Comedians are artists and each year there are innovators who try something that has never been done before, or change the way the comedy is created. Pushing boundaries has been an important part of comedy throughout the history of making people laugh. This year we recognize 12 game changers who took comedy to a new level, going more absurd, more fun, more original or just under more challenging circumstances. Watch in 2016 for others to follow their leads.
#1 Brian Regan: Live At Radio City. Brian Regan changed the hour-long comedy special forever after he broadcast his latest special on Comedy Central on live television. Brian came up with the idea and pitched it to Comedy Central last year, and they agreed to run their first ever live comedy special. The result was an explosive and electric show which brought Comedy Central viewers all over the nation the experience of seeing a live show in a New York theatre. Regan’s move has already had an impact, there will be live streaming comedy in 2016 coming from another innovator on our list– Seeso.
#2 Undateable: Entire Live Season. NBC’s stand up-stocked sitcom ‘Undateable’ made history in 2015 by becoming the first live (but still scripted) television sitcom. Chris D’Elia, Ron Funches and Rick Glassman broke new ground, with a full season of live broadcasts. Not only was each episode live, ‘Undateable’ also went interactive, incorporating social media in entirely new ways. Pre-show and during commercial breaks fans were encouraged to tweet and Periscope with the cast so the live broadcast format continued even during the commercials. It’s the first live scripted comedy series, but it won’t be the last.
#3 Man Seeking Woman on FXX. ‘Man Seeking Woman’ is one of the hardest shows on television to explain. It’s based on the book Last Girlfriend On Earth by Simon Rich who also created and runs the show, and its high concept for sure. It stars Jay Baruchel and Eric Andre as an unlucky in love insecure guy and his confident swagger-some best buddy. The plot revolves around relatable and common dating situations that become personified in the most literal sense. Metaphors are brought to life in the show. An ex-girlfriend’s new love interest who reminds Jay’s character of Hitler becomes Hitler, and a blind date is an actual troll. And you know how guys joke about dating their left hand? It’s not a joke in ‘Man Seeking Woman’. Those things become literal in Josh’s world. By description alone the show shouldn’t work, but it does, and therein lies the genius. When you can base a show on metaphors brought to life as a live action show, on a limited budget and pull something brilliant out the other end– that’s the absolute definition of innovation. Season Two returns January 6th to FXX, and you can expect to see more surreality combining with comedy in 2016.
#4 Launch of NBC’s Seeso All Comedy Streaming Platform. Seeso is a hard core comedy fan’s dream. Debuting as a free beta test in December of 2015, Seeso promises to deliver any comedy style you might be in the mood for, all on demand. There’s a huge back catalog of NBC comedy series and clips available on demand, a library full of British comedy shows including the entire Monty Python series, and plenty of stand up. Seeso brings unlimited comedy content for $3.99 a month. The platform itself is an innovation– taking the concept of Hulu and Netflix to a niche market. But the real innovation at Seeso comes from their original programing including 20 new bold series spotlighting young up and comers in the comedy game. Putting the focus on young comics is innovative and fresh, and exciting. They’re also the first to go directly to the UCB stage and allow home viewers to watch sketch comedy created for the stage. While there have been a long list of similar shows created for television showcasing stand up, this is the first to bring local sketch theater to a national audience. Seeso will also be bringing Live comedy shows to their streaming platform and many more surprises in 2016. Expect them to be trend setters in many arenas.
#5 Wet Hot American Summer Prequel. The entire cast from the original ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ movie reunited to create an eight episode prequel miniseries on Netflix that aired this summer. The prequel is set at the beginning of summer camp– the first day rather than the last– and even though the actors are now 15 years older, they all reprised their original roles and played their younger selves. No elaborate make up was used to make them look 15 years younger, they just played the roles as their current selves, and ignored the visual discontinuity. The storylines are brilliant. There are back-stories to minor elements of the original which never really needed back-stories and the level of attention to detail is incredible. The writers could easily have gotten away with lazy writing and still had a hit on their hands, but they didn’t. The stories were complicated, intertwined, and full of fun surprises. The oddness of playing kids at their current age was a perfect compliment to the tone they set 15 years ago when the original movie was made. The experiment was a huge success and we fully expect to see more grown up prequels in years to come.
#6 The Chris Gethard Show. ‘The Chris Gethard Show’ went from public-access in New York City to a national audience when it was picked up by the Fusion network. The format is extremely loose, innovative and brings the concept of an interactive show to entirely new heights. Gethard’s audience is the show in many ways or at least as much a part of the show as the guests and host. Gethard’s style of hosting is completely unique, and the weirdness of TCGS– well– let’s just say you could create an entire list of innovations confined to TCGS alone. Chris kicked off his new show having his fans literally carry him to work on their backs, there’s been an episode just for dogs, a show taped after everyone stayed up 36 hours, and even an episode dedicated to asking callers if they are okay. Oh yeah, there are callers. The ideas are very new to television, but the true innovation lies with the tone set by Gethard himself. There’s a lengthy celebrity guest list that goes along with all of this grass roots type craziness too. The show was born with the freedom to do whatever it wanted on Public Access TV, and continues to bring a completely new, extremely weird dynamic to a national audience. Gethard has already said that he has seen imitators and is aware of other networks attempting to poach team members to try to duplicate the energy of his show. That’s innovation.
#7 Comedy Performers Go High Tech to Prevent Recording. This year Hannibal Buress did more than just bring attention to the Bill Cosby scandal. The comedian has been fighting the continuous war on cellphones in comedy clubs by starting to experiment with new technology that keeps fans from filming stand-ups during their sets. The technology comes in the form of bags designed to lock your phone up while a comedy show is going on. At the end of the show, the bags unlock and the person can use their phone again. Buress made news as the first to use the new technology and more comedians have followed suit, most recently, the legendary Dave Chappelle. So far audiences have considered it to be less disruptive than other methods like Kevin Hart’s system of using security teams to hunt down cell phone users and eject them from arenas. Look to see the technology expand to more venues in 2016.
#8 Documentary Now. The parody documentary series used big comedy stars to do realistic parodies of beloved documentaries. Each of the six mockumentaries imitated a different style of documentary. Parody sometimes go a little low on the tree for its fruit, but the writers of Documentary Now have used parody smartly, and sharply. Some of the documentaries parodied include ‘Grey Gardens’, ‘Vice NEWS’, ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Nanook Revisited’. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen star in the series. Armisen, Hader, Seth Meyers, Rhys Thomas and Lorne Michaels executive produced the series which aired on IFC and has already been renewed for two more seasons.
#9 Eugene Mirman Releases an Album in a New Format. Eugene Mirman’s latest album is an exercise in absurdity, silliness, and innovation. It’s experimental and nonsensical in parts, but you could never accuse Mirman’s silliness of being without purpose. Eugene ‘s weird new album, “I’m Sorry, You’re Welcome” is full of weird unexplicable content, which is itself, innovative. But here’s where it gets really weird. You can buy the album on vinyl, digital or a few other formats. Mirman released the album in “Robe” and “Chair” formats too. You can order the album in robe or chair form, where the chair actually plays the album. Ditto for the robe. If you can’t quite figure out why anyone would want to do that, now you’re just starring to tap into the Mirman odd genius. By the way, the 7 LP set features his entire comedy special, as well as volumes full of ringtones, outgoing voicemail, meditation and for some reason – 45 minutes of crying. “I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome) is in stores now.
#10 James Adomian as Bernie Sanders. Doing an impression might not be innovative by itself, but James Adomian changed the way impressions are done this year, by taking his Bernie Sanders act on tour. Adomian’s hilarious impression has shown up on @midnight as a contestant, at comedy festivals, in clubs, in a mock debate in the New York Comedy Festival, and spoiler alert, Adomian’s impression showed up as a closer at a taping of Big Jay Oakerson’s “What’s Your F@cking Deal!?” recorded for Seeso. He’s taking his impression seriously, and there’s plenty of time left to continue this ride. We can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
#11 Ferrell Takes the Field. The first comedy special to take place inside baseball, on the field field at spring training earns Will Ferrell a place on our list. Last March, Will Ferrell visited five different spring training ballparks, and played every position on the field for ten different teams in the same day. The homage to the historic feat of Bert Campaneris was dedicated to the fight against cancer. Part documentary, part comedy special, 100% innovative.
Bonus Pick! Comedy 101 “Tell A Joke or Be A Joke” Launches. Our last innovator on the list is a bonus pick because its ourselves! The Bennington Show and The Interrobang premiered the very first “Tell A Joke or Be A Joke” show in 2016. Young open-mic comics perform in front of their first real audience, and also in front of established, veteran comedians of New York Stand Up who ‘mentor them’ through their act. The mentors are allowed to stop the open-micers anytime during their set to either compliment their act or more often than not, let them know what they’re doing wrong. Luis J. Gomez, Dan Soder, Joe List, and Rich Vos served as the first round of mentors for six open mic’ers catching their first break. Although roast style shows are common, this is the first concept show to bring open mic’ers up to mingle with veterans and that makes it a bonus pick on our innovators list.