Our celebration of EVERYTHING funny in 2017 continues with the 10 best stand up comedy specials released this year. This year, the number of comedy specials to choose from multiplied beyond anything comedy has seen before or likely will again. On one end of the spectrum, Seeso opened up the market to record and air dozens of specials from new up and coming comics, and greenlit some alternate more creative production ideas from more established comedians. On the other side of the universe, Netflix threw barrels of cash at some stand-up comedians who had long ago hung up their mics and moved on to film and television, or artists who have continued performing stand up over the years but had no intention of putting together a special. Plus other outlets continued to produce great work- networks like HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central continued to bring some killer hours to light. So this years decision was harder than ever. We stuck with specials that were an hour or more, just to keep the playing field as level as possible, and held comedy veterans up to a higher standard.
Before listing the nominees, lets take a quick look back. In 2014, you picked Jim Jefferies “Bare” as the comedy special of the year. In 2015, the honor of best special went to Jim Norton’s “Contextually Inadequate.” And last year the honor went to Barry Crimmins for “Whatever Threatens You.” This year, Jim is back with his new Netflix special, “Mouthful of Shame”, and he’s taking on nine other outstanding hours from Maria Bamford, Judah Friedlander, Jo Koy, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Ari Shaffir, Chris Gethard, Christina Pazstizky and Louis C.K.
So many great hours we didn’t have room to include in the top ten, but were exceptional and would have easily landed on a top ten list in any other year. A few we feel we have to give honorable mention to include Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Living, Michelle Wolf Nice Lady, Jim Gaffigan Five, and Ryan Hamilton Happy. See as many as you can- there is greatness to be found all over 2017.
Every year you watch hour special after hour special waiting for that one that really stands out from the rest. This year more specials were released than in the last five years combined, including hours from some of the biggest most celebrated names in the business. But it was this small budget, self-produced hour without bells and whistles from the World Champion JUDAH FRIEDLANDER that generated the most buzz in our circles. It’s hard to believe that such a brilliant performer has never released an hour, but proved to be well worth the wait. The moment we saw it we knew it would make our list for best hour special of 2017. Shot in black and white on a pro-sumer camera almost entirely at New York’s Comedy Cellar, the 84 minute special satirizes America’s cultural narcissism and the concept of exceptionalism. It’s some of the smartest and thought-provoking comedy this year. We love the structure and themes Judah explores and the elegant simplicity of his presentation. Whether you vote for it or not, make sure you head over to Netflix to watch it. By the way, Friedlander not only performed and wrote the special, he also directed, edited, designed the accompanying graphics, and its all just a phenomenal package.
Almost every comedian and every fan of comedy would recognize that DAVE CHAPPELLE is somewhere near the top of the stand-up comedian pyramid. Always ahead of the curve and setting standards, a Chappelle special is always something to look forward to, but these in particular because they were his first live performances released in 12 years. The news that he was paid $60 million for a deal to release three specials made comedy fans all the more anxious to see whether comedy’s most unpredictable performer would deliver. Proof of that– both hours became the most viewed comedy specials in Netflix’s history. Released simultaneously, the first hour was filmed at Austin City Limits Live in 2015 titled DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS and a second hour from 2016 titled THE AGE OF SPIN was recorded at the Hollywood Palladium. Both strong, but it is the latter that earned Chappelle an undeniable spot on our top ten list this year. Recorded during the wildly successful run of the FX miniseries, The People vs O.J. Simpson, the thematic device that provides the brilliant structure of TAOS comes from four separate personal encounters Chappelle had with Simpson. But while Simpson and the four meetings were prominent components of the hour, this isn’t just storytelling. His Simpson stories are merely a jumping off point to discuss issues of celebrity, judgment, race, rage, political correctness, reality television, heroes and villains. When you’re the best its tough to live up to expectations but Chappelle’s second hour is one of the best of the year, and beat expectations.
MARIA BAMFORD, always the innovator, came through with a new way to showcase her talents. In OLD BABY, Maria not only covers topics and non-topics in typical Bamford manner- lyrically, manic-ly, excitedly, colorfully, quirkily, madly and poetically, she also continues her tradition of exploring the relationship between performer and audience. Performing early on in the special for an audience of one, and gradually expanding her audience in not only number but ever broading the distance between herself and her audience (she moves from her husband, to a group of friends, to crowds of strangers of ever increasing sizes) her special not only conveys Bamfords artistic expression through her words– she makes the structure itself become art. The settings may change but the material is not tailored to the venue, which is just brilliant, and it’s fascinating to observe the differences in the various performances. Inside the special her musicality, voices, characters, and stories are childlike at times but with the wisdom and insight of someone with one foot on the planet, and another in an altogether different plane. There is passion and beauty throughout that any Bamford fan or comedy fan will love and appreciate.
In ARI SHAFFIR’s new Netflix special, DOUBLE NEGATIVE he’s done something unprecedented. He recorded two hour specials back to back for simultaneous release. Yes, Dave Chappelle released two hours this year as well, but they were unrelated, recorded apart in time, and released together. Shaffir’s new specials were both recorded this year. Actually they were recorded in the same night– and in front of the same audience– in Austin’s Cap City Comedy Club. That is a bold move, but Ari is nothing if not bold. The twin specials are subtitled CHILDREN, and ADULTHOOD and are not two separate specials, more two sides of the same album, very yin and yang which is appropriate for the no-longer-religious but frequently spiritual comedian. In them, he explores themes of aging, sex, drugs, decisions about not having children, sacrifices, soul-searching, and the consequences of his own choices. It’s primarily self-reflective (or reflective about choices made by specific people in Shaffir’s life) but its also modern and relatable to a generation of young adults who increasingly are replacing the prior generation’s question of when to have children with the question of whether to have children. Ari insisted on maintaining complete creative control over his vision for the special, and even financed the production himself to ensure he wouldn’t have to take notes. The result– Shaffir’s material is unflinching, and pure Shaffir which is of course, yet another reason it’s in our top ten.
CHRIS GETHARD is an extraordinary storyteller, and his one-man stand up show CAREER SUICIDE tells a powerful story. In it, Gethard has pulled off a riveting hour about anxiety, depression, hardship, self-doubt, and mental illness that is also uplifting and hilariously funny. It’s his first recorded special and it’s utterly unforgettable. Gethard takes you from his eggshell fragile formative years, through his anxiety-riddled college years and beyond, and uses conversations with his unorthodox therapist as a framework for tales of suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, recovery, and relapse. His stories are seamlessly choreographed and Gethard’s tale of humanity, external struggles, inner turmoil and bare naked vulnerability ultimately prove the adage that there is humor in everything. The best comedy comes from life’s failures, not life’s successes, and Gethard knows how to mine the failures in his life for all they are worth. Using his personal experiences to tell a tale that is more common than we like to admit, Gethard shines a light on very dark subject matter, with giant laughs. An outstanding hour that is unquestionably one of the year’s best.
In 2017, JO KOY released his first hour special in five years and it’s an absolute home run. In LIVE FROM SEATTLE, Koy lights up the theater from the moment he walks out on stage, and you can feel the audience explode at the top, and stay with him at every turn. And the laughter comes in roars. The theater is gorgeous, the energy is palpable, and the material crushes. Koy blends fan favorite topics- his son, and his relationship with his now-famous mother, with plenty of new ground, all hilarious. Like many of the standout hours that made our list, Koy’s latest is completely self-produced. Everything from booking a theater, designing the lighting, filming the show, even creating a logo, all Koy. What’s different about Koy’s self-produced hour is it looks like a gigantic team of experts crafted every detail. Jo Koy has produced an hour of comedy that is a true joy to watch and we are proud to include it in our top ten for 2017.
The opening to JIM NORTON’S latest hour- his fifth- should tell you everything you need to know about what’s to come. His friends, on hand backstage to help him intro MOUTHFUL OF SHAME, are Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., and Robert DeNiro. Taped at New York City’s Skirball Center at the end of December 2016, Norton’s latest may be his best. Norton leads the pack when it comes to honesty on stage. It seems there’s no secret thought he’s uncomfortable revealing, and no matter how many dark inner thoughts he’s shared in prior specials, there’s always more to unload. The hour isn’t as thematic as some of the others on the list; the thru-line of dissecting the idea of shame is something that is more of a career thru-line for Jim, and while many comics practice the art of self-deprecation, Norton takes that art to new heights with every special. And this isn’t a self-pitying and sad act; Norton’s self-deprecation is full of joy. The other thing Norton can do better than anyone else is talk publically and shamelessly about the messier sides of sexuality including addiction and compulsion, questioning your own sexual preferences, navigating taboos, and surviving as an outlier in a world when privacy is disappearing by the minute. It’s not just dirty talk, nothing in the act is shock for shock’s sake. There’s purpose and complexity throughout. Whether he’s talking about Hulk Hogan’s dick, the “n” word, dating porn stars, or discussing how best to support transgender women (easily the highlight of the hour), Norton has proven he’s more than just a one trick act.
CHRISTINA PAZSITZKY, put out her first hour special, CHRISTINA P: MOTHER INFERIOR on Netflix this year. Many people know Christina P from her podcast, Your Moms House, which she hosts with her husband, comedian Tom Segura who himself got his big break on Netflix. Now it is Christina P’s turn. With a title like Mother Inferior and knowing that Christina and Tom just had a child together, you’re right to expect a special centered on being a new mom and going through pregnancy, but you aren’t expecting her fresh take on the familiar topics. Christina gets her hands dirty focusing more on the details of getting pregnant and being a mother- even eliciting a few groans from the audience when she mentions the “e” word, “episiotomy”. This is also the first time you’ll hear someone talk about using their pregnancy to get out of blowjobs. Her ability to alternate connecting with the audience and shocking them is the strength of this hour. She also shows Segura isn’t the only great storyteller in the family- her tales about growing up and going through a goth phase are unforgettable as are stories about her Indian stepfather. Christina P is the youngest comedian to join the list this year, which only means that we have so much more to look forward to, but she’s already off to a hell of a start.
LOUIS C.K.’s latest, 2017, is full of surprises, and all the good kind. He traded in his signature black T-shirt for a tailored suit, signaling from jump that he’s taking things seriously, and with good reason. His last few specials had not quite measured up to his earlier works, most likely because he spent the last period of his life focusing on producing some extraordinary television. But prior to recording 2017, he announced that he was taking time off from Louie to refocus his stand up and that effort paid off. 2017 is highly structured, complicated, and layered as C.K. explores the value of life itself, and many of his own beliefs. The hour is not flawless but he tackles some heavy topics with signature Louis C.K. style provoking then disarming the audience over and over with skillful misdirection. Life and death are repeated topics whether he’s discussing abortion, suicide, or the afterlife, and the hour is rife with philosophical musings. There’s a particularly brilliant justification for why women should be able to make decisions about abortion, and more interesting thoughts about one of his favorite topics– parenting. It isn’t all life and death, there’s a hilariously funny bit about tan cars, and another about the way old people dress, and if you’re tired of hearing from people about their rescue dogs, you’re going to love his take on that. C.K. may not make many top ten lists this year, but it won’t be because the hour isn’t worthy. 2017 is one of the best of 2017.