2020 has been a particularly strange year for comedy — the pandemic has shut down the majority of live venues for the foreseeable future, and with that has gone the joy of discovering new talent live. But in place of indoor stages, comedians have found creative ways to remain funny and prolific, whether through virtual shows, outdoor performances, or churning out consistently funny content online. The show, as always, goes on.
Since 2013, Vulture has surveyed the comedy world to highlight the up-and-coming names we think represent the future crop of comic stars—performers including John Mulaney, Nicole Byer, Kumail Nanjiani, and Phoebe Robinson. From the start, the goal has been to introduce a wider audience to the comedians whom the community and the industry have been talking about all year. As in years past, we compiled this list by polling dozens of in-the-know industry sources, including bookers, producers, and tastemakers from places like HBO, NBC, Spotify, A Special Thing Records, Headgum, Earwolf, Forever Dog, SXSW, the National Lampoon, and the Black List. We took their suggestions and, based on which names came up most often, pared the list down to 20 writers and performers whose stars are rising fastest. It didn’t take long for names from 2019’s list, such as Big Mouth’s Ayo Edebiri, The Amber Ruffin Show’s Dewayne Perkins, and SNL co–head writer Anna Drezen, to break out. It won’t take long for some of these comics, either.
Mary Beth Barone
All hail the undisputed queen of Hot Girl Comedy! Mary Beth Barone is the rare comic who can sell a blisteringly funny punch line as well as her outfit: She launched a popular line of merchandise inspired by her comedy, featuring progressive sentiments like “I Only Sleep With Socialists” and “Thots Against Cops.” Barone’s stand-up is deeply intelligent and honest, as she draws on her life experience to deliver scathing critiques of everything from white privilege to the patriarchy to sex. “For the men in the room, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we’re not hooking up with you because of how your dick looks,” Barone quipped in her 2019 Comedy Central stand-up set. “All penises are weird, and they make people uncomfortable. That’s why women are so quick to cover them with our hands and mouths whenever there’s one present.” You can see more of her signature brand of feminist, sex-positive comedy in her videos for Comedy Central or her live show Drag His Ass: A Fuckboy Treatment Program. Barone’s dry, deadpan delivery helped her make the necessary transition from live stand-up to the virtual realm in 2020, creating one of the early go-to quarantine comedy experiences with her Instagram Live show Coming Clean, which she streams from her bubble bath.
Hailing from the City of Brotherly Love and now taking over La-La Land (forgive me), Quinta Brunson has an earnest, low-key, stream-of-consciousness brand of comedy that earned her a cult following both on and off the internet. She quickly became an online darling in the mid-2010s as the star of some of BuzzFeed’s most viral videos and has since attained her title as queen of reaction GIFs. She moved on to dominating stage and screen with a stand-up career that garnered her spots at New York Comedy Festival, Clusterfest, and Just for Laughs’ New Faces; voice-over gigs for Big Mouth, Adult Swim’s Lazor Wulf, and TZGZ’s Magical Girl Friendship Squad; and even an appearance in a Thundercat music video. The HBO series she stars in, A Black Lady Sketch Show, netted an Emmy nomination this year. When it comes to comedy, it truly is Quinta vs. Everything.
We are living in very dark times, which is why we need human ray of sunshine Karen Chee on our screens more than ever. Shortly after landing her dream gig — writing jokes for Sandra Oh at the Golden Globes in early 2019 — Chee was hired as a writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. Since then, the 25-year-old has built steady momentum as a Late Night writer-performer, following in the paths of Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel with her infectiously kind onscreen charm. In the recurring segment “What Does Karen Know?,” Meyers exploits Chee’s much younger perspective by asking her to identify potentially unfamiliar historical artifacts like MC Hammer, Tammy Faye Bakker, and the Crypt Keeper, then turns the quiz around on himself so Chee can test him on his (lack of) millennial knowledge. While it may take a little while for Chee to host her own late-night show, her success at Late Night is only the beginning of an already impressive comedy career.
If there is such a thing as the Comedy Face of 2020, that title belongs to Sarah Cooper. She skyrocketed to fame in the early months of the year with her Donald Trump lip-sync videos on TikTok — punchy snippets in which she mouths and emotes along to real audio from the president’s public appearances. Cooper’s face supplies much of the elastic, changeable nuance that Trump’s face typically does not. She winces in the short pauses, or her brow furrows into an exaggerated expression of intense thought. Occasionally, her face will go entirely slack in the middle of one of Trump’s haltering mid-sentence gaps, only to leap back into an active, smug smile once Trump returns to the thread. Cooper’s success is due in part to Trump’s having always been funny, so she gives people permission to laugh at him again. But her mobile face is its own form of commentary. Her nervously darting eyes become a humorous runner, and a punch line arrives by way of a dumbfounded scowl. Cooper’s 2020 ascent has been sharp, but it’s the result of years of building a stand-up career, and it will be fascinating to watch her integrate the two in her upcoming Netflix special.
In a recent Zoom interview with Katie Couric, the COVID-famous Jordan Firstman admitted, “I get people. I’ve always kind of gotten people.” Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, that kind of cheeky proclamation would be insufferable. But Firstman’s comedy is unrelentingly human and laser focused on the idiosyncrasies a lesser comedian would gloss over in favor of landing the broader punch line. That’s what makes his voice so special as an impressionist. The pandemic has shown that everything we’ve come to expect from Firstman over the past five years (from his writing for shows like Big Mouth and The Other Two, his acting on Search Party, and his directing of the Sundance-kissed Men Don’t Whisper) was a ramp-up to a series of viral Instagram impressions, in which he embodies various people and objects, from “A Straight Man” to “Dishes” and “Banana Bread’s Publicist.” This Instagram coronavirus pastime rocketed him from an L.A.-comedy-community heavy hitter to a mainstream favorite — the followers stack up so high that even Katy Perry and Ariana Grande are fans.
Who doesn’t love to mock a self-righteous suburban housewife? Years before entire swaths of the United States were lamenting the entitled myopia of middle- and upper-middle-class white women dubbed “Karens,” Chris Fleming was putting his Skidmore degree to humanitarian use with his series Gayle, in which he played a character named Gayle Waters-Waters, the ultimate Karen. Since then, he has amassed nearly half a million YouTube followers, signed with WME, and continued to grow his brand of mocking middle-aged women, whether they be on the floral-patterned davenport or the desk at H&R Block. He has given us plenty of other hits, like the incomparable “Grad Student Shuffle,” proof that Fleming is a talented dancer as well as a cultural critic. His musical rants (like “I’m Afraid To Talk to Men”) blend silly with poignant — like a “Shouts & Murmurs” column come to long-haired, skinny life. Considering the success of I Think You Should Leave, Fleming would kill with a sketch show of his own.
Soon enough, she will be known as just Ziwe. One name, like Cher or (the) Rock. Since hitting the New York scene, the current Desus & Mero writer has been equal parts iconic and anarchic — like Andy Kaufman and Andy Kaufman as Elvis at the same time. She hosted shows dressed like a pop star and asked the audience to sing along to her dance track about Melania Trump. When they wouldn’t sing loud enough, she would make them do it again. And again. She hosted a web series called Baited With Ziwe, in which she played the part of charming host, but instead of asking her guests questions about their career or their process, she tried to bait them into saying something racist. Not until the pandemic, however, did all of her glamorously chaotic powers reach their fullest strength, when she started going live weekly on Instagram. Her show has become appointment viewing for thousands who want to watch hilariously tense interviews with the likes of Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, and Alyssa Milano. Its appeal and potential is undeniable, and a jump to television seems all but guaranteed. But first Fumudoh is working on a collection of essays, currently titled The Book of Ziwe, which was announced this summer as a “major deal.”
Caleb Hearon is one of the best satirical impressionists working in the front-facing genre today. His muse? Every terrible person on every social-media feed: clueless influencers, smug but centrist #resisters, bitchy co-workers, locals, straight classmates from high school you still follow for some reason. Whether collaborating with his comedic “platonic life partner,” Holmes Holmes, or just monologuing, Hearon uses his fast-talking videos to inundate fans with jokes that play off everyone’s worst, smuggest, and pettiest behaviors. Take his video A White Celebrity Weighs In on Everything. He nails a fake-modest tone while doling out empty nothings like “In this crazy world today, with everything that’s happening, I feel that I can no longer be silent. So this is me saying something. I want to make it known that I am adamantly opposed.” In 2017, Hearon moved to Chicago, where he hosted a weekly variety show at iO and then began touring nationally with Holmes in their stand-up show, At What Cost? He has since begun to appear on shows like Work in Progress and the new season of Fargo. Now he has moved to Los Angeles, where he contributes his astute millennial–Gen-Z–cusp powers of observation in the writers’ room of Netflix’s Big Mouth spinoff, Human Resources.
Robby Hoffman is a bit of a beast — a small, Jewish, Canadian American, lesbian beast. There’s a relentlessness to her comedy, an insistence on pursuing a line of thinking absolutely as far as she can take it and still make it funny. Sometimes the object is herself (her 2019 hourlong special is called I’m Nervous), but she often directs her focus toward others: her many siblings, her mother, anyone who participates in a regular bit she does called “Dykevice,” anything. It’s not that Hoffman’s material is made up of long and winding stories; it’s that she loves to leap straight to the furthest edge of whatever her topic is and wait for her audience to catch up. My favorite example of this isn’t actually from her stand-up but from an appearance on Chris Gethard Presents. Gethard is talking about what Hoffman is like as an employee (she worked in the writers’ room of The Chris Gethard Show), and he explains that he had to ask her not to pitch her idea about which family member people would have sex with. “Everyone’s telling you they’re uncomfortable!” Gethard says. “And you pitched this three times a week!” “Should we say who you answered?” Hoffman leaps in, delighted. “Your own aunt!” Hoffman has had a lot of success in writers’ rooms and as a regular on the Canadian comedy scene. It’s past time for her to break out into broad American popularity.
Joyelle Nicole Johnson
Joyelle Nicole Johnson’s style of speaking truth to power via stand-up is tailor-made for 2020. She uses her comedy to talk about systemic racism and women’s reproductive rights, combining hilarious insights and progressive politics with aplomb. She’s not just doing it for easy political points either, regularly performing on behalf of Abortion Access Front and highlighting how important it is that women have easy access to abortions. Heavy hitters in the comedy landscape like what she has to say: She’s opened for comedians like Dave Chappelle and Maria Bamford, written on the final season of Broad City, and served as the warm-up comic for Netflix’s Patriot Act. In her stand-up, Johnson strikes an easygoing yet confident poise when relating details about her life experiences as a Black woman in America and sweetly cajoles audiences to see from her perspective, especially in her late-night debut on Late Night With Seth Meyers.
If one person will bridge the gap between club comedy and alternative comedy, it’s Jay Jurden. He’s the rare comedian who is equally at home telling jokes in a tiny Brooklyn basement and a big-time West Village comedy club, and he’s building the résumé to prove it. In the past year, Jurden was featured in an episode of HBO’s High Maintenance (an alt-comedy right of passage granted to the best in the biz) and made his late-night debut on The Tonight Show (every club comic’s wildest dream). He has also starred in Comedy Central videos; co-hosts a podcast, The Rearview with Grindr and Forever Dog; and made a comedy album, Jay Jurden Y’all (which debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes comedy charts). In an alt-comedy landscape that arguably values style over substance, and a club comedy world that values jokes over identity, Jurden understands that there’s room for everything. He turns his experiences as a bisexual Black man into structurally sound jokes with classic setups and punch lines, serving up Bushwick content that would crush on the Borscht Belt.
By the value system of this list, stand-up comedian Yassir Lester has already done quite well for himself by getting the types of jobs most would kill for. His IMDb is filled. As a writer, he has worked on a number of well-respected comedies, including The Carmichael Show, Girls, and Black Monday. As an actor, he is one of the co-stars of Black Monday and the animated Duncanville. Not to mention that he has been booking projects for years. And yet, as even Lester has acknowledged, most people just recognize him as “the annoying dude from Twitter.” It speaks to the sort of fragmentation of modern fame, in which mainstream audiences may recognize him but be unsure exactly from what, while online audiences know only who he is online. Lester is a charismatic performer onscreen and a respected writer and thinker offscreen, known for his jovial, satirical approach. Ultimately, he just needs his thing — that one project he can fully own and coalesce his reputation around. It’s not if that will happen for him, but when.
Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh
To a specific corner of comedy fans, Onion and ClickHole alums Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh have had a deservedly meteoric rise on Twitter in 2020, thanks to their consistently churning out videos that we would love to link to but can’t because Levick’s account is still suspended for jokingly impersonating Mayor de Blasio earlier this year. Whether it’s their take on SNL’s Shane Gillis casting controversy in 2019 to Conservative Lecturer DESTROYS SJW College Student, Levick and Suresh have proved themselves masters at satirizing the super-specific internet stories, trends, and political debates that everyday doomscrollers will be, perhaps shamefully, all too familiar with. Their unique talent recently earned them a gig as writers and performers on CBS All Access’s animated series Tooning Out the News, and more work is certainly on the horizon. We hope Twitter comes to its senses and restores Levick’s account soon.
There’s more than one way to make it in comedy, and this has been increasingly true over the past decade. Though she spent years cutting her teeth as a sketch performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade, Alyssa Limperis not only found her own track online; she helped establish the track in the first place. She first broke through the content gold rush by becoming your mom’s favorite front-facing video comedian with spot-on shorts like Mom When I Visit Home and Mom on Christmas. Limperis has since built a sizable following on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok with her keen eye for hyperspecific archetypes in Country Singer Getting Interviewed About the Meaning of Their Song and Boston Woman Finally Believing Virus is Real Because Dunkin Is Closing Stores. After watching her impression of AOC, when you think about AOC, you’ll picture Limperis doing AOC. Limperis currently stars opposite Brie Larson in a national Nissan campaign and has some movie roles coming up, but whatever comes next, it will come out of what she has built online.
Christina Catherine Martinez
It’s not often that one of our Comedians You Should Know is also a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Arts Writers Grant, but that’s Christina Catherine Martinez for you. She doesn’t exactly straddle the comedy and fine-art worlds so much as stir them both together. As a writer, whether for Artforum or in her collection of essays, Aesthetical Relations, Martinez mixes in elements of her stand-up. In turn, her stand-up is some of the most unabashedly intelligent you’ll ever see — though, at the same time, it’s deeply silly. (See her one-scene melodrama about someone addicted to buying popcorn shirts on Instagram.) Over the past few years, she has speedily climbed the ranks of the L.A. comedy scene, and there’s genuinely a feeling of “What will she do next?” when you see her name on a lineup. On TV, she co-wrote and co-starred in the Two Pink Doors, a series of shorts that aired as part of FX’s CAKE anthology series, and she recently scored a writing gig for the latest season of The Eric Andre Show.
Blair Socci’s voice alone could have a career — she speaks with a childlike innocence that pairs hilariously with her commanding, pro-wrestling-feminist persona. As a comedian, writer, actress, and podcaster, Socci strikes a rare balance of aggressive and silly in her comedy. She made a handful of TV appearances in the past few years, including on Comedy Central, MTV’s Ladylike, and Kevin Hart’s LOL Network, and she was featured at Just for Laughs’ New Faces in Montreal a few years ago. But Socci has stepped up her game since moving back to L.A., building a following for her brilliant celebrity open-letter show, Dear Owen Wilson, and getting vulnerable with her stand-up, crafting a powerful set on her traumatic experience with sexual abuse. She is overdue for a special of some kind, so don’t be surprised to see her name pop up more in 2021.
Taylor Tomlinson wasn’t expecting to get an hourlong special on Netflix. After doing 15 minutes as part of the streamer’s Comedy Lineup series, she sent in a tape in an attempt to get a half-hour. Although she had been doing comedy for nearly a decade — first in churches, then in colleges, before transitioning to regular clubs — she was just 25 and assumed that was where she was at in her career. But based on the response to her Comedy Lineup set and the quality of her submission tape, Netflix decided she was ready for a whole hour, and not despite her age but because of it. With Quarter-Life Crisis, Tomlinson showed she was, as we wrote at the time, “the Comedian Laureate of Not-Fun 20-Somethings.” If live comedy hadn’t shut down soon after her special dropped, it surely would have resulted in a major bump to Tomlinson’s position as a touring comic. Currently, she’s co-headlining a major drive-in tour with Whitney Cummings. As soon as people are healthily able to gather in rooms together, a lot of them will be going to see Tomlinson.
To play the part of Pete Davidson’s best friend in The King of Staten Island, Ricky Velez went Method, living as Davidson’s real best friend for about a decade before the film was cast, shot, or even conceived of. The two met as teens performing after-prom stand-up shows, at which they were nearly the same age as the audience. While Davidson was off on Saturday Night Live, Velez started to emerge as a regular on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore and as a stand-up known for his jokes like the one about no one having anxiety in the hood, contrasting his twitchy neuroticism with his tough upbringing. But his biggest break came on the set of The King of Staten Island, where, beyond his co-starring role (played with humor and an impressive, understated sense of danger), Velez served as co-producer to help punch up the scenes. His work caught the eye and ear of the film’s director, Judd Apatow, who knows a thing or two about championing up-and-coming comedians. With the movie’s release earlier this summer, it was announced that Apatow will produce Velez’s first stand-up special for HBO as well as co-write and co-produce a pilot for the network with Velez.
Maybe someone else could have come up with the idea of stand-up comedy inside Animal Crossing. After all, when Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out earlier this year, its popularity boom meant users were trying to figure out all kinds of things to do in the game — birthday parties, movie scenes, scavenger hunts. But only Jenny Yang could’ve created an Animal Crossing comedy show as successful and joyful as Comedy Crossing. Its rhythms are fast and goofy, and, especially in its earliest days, there has been some trial and error. What makes it so appealing, though, is that while Yang uses it as a showcase for other comedians, the entire show is imbued with her own sensibility. There’s a joy and a warmth to Yang’s comedy, even when they’re coupled with her palpable exhaustion and frustration about current events. There’s often a jolt of sadness buried inside as well, just as Comedy Crossing carries with it the tragedy of why virtual comedy shows need to exist at all. On the outside, though, the chief takeaway is always astounding optimism — a confidence that, if nothing else, this show can bring people joy. Yang’s Comedy Crossing brainchild has made her especially visible this year and is a great springboard for future names to watch. For her part, Yang’s place on that list is now well established.
Comedian descriptions written by Rebecca Alter, Jesse David Fox, Taylor Garron, Luke Kelly-Clyne, Jake Kroeger, Chris Murphy, Kathryn VanArendonk, and Megh Wright.