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, even a tiny bit, 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 Andrew Schulz Goes Viral. Young comedian Andrew Schulz said fuck it to the traditional comedy special this year. He decided he would self produce his first hour special and do it how he wanted to do it. Plenty of comedians have done that before, it’s not particularly unusual. (Louis C.K. set the example for selling your own special on your website for $5) But Schulz may have changed comedy forever when he decided to break up the special into small tracks and release them on YouTube, one at a time, for free. He started releasing clips in January and the views just shot up. It’s a bold move that has payed off ridiculously well. Videos from his “Views From the Cis” special have amassed over 2 million views in less than a year. After four months on YouTube, his “Crowd Work Special” has 1.6 million views. His specials are 100% his own, uncensored, and unfiltered. Everything you can get out of having a special on Netflix or HBO, Schulz has pulled off, on his own. He’s touring to bigger and bigger crowds, getting invited on prestigious shows and all over festivals. “As a comic it’s my job to push the limits of my craft. Every special I do I want to push comedy forward into the next phase. I think we accomplished that here. I hope you feel the same way,” he wrote on YouTube. Since then Nick DiPaolo released his full special on YouTube, also for free and to date has over a million views. Schulz is already producing specials, first up Yannis Pappas “Blowing the Light.” The future is here.
#2 Canadian Comics Get Organized. Many attempts to organize comedians in America have failed, which leaves comics with no benefits, low bargaining power, and an every man for himself attitude pervades the comedy industry. But not up North. Canadians are organizing and some small victories are already having significant ripple effects. The Canadian Association of Stand Up Comedians was formed in 2017 and they’ve already been busy. After 33 years, the Comedy Album of the Year will return to the Juno Awards (Canadian Grammys) this year. This is a step towards their efforts to have the Canada Arts Council definition of performance arts enlarged to include stand up comedy, and the wider effort to have access to government funding. The CASC and its founder Sandra Battaglini also helped Canadian comedians save an important income stream this year after SiriusXM Canada announced a new partnership with JFL that would ironically reduce earnings for home grown comics on the channel. Working quickly, Canadian comics put pressure on JFL to keep the channel Canadian. Expect these successes to galvanize other efforts among comics to unify for mutual support, like Comedy Gives Back, a U.S. based organization that hopes to provide emergency financial relief grants to comedians in need.
#3 Skankfest Goes National. Skankfest and its organizers, Luis J. Gomez, Rebecca Trent and Christine Marie Evans made our list in 2016 for changing the festival game with a new festival model they created for Skankfest in New York City. Skankfest is different from other festivals. The fans know it, the comedians know it, and of course the organizers know it. And now Evans, Trent and Gomez are taking Skankfest to the next level- they’re going national with a March festival planned for Houston Texas with the same level of comedians, programming, diversity and energy that they’ve brought to New York for four years now. Back in 2016 when Skankfest debuted, we guaranteed you would see other regions follow the Skankfest model. We didn’t expect it would be the New York based team who would be the first to pull it off halfway across the country. Continued congratulations to team Skankfest.
#4 Chris Gethard Uses Public Access to Pay it Forward. Chris Gethard was about as innovative as you can get when he found a new path to fame- via Public Access. The genius that was The Chris Gethard Show needs no recap, and everyone is know well aware that the series started on a local public access channel. Now that TCGS has run its course, and Gethard is focusing on being a dad, he’s returning to Public Access with Chris Gethard Presents. Basically he’s taking his old time slot and selecting new quirky young promising fun talented comics a chance to shine….on public access. Its an amazing opportunity for these young awesome weirdos to show their stuff on their own terms. Not only do they get to grow their audience, but we all know Gethard’s producer friends are keeping an eye on what he’s up to. It’s quite honestly the most interesting development deal out there today. There’s a tremendous archive already available on YouTube with Christi Chiello, Rachel Pegram, Claire O’Kane, Greg Stone, Anthony Devito, Monroe Martin, Petey Deabreau, and the Found Footage Festival, and more.
#5 Gary Gulman Makes it Okay to Get Help for Depression. Gary Gulman’s special made our top ten list this year because it’s a killer hour. It made our Innovator’s list because in one night, Gary made it comfortable for comedians to talk about their struggles with depression. Comedians have suffered from various mental illnesses for as long as there has been comedy. Addiction is okay to discuss publicly. Anxiety is acceptable to talk about (maybe too acceptable) but depression, particularly at the level that requires inpatient treatment and electro shock therapy, still carries stigma. And where there’s stigma, people don’t seek help. It couldn’t have been easy for Gary to go public with all of the details about his “Great Depresh” but everyone’s glad he did. Immediately after the “spesh” aired, Gulman helped HBO kick off a Mental Health Awareness initiative.
#6 Carol Montgomery Creates a Very Cool Platform for Women of a Certain Age. It was just a couple of years ago that Carole Montgomery started shopping around the idea of a show that would travel to different cities, showcasing older female comedians. It took no time at all for the idea to become a Showtime special, because its brilliant and shines a light on a group that people don’t always rush to shine a light on .The show is phenomenal, the comics are phenomenal, but what you really need to understand to get FWOACA, is that Carole is phenomenal. She found the right lineups, she sold the show and she’s a comedy treasure who even more people need to know about. Funny Women of a Certain Age debuted on Showtime with a lineup that included Fran Drescher, Luenell, Lynn Koplitz, Kerry Louise and Vanessa Hollingshead. A more recent edition of the show had Carol Leifer, Caroline Rhea, Tammy Pescatelli, Thea Vidale, and Julia Scotti on the Roster. We’re ready for more!
#7 Cellar Becomes First Club to Ban Phones Full Time. This year the New York Comedy Cellar became the first major club to tell patrons they have to seal their phones and smart watches for every show. If you come to the Cellar, when you check in for the show, every patron is asked to turn off their phones and put them in an envelope, which will be sealed for the duration of the show. Club goers hold on to the envelopes but may not open them until they leave the club. It’s a major change and was implemented without much pushback, in fact, the crowds seem generally happy to put their phones away while they’re in the club. The comics are happy because they know they aren’t being recorded, and it cuts down on distractions from people checking their phones, or the disruption caused by bouncers warning people they can’t use their phones. And unlike Yondr bags or other phone lock up systems, patrons get to keep their phones on them and they are only an envelope rip away if they feel they need immediate access.
#8 Julio Torres Gets Weird and Delivers Comedy So Unique That People are Mad About It. Every year someone releases a great comedy special so unique (you can read that as weird or original) that other comics complain that it’s not really a comedy special. This year Julio Torres was the comic and My Favorite shapes was the special. Throughout the hour, Torres examines his actual favorite shapes, like a plexiglass square, a self conscious cactus, and a Ferrara-Rocher Chocolate. Torres explores the shapes with fantastical stories. Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Lin Manuel Miranda provide the voice of the shapes. The weirdness continues with one of the weirdest comedy series out this year: Los Espookys, taped in Spanish with subtitles for the gringos. Torres stars. He also created the series with Ana Fabrega and Fred Armisen, and his SNL boss Lorne Michaels produces.
#9 Ray Romano Special is a Surprise. There are a lot of superstar comedians being enticed back to doing specials this year, mostly using flashy big venues, in front of fan packed audiences. Ray Romano took that plan, and turned it inside out, and as a result put out one of the best specials to come from a “celebrity comic” this year. He filmed his hour in two venues- The Comedy Cellar and its sister room, The Village Underground and performed it as a total surprise to both audiences who were just there to see a comedy show. He called it “Right Here Around the Corner” and filmed the whole evening, from waiting upstairs at the comics table till his spot time, to walking around the corner, worrying about making his set on time, just like any Cellar comic. His two 20 minute sets were part of the shows regular lineups that night, they just had a special secret drop in guest. It’s a great special, because it’s not a special. The material is great and its completely refreshing to see a comedian who is now a television and movie celebrity care more about the comedy than the flash. Michael Showalter directed and while it didn’t make our top ten list, its still one of our favorite specials this year.
#10 Louis C.K. Changes the Comeback Path. Spoiler alert, controversial thoughts are coming. Louis C.K. has always been an innovator, trying new ways to deliver comedy in different formats. So it’s no surprise that after his scandal and fall from grace, his path back would be unique. And it has been. There is a formula for scandal recovery in Hollywood and it involves deep contrition, and a some combination of tears, rehab, admission of guilt, donations to appropriate charities and wherever possible, public forgiveness. Most of the “apologies” that satisfy the public are contrived and done for the purpose of saving their own neck. That’s not really Louis style. Neither is staying on a timetable that someone else designed. Louis return to the stage has been on his own terms and some of you may like that and some of you may not. But love him or hate him, at least he’s honest. So when you make your choice about whether to support his return to comedy you can do it honestly.