Our celebration of EVERYTHING funny in 2018 continues with the 10 best stand up comedy specials released this year.
This year Netflix continued to be the dominant source of stand up specials, premiering a new one each week. HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central continued to release specials of all shapes and sizes. And in 2018, a new model emerged via Comedy Dynamics, with a substantial list of comedians releasing their specials directly to every On Demand outlet available without airing on a television or streaming network first. This year’s challenge for comedians was to figure out how to stand out from the literal crowd of comics putting out new hours, and so we saw a lot of themes, playing with format, and even bending the idea of what defines a comedy special.
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.” In 2016 the honor went to the late great Barry Crimmins for “Whatever Threatens You.” And last year our champion proved to be the World Champion Judah Friedlander, for his Netflix work of art “America is the Greatest Country in the United States.”
This year there were a lot of great hours- more than we had room for in our top ten- so there’s plenty of greatness beyond our picks. There are also some really impressive half hour and fifteen minute specials, but for this year, we kept our list to hour specials only.
Go through our list and vote for the Best Hour Special of 2018! You can vote daily through January 3rd.
BERT KREISCHER’S new special, SECRET TIME, had big shoes to fill. His 2016 hour, The Machine, would be a tough act for anyone to follow but Kreischer hit a new high point and stood out in a crowd of comedy specials this year. And he did it with no gimmicks, no major change to the structure of an hour special, no new conventions. It’s just an hour of sledgehammer comedy and it may be the funniest hour this year. It’s called Secret Time because Kreischer spends an hour telling you things that no loving friend and family man in his right mind would share with a theater full of strangers, let alone on Netflix. Telling stories he swears are all true, he not only shares his own secrets, he also rats out his wife’s inability to give even a mediocre handjob, and early on sets up the premise that his two daughters are “dumb as fuck” and “legit mouthbreathers.” Sounds horrific, but Kreischer is a pro and has constructed his set brilliantly; his audience may cringe some, but ultimately walks away feeling okay about laughing at the secrets he has put on display. His jokes are so well structured and full of heart that you end up loving Bert, as well as all of the people in Kreischer’s life.
CHRIS ROCK is back. It’s been 12 years since his last release and he came back strong with one of the best hours this year. Rock is a powerful force on stage and always has been. He has three Grammy wins under his belt which is more than any other living comedian (excluding Cosby, and well, you know…) and he may very well be on his way to his fourth. Still controversial, still pushing boundaries in his latest, TAMBORINE. Rock took some heat for his opening bit pondering why cops don’t shoot more white kids and he doubles down with a brilliant take on his own relationship with the police as a black man who is also a celebrity. The hour is packed with insightful and really fucking funny takes on race relations, our roles in social circles (you gotta play the tamborine), gender dynamics, marriage and divorce, parenting and politics. And his theory about how Trump got elected doubles as social commentary challenging the 2018 take on bullying. Rock isn’t lecturing or preaching- he shares his own sins and shortcomings freely. There may be less of that Rock signature high pitched rant style that you remember from the old days, but the comedy is sharp as ever, and full of brilliant observation.
JOHN MULANEY filmed his latest special, KID GORGEOUS at Radio City Music Hall with a stunning set, delivering a polished, perfect hour from start to finish. Mulaney is a one man whirlwind on stage, churning out long detailed and incredibly funny stories that seem to meander about, but every moment is precisely planned, taking the audience on a well orchestrated ride. Mulaney knows that truly great storytelling is not about the ending, its about the gems along the way and his Kid Gorgeous stories are tightly packed with more diamonds than a tennis bracelet. In his connected group of stories about elementary school assemblies, Mulaney seemingly uncovers every single detail about being a kid forced to sit through the kid version of a Ted Talk, treating Officer J.J. Bittenbinder as if he was every bit as important to our own history as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, reminding us all of our own experiences with Bittenbinders everywhere. Another great story touches on a personal encounter with Mick Jagger that didn’t go as well as you might hope, still another about shopping at Best Buy with his wife. His stories aren’t all personal, he takes time to examine why a town might build a gazebo in wartime, and even touches on the Trump problem, something he refers to as being like a horse set loose in a hospital. Throughout, Mulaney’s delivery is gorgeous, flowing like a winding river with a masterful use of the run on sentence, perfect pauses, and an impressive vocabulary that he puts to great use.
ALI WONG shocked comedy fans when she debuted Baby Cobra in 2016. Of course the comedy world new Wong was a power hitter, but to the vast majority of fans of the artform, she was still a surprise waiting to be discovered. Her pregnant and highly physical first Netflix special turned her into an instant star. But could she follow that? Now that the element of surprise was gone, could Ali Wong repeat? HARD KNOCK WIFE proves that Ali is a legitimate comedy star who is here to stay and continually challenge. Her writing is so precise, with every word, beat and measure having meaning and purpose. She’s laugh out loud funny, and once again delivers the kind of performance that you can’t wait to share with friends. And now she’s done for mothers of all ages what she did for pregnant women in Baby Cobra. She took all the uncomfortable dark secrets and uncomfortable moments new moms have shared for generations and threw them out onto the stage into the light and turning them into pure comedy in the process. Never heard of a lactation consultant? Clogged milk duct? Now you have. Never thought much about post-partum vagina? Now you have. Wong finds the funny in all things new-mom and does it with style. Everyone wants to be like Ali.
Make no mistake, JOE ROGAN is no moron despite that he makes the claim multiple times in his new special STRANGE TIMES. And he knows it. In fact, his new special opens with what just might be the strongest, and the funniest comedy recorded on film this year talking about what’s really wrong with leadership in our country. Trump isn’t really the problem, he says, its the entire idea of a President that’s faulty. His material about the founding fathers is ridiculously funny and insightful, so no, Joe Rogan, you are not a moron. That bit alone qualifies Rogan’s new hour as a top ten special this year, and while it’s absolutely the best part of his hour, there’s plenty more to love. Rogan turns the tables on feminism as only Rogan can, introduces all of us to the world of #vegancat, and uses a story about a woman born without a vagina to illustrate why there are no miracles in modern time. Joe closes out his hour with a scorecard of sorts measuring up the positive and negative performance of men vs women thats leads into the first ever stand up comedy bit comparing male and female inventors. So its educational too! How Rogan continues to put together new specials with everything else on his calendar is a mystery to us all, but we’re glad he’s doing it.
Have you heard about NANETTE? No? Then you accidentally got to this page by searching for specialty caramels. No comedy special was discussed more than Nanette in 2018. HANNAH GADSBY’s resignation letter to the comedy business special was talked about by hardcore comedy fans, debated by young comics at comics tables across the country, whispered about in green rooms by comedy’s biggest stars, written about endlessly by entertainment journalists, socially conscious bloggers and social media debaters. Was Nanette a revelation? Or a war cry for a woke generation. Was Hannah Gadsby a brilliant new voice or just an angry woman preaching? Was this even comedy? What about self deprecating comedy? Debates over whether a “comedy special” needed to be funny sprung up everywhere, and writings joyously declared that Hannah Gadsby has given birth to a new style of comedy, and some argue that she’s rung the death knell for self deprecation as a tool in comedy. Regardless of where you land on all of the above, Hannah Gadsby is funny, Nanette has plenty of jokes, and Gadsby delivered a special that happened to make the earth shake in the comedy world and beyond, raising all kinds of questions about comedy itself as an art form. That’s worthy of a top ten slot in any year.
KATT WILLIAMS is 100% authentically Katt Williams and every moment on stage in GREAT AMERICA, you feel it. Few can own a room like Katt does, and you will see him working up a sweat giving his audience all he’s got. Wearing a black and gold shimmering suit, holding a golden microphone, with a golden stool to sit on, Katt is king– the king of underground comedy. Only Katt Williams would start his brand new special with an extended riff dedicated to Jacksonville, Florida, where the show was recorded. It’s thirteen minutes about Jacksonville Florida! Nobody has done that, ever. And it’s a blast. Later, Katt goes on to give his take on politics and Trump, his perspectives on getting older, the evolution of television, self driving cars, some self reflection on some of his highly publicized run-ins with the law, white rioting, great dick vs regular dick, a hilarious take on fast food chains– you’ve never heard a funnier commentary on Arbys– and commands the crowd to “do more fucking.” After a couple of years of Katt being Katt and getting into nothing but trouble, Williams managed to focus and put together a killer special. His written and physical comedy are in top form in Great America. There’s something very raw, and authentic about Katt that feels like real stand up comedy. Williams doesn’t feel like someone performing a play. This is not a one man show. He is telling you his truth, and finding the funny in every beat. And the audience rewards him with roaring laughter throughout. No matter what’s going on in Katt’s life, he’s going to perform and live his best life on stage easily making this one of the best specials of 2018.
GAD ELMALEH is so strong in his new Netflix Hour, AMERICAN DREAM, taking on all kinds of American political, cultural, social and pop cultural phenomena that Americans overlook as just ‘normal.’ Elmaleh expertly dissects all that we take for granted, and he does it all in English which happens to be his second language. As an outsider to American culture, Elmaleh is able to deliver the purest kind of observational comedy. He has a keen eye and ear, picking up on our eccentricities, neuroses, and hypocrisies particularly when it comes to language. Elmaleh covers slang, colloquialisms, and particularly pronunciation pointing out the immense inefficiencies of American English. Gad encounters a great many strange expressions while attempting to navigate dating in America, trying to interpret such gems as “I’m down”, “I’m up for it”, “I’m in” in a bit that echos a little bit of “Whose on First”. In the US he has learned how much easier it is to buy a gun than be approved to rent, the joy of a mysterious activity called “browsing” and life in a world full of Cheesecake Factories.
I’LL SAY THIS is PAUL VIRZI’S first special and its an impressive first hour. You don’t have to take our word for it- just ask Bill Burr (arguably the #1 touring stand up comedian in the country right now). When Burr signed a deal with Comedy Central to produce three hour specials, he knew the first hour he wanted to put his name on was Paul Virzi’s. You can’t get a higher endorsement than that in comedy right now. Paul Virzi delivers a terrific special which got love not only from Burr, but also Pete Davidson who co-produced, and a slew of New York comics who hauled their asses north of the city to Tarrytown Music Hall to see it taped. The special showcases how great of a storyteller Virzi is. He really shines when talking about a series of exchanges he had with his landscaper, Hector. Another highlight comes while explaining the differences between girls and boys told through a story about his son and daughter play-fighting with Star Wars lightsabers. It become one of the most streamed specials on Comedy Central and deservedly so. Its a strong first special and one of our favorites this year.
DANIEL SLOSS is still somewhat unknown in the United States but Europe knows Sloss, and Netflix knows Sloss and there’s a reason they gave this young phenom two specials right off the bat. It’s hard to pick a favorite here, because each has its own attributes, but those who haven’t seen these two hours, be sure you watch them in the order in which he created them– DARK first, then JIGSAW. Dark is the perfect title for this hour, which is indeed dark– REALLY dark– and begins with Sloss sharing stories of offending audiences with his blunt material about religion (one mans truth is another man’s blasphemy), his riveting family backstory, and his uncompromising defense of his right to joke about disabilities and other topics that will elicit groans in even a hardened audience. For a young man he has an exceptional ability to explain why joking about life’s most difficult subjects should be not only permitted but applauded. In fact, several times throughout the special Sloss puts you in a comfortable place only to drop the floor out from underneath you and leave you hanging looking for a branch to grab onto. He does an exceptional job of taking you on a rollercoaster ride that leaves you a little nauseous but craving more. Fortunately, there is more. There’s Jigsaw, affectionately dubbed “the breakup special.” In Jigsaw, Sloss delivers a blistering attack on “Facebook Vegans”, the importance of gallows humors, and later drops the atom bomb on the widely held belief that its important to be in, and stay in a couple. If your relationship is on shaky ground, this special is definitely for you. It’s time to be single again.