comics to watch

The Comedians You Should and Will Know in 2021

These are the 22 comics who industry insiders predict will be the superstars of tomorrow.

Photo-Illustration: Selman Hoşgör; Photos by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TBS (Jak Knight) and Courtesy of Subjects (Remaining)
Photo-Illustration: Selman Hoşgör; Photos by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TBS (Jak Knight) and Courtesy of Subjects (Remaining)

The art of comedy hasn’t changed as much over the past year as comedians themselves have. The pandemic forced many performers to pause, then pushed them to experiment — resulting in a mass realignment. Comedians looked at everything they were doing before and determined what was actually working. Those who realized that they appreciated not having to go and entertain strangers late at night have channeled their energy into mediums that do make sense for them, such as writing, acting, TikTok, and podcasts. And as venues open back up, comedians who love doing stand-up have brought to it a renewed focus and excitement. “That’s the best part of these shows these days — to see people, and see people that are excited about comedy,” explained comedian Jo Firestone on Vulture’s Good One podcast last month. “It’s made me appreciate more the community of people that do it. It’s shifting what I really like to get out of it.” This year’s list of Comedians You Should and Will Know reflects this uniquely transitional moment.

Since 2013, Vulture has done a (nearly) annual survey of the comedy world to highlight up-and-coming stars — the comedians whom the community and industry have been talking about all year. We compiled this list by polling dozens of industry sources throughout the summer, including bookers, producers, and tastemakers from outlets such as HBO, Team Coco, Earwolf, HeadGum, the Black List, Irony Point, ASpecialThing Records, Tiny Reparations, and many more, as well as talking to the comedians featured on last year’s list. These 22 writers and performers are the ones whose names came up most often and whose stars are rising the fastest. Some of them — thanks a lot, SNL recruiters — rose so fast that we couldn’t even announce their spots on this list before they got a very, very big break. Learn who these people are now, and make your friends think you’re cool later.

Note: If you’d like to see these funny people live, select comedians from the list will be performing at Vulture’s Comedians You Should and Will Know shows — one at our Pretty Major weekly show at Union Hall in New York on November 2 (get tickets here), and another at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles on November 14 (get tickets here). You can also listen to a special episode of Vulture’s Good One podcast featuring comedians from the list below on Apple PodcastsSpotify, StitcherOvercast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rosebud Baker

There is a long tradition of dark comedy, dating back centuries — a gallows humor for folks who see the entire world as a gallow. It’s a difficult path, getting people to laugh at the usually depressing, but the payoff, on a per-joke level, tends to be huge. Not to mention, the audience that does laugh is forever grateful that you eased their burden. Which is to say comedians who master this style tend to foster an especially loyal fanbase, for better or worse (see: Anthony Jeselnik). As a result, Rosebud Baker will soon be many people’s favorite stand-up.

On her debut hour special, Whiskey Fists, which debuted on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel in 2021, the That Damn Michael Che writer touches on touchy subjects, like domestic abuse and the tragic death of her younger sibling, but always finds a way to make it funny. However, unlike many who deal with the edgy, Baker is unflinching but not insensitive. Baker’s no-nonsense delivery and adult material make her kind of the platonic ideal of a “club comic,” but that fearless, ultra-confident stage presence belies some real depth; all those dick jokes are built on a foundational, fundamental humanity.

Chris Estrada

It’s oft-recommended wisdom to avoid L.A. or New York when starting out in comedy, given the massive volume of comedians vying for stage time and the many famous ones taking up the lion’s share of it. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Take Chris Estrada, born and raised in L.A., who mines his relationships with his Mexican American working-class family — bitter, opinionated tias, his “Johnny Appleseed of homophobic jokes” older cousin — for an endless well of observational humor. In these jokes, Estrada always positions himself as a black sheep in other sheep’s clothing, the funniest guy at the warehouse who’s secretly tattling on everyone to his audience. Estrada is getting an upcoming Hulu series based on his life after landing an HBO Latino Entre Nos special just last year. His comedy suggests a new model for what “blue-collar comedy” can look like, and it’s more clever, more subtle, with nary a Cable Guy or catchphrase in sight.

Jared Goldstein

It takes an extremely special kind of talent to be Nicole Richie’s scene partner — not even Paris Hilton herself was able to keep the gig up for long. But L.A.-based comedian Jared Goldstein served the sort of deadpan, Hollywood-assistant satirical gold that Hacks could only dream of as Richie’s devoted personal assistant on the criminally underrated comedy series Nikki Fre$h last year. Goldstein plays the part with a balance of physical comedy and, again, total deadpan: In one episode he’s eyeing up Joel Madden and selling him on trap music for “ladyboys, astronauts, cowgirls,” and in the next he’s serving sexy (??) Blind Melon bumblebee girl. The show was a perfect introduction to the affable stand-up whose comedy hits that key demographic intersection between queer, Asian, Jewish, and cutie. His stage presence is wise-ass without being mean, his material specific about everything from his relationship with his mother to a frankly brave love of malls while totally riding the vibe of a club setting or alt space alike. Catch him as one of FBoy Island’s resident podcasters, or opening for Jonathan Van Ness. If you don’t see him in some sort of scene-stealing role in a rom-com by next year, Hollywood as we know it is broken.

Jamel Johnson

Jamel Johnson treats the silliest things in life with the utmost importance. He’ll work himself and the whole audience up into a deliriously funny frenzy about everything from “Ghetto Whole Foods” or how much people have been sleeping on T.J. Maxx. Johnson can win over any room you put him in, from the weirdest alt show to the most straightforward club. He exudes affability even (or especially) when he’s yelling at the top of his lungs because he’s having a mild existential crisis about butt plugs with raccoon tails on the ends of them. (“Nay! None for me, mademoiselle!”)

Often, Johnson’s formula is reversed, and he’ll take the goofiest possible approach to trenchant and timely material. Take a video he made for Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco in summer 2020, in which he donned a gray wig and turtleneck, pretended to be an art critic, and walked around “Los Feliz, one of Los Angeles’s whitest neighborhoods,” to critique the Black Lives Matter art in the windows of houses owned by rich liberals. Recently, Johnson pulled off a pandemic-era comedy special that had no audience. Johnson screaming into the void of an empty Lyric Hyperion for Friend or Foe is something worth seeing, even though we very much can go see him perform for real people in person these days.

James Austin Johnson

Whoever said the Trump administration would be good for comedy should have issued a correction: It was mostly just good for a cottage industry of Trump impressions with Trader Joe’s produce-short expiration dates. The TikTok sensations, animated series, and pursed, grubby lips of Alec Baldwin all varied in popularity and quality during this boon, but James Austin Johnson’s contributions to the genre were in a class of their own. Filming on his iPhone, Johnson set himself apart on one level by tapping into an under-explored dimension of Trump’s voice and manner, nose plugged up and all Muppet-throated and gurgle-y, with a train of thought that’s more like a derailed trolley-problem-of-thought.

These aren’t Trump thoughts, though; they’re pure JAJ, using the character as a vessel for hilariously surreal rants about everything from Scooby-Doo to The Office to Chopped. Watching one of these videos, filmed in the car or while walking around L.A., you get the sense that Johnson could riff on any of these subjects for hours and make it entertaining, original, and surprising. Just look at how Johnson imagines Trump presenting an Oscar to Taika Waititi: “He’s doing a Jojo. We were so excited, we thought it was gonna be Jojo ‘Leave (Get Out) right now, it’s the end of you and me,’ and it’s not! You know, it’s just ‘A Little Too Late.’”

Johnson’s superhuman powers of free association and impression extend well beyond Trump (watch his beautiful mind at work on “Fireworks Illegal in Pasadena”), as proven when he was added to the cast of Saturday Night Live this year, already marshaling cold opens as Biden. We expect we’ve still only just scratched the surface of what Johnson can do.

Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson is everything you want in a comedian: controlled, distinctive, thoughtful, and capable of doing material on contemporary events that doesn’t feel tired or repetitive. The set-ups are sometimes weird. In his most recent hour, #(Hashtag), he has a joke about a friend who got a bird — a huge bird, Johnson says, in a tiny studio, so that it’s like “a reverse Maya Angelou.” It’s the kind of joke Johnson’s especially good at, because it becomes a joke about race when Johnson hears the bird say what sounds like a racial slur. It lets Johnson make silly parrot sounds, and it plays with racism as abhorrent but also intensely awkward. Then, at the end, it twists back into being a joke about a parrot, with a punchline that hides in plain sight.

Johnson is a writer for The Daily Show, and his skill at weaving in big cultural ideas is obvious in much of his work (his joke about how hurricanes should have scarier names comes to mind). But what makes him special is his ability to deliver jokes of that size and have them still feel idiosyncratic, specific, and smartly funny.

Jak Knight

There is a good chance you’ve seen or heard some of Jak Knight’s work before — he has been busy as a comedy writer and performer in the past few years, working on HBO’s fascinating Pause With Sam Jay, on ABC’s Black-ish, and as both a writer and voice actor on Netflix’s filthy, goofy, cringey puberty show Big Mouth. As a stand-up, though, Knight has a comedic voice entirely his own. It’s a sly, cross-cutting energy, often beginning with familiar scenarios — often sex, especially sex — and then slicing past the well-known men-versus-women, gay-versus-straight avenues and into territory that is weirder and more intense.

In one joke, he describes talking about a sexual experience at the barber shop and builds to the image of all the barbers gathered around him, sitting “crisscross applesauce” as they listen. In another, he begs his girlfriend to let him go down on her so that he can taste her day, and his eyes widen to fully play up the creepy intensity and also the strangely sweet intimacy of that idea. It’s easy to get swept away in what can feel like delightful chaos energy, but Knight’s care as a writer is what makes it all work: just the right detail, just the right choice of word.

Grace Kuhlenschmidt

Queer representation in media will not be complete or equitable until lesbian characters are allowed to be really, really fucking stupid, just like everybody else. On this front, Grace Kuhlenschmidt is doing the Lord’s work. The 26-year-old comedian was still in Chicago working day jobs when the pandemic hit, but when she started using TikTok she found both a minefield of human behavior to make fun of and a venue to share it.

Kuhlenschmidt’s brilliantly idiotic character videos mimic the aesthetics of over-earnest TikTok trends, with a particular eye for all the ways the app’s young users try to present themselves as both very hot and very deep. She’ll moodily bite her lip and cast her eyes down, or flash a toothy smile, or pretend to have an argument with an off-camera figure, wordlessly posturing out satirical sketches made entirely in text captions or inspirational hashtags. Other times, she’s using the “duet me” feature to act out scenes of sexual discovery and bullying or green-screening herself into the Bachelor mansion.

Social media’s flattening of LGBTQ+ identities into a monolithic “yaas queen” corporate pride is a favorite parody subject for her, whether she’s using the words “I’m partnering with Amazon Prime” as a punchline, being a cringe straight gal pal, or congratulating Joe Biden on being elected the first gay president. Kuhlenschmidt has already worked on Ziwe’s Showtime series, and next year she’ll have her first major recurring role in the final season of HBO Max’s Search Party. In her own immortal words, “Slay yes mama.”

Kenice Mobley

The sudden and inevitably awkward return to normal dating post-pandemic is Kenice Mobley’s bread and butter. As a stand-up, Mobley regales audiences with twisted and tragically horny tales from the front lines of the dating world in such a matter-of-fact way it almost doesn’t even feel dirty. She performs all over the actual world and can regularly be seen co-hosting the experimental Black comedy show The Lab at Brooklyn’s Friends and Lovers and the podcast Love About Town. Earlier this year, she made her late-night debut on The Tonight Show and was briefly hired by the WWE (until they remembered they had toxic fans to cater to). Her talk show on Planet Scum, Make Yourself Cry, challenges her guests to get her to cry — a thing she has rarely done in her life. And why would she? With the ability to entertain audiences both in-person and virtually, she’s set to succeed however this whole pandemic thing shakes out.

Laci Mosley

Laci Mosley brought new life to two comedic institutions this year. She became part of the core cast of A Black Lady Sketch Show, regularly stealing scenes as the new slutty friend in season two’s wraparound segments. She also became a regular on the reboot of iCarly, which didn’t go over that great with certain members of the fanbase. Mosley was the subject of racist TikToks after her casting in the show was announced, and all the non-Losers in the fandom and at Nickelodeon rallied to her defense. “I’m gonna thug it out y’all can’t break me,” Mosley tweeted at the time. “I’ve been through too much. But fuck you weirdos, being a Black woman is so hard but so lit I’m gonna go harder you’ll be mad forever.”

Mosley has been going hard for a while, guesting and improvising regularly on Earwolf shows like Andy Daly’s Bonanas for Bonanza, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, and Hello From the Magic Tavern. But Mosley is at the height of her powers when she’s hosting her iHeartRadio Award-nominated podcast Scam Goddess, where she turns the scheme-riddled news cycle into quippy comedy fodder. Mosley is going to continue to book, and dorks are going to continue to be mad.

Danielle Perez

Oh, so you wanna talk about boundary-pushing stand-up? You really want to go there? Then check out the work of Danielle Perez, who delivers jokes about the heaviest of subjects with a breezy openness that’s totally disarming. She turns trauma into something cheeky, and a past abortion into a quickly paced parade of hilarious punchlines (she sets this section of her material up with a knowingly flippant “When I got pregnant, it was difficult because I was saving up for an iPad at the time …”). None of this seems confrontational or uncomfortable for the audience, as Perez seems to have a knack for keeping them right there with her, laughing before they realize the extent of what hit them.

Perez might have first come into your purview when she won a treadmill on The Price Is Right in 2015 (she’s a wheelchair user, so this was a truly absurd moment in TV history). Following that experience, which also got her invited on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Perez has sharpened her unfiltered, truthful, yet incredibly playful sense of humor that touches on her disability, Afro Latina background, and everything else joyful, tragic, and in between the two in her life. Her voice is one of the most unique in the L.A. comedy scene, and Perez has been thankfully tapped for several web series, podcasts, and TV appearances, including an episode of the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

While Perez represents many previously unrepresented voices in comedy, she goes even further in being an activist offstage by specifically advocating for accessibility for the disabled at comedy venues around L.A. and proactively being as inclusive as possible with her own shows, which is still a problem in comedy even in 2021.

Hannah Pilkes

Sometimes we get things right. For instance, in 2017, we highlighted Hannah Pilkes as ready for breakout stardom and predicted that even after the implosion of Vine, her 300,000-plus followers and 120 million loops (Jesus, remember loops?) would not be for naught. But we didn’t know when and where she’d eventually end up popping. Four years later, Pilkes’s path has been one reminiscent of her now SNL-darling pal Chloe Fineman or the recently Night-ed James Austin Johnson — mainly digital, character-driven work that, at time of writing, is adding over 100 new followers per post.

With no major TV roles to speak of, Pilkes’s Instagram- and live show-first approach seems to be the new strategy among rising talent — it’s no longer just an experimental side door into gleaning a reputation big enough for casting directors to lean in. Pieces like “Woman Whose Dancing Is Just a Series of Tiny Movements”  and “‘Let Me See What I Can Do’ Woman” show that Pilkes demonstrates the holy grail of comedy: being generative without any prompting or guidance whatsoever. In other words, it’s not just her physicality and execution that impresses, it’s her ideas. In a landscape demanding multi-hyphenates, it’s not going to be long before the bet she’s made on herself starts yielding ten times as many followers per post.

Please Don’t Destroy

Saying that New York-based sketch-comedy trio Please Don’t Destroy are Comedians You Should Know is like saying that PB&Js are Sandwiches You Should Eat. Their goodness is a known entity. But there’s a good chance that at the outset of this year, you hadn’t witnessed the comedy of Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall. Prior to the pandemic, the three friends performed in the same sketch and stand-up scene of recent NYU grads as fellow 2021 Comedian You Should Know Rachel Sennott, earning a fanbase for their energetic onstage chemistry and sketches that were both totally absurd in their premises and pro-level airtight in their construction. Then as one does, they blew up on TikTok, with videos like their vaccination sketch racking up millions of views, the living-room hangout iPhone intimacy of it all acting like a parasocial pill pocket to smuggle really good jokes.

The themes that move them — annoying roommates, windbag friends, comical misunderstandings, internet word soup — feel half-classic and half-distinctly contemporary, like if one of those fake AI Seinfeld script-bot Twitter accounts was actually funny. With essentially zero prior credits (but some pretty big connections) to their name, they were brought on to the writers’ room of Saturday Night Live this year and have already been able to air their own pre-taped sketches, swapping their living room for 8H. It’s a Gen-Z cusp answer to Lonely Island, and if Lorne gives them the space, the decade is theirs.

Nori Reed

Nori Reed co-hosted a show at the Silverlake Lounge in Los Angeles with one of the most apt names ever: Icons Only. She comes from the San Francisco/Oakland stand-up scene, where SF Weekly named her Oakland’s Next Great Comedian in 2019. The Bay Area has birthed so many weird, wry, political comics, but not enough hot girls, something Reed’s presence has rectified. Her skin is so radiant that it can sometimes be hard to look at.

Reed’s stand-up persona is like a poised, casual dom or the coolest bitch in school, drawing the audience in with her dry air of superiority so that they follow along with her zigzagging tangents. In an extremely Californian bit of material, Reed says she’s not scared of the Big One anymore because “I love drama. I watch a lot of Bravo TV … I’ve been practicing throwing wine at the earthquake.” A joke about how her biracial identity manifests at a Korean restaurant weaves through several punchlines before delivering the killing blow: She doesn’t know the spice level or whether to use the chopsticks or the fork, or maybe just “seize total control of the restaurant” in honor of her white heritage.

Reed has opened for Amy Poehler at Clusterfest and for Maria Bamford at SF Sketchfest. More recently, she’s written on the Audible podcast Hot White Heist starring 2018 Comedians You Should and Will Know lister Bowen Yang. Reed was also featured on Vulture’s “Follow Friday,” where she discussed her string-quartet-on-the-Titanic attitude toward being an entertainer during a potential climate apocalypse, and also growing out a fashion mullet. Two equally stressful things! Currently she’s writing on the That’s So Raven reboot Raven’s Home. 

Rachel Sennott

Rachel Sennott is a defiantly girly comedian, and she holds both the defiance and the girliness in careful, almost antagonistic tension with one another. Her material is often about men, masculinity, sex, and dating, but it’s with a knowing emphasis on the pressure and expectation of being a woman. She’s into sexy grossness, often physically, as in a joke about getting her period while sitting on a man’s face — the first punchline of that joke is that sitting on a man’s face is the only way he can know how much she actually weighs. But sometimes the sexy grossness is more figurative, like a Comedy Central video she made with Ayo Edebiri where she prepares for a “Shitty Guy Party” (all the worst dating-app guys at one party) by filling cupcake liners with raw ground meat.

Sennott is a skilled performer, which is obvious onstage, but her role in the 2020 film Shiva Baby is proof of how transferable that skill is to the screen. Sennott’s work is not just a result of sharp-eyed cultural observation, although it’s certainly that too. It’s that she’s willing to place herself in the middle of the ideas, trends, and generational tics she sees so clearly — sexy and bleak and awkward (but still sexy!).

Brian Simpson

On social media, Brian Simpson is known by the unfortunate handle of @bscomedian. This is hilarious, because there couldn’t be less b.s. in his Simpson’s lean, self-assured comedy. The L.A. stand-up has earned a reputation as one of the best joke-writers in comedy today for his musings on the million small absurdities of American life. (“Drugs get a bad rap because they ruin people’s lives or whatever. But so does reality.”)

Already, he’s a paid regular at the Comedy Store and has been named a Just for Laughs New Face just this year. His niche observations often connect several different incredibly clever points of contrast and wordplay: “Stop calling the Ku Klux Klan ‘the Klan’ like they’re the greatest clan. The Wu-Tang Clan is the greatest clan,” he says before diving into some unlikely comparisons of the two.

Coming out of lockdown, Simpson already has tight pandemic-era material, including a joke pondering the lack of reparations for Black Americans in comparison to COVID-19 relief (he just wants a slice of the trillions).

Sam Taggart

Sam Taggart is a sneaky little devil. A fixture of the Brooklyn scene, Taggart’s whole vibe is — if it’s okay to say — infectious. Not to be a bitch, but you can see his influence in a lot of people’s comedy and way of speaking (for example, saying “Not to be a bitch”). Still, Taggart — who has appeared on multiple episodes of Los Espookys and Ziwe — is such a specific combination of silly and sweet, dumb and surprisingly earnest.

With the launch of the podcast he co-hosts with George Civeris, StraightioLab, a comedic examination of straight culture (kinda) that was a breakout star of quar, Taggart has found a platform where he can showcase all facets of his comedy and charming personality. Also during the pan, Taggart started making videos for the Comedy Central/Logo collaboration The Gag. It should be noted that on a recent episode of StraightioLab, Taggart said he couldn’t make fun of Drag Race at that moment because he was working on something for World of Wonder. He said he could not talk about it, but can you imagine … ?

Jes Tom

Part of the pleasure of comedy is taking familiar premises and finding ways to upend them in surprising avenues. For Jes Tom, it’s often by staring at the specter of well-trodden comedic territory (“I hate my wife!”) and by turning all the usual joke geometry on its head.

The main worry about taking testosterone, they say in their recent Just for Laughs showcase, is that they might turn into an unfunny man. All sorts of other assumptions are buried inside that joke — transphobia, gender dysphoria, harassment, or violence — but nope, it’s the terror of turning into a hacky white guy, something Tom smirks at with characteristically deadpan delivery. In more conversational settings, like the “Dear Jes” advice videos they produce for Netflix’s queer Most platform, Tom is looser, more confessional. They are a fun friend on a bed, enjoying the role of agony aunt. There’s something particularly great about how that sense of superiority translates onstage, though. It’s all wry remove and shrugging self-confidence, but it comes with the jolt of a sharp, hyper-personal observational eye.

Robin Tran

Robin Tran just wants to be a shitty person. Is that so much to ask? Tran uses comedy to shrug all the representation the industry and society would put on her. Trans, Asian, bipolar, autistic — Tran is all of these things, but mostly she’s sick of being seen as a model example of any of them. After being the first employee to come out as trans at her work, she gave this advice in her hour-long special: “Don’t ever be the first employee in your company to ever do anything. It was the worst experience of my life.”

Tran came up in comedy through the roast scene as a performer on Roast Battle and writer for Historical Roasts, and her stand-up retains that defiant, gutsy style. Tran still thinks like a roast comic, and approaches her subjects — coming out to her mom, mental health, Christopher Nolan — with a brutal sarcasm that subverts audience expectations every time. She’s really exploded on TikTok, using the platform beautifully when everyone was trapped inside their homes last year. Her output on the app includes animations, stand-up, and front-facing entries on The Discourse. Her JFL New Faces set was featured in Vulture’s must-see comedy videos for August 2021. Tran told the Los Angeles Times that getting her big break last year was like “winning the lottery on 9/11.” You can find Robin Tran’s stand-up special, Don’t Look at Me, on Spotify and Apple Music.

Jeff Wright

Late night is a creaky old dinosaur that creaks when it tries to roar. Though there are stylistic flourishes here and there, most late-night shows still operate like Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. It is why Jeff Wright’s work at Late Night With Seth Meyers feels like a revelation.

Hired in 2020 after amassing a huge TikTok following, Wright has already found many opportunities to bring a digital sensibility to the space. His go-to sketch structure involves anthropomorphizing companies, institutions, or groups of people, playing all the parts interacting with one another with small, but significant variations in characters. The most popular installment of this was when he played all the competing COVID vaccines, capturing the sort of naïve interest people had in these pharmaceutical companies and people’s attempts to draw conclusions about which was the best option with the littlest information possible. In a media landscape where, in addition to the late-night shows, you have thousands if not millions of people trying to find comedy in the same set of current events, you have to take note when you find a voice that feels this fresh.

The Comedians You Should and Will Know in 2021