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. Every year, we recognize 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 (or not). In the coming years, expect to see others following in the footsteps of these ten performers.
#1 Dave Attell and Jeffrey Ross for Bumping Mics. Attell and Ross breathed some new life into the comedy special game this year by bringing their Bumping Mics tour to Netflix. Dave, Jeff and a gigantic posse of comedians, celebrities, fans, and crew descended on the Comedy Cellar one weekend this summer to film the three episode series on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. It was a blast to be in the West Village during the tapings, it was like a giant party took over those few blocks of the city, and the show itself is so much fun to watch. There have been plenty of comedy duos throughout comedy history, so the idea of two people sharing the stage isn’t by itself innovative. But Jeff and Dave aren’t a duo, they just are a great fit for a unique type of comedy special. In Bumping Mics, Jeff and Dave aren’t the hosts of an “and friends” show bringing up acts, they are the act and they spend the three wonderful hours doing what they do best- shredding each other and the audience with offensive jokes that will elicit hours of laughs and ohmigods. It didn’t quite fit in our top 10 hour specials, but its one of the funniest comedy specials put out this year and there are three of them. Congrats to Attell and Ross for thinking outside of the norm and finding a new way to deliver funny.
#2 Journey Gunderson, Tom Benson and the entire design team: National Comedy Center. We’ve been singing the praises of the National Comedy Center so much you might be getting sick of hearing about it but that’s only because you haven’t been there yet. We included the team on our Innovators list last year for their vision and plan. This year we’ve included them for execution that far exceeded expectations. The simple truth is that Journey Gunderson, Tom Benson, the entire board, design crew and team pulled off something we thought impossible. They designed a place that is true to the sanctity of comedy, but is also fun for those who don’t give a shit about sanctity. Its not easy to translate live comedy to a visitors experience. Even albums and specials rarely capture the excitement of seeing comedy live, but they’ve done it. The National Comedy Center in Jamestown NY is fun, its dazzling to walk from room to room, and has as many oooh and aaah moments as the Macy’s Fireworks show. And they didn’t compromise integrity to be fun. There is no museum quite like it, and we think that the center will become a template for museum design in years to come.
#3 Brian Regan: Stand Up and Away. No comedian has ever found a way to keep using their “best-of” material from over the course of their career on television….until now. And its absolutely perfect that Brian Regan is the first one to do it. All great comics have a signature bit, or two or three or even a dozen that fans will repeat to themselves and friends for decades. Nobody has a greatest hits catalog the size of Brian Regan’s. Its HUGE. With the help of admirer Jerry Seinfeld, Brian Regan brought back a basketful of his greatest hits in his new Netflix series Stand Up and Away. And this isn’t just a retread or a cash in on old pages. Brian performs some of his classic bits, fine tuned to perfection and then segways into sketches inspired by his stand up, which also has never been done. It’s positively unique and he won’t be the last to use this device. It’s a Christmas Gift for Brian’s loyal fans and we love it.
#4 Adam Sandler – 100% Fresh. When Netflix hit up the stars of stand up past who have gone on to be movie stars and tv stars to go back to their roots and deliver new specials, a lot of celebrities said yes. After all there was SERIOUS money on the line- the kind of money that instantly catapults you on to the Forbes highest paid comedians list. But there’s also a dilemma. How do you live up to your past self, your current level of celebrity and the high level of special being delivered by those who never left stand up. This year Adam Sandler out-delivered everyone with his rocking hip hopping party of a special. Sandler’s performance and songs were all solid had Sandler just filmed one night, we doubt that the home audience would have had as much fun as the fans who made it to the live show. But the hour was heavily boosted by an absolutely smashing production and editing team that used jump cuts between dozens of shows in theaters of all sizes across the country to help that live experience translate to television. The result was outstanding and gave Sandler a new generation of super fans.
#5 Judd Apatow The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. Its the age of the legacy, as we lose more of our comedy icons and try to figure out how best to preserve their legacies. If the right people pay attention to how you will be remembered after you’re gone, your work and your name will live on and if not, you risk being forgotten as time marches on. There are several people laying down the blueprint for how to do legacy work and one of those architects is Judd Apatow. His four hour plus, two part HBO series, The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling is a masterpiece and a proper tribute to a comedic genius. Zen Diaries explores forty years of performances, private journals, letters, and candid audio and video telling the story of the man behind the art. A brilliant mind, a restless soul, and a complicated man are revealed. It’s not an easy watch, nor is it a white wash. It’s a quest to understand someone we all admired and the results are a true gift to comedy fans everywhere. What’s innovative about Zen Diaries is the sheer breadth of its coverage, and how personal it is, being helmed by a close friend. Zen Diaries had the kind of complexity to it that has existed for documentaries about musicians before- lets say a Bob Dylan or the Beatles- but never before has anyone taken that type of look at a comedian, and it won’t be the last.
#6 Fred Armisen- Stand Up for Drummers. Another comedy star literally moved to the beat of his own drum to deliver a completely innovative Netflix special this year. You have to be innovative when you’re in a crowd of over a hundred specials released in 2018. Fred Armisen innovated by narrowing his audience, and the result is something truly special. Stand Up for Drummers is a special by a drummer for drummers. Of course the rest of us can relate to Armisen’s material- it isn’t exclusively deep drum related inside jokes (and we all know what Zildjian is). But he did invite an audience of drummers only to see the taping, and there’s definitely a focus here with jokes about drumming, sounds, rhythms and other related things. The stand out bit is aural in nature- Armisen’s whirl through a map of the United States covering several dozen accents in a space of minutes is exceptional. Can we expect a run of super niche comedy specials in 2019? Maybe.
#7 Jerrod Carmichael and Drew Michael for “Drew Michael.” Nobody expected 2018 to bring a stand up special without an audience. The idea of a studio album in comedy has long since been abandoned in favor of the excitement that comes along with an audience. But a “studio special” to our knowledge has never been attempted. One of the most widely accepted premises about stand up comedy is that it cannot take place without an audience. Comedians must work out their material in front of a crowd (the reason why every performance is a work in progress), and comics rely on audiences to tell them if they’re hitting that sweet spot where material is working perfectly. Drew Michael decided to go it solo with the assistance of director and producer Jerrod Carmichael. The result has had mixed reactions from comedians and fans, but there’s no question that it was a bold move, continuing a theme of challenging the conventions of comedy in 2018. This may turn out to be a one off but we always applaud attempts to push boundaries. Well done!
#8 Judah Friedlander Holds 2020 Press Conference. Ron Bennington and his SiriusXM team went to Moontower Comedy Festival this year with the idea of creating something new in comedy. Bennington has been bringing outstanding live interviews with comedy’s top talent to festivals for years, and he always delivers the best and funniest conversations in the business. But this year he took the interview idea, and turned it on its side with an event that blended comedy with interview in a completely fresh way to giving rise to a new kind of festival show. Judah 2020 was at its essence an hour long interview with comedian Judah Friedlander, hosted by Ron of course, promoting Judah’s 2017 special, America is the Greatest Country in the United States. The Bennington team threw out the two chairs two mics format to deliver a political rally for Judah, complete with an interview, Live Music from the Goddamn Comedy Jam, Q&A, and plenty of handshaking and baby kissing, stickers, flags, the whole enchilada. And a burrito. It was one of the most fun and exciting events of the year; Bennington has found a way to deliver great conversation in a new format.
#9 Netflix Inventing the 15 Minute Special. Netflix specials have been coming fast and furious for two years now, changing the game for everyone. The half hour special has been around for a bit, created by Comedy Central to give young and upcoming comics a chance to show off their skills, and get some experience delivering a comedy special on their way to their first hour. And of course late night talk shows have long afforded developing comics the chance to create a tv friendly tight six. But we don’t know why its taken so long for someone to come up with the 15 minute special. Comedy is seen in 15 minute increments every night on stages all over New York and around the country at showcase shows, and the formula works splendidly live, so why not on Netflix? Netflix keenly recognized that the hour is a lot to ask of people in a quick cut world, and quite frankly, even a half hour special can have viewers clicking “next” if they aren’t immediately entranced. To be sure, there are shortcomings of a 15 minute special but that’s okay. The 15 isn’t replacing the hour or the half hour for that matter. It’s just another way to discover new talent. A great addition to the stand up universe.
#10 Hannah Gadsby, Nanette. Has Hannah Gadsby changed comedy? A lot of people think so. Gadsby polarized the comedy world in 2018 challenging several foundational tenants of comedy including whether a performance could still be a comedy special if its primary design was not to get laughs. Many called Gadsby’s hour a Ted Talk, insisting that the primary requirement for a comedy special was that it be funny. Critics were exhilarated by the idea that perhaps a comedy special didn’t need to conform to any rules. Fans and fellow comics expressed anger by the attention that Nanette received. Both Nanette and its star Hannah Gadsby stood out in so many ways. Gadsby is Australian, she’s non-gender confirming, she’s LGBTQ in a world where American straight males still dominate. She used the vehicle of a comedy special to discuss being a survivor of sexual assault. And she tore down the idea that self-deprecation is a positive part of comedy. You can disagree with her. You can even hate her. But there’s no doubt she took big risks, and will have an impact on the future of comedy.