This year was a “best of times, worst of times” situation in comedy. When it comes to recovering from the pandemic, live stand-up fared better than Broadway. Touring shows did good business. But anxiety in the comedy world grew as Netflix hit some serious financial setbacks. Gatekeepers, like network executives and late-night bookers, continued to have less sway, but were social media algorithms any better? In this transitional year, here are some highlights.
It’s not often that “beautiful” is the first word that comes to mind about a stand-up special. For some, that might even sound like a backhanded compliment. When did beauty ever make you laugh? But Jerrod Carmichael’s “Rothaniel,” a radically intimate, cinematically shot production, is a departure for him and stand-up more broadly. Its melancholy tone and patient pace set up new kinds of clever jokes. And its exquisite aesthetic features stunning and unexpected shots staged by the director, Bo Burnham, that emphasize the theme of mystery and secrets. Carmichael’s language manages to be unorthodox and elegant, and the way he interacts with the audience displays a vulnerability that is as moving as it is funny. (Streaming on HBO Max.)
The first special from Atsuko Okatsuka, “The Intruder,” has a title that sounds like a horror movie, which is apt. A charming narrator of her own anxiety, her jokes find unique angles into an ancient feeling: Fear. Premiering on HBO Max on Dec. 10, the special’s backbone is her cowering response to a stranger approaching her house, but unexpected visitors aren’t the only thing she’s afraid of. Teenagers petrify her. Their coolness unsettles. Then there’s a disastrous interaction with a stranger’s dog who licks her, and when she pushes forward, she accidentally licks the animal’s tongue. “Don’t worry,” she assures the pet’s owner nervously, “I’m married.”
Best 11 O’Clock Number
In musicals, the 11 o’clock number is a showstopping song typically performed before the finale. Mike Birbiglia, who has done more than anyone to add theatrical ambition to American stand-up, leans on this structural trope in his latest solo show, “The Old Man & the Pool.” It’s a magic trick of storytelling that makes what should be boring and mundane observations seem absolutely riveting. After a show full of jokes about death, he asks for a moment of silence, and the way he then responds to the crowd — with anger, frustration and deft manipulation — generates a sustained, uproarious kind of laugh. The real fun in this joke is how he uses his ingratiating persona to turn on the crowd.
If you’ve seen an audience react to Earthquake’s comedy, you know that the Washington, D.C., native lives up to his name. Yet he remained unknown to many until the release of his Netflix special, “Legendary,” which gets about twice the laughs of a traditional special in half the time. He jumps into long set pieces that range from the mundane (a trip to the doctor) to the extreme (the Jan. 6 attacks) with swaggering, exasperated takes that aim for the gut. His jokes can’t translate to the page, but every sentence has something funny in it: An oddball pronunciation, an exaggerated emotional response, a surprising opinion. “These ain’t jokes,” he says more than once. And he almost convinces you. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Kate Berlant had a breakthrough year primarily because of her hit live show, but she also released a sketch-driven special (with John Early) and a black-and-white stand-up hour on FX on Hulu, “Cinnamon in the Wind,” which captured her riveting comedy of the past decade. It comes off as entirely improvised (“I don’t want to belittle what we have,” she tells to the audience, “with material.”). Fans will recognize how she takes a cliché, twists it just enough to seem off — but not so much as to be a straight spoof. “I don’t know if anything has ever happened to anyone here,” she says and then stops. “I don’t want to assume.” (Streaming on Hulu.)
Best Member of the Mitch Hedberg Family Tree
For a comic who never became very famous, Mitch Hedberg remains wildly influential. If you see a deadpan absurdist telling concise jokes with deliberation, chances are they went through a Hedberg phase. Sheng Wang, who shares a laid-back drawl, moseying delivery and gift for ingenious premise, has learned the right lessons from him while mapping out his own style. Some of my favorite observational jokes of the year came from his special “Sweet & Juicy,” including his bafflement that evolution didn’t eliminate snoring and a riff on how bookstores now remind him of what he will never read. “It’s hard to see your ignorance alphabetized,” he said. (Streaming on Netflix.)
In “Phat Tuesdays,” a three-part series on Amazon Prime Video, the director Reginald Hudlin doesn’t just effectively and entertainingly argue for the seismic importance of the little-known Black comedy night at the Comedy Store. He also makes the 1990s Los Angeles comedy scene look like a way better time than anyone is having now. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)
Best Bit About Dating
Now regularly selling out theaters all over the world, Taylor Tomlinson took the next step to stand-up stardom this year. Her latest special, “Look at You,” handles her fame deftly (“Do you think I’d be this successful at my age if I had a live mom?”) and adds a sharp series of jokes about her own neurotic fear of intimacy by responding to every kind gesture from a man by saying, “Oh, that’s your move.” (Streaming on Netflix.)
Best Comedy With Music
In this booming alt-comedy genre, Matt Rogers’s new Showtime special, “Have You Heard of Christmas?” — which straddles lines between holiday album spoof and dead serious homage, ironic schmaltz and genuine emotion — stands out for its commitment to sultry-to-the-point-of-silly songs. In this regard, it’s more in the spirit of Sandra Bernhard’s annual New Year’s Eve show than Bo Burnham. (Streaming on Showtime.)
Most Popular New Trend in Specials
This was the year when otherwise polished stand-up specials regularly incorporated conversations with audience members. Patton Oswalt riffed with ticket buyers for several minutes in “We All Scream.” Joel Kim Booster built interactions with one person into the connective tissue of his show, “Psychosexual.” Hasan Minhaj (“The King’s Jester”) and Andrew Schulz (“Infamous”) did plenty of crowd work. Matteo Lane did an entire show of it (“The Advice Special”). Perhaps the absence of audiences during the pandemic made comics a little more eager to bring people into the performance.
Best Sign That Netflix’s Dominance Is Over
The year began with Netflix’s stock price plummeting, the company cutting staff and then, most notably, trying out a leasing model. In that approach, stand-up comics (like Chris Distefano and Whitney Cummings) pay their own production and marketing costs, receive a smaller fee and get the rights to their material back after a window on the site. The platform famous for giving out tens of millions of dollars to comics has entered the austerity era.
Best Sign That Netflix Still Dominates
No other streamer has come close to competing with it. FX and Peacock dabbled. Amazon did more than that. And HBO Max had a few hits. But we’re still waiting for a rival to fully engage in stand-up comedy.
Best YouTube Special
You can make an argument that the best producer of specials right now is YouTube, especially when you factor in price for the viewer. Among the comics who released funny specials for free were Fahim Anwar, Ari Shaffir, Liz Miele and Ali Siddiq. But the one that made me laugh loudest was “Jokes From the Underground” by Raanan Hershberg, whose punchy and deliriously funny club comedy made me laugh after second and third viewings.