The Rise of the Non-Traditional Standup Special

Netflix is changing the way we watch comedy specials, and the comics are doing their part too. Where once HBO and Comedy Central dominated the standup field, the streaming service has since convinced household names like Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman to premiere their new material on a laptop screen. What’s more, Netflix will, for the foreseeable future, release a new special each week, which begs the question: How do comics squeeze into your play queue when everyone – including superstars like Louis C.K. – competes in one expanding, scrollable category?

The solution, for many, is to experiment with the form. Hence the recent spurt of non-traditional specials, each with a visual device to punch up, not distract from, the humor. That’s not to say specials haven’t deviated from the same tried and over-tested formula in the past. If you go back a few years, outliers start to pop up. For instance, Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger (2008) consists of three performances – London, New York, Johannesburg – stitched together, sometimes within the same bit, to highlight contrasting energies. Elsewhere, Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion (2006) rarely lasts five minutes without a sketch, leaving the theater, or meeting the legend that is Seth Galifianakis.

But now, in 2017, we’re witnessing a real momentum in the genre. Maria Bamford’s Old Baby, which premieres today, marks the latest eye-catching example. Bamford, a unique performer in her own right, commits to a similarly inimitable arrangement: a shape-shifting series of gigs occurring indoors, outdoors, at a bowling alley, in a bookshop, at a park bench, in a living room, in more traditional LA theaters, and so on. These venues guarantee it’s something you haven’t seen before – unless you’re on Bamford’s bowling team, that is.

Along with Bamford’s new offering, here are some other comedians who are playing to the back of the living room by experimenting and expanding on the non-traditional special format:

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special (2012) & Old Baby (2017)

For Bamford, Old Baby signifies a logical progression from 2012’s Special Special Special, in which she dishes out jokes in a living room to just her parents. “The reason I decided to do the special here,” she deadpans, “is because it’s free to perform in your home.” Honest and intimate, Bamford’s comedy excels in open environments: viewers were invited onto her sofa, and in Old Baby she meets them halfway around town. By minimizing traditional barriers, she dissects the everyday nature of a comic who’s always “on” and turns everywhere into a stage. As she puts it: “I’m not very good with chit chat. I like a structured communication a la standup.”

Neal Brennan: 3 Mics (2017)

The premise is simple yet ingenious: Brennan alternates been a trio of microphones depending on whether the bit belongs to “one-liners”, “emotional stuff” or “standup.” Of course, it requires a comic capable of shifting gears, and Brennan ultimately delivers a three-man show that’s touching, raucous, and always personal. Though he physically adjusts his body for each voice, it still feels like one complete, thought-out package. “The thing I like about 3 Mics is that it was everything,” said Brennan, who also serves as producer and director. “Even the art, I knew what it should be, and that’s what it ended up being on Netflix.”

Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats (2014)

Within minutes, Peretti revs up a motorbike – a nod to Eddie Murphy’s Raw outfit – and exuberantly sends up decades of standup tropes in a fake self-mythologizing montage. And that’s just the prologue. A backstage clown, an invading leaf blower, and Moshe Kasher heckling from the crowd are among the surreal inserts during the actual performance. “It’s always driven me nuts when I’m watching standup specials, the reaction shots that they insert into them,” Peretti said on the special. “It takes me out every single time… so I wanted to play with that.” Even the dogs in the theater stalls seem to appreciate the subversion on display.

Reggie Watts: Spatial (2016)

Musical comedians have the luxury of operating a more traditional setlist that allows for palette cleansers in between songs. So when Watts isn’t singing or rambling, he cuts to Crowe’s Nest, a fake sitcom starring him, Kate Berlant, and Rory Scovel. Working without a script (“Crowe’s Nest was improvised in front of a live studio audience”), the trio spiral into absurdist dead-ends until they’re a completely physical, non-verbal act. More importantly, the segments add breathing space to the music and are a reason to log into Netflix rather than, say, searching for Watts on YouTube.

Garfunkel and Oates: Trying to Be Special (2016)

“Welcome to the musical comedy of Garfunkel and Oates,” announces Anthony Jeselnik, the warm-up comic. “Or as I like to call it: music.” The mini roast not only establishes Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci as good sports, it chimes in with the meta conceit: what you’re watching is the fundraiser show needed to raise money for the special itself. Even without pretending to be failures, the singing duo punctuate their show with other fun distractions. There’s a music video (basically a YouTube-ready sketch), a genuine flub is left in (Micucci runs off stage to sort out a backing track), and an occasional De Palma-style splitscreen shakes up the visuals.

Kevin Hart: What Now? (2016) & Laugh at My Pain (2011)

Some standups never return once Hollywood comes knocking on the green room door. Kudos to Hart, then, for combining his passions and kicking off What Now? with a 20-minute spy parody. Simply put, it’s Hart playing to his strengths: he’s a bona fide action-movie star with the budget and persona to pull off a lengthy, star-studded James Bond audition – Halle Berry, Don Cheadle and Ed Helms also suit up. Similarly, Laugh at My Pain opens with a 15-minute tongue-in-cheek doc and closes with a 20-minute bank heist sequence. Say what you will about Hart’s material, but the presentation attempts something fresh and cinematic.

Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour (2014)

My personal favorite is Barry’s special, a partial travel doc that, through its gimmick – no material, just audience interaction – devotes substantial time to the comic’s POV, peering into a sea of expectant punters. Sometimes they’re drunk loudmouths, or – hopefully – they’re amateur musicians with a thick skin. “Why shoot these five camera angles and cut to the crowd every time to prove people are laughing?” asks Lance Bangs, the special’s director. “And maybe it could be Todd Barry in different cities and you don’t spend the money on one giant theater.” Even better is Barry in cars and temporary accommodation, explaining the minutiae of a touring comic. Come for the off-the-cuff jokes, stay for tips on surviving hotel bathrooms.

Bo Burnham: Make Happy (2016)

As a former YouTube sensation, Burnham possesses a knack for engaging online viewers and his proclivity for pre-prepared material does wonders in Make Happy. (“I’m trying to immortalize something I’ve worked on for a long time,” he tells a heckler.) Bookended with snapshots of a depressed, existential comic on tour, the show consists of Burnham playing the stage as if it’s a musical instrument. He refers to the piano as a prop, and mines humor from light choreography, sound effects, and smoke cannons ($200 for one expensive gag). By cutting from the encore to a solo song in his hotel room, he’s keenly aware of Netflix’s reach: though there’s a sold-out theater cheering him on, the real audience is at home.

Special mentions: Flophouse, Crash Test, The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail

Elsewhere, in recorded comedy, variety shows are tampering with traditions too. Flophouse surfs from couch to couch at up-and-comers’ homes; Crash Test escorts passengers by bus to Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, and other famous people who’d never allow strangers into their fancy living rooms; while The Meltdown displays equal fascination with what comics say in the green room. Along with One of the Greats and The Crowd Work Tour, these shows are directed by Lance Bangs, who sums up his goal neatly: “Just going out and finding other ways of doing things and making it interesting to yourself and to the viewer who has already seen 50 million worse, boring versions of that in the past.”

Nick Chen is a London-based writer with bylines at Dazed, Total Film, Little White Lies, BFI, Complex, Vice and Sight & Sound. He tweets at @halfacanyon.

The Rise of the Non-Traditional Standup Special