab scams, provincial mentalities, and oversimplified economics while defending the general libertarian mindset. It’s armchair philosophy wrapped in furious profanity, although it goes down far easier than that description might imply.
Dave Attell, Road Work
Attell’s overall style is a direct link to standup’s cabaret-and-nightclub roots as much as an expression of shock-jock dudeness, but it’s more than just The Guy at the Bar Telling Dirty Jokes. It’s a style that expertly (and fundamentally) plays off the intimate vibe in the room through Attell’s crowd-reading mastery. In this ambitious, 2014 comeback special, filmed at four different clubs around the country, he quickly folds audiences into his blue humor with an appreciably loose, magnetic ease.
Todd Barry, Super Crazy
The always-disappointed Barry practically exhales each one of his jokes, which downplays their insistent premises. It’s impossible to watch this ironically named special and not find yourself quoting it for months (or longer) afterward, especially the spot-on bit about Tom’s of Maine deodorant (hint: it’s not only worthless, it actively makes you smell like a barnyard animal) and general takedowns of the most high-maintenance, entitled aspects of consumer culture.
Neil Hamburger, The World’s Funnyman
There are so many lowlights in this failed lounge-act character’s massive discography that it’s hard to find an entry point for the casual comedy fan. And that’s by design. But 2006’s The World’s Funnyman, which isn’t a special or concert film in the strictest sense, is a dazzling (if aggressively low-budget) overview of Hamburger’s phelgmy, abrasive, confrontational brilliance, whether he’s lamenting his failed career or waxing filthy about easy-target celebrities and coma victims.
Maria Bamford, One-Hour Homemade Christmas Standup Special
Even fans of Bamford’s off-kilter work may not have seen this claustrophobic online special, which features her on a couch in her living room, notebook in lap, bouncing through material and doing voices as her dog snores quietly next to her. It’s conversational and scattershot in the truest sense, but not without punchlines and highlights. Probably not the best first-contact with her demented funhouse world, but essential viewing for fans.
Patrice O’Neal, Elephant in the Room
It’s always tempting to give more weight to deceased standups’ work, but in this case, O’Neal deserves the consideration. Whether or not you respond to his frequent (if frequently good-hearted) juggling of racial and gender stereotypes, or his scatalogical material, it’s clear that the audience was in the presence of a mercilessly honed voice, and one who was able to connect authentically with them from the start. Most prescient line: “My days are numbered, so I just want to have as much fun as possible.”
John Mulaney, New in Town
In a just world, Mulaney’s standup (important: not his recent failed sitcom, but his standup) would be as recognizable as Louis C.K.’s. But we don’t live in a just world, and New in Town isn’t on the lips and minds of every jerk in line at Starbucks. That’s a shame, as legitimate (if slyly low-key) cultural insight combines with note-perfect delivery in these irresistibly mannered jokes, betraying a mind raised on TV, movies, and dashed hopes for an ordered, logical existence. Bonus points for the glowing backdrop, which pops out of the screen like the unholy child of a Daily Show graphic and a sushi joint from American Psycho.
Anthony Jeselnik, Caligula
Although their precision and respect for standup traditions is nearly equal, Jeselnik is the opposite of Mulaney in terms of his black-hearted, intentionally icy material. Even the stage dressing on 2013’s Caligula, filmed at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, looks like The Dark Side version of Mulaney’s New in Town set. Revisiting Caligula allows one to savor the measured body language and facial expressions, which are doled out like caviar on crackers amid the deliberately soulless, immaculately constructed punchlines.
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic at The Denver Post and freelance writer who has contributed to Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vice and The Guardian, among others.