The 25 Best Comedians of 2015

Comedy Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Is there too much comedy today? Almost every comedian I interviewed this year talked about the current “comedy boom” and what will happen to them if/when it ends. They’re not all nervous, or anything, but just recognize that there’s way more comedy in way more places than ever before right now. We’ve already gone over our favorite comedy podcasts and internet videos of the year, two avenues that didn’t really exist for comedians barely more than a decade ago. Although the internet makes it easy to get your comedy out to the masses, that glut might make it harder than ever for a comedian to stand out now. It almost always requires some elaborate combination of podcasting, social media and traditional stand-up specials, sitcoms or movies. Indeed, almost everybody on the list below excelled at more than one kind of comedy. Some wrote books, others made multiple guest spots across the TV dial, and some even got to write and star in their own movies. The only common denominator is a background in stand-up or sketch comedy and the ability to actually make people laugh. Whether this comedy boom is about to go bust or not, you can’t ever have too much good comedy, and these 25 people made the best of the year. (And if you want to read last year’s list, click here.)

25. Kumail Nanjiani

Over the last few years, Kumail Nanjiani has gotten more and more popular while still being true to his nerdy origins. Beyond his starring role in Silicon Valley and hosting gig in The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, he’s become one of the most reliable guest stars on TV, delighting us with appearances in shows like Community, Inside Amy Schumer, PortlandiaThe Grinder, Broad City and more. 2015 was a standout year for Kumail Nanjiani’s career both in and out of comedy, as he landed a role on the upcoming reboot of The X-Files (if you listen to his podcast The X-Files Files, you’re familiar with his unbridled enthusiasm for the show). With this momentum, 2016 should be an even more fantastic year for him.—Olga Lexell

23 & 24. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer

I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman or to be a twentysomething in 2015, but I have to imagine Broad City pretty much nails what it’s like to be both for at least a certain part of the population. In last year’s list Maren MacGlashan wrote that Jacobson and Glazer “brought ladies into the realm of slacker comedy.” With Broad City’s excellent second season, Jacobson and Glazer made us forgot dudes ever did “slacker comedy” to begin with.—Garrett Martin

22. Jerrod Carmichael

Carmichael did something remarkable this year: he made a traditional network sitcom work. The Carmichael Show is as traditional in format as sitcoms get: three walls, four cameras and a studio audience whose laughter may or may not be sweetened in postproduction. It works far better than it should, though, and not just because of Carmichael’s cool charisma and great performances from David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine and Lil Rel Howery. Carmichael and his writers addressed topics you wouldn’t normally find in sitcoms, including Black Lives Matter and gun control, and somehow did it with class and humor. Those first six episodes have us excited for the show’s return in 2016.—GM

21. Rachel Bloom

Before her breakout role on the CW’s new musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and before her Golden Globe nomination, Rachel Bloom sang songs on YouTube about cake farts, watching the Tony Awards with a Craigslist weirdo, and lusting after Ray Bradbury. She had then what she has now: a seemingly boundless reserve of energy, a refined sense of silliness, and a knack for clever lyrics. The only difference is the size of her audience. Watching Bloom rake in the accolades for Crazy Ex, which she co-created with The Devil Wears Prada writer Aline Brosh McKenna, has been a highlight in a year otherwise dominated by more established talent. Bloom is quickly carving out a place for her unique feminist take on mental illness—something sorely needed but rarely done on broadcast television.—May Saunders

20. Jen Kirkman

Jen Kirkman’s Netflix special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) was a long time coming. Kirkman didn’t burst into the comedy stratosphere fresh out of the gate; she’s been working steadily as a stand-up, TV guest, and Chelsea Lately staff writer for over a decade. A couple years back, the comedian landed a deal for a semi-autobiographical FX sitcom called Jen that ideally could have done for divorced women what other female-led sitcoms have done for being in your late 20s and trying to have it all. Alas, it didn’t get picked up for a pilot. Her hour-long special about life after marriage and greying pubic hair, among other things, is so good it makes you want to go back in time and live in a universe where Kirkman got her due earlier on. But because she’s at the top of her game now, there’s no use lingering too long over what could have been. With another book out in 2016, Kirkman is launching straight into another big year. And hey, Netflix? Maybe you could finally give Jen a home?—May Saunders

19. Emily Heller

Whether on her debut album Good For Her or as the co-host of her podcast Baby Geniuses, Emily Heller is unapologetically, joyfully herself. Good For Her is a tour of how her brain works, talking about growing up a “spazzy weirdo” or documenting her obsession with Fraiser. Baby Geniuses is Heller (along with co-host Lisa Hannawalt) giving into her weird tangents and honest excitement about subjects from “gender inequality” to “butts”. In both, Heller gives a us glimpse of her that’s seemingly unfiltered, the mark of a truly great comedian.—Casey Malone

18. Julie Klausner

Klausner has dabbled in roughly every form a comedian can dabble in, from sketch and improv to podcasting and memoir. Dabble is an understatement, of course, as she writes and performs with an effortless facility surpassed only by her deep intelligence. As a piece of semi-autobiographical fiction, her Hulu series Difficult People is a depressing reminder that even the most talented artists must suffer through rejection and obscurity. As a comedy, however, it is one of those rare shows that lives up to the brilliance of its creators.—Seth Simons

17. Kyle Kinane

Kinane started the year off with his excellent Comedy Central special I Liked His Old Stuff Better, where his stories of hard living had the right mixture of shame and pride. His natural charisma, sense of shame and unwavering ability to tell a story keeps him from coming off like an obnoxious wannabe tough guy when he talks about the seedier and more desperate facets of his life. As good as his specials are, seeing him live reinforces how talented Kinane is—his stint at a kitschy strip club in Montreal was a highlight of this year’s Just For Laughs festival.—GM

16. Kate McKinnon

Back in 2012, the Kate McKinnon-Kristen Wiig comparisons were inevitable. Both were formidable impressionists and comedians who brought a certain devilish unpredictability to their performances. It didn’t help matters that McKinnon was brought on SNL just as Wiig was leaving for greener cinematic pastures. Three years later, with both of them starring in next year’s Ghostbusters, those comparisons seem dated and unfair. McKinnon has always had her own voice: off kilter and intense but always carefully controlled. SNL basically belongs to her at this point, whether she’s channeling Clinton, Bieber or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Outside SNL, she was one of the few non-Fey, non-Poehler members of the overstuffed Sisters cast to make an impression. McKinnon capped off 2015 by making not just Ryan Gosling but also Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong break in a fairly sparse sketch about an alien abduction. It was proof of how much she can do with so little, and how far she has left to go.—May Saunders

15. Billy Eichner

Eichner’s about as “love him or hate him” as anybody on TV right now. If you couldn’t handle his small but hilarious recurring role on Parks & Recreation, you probably wouldn’t dig Billy on the Street, which would be your loss—his abrasive drive-by game show is one of the funniest things on television. His starring role on Difficult People showed he could do more than volume and disgust, though—his depiction of a struggling New York comic who undermines himself at every turn surprised us with its sympathy and occasional subtlety.—GM

14. H. Jon Benjamin

Imagine the gumption it takes to gather jazz artists to record an album, only to reveal—during the recording session—that you can’t play music. It’s that kind of absurdist behavior that makes Jon Benjamin such a standout. In his comedy album Jazz Daredevil, Benjamin tries selling his soul to the devil (voiced by Aziz Ansari) for musical chops, but alas the devil isn’t trading. And so listeners are stuck with a new, comedic take on jazz. Benjamin didn’t just justify our hatred for jazz, though. He continues to hold the excellent Bob’s Burgers and Archer together, and he reprised his pivotal role in Netflix’s revival of Wet Hot American Summer. Perhaps his best work came in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None—although it was a small role, Benjamin imbued it with a humanity and intelligence that was able to stand out on a show defined by those two traits.—Amanda Wicks

13. Eugene Mirman

Mirman’s a perennial candidate for this list because of his reliably great work on Bob’s Burgers. This was a big year for him, though—not only did he release a great stand-up special on Netflix, he also put out the most ostentatious comedy album of all time. The nine-volume I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome) is an absurd epic and art piece that remains hilarious throughout its many hours. It’ll be hard to top, both in terms of scope and quality.—GM

12. Will Forte

The Last Man on Earth is a perfect venue for Forte’s particular talents. His years on SNL and turns in various movies have proven that he’s equally skilled at playing manic and understated, at physical and verbal comedy, at playing it straight or dishing out broad comedy, at the silly and the sad. He gets to do it all on Last Man, while also rewriting what’s expected from a broadcast network comedy.—GM

11. Ron Funches

Ron Funches has slowly moved past his Steven Wright-like laconic standup delivery, and his stage work has only improved as a result. Just compare one of his early clips on Conan with what he captured on his debut CD The Funches Of Us. The jokes are coming a lot faster, landing a little harder, and the obvious warmth of Funches’ personality shines through even more. He’s also helped by material that explores his obviously fun relationship with his autistic son, and his arch view of something as seemingly innocuous as Muppet Babies. Add to his resume his consistent scene stealing work on the otherwise meh sitcom Undateable and his reliably great appearances on @Midnight, and 2015 has been very, very good for Funches.—Robert Ham

10. Andy Daly

Is there something deeply wrong with Andy Daly? What inside him so perfectly produces lecherous monsters like Comedy Bang Bang’s Don Demillo, cheerful killers like Rick & Morty’s Krombopulous Michael (a performance that stole the show with roughly two minutes of screen time) or characters so delightfully detached from reality as his most incredible creation, Review’s Forrest Macneil? Whatever it is—as long as his work stays this brilliantly funny—please, Mr. Daly, never ever get help.—Casey Malone

9. Nathan Fielder

Nathan Fielder, a Canadian comic and former correspondent on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, hit on a brilliant mine of absurdity with his Comedy Central show Nathan For You: how most Americans will agree to do the most ridiculous things possible if it means being on TV. Utilizing that strange loophole, he and his team attempted to “help” struggling small businesses with strange, out of the box ideas like using balloons to allow overweight people to go horseback riding or offering a hotel the use of a sensory deprivation chamber for kids that will allow parents to have sex without scarring their children for life. Through it all, Fielder kept a straight face and his charmingly awkward demeanor intact, which only served to make these far outside the box concepts that much funnier.—Robert Ham

8. Paul F. Tompkins

Tompkins has come a long way since his 1998 HBO special Driven to Drink, which was more accurately a work of experimental theatre disguised as stand-up. In the intervening decades Tompkins has reached unprecedented levels of alt-comedy superstardom, thanks in no small part to his mastery of podcasting. This year saw the debut of his new show Spontaneanation, some of the finest episodes of The Dead Authors Podcast, and another season of No, You Shut Up!, the puppet-filled faux-news show he hosts for Fusion. But these all pale in comparison to his new stand-up special Crying and Driving, Tompkins’ long-coming apotheosis from oddball performer to virtuoso storyteller.—Seth Simons

7. John Mulaney

The comeback kid got back on track after a year that didn’t start off on the right foot. 2015 saw the writer turned stand-up turned actor quietly exit from primetime to refocus his energies on his first love: stand-up comedy. He toured and honed his material for his second hour-long special, The Comeback Kid. Between his adept ability to exacerbate life’s mundanity, made sharper thanks to his keen writer’s approach, Mulaney proved he’s got staying power. So much staying power, in fact, that he and Nick Kroll segued their Kroll Show “Too Much Tuna” characters into the acclaimed off-Broadway play Oh, Hello. Mulaney’s rebound proves he’s too good to be chained down on a network sitcom.—Amanda Wicks

6. John Oliver

Last Week Tonight ’s second year was even better than its first, with more lengthy explorations of important stories that the news media generally ignored. Oliver’s show remains at the top of the comedy news class because it’s not just funnier than the other shows but also more informative. Oliver traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, had a hand in taking down Sepp Blatter’s regime at FIFA, and also gave Rachel Dratch her funniest role since at least her SNL days when the two formed their own televangelist church. It’s the perfect mix of humor and news, and, as Casey Malone wrote in last year’s list, Oliver’s “kind affability and constant exasperation” is invaluable.—GM

4 & 5. Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele

We’re going to miss Key & Peele. By “we” I don’t mean just myself or Paste, but society as a whole. And by “miss” I don’t mean we’ll reflect fondly upon this show that made us laugh and now exists no more, but that our culture will literally feel the absence of this brilliant show that routinely skewered the depressing racial climate in America. Not every sketch was political, and not every sketch was a hit, but at their best Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele hilariously attacked issues few other comedians or shows would dare to touch. They used comedy to become a vital part of the national conversation, and hopefully whatever they do next will have that same power.—GM

3. Tig Notaro

Until 2014, Tig Notaro’s career had been on a nice, slowly burning trajectory, with appearances on The Sarah Silverman Show and This American Life and her podcast Professor Blastoff raising her profile gradually. But the last two years have rocketed her into the stratosphere through rather terrifying circumstances: the triple whammy of her contracting C-DIFF, getting diagnosed with breast cancer, and the death of her mother. Rather than hiding from all of this bad news, Notaro incorporated it into her standup act and dared audiences to share in these all-too-human truths with her. Her comedy has only improved since then as seen in her HBO special Boyish Girl Interrupted, a bold and hilarious hour that culminated in her daring removal of her shirt to expose the scars from her double mastectomy. Notaro is about to move further into the spotlight with the announcement that the semi-autobiographical pilot she created with Diablo Cody, One Mississippi, was picked up for a full-series order. Considering everything she’s been through, and the grace and good humor she has faced it all with, there’s no doubt she has earned this.—Robert Ham

2. Aziz Ansari

Once Parks and Recreation ended after seven seasons in February, Aziz Ansari immediately began separating himself from the Tom Haverford “treat yo self” persona that the public assumed was also his own. In doing this, Ansari focused his 2015 on relationships in the digital age with an incredible amount of specificity and depth. He dove into the topic with his fourth stand up special, Live at Madison Square Garden, expanded on it in his informative book Modern Romance, and then perfected it with his return to TV, Master of None. By exploring his own personal history and relationships in a way that felt very personal, Ansari found something truly touching and relatable. He found substance without casting off his style, and remained brilliantly funny the whole time.—Ross Bonaime

1. Amy Schumer

No comedian made headlines as often as Amy Schumer did in 2015. Her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer called out sexism in scathing and hilarious sketches like “Football Town Nights,” “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” and “Court of Public Opinion: The Trial of Bill Cosby,” forcing us to address problems we as a culture don’t want to talk about. Beyond television, she wrote and starred in the hit Trainwreck (then hinted at another script she’s writing with Jennifer Lawrence) and capped off the year with her debut hour-long stand-up special on HBO. It’d be a career year for most comedians, but Schumer’s just getting started.—Olga Lexell

Also in Comedy