year in culture 2015

The 10 Best Stand-Up Specials of 2015

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Getty Images

This month Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. Last week’s lists included movies, albums, art, and video games. Today’s all about comedy: the best sketches, specials, and podcasts.

1. Tig Notaro, Boyish Girl Interrupted
Let me tell you about the hardest I laughed this year. Two-thirds of the way into Boyish Girl Interrupted, after finishing a story about the time, post–double mastectomy, when a TSA agent couldn’t believe she was a woman, Tig Notaro takes off her blazer. The action elicits a few “woo”s from the crowd, to which she responds, “Don’t tempt me.” After a knowing smirk, she removes her shirt, revealing her bare torso. Notaro pauses partly as if to say, Look what you made me do, and partly to allow the audience to cheer as they process how far she’s come since her now-legendary Largo set in which she discussed her breast-cancer diagnosis, her mother’s death, and her near-fatal battle with C-DIFF (the recording of which, Live, topped my 2012 list). Notaro takes a sip of her water, milking the audience’s reaction and building tension. What could she possibly say next? “I’ll tell you: I am afraid to fly.” It’s a small move, but the knowing shift from all that severity and earnestness to such a comically overused premise just destroyed me.

It exemplifies what Tig arguably does better than any stand-up ever: pacing. Like Greg Maddux painting the corners of the plate or Matisse painting the corners of, you know, a painting, she wields her signature deadpan with incredible control, saying exactly the right thing at the exact right time. Or, in some cases, not saying anything, if that’s what the joke calls for, as she can get as big a laugh from a pause as she can a punch line. It’s long been a skill of hers, but as she’s grown as a storyteller and her work has gotten more personal, the result feels quietly revolutionary and truly singular. Notaro is a modern master.

Stream on HBOGo.

2. John Mulaney, The Comeback Kid
John Mulaney is the LeBron James of comedy, a beast of a comedian with an unprecedented skill set at his disposal. He’s a charming performer, a gifted storyteller, a keen observer of behavior and culture, an unparalleled joke-writer, etc. etc. etc. And like when LeBron spent that one off-season practicing how to play with his back to the basket, Mulaney, too, has grown. Notably, he has become a looser, more physical performer, helping his material feel fresh as well as polished. More than anything, the biggest improvement from Mulaney on the now-classic New in Town is that he’s grown up. At a most basic level, The Comeback Kid is a special about coming to terms with being an actual adult, and Mulaney is in rare form as he tackles topics like getting married and buying a house. And man, the Bill Clinton story he closes with is so freaking good.

Stream on Netflix.

3. Kyle Kinane, I Liked His Old Stuff Better
Kyle Kinane is miles away from the comedian who once joked about the London Evening Standard calling him “bleak and misanthropic.” With success, Kinane has evolved into a lowbrow idealist, a grumpy optimist, a dirtbag romantic. In this special, Kinane talks about maybe never finding lasting love, but finding it momentarily in a woman who places the pen back in its holder at the bank, or another woman who knows he’s the type of guy who’d appreciate being brought a jar of pickled eggs (minus the ones she’s eaten). Maybe most exciting is the wonder he brings to the puzzle that is Kyle Kinane, whether it’s coming to terms with the perils of aging, like his bit about throwing change into a trash can for no reason, or the darker parts of his history. Kinane tells a story about an unfortunate young-adulthood blow job that can’t help but draw favorable comparisons to Louis C.K. It’s this ability, plus the extraordinary vividness of the characters and settings of his stories, that has made Kinane the foremost comedian’s comedian of his generation.

Stream audio on Spotify. Stream video on Comedy Central’s website.

4. Nate Bargatze, Full Time Magic
Bargatze has a way with pointing absurdity in small, real-life situations. The special opens up with a simple story about Bargatze’s wife pointing out that she used to date the guy in a nearby boat. “Now, I didn’t know who he was, so she didn’t have to say that at all.” Even better is when Bargatze goes on a roll breaking down a particularly dumb point someone else makes. Like when he analyzes the suggestion of a friend that he should’ve fought his wife’s ex. “Well, I would have had to swim over to that fight. So, I don’t know how intimidating that is, for a guy to see a head in a lifejacket floating his way. And then I need to get in the boat, you know. You ever try to climb into a boat from water? It’s not aggressive. It takes an hour if no one’s in the boat. If he’s in there, I’m never going to get in. I would need his help. I’d be like, ‘Could you help me into this boat? I can’t tell you why, but I really need in this boat.’” The closest comparison is Hannibal Buress, in that they are both at their funniest when they make a big thing out of something small, and a small thing out of something big.

Stream audio on Spotify. Stream video on Comedy Central’s website.

5. Ron Funches, The Funches of Us
If it wasn’t just audio, this hour very likely would have been even higher on the list. As a pure audio-visual experience, Ron Funches — with the voice of a curious cartoon cat and the appearance of an NFL lineman who retired to be a professional hugger — is instantly hilarious. Still, with just his voice, Funches is one of the funniest, most versatile comedians working. He is able to bring his lighthearted absurdity to a surreal bit, like when he compares using CAPTCHA to confirm his identity online to going up to his toaster and being like, “Prove to me you’re not my friend Craig right now.” As well as heavier topics such a fatherhood and race, like his take on the N-word: “I don’t believe we should ever use that word to hurt people, but I do believe we should use it to shame our pets.”

Stream on Spotify.

6. Jen Kirkman, I’m Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine)
“I’m not a political comic, or anything like that,” is how Jen Kirkman starts her Netflix special. The next word is “but.” That’s the thing: Kirkman is not a political comic, but Kirkman’s comedy is political. See, Kirkman jokes locally but thinks globally. All of her material is ostensibly about herself, but through the lens of her life, she satires our culture. Much of the special focuses on coming to terms with and embracing being divorced and 40 — from finding gray pubic hairs to a less-than-ideal attempt at being a cougar — and floating in the subtext is how different it is for men in similar situations. Or even take the story about a dude who didn’t know what a lime (or a lemon) was, which doubles as a point about how dumb men are free to be. It’s a really, really funny bit, but it’ll also make you a little sad.

Stream on Netflix.

7. Eugene Mirman, Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store/I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome)
Eugene Mirman’s comedy blurs the line between the stage and his real life. Now, that can be said about many truth-telling comedians; however, Mirman subverts that relationship with his stand-up bleeding into his everyday. What does this mean in practice? Signing up to LinkedIn as the Senior VP of Pee Pee at Verizon; or Facebook-messaging Val Kilmer; or taking a full-page ad out in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, summer guide to protest a parking ticket. Those are just a few of the endeavors he walks the audience through in his Netflix special. And his jokes are funny. One, about a newspaper that misquoted someone and wrote that “comedy is tragedy plus timing,” is easily one of my favorites bits of the year. He also gets bonus points for the album version of the special I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome), which, beyond the hour, also includes a guided meditation, an “erotic soundscape for lovebirds and adventurous friends,” a sound-effects library, 45 minutes of crying, and, somehow, more.

Stream Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store on Netflix. Stream I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome) on Spotify.

8. Paul F. Tompkins, Crying and Driving
In the past, PFT has played around with more traditional, observation-based stand-up specials, one-man shows, and some looser, more improvisational specials. Crying and Driving finds Tompkins going full-on raconteur. That’s not to say that storytelling wasn’t a big part of his act before (as that would be both untrue and very stupid of me to say), but here it is the primary focus, as the entire special is essentially made up of four stories: the one about falling in love with his friend, the one about a South Carolina doctor who put a foot in a crab trap, the one about not knowing how to drive, and the one about going to the Magic Castle. While very funny (including arguably the best description of therapy I’ve ever heard: “It’s not all about blaming your parents for stuff … there’s enough of that, though, that you’re getting your money’s worth”), the special also has a charming ease to it. The bow tie doesn’t hurt.

9. Lil Rel, RELevent
RELevent was presented by Kevin Hart. Though I’m not sure what that actually entails, Hart’s influence is apparent in Rel, particularly in his willingness to be vulnerable. The best example of this is his bit about how “your boys don’t know what to do with you when you’re a wreck.” What sets Rel apart is how rich of a picture he paints of Chicago, his hometown and the location where the special was filmed. It’s something that was important to him. As he told Hart in their Comics Talk to Comics conversation, “I love bringing people to my world: I love telling Chicago’s story. Like, New York comics don’t care. They talk about New York all day. Same thing with people from L.A. But when it comes to people from other cities … people go, ‘It’s just local jokes.’ Ain’t no joke local if you know how to explain it.” Reminiscent of Chicago legend Robin Harris, Rel excels through how specific and funny the characters of his world are. Few things are funnier than his old-man voice.

10. Beth Stelling, Simply the Beth/The Half Hour
The current move seems to be to release a full-length stand-up album in conjunction with a Comedy Central Half Hour. Of the handful of young comedians who made that move in 2015, Beth Stelling was the most exciting. While not perfect, the peaks of both sets are incredibly high. Nowhere is she better than her story of her mom versus Sprint, which is like John Mulaney’s Delta Airlines bit with notes of Maria Bamford. I know it’s the sort of thing that gets thrown around a lot, but Stelling really is a young comedian to watch.

Stream Simply the Beth on Spotify. Stream The Half Hour on Comedy Central’s website.

The 10 Best Stand-Up Specials of 2015