There have been some remarkable, beautiful, wildly hilarious comedy specials in 2021, but there have not been many of them. There is no mystery about why that is, and there’s no reason to be worried about a long-term shift in great comedy specials of the future. Still, July 2021 is a weird moment in between, when everything is still being oriented around a devastating void. Everything on this short list is situated against last year. Is it pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic, or grasping for a new post-pandemic normal? Is it entirely about COVID, or only half about COVID? Does whatever this comedian was doing pre-pandemic still feel relevant now? Is that relevance a point in its favor, or a discomfiting too-closeness?
Because of all that, this is a short list, and I’ve also decided to bend the comedy-special rules just a touch. The general qualifiers are still in place — something that runs close to an hour or more, something that is mostly one person’s comedy, and something that is a special production of some kind, a culmination of work. Only one item on this list meets the most traditional criteria for an hour-long special. Everything else is either too long or cut up into pieces or, heck, Bo Burnham isn’t even standing up for most of Inside. Sometimes he’s just lying on the floor!
The list is not perfect. No list ever is, but in this case it’s unusually frustrating. It’s too short. There are no women, which I am furious about, and which is yet another demonstration of the way 2020’s burdens were meted out inequitably. (From what I can tell, no hour-long 2021 specials from women have been released so far on HBO, Showtime, Netflix, or Comedy Central.) Given what has been released so far, though, I think this is the best representation of what really great long-form comedy specials look like, at least so far this year. It’s not ranked, and the list is in order of release date. Everything on this list is great; we can hope and push for more, and more diverse, greatness in the future.
Editor’s note: Listen to Kathryn VanArendonk discuss her list of the best comedy specials of 2021 so far with Jesse David Fox in the below episode of Vulture’s Good One podcast:
James Acaster, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999
Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, filmed before the pandemic, is a two-hour tour-de-force work of comedy about some really dark stuff. James Acaster’s special is about mental illness, how much he despises his own compulsion to perform, how much he hates most audiences and most British audiences in particular, and the frustration and alienation of being an increasingly famous person whose celebrity identity has become fully disconnected from his personal self. Acaster is a remarkable storyteller, a comedian who can identify one situation and spin it into an elaborate, multifaceted, and thematically rich narrative, and the magic of Cold Lasagne comes from Acaster’s willingness to let himself and his own celebrity image sit at the center of the story he’s unspooling. His stage persona as the cooler-than-thou truth-teller gets unwound and dismantled as he pokes at all his deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, and then rebuilt again as something different and more fragile — truth-teller as self-medicator, as self-doubter. This makes it sound like a special built on tentative self-revelations, but the mastery of Cold Lasagne is in Acaster’s incredible stamina and comedic control.
Vir Das, Ten on Ten
This is the stand-up “special” that most feels like it breaks the rules, in terms of the usual definition of “an hour-long stand-up special.” Ten on Ten is a collection of what Das has planned as ten episodes of stand-up sets, each on a specific topic. To date, he’s released four of them on YouTube, each ranging from 10 to 20 minutes long, and one of them had to be performed virtually due to India’s devastating spring COVID surge. So no, Ten on Ten is not an apples-to-apples comparison with a full hour-long set a comic has been developing for months, filmed over a few nights of performances. But it’s 2021, and if Das’s work isn’t worth consideration as a special, the term isn’t worth all that much.
Das is performing in the middle of a pandemic and simultaneously running the risk that he’ll get arrested for what he jokes about. His material is about all of that: freedom of speech, religious conflict, grieving, privilege and class, and colonialism. It’s also so funny. Das has a knack for accents, for creating characters he can mock or undermine. (Especially Americans.) He has even more of an instinct for the joke that points at something truly uncomfortable, the line that slices at Indian industrial oligarchies, government COVID cover-ups, religious stereotypes — not just because they’re funny, although they absolutely are. Das jokes about this stuff because he truly feels it is worthwhile for his audience to have a space where someone says the obvious thing, where someone points at a familiar terribleness and says, “That’s terrible.” Freedom of speech, Das says, is like you and he are both on a train, and nearby, there’s a guy with his dick hanging out. “We can’t do anything about the dicks,” Das says. “I’m just talking to see if you see it too.”
Bo Burnham, Inside
Just because Bo Burnham’s Inside is the most blindingly obvious inclusion on this list does not detract from it more than earning its spot. Burnham’s special has consumed the comedy conversation for over a month now, thanks to its multitudinous offerings. It is comedy that points at the pandemic Zeitgeist while also being full of incisive commentary about internet culture that long predates pandemic screen sickness. It is comedy that’s catchy, full of earworm songs with melodies and productions that stand as their own parodies, but also undermine and play against Burnham’s lyrics. It’s comedy with an unusually rich visual component, because Burnham’s directing sensibility adds yet another layer of meaning and subversion to the interplay between his lyrics and his melodies. There are still years in front of us where we’ll be finding and experiencing new art that is about the experience of 2020, but in the yet-to-be-defined canon of 21st-century pandemic art, Inside is already one of the classics.
Josh Johnson, #(Hashtag)
One of the challenges of stand-up now and for the immediate future will be the same challenge present for all kinds of art. We want acknowledgment of what the world has been like since early 2020. Comedy works best when it comes from a shared reality, and our culture right now requires defining that reality first. But we also want to escape from all of it, to process it and move on. Josh Johnson’s special #(Hashtag) is a canny encapsulation of both of those things, the best representation so far of a comedy special that attempts to bridge what just happened with an effort to reincorporate that experience into the rest of life. Johnson does COVID material, and he talks about the nightmare of being alone with his own thoughts. But he also does a classic, well-executed joke about what women want in a man, and one about racism that also involves a bee stuck in his hair. It’s a special that does feel shaky in moments; it’s not uniformly tight or perfectly calibrated. Still, the highs are high, and Johnson’s cool, controlled, endearing stage presence is completely winning.
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