The very best comedians are also artists and every year some comedians push the boundaries or lead the way in changing how comedy can be performed. Innovation has been an important element in comedy for as long as performers have made people laugh. This year, we recognize eleven game changers who took comedy to a new level, performed it in a new way, or made comedy smarter, sillier, or just different, leading the way for others to follow. In the coming years, expect to see others follow in their footsteps.
#1 Oh Hello. Broadway steps into the hip zone. Comedy on Broadway is not new, but it’s a rare thing to see stand-up comedians take characters from a sketch show and breathe enough life in them to entertain audiences night after night on the Great White Way. The characters, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland of course, hail from Nick Kroll’s cult hit comedy show, Kroll Show. Anyone who has seen any movie derived from a popular SNL character knows that no matter how popular a character seems to be, it’s no easy task to convert that success into a great 90 minute movie. So you can imagine the challenges inherent in bringing sketch characters to stage. The result is visually breathtaking, remarkably funny and more current than anything else on Broadway despite its sometimes nostalgic leanings. Congratulations to John Mulaney and Nick Kroll for not only creating the characters, and giving them three dimensions, but also for performing these lovable characters night after night on the biggest stage in comedy. We expect to see more comedy personalities hitting the stage with sketch derived characters delivering razor sharp comedy now that Mulaney and Kroll have shown the way.
#2. Horace and Pete What Louis has done for television is outright revolutionary, and what he’s done in this year alone is worthy of at least two if not four separate entries on our innovators list. The first project of note in 2016- Horace and Pete– would make the top slot on any innovator list for a wealth of reasons. Content-wise, what C.K. did here is completely unique. No laugh track, no jokes per minute quotas, and a storyline that is as unpredictable as it is wonderful, co-mingling brilliant and lesser known comedians with America’s greatest actors, all brilliant. A 40 minute monologue from Laurie Metcalf, filmed up close, in one take- brilliant. But that’s just the beginning of what made Horace and Pete so innovative. Louie has once again proven that it’s possible to break from traditional marketing plans by releasing his series with zero pre-marketing and distributing it solely through his own email list. Zero publicity, zero pre-hype, just content. Of course, the financials proved that Louie eventually needed to sell his project to a distribution network to make the series profitable, but the risks he took laid the ground for the future.
#3. Louis C.K. Part Deux, Trois and Beyond. Louis C.K.’s contributions to television in 2016 were much too big for just one entry. In addition to his own Horace and Pete series, Louis also executive produced three of the best comedy series of the year- Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi for Amazon Prime, and two projects for FX– Baskets and Better Things. All three series got season two pickups and all three are must watch and all three follow this new comedy format, that co-mingles with drama, and draws heavily on the human experience. One of the biggest strokes of genius was the decision to cast Louie Anderson in a gender-bending role as Zach Galifianakis’ mom on the FX series, Baskets. We can’t say enough about what a revelation Anderson is in the role. The casting on his Pamela Adlon vehicle, Better Things, is exceptional as well. The entire show is stellar. Back in 2010, C.K.’s Louie was a pack leader, but Better Things takes the Louie format and perfects it. Television will never be the same again. Bonus points to Louis for bringing Barry Crimmins to the big stage to finally record a long overdue hour special. For all this and for bringing truth and integrity back to the business, Louis C.K. continues to earn accolades and recognition.
#4. Luis J. Gomez Changes the Festival Game. Comedy festivals are renown for following format. There may be slight changes from fest to fest, but for the most part, there is a lot of overlap with many of the same shows going from fest to fest without any real attempt to offer something revolutionary. Not that we blame them, the format works and gives fans in different corners of the universe the chance to see the best shows. This year, Luis J. Gomez conceived, Skankfest, an entirely new type of festival. Of course Luis didn’t do it alone, the team that took Skankfest from idea to reality included two of the most extraordinary producers we’ve ever met- Christine Marie Evans and Rebecca Trent. They took the festival to the true heart of comedy in New York–- The Creek and the Cave played host to the majority of the shows at Skankfest this year with additional lineups available walking distance away at The Standing Room LIC. Gomez, Evans and Trent packed the schedule with absolute energy- a street energy and the result was electric. Plus, team Skankfest was determined not to charge comics to perform, on the contrary they paid their performers, which is somewhat revolutionary in and of itself. A-Listers and locals performed, and the shows were all in theme. The festival kick off was the chance for fans to watch Big Jay Oakerson’s special premiere on Comedy Central- while drinking beers with Jay. There were Naked Roasts, killer Mash Ups, free tattoos and more. Nothing was tame, nothing was corporate about this festival, and everyone had a blast. It’s a guarantee that you will see other geographic areas follow suit and create hardcore festivals for hardcore fans. You’ll also see the return of Skankfest in 2017 and we can’t wait.
#5. Reggie Watts’ Spatial. What the fuck is Reggie Watts doing and saying in his new Netflix hour special, Spatial? Nobody can claim to understand all of it, but it’s quite mad and quite brilliant and like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The hour combines live stage solo performance, music and sketch in a way that is not only new and innovative, but also largely inimitable. Reggie’s blend of singing, vocal instrumentations and physicality is experimental at its core, hypnotic and undeniably intoxicating. Watts is jazz incarnate. While we don’t expect anyone to follow down the specific path Watts laid out in Spatial, he certainly opens the door toward mainstream, network released hour specials that stray far from format and blend different performance styles along with traditional joke and storytelling. A comedy candy store, Spatial co-mingles voice looping, jazz, hip hop, pop, metal, tap dancing, sketch, costume changes, parody- it’s all there. An interactive, dance party, soul train, hyper-moving experimental interactive art piece.
#6. Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide. Chris Gethard takes comedy to its barest element, debuting a one-man show in New York City. Perhaps the opposite of Reggie Watt’s Spatial, Chris Gethard’s off-Broadway show is comedy stripped down. It’s just Chris out there and although he’s wearing clothes, trust us, he’s naked. There’s no real set to rely on, no bells, no whistles, not even a hand held mic to come between Gethard and his audience. Gethard isn’t the first to do a one man show, but how many comedians take the least funny subject matter they can find- depression, suicide, anxiety- and can turn it into a one man play and make it laugh-until-you-cry-funny. Judd Apatow jumped on board to produce with Gethard, which definitely earns Apatow at least honorable mention on the innovators list. Gethard by the way, was on the innovators list last year, and our only person to repeat. He is an innovator in every way, and he belongs on this list every year. We look forward to seeing what 2017 brings.
#7. Two Hundred Comedy Women Gather to Take One Photo. Comedy photographer Mindy Tucker is well known in New York’s comedy circles as a gigantic talent and this year Mindy landed on our innovators list for a collaboration with New York comic Jessica Delfino and over 200 women in comedy. Going through Facebook to gather willing and eager subjects, Tucker and Delfino exposed the myth behind the idea that women aren’t funny in a powerful way- with a Class of 2016 photo of New York’s women of comedy. Tucker has been a dominant force in documenting comedy for over a decade now, and she is so ingrained in the comedy scene that many comics feel they aren’t really a comic until they’ve graced Tucker’s prolific pages. The Class of 2016 photo deserves to be on the list for finding a powerful way to illustrate, that not only are women a vibrant component of comedy, but also for reminding us that the underground is much bigger than the mainstream and just as important.
#8. Mike Birbiglia’s Movie Rollout Tour. Mike Birbiglia made a great movie this year, he packed it with sketch and improv stars and actors, and he found an innovative way to introduce the movie to America. To promote Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia jumped in a tour bus, gathered up his crew and rolled into twenty American cities with an arsenal of experienced improv instructors. He not only screened the movie to improv and sketch comedians all over America but he also offered free improv workshops in those cities. It was absolutely out of the box thinking, viral thinking and the kind of creativity that is lacking in filmmaking and distribution.
#9. Audible Combines Broadcast with Podcasting. This year, the people at Audible have done something that we have been waiting and hoping for radio to do- realize there is a strong market for high quality comedy produced for listening only. For years, radio has suffered from a second best syndrome- seeming to buy into the idea that they are the ugly stepchild of television and video. But audio is bigger than ever. Multitasking and the ability to hear anything on your phone from anywhere has converted audio into the preferred format for so many comedy fans. Audible’s new comedy Channel has a slew of great content from national headliners and young touring comics around the country, all with great sound quality. The content is excellent, and congratulations to Audible for recognizing a growing market.
#10. Chelsea Shakes Up Late Night. All eyes have been on Samantha Bee this year for shaking up late night’s male dominated cast but there’s another women who has been poking a stick through the bike wheels of Late Night for quite some time now, and this year she grabbed an even bigger stick. Chelsea follows no rules, and her guests are not there to just give a quick infomercial for some current project. The show has its faults, but there can be no question that Chelsea and Netflix deserve praise for finally putting a crack in the seemingly unbreakable late night format.
#11. Noel Fielding Mixes Surreality Into the Comedy Tour. This one may be a little bit of a cheat since Noel Fielding has been innovating like nobody’s business for a long time now. But his decision to bring his enchanting comedy show to U.S. theaters earns him a place on our list. Noel is so far ahead of his time, that you might not expect him to be able to find audiences for his brilliance, but he packed theaters all over the U.S. with fans and a slew of celebrities who rushed at the chance to see him at work and at play. The surrealistic show mixes wildly fantastical sketch, improv, animation, audience participation, plasticine, homage, outright silliness, and LO-FI technology, which appears handmade, but is meticulously so. Noel’s U.S. tour undoubtably opened conceptual doors for American creators who saw the show, but it will take some time before we see any imitators popping up in U.S. theaters. Until then, we can only hope Noel returns.