After an uneven and unconventional year of comedy specials produced under extraordinary pandemic circumstances, the first few months of 2022 suggest that comedy is slowly adjusting to a new normal. Some of the best specials of this year so far are delightful precisely because they feel so much like coming home — back to full theaters and familiar rhythms. But the experiences of the past two years also forced comedians to rethink the traditional rules of how a special works and what it looks like, and some of 2022’s best specials are reflections of that formal innovation. Comedy never fully disappeared, but for much of 2021, there was a feeling of comedy being performed in spite of everything. Pandemic material no longer feels obligatory; people’s shoulders are beginning to relax. (As you may have heard, there’s been a vibe shift.) For comedy, the shift has been back to big, ambitious projects and confident theater performances. These are the best, funniest, most remarkable specials of the year (so far!).
Moses Storm, Trash White
As specials have become a more established art form, comedians have begun experimenting with how to push the filmed special beyond the baseline of a recorded performance. Moses Storm’s Trash White is one of the most striking recent examples. Set on a stage surrounded by various junk painted white, Storm’s special is an autobiographical hour of material about his childhood that weaves together jokes about poverty, scams, class, race, and teenage mortification with a close examination of his particular family dynamics. Trash White has some bumps and points of awkwardness, but it’s an ideal first special: Its flaws are largely the result of too many ideas and nearly too much ambition for a first hour. It makes you thrilled to see what Storm will do next, and he explicitly ends Trash White with an invitation for what’s to come. Nothing says artistic vision quite like ending a comedy special with a cliffhanger.
Taylor Tomlinson, Look at You
It is impressive to see a stand-up special as polished, self-assured, thoughtful, and intensely funny from someone as young as Taylor Tomlinson. It’s even more impressive that Look at You is the second special like this that Tomlinson has produced in the past three years. Her comedic persona and remarkable density are the same: She is bouncy and bright in a way that nearly disguises the lacerating commentary that slides underneath. But Look at You is a notable development from Tomlinson’s past work, stretching into material about her mother’s death and her own mental health that’s taken time for the comedian to grow into. She’s also become increasingly confident at performing silly act-outs, and Look at You is so great at balancing those two impulses, moving between gravity and goofiness.
Catherine Cohen, The Twist …? She’s Gorgeous
Catherine Cohen has been developing and performing this stage show for years, and the fact that it now exists as an hour-long Netflix special feels a little bit like when everyone sighed in relief at the confirmation that someone would eventually make a movie out of Hamilton. It is the kind of hour that deserves to be recorded for posterity, a document of a performer who has defined a distinctive sensibility at a particular moment in time. Cohen’s musical comedy is a Miss Piggy–esque cabaret hour. It’s laden with referentiality, self-consciousness, and the style of too-online perpetual commentary that drives someone to announce “Bridge!” every time the accompanist arrives at the bridging key change. Come for the songs, stay for the way director Steven Brill captures Cohen’s beautiful, sparkling tear as it falls down her cheek.
Mike Epps, Indiana Mike
Sometimes a special is notable for the way it breaks form and pushes beyond simply documenting a particular performance. But there’s a real pleasure in going the other direction too. For that, it’s time for Mike Epps’s Indiana Mike. It’s an hour of jokes that meander all over the place: Sometimes he’s in character as an old Black woman, sometimes they’re stories about his past, occasionally he swings through commentary on pop culture, race, or politics. (There’s a joke about Chappelle, for instance, that starts with support for his transphobic material then quickly turns into a joke about his immense financial privilege.) What’s most appealing about Indiana Mike, though, is how loose and comfortable it feels. It is filmed in Indianapolis, where Epps lives, and the special has the mood of a homecoming celebration. Epps shouts out people he knows in the crowd, and he does material about local culture that gets huge, raucous laughs. There’s something really lovely about a special that owns its specific place and time and records the joy of being embraced by a hometown audience.
Jerrod Carmichael, Rothaniel
A day after the release of Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael appeared on SNL and proved to be his own best promoter, delivering one of the best monologues in recent memory. But it is fascinating to think about someone new to Carmichael’s work who might watch his confidence and unflappable charm in that monologue and then turn to Rothaniel. There are remarkable stretches of that same unbelievable charisma and control, but Rothaniel is also the demonstration of a comedian dismantling his own performance. Carmichael and his director, Bo Burnham, integrate elements of audience response in order to probe how we think about acceptance, reception, and the relationship between a performer and his audience. All of it is connected by Carmichael’s announcement that he is gay, and it’s astonishing how he frames it all through the theme of seeing things that are hidden in plain sight. Of all the specials out this year to date, Rothaniel is the only one that has immediately achieved the status of required viewing.
More From This Series
- The Best Books of the Year (So Far)
- The Best TV of the Year (So Far)
- The Best Comedy Books of 2022 (So Far)