year in culture 2016

The 10 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2016

Photo: Vulture

It has been a great year for stand-up specials, but also an excessive one. Where a decade ago there would’ve been maybe 12 televised hours of stand-up, this year there were around 80. The combination of streaming services like Netflix and Seeso releasing a ton of specials and stalwarts like Comedy Central, Showtime, and HBO trying to keep pace resulted in the stand-up shows feeling less like events than check-ins on people’s material. Even so, you can’t have that many specials without yielding a number of classics, and indeed a lot of very good, very innovative stand-up was released this year. Here are the ten best specials. (Also as a result of the specials glut, this year’s ranking will focus only on televised hours, and won’t include albums or half hours like in years past.)

1. Kyle Kinane, Loose in Chicago, Comedy Central
Another year, another fantastic hour of comedy from Kyle Kinane. In 2012, his Whisky Icarus came second on our list. In 2015, his I Like His Old Stuff Better came in at number three. Now, only a year later, he’s back, and finally in the top spot. It’s fitting, as Kyle Kinane is one of the best and most prolific comedians of his generation. Kinane has a way of developing material that is personal, feels universal, and filled with a specificity of language and point of view that puts him in that upper echelon. The second half of Loose is especially impressive, with Kinane building the entire half hour around his recent gout diagnosis. The ability to sustain a bit about a disease of excess for that long is a perfect encapsulation of Kinane’s work and skill as a stand-up.

2. Hannibal Buress, Comedy Camisado, Netflix
Buress has one of the most distinct comedic voices working today, with his deadpan evolving into a masterful balance of overstatement and understatement, making big deals of small matters and small deals of big matters. A bit about how the Pelicans is a dumb name for a sports team segues into him describing a video of a pelican, into him being amazed that Smoothie King has the money to get naming rights to a basketball stadium, into a shouting match between a cab driver, a white girlfriend, and a xenophobic onlooker that ends up being a hilarious yet subtle examination of everyday racism.   

3. Pete Holmes, Faces and Sounds, HBO
Since most people know him from his very popular, very heady, very earnest podcast, You Made It Weird, Holmes ends up being an underrated stand-up. In reality, dude crushes hard. This ability is on full display in his HBO special, which shows how Holmes can both tackle big, complicated subjects — be it fear, or the societal expectation that men want to have sex all the time — while still being loose and silly. The blend makes for an uncommonly satisfying hour of comedy.

4. Janeane Garofalo, If I May, Seeso
Garofalo is uncompromising. You want strict setups and punch lines? Watch someone else, because Garofalo is going to do her thing as she always has. If I May is like an onslaught of a person’s brain in the best way, as Garofalo blitzes from topic to topic — some personal, some political, some reality television — leaving you with such a rich picture of who she is in this moment. Garofalo spends a lot of the start of the set wondering if she’s even a stand-up. She is and always has been. Her being a stand-up revolutionized the form in the ‘90s, pioneering Alternative Comedy, a world where originality and honesty became as important as hard jokes. To this day, Garofalo remains a force.

5. Rory Scovel, The Charleston Special, Seeso
Scovel is one of the most unique stand-ups alive. Meta and extremely loose, at his best Scovel feels like an improviser who was given the suggestion “stand-up special.” I almost put The Charleston Special much higher, but from talking to other people, I realized it actually goes so off the rails in a way that can make it confusing to anyone who isn’t already familiar with Scovel’s material. Not to spoil anything, but there is an unintentional injury. It is an engrossing, hilarious watch.

6. Kevin Hart, What Now?
Stand-up superstardom has often been paired with hack tendencies, which is why it is heartening (Hartening) how good Hart is. This special is shot in a football stadium. A FOOTBALL STADIUM. That is not normal. That is unprecedented. And yet, simply, it doesn’t suck. Hart is one of the most naturally funny people ever, but his material is still strong. Equally confessional and silly, Hart is able to tell long stories with huge laughs. If he has any major flaw, it’s that he tends to heighten premises too quickly, rushing through to the most ridiculous beat, when he could probably live in a bit a little longer. But, ultimately, you’ll be laughing so much that you won’t really notice.

7. Laurie Kilmartin, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, Seeso
Everyone experiences tragedy in their life, comedians just happen to be better at talking about it and talking about it in a way that doesn’t feel trite or hokey. In that way, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad feels like a gift. Kilmartin delivers exactly as promised, and the result is a hilarious, painful, cathartic hour of comedy. It is also home to my favorite joke of the year: “I take comfort in the fact that he died doing what he did best: growing tumors. It was a skill he learned late in life, but, boy, he turned into a world-class master.”

8. Ali Wong, Baby Cobra, Netflix
There is something undeniably powerful seeing a stand-up perform nearly eight-months pregnant. But Baby Cobra isn’t a magic or freak show; Wong is a tremendous, uncompromising, lewd comedian with a point of view and style that deserves to be celebrated. Like the bit about getting turned on putting a thumb in a man’s butt and getting turned on by the fear they feel when they like it — few comics can pull off taking things that far. Baby Cobra will be remembered.

9. Reggie Watts, Spatial, Netflix
Spatial is a perfect title for this, as Watts’s comedy feels at times like it’s from another planet and he’s learned over time how to translate it for human audience — to a point where a lot of his material is post-verbal, with Watts playing with the tropes of sounds. That said, Watts has gotten better at the parts between songs, where sort of stream of consciousness rambles. As a further extension of what Steve Martin once did, Watts plays with convention to a point where it might not be clear when to laugh but you always do.

10. Bo Burnham, Make Happy, Netflix
This was the hardest slot to fill. There were a few also worthy specials — namely ones from Michael Che, Big Jay Oakerson, and Deon Cole — that I debated putting here. While all are stronger joke writers than Burnham, I wanted to celebrate Bo’s formal ambition, a thing often lacking in stand-ups. Meticulously orchestrated and deeply meta, Make Happy confronts the belief that stand-up must be a dude in front of brick wall, emptying his soul. Make Happy might be flawed, but no one used his or her platform to try to push stand-up forward more this year than Burnham.