The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2018

Comedy Lists Best of 2018
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The 20 Best Stand-up Comedy Specials of 2018

Comedy split into two camps in 2018: Those who thought stand-up could encompass the kind of raw emotion and anger displayed in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, and those who were wrong.

Nanette dominated the conversation about stand-up in a way few specials ever have, but Gadsby wasn’t the only comic to experiment with the typical hour-long format this year. Drew Michael released a striking special on HBO that dispensed with a stage and an audience and embraced cinematic flourishes and an approach that directly addressed the home viewers. James Acaster released an entire young career’s worth of specials at once, with four hours debuting simultaneously on Netflix. Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher celebrated their honeymoon with a short series of half-hours that included copious crowd work. And Netflix turned the kind of abbreviated stand-up set that used to be a key component of late night talk shows into a destination of its own, with the 15-minute anthology series The Comedy Lineup.

Critics and comedians have long been waiting for the current comedy bubble to burst, but as long as comics and distributors are willing to take chances like this there could still a good amount of life left in the current stand-up wave. And the scene can only be strengthened by strong new specials from proven pros like Tig Notaro, John Mulaney and Chris Rock.

Here’s what impressed us here at Paste in 2018.

20. Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

As a variety show this hour is inherently hit-or-miss, but the live lineup features some of the best stand-up comedians working today, including Michelle Wolf, Tiffany Haddish, John Mulaney and Sarah Silverman. (And yes, Michael Che’s there, too.) Wolf and Mulaney carve out sharp seven minute servings from their full sets, with Wolf, the host of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, landing hard with incisive comments on sexual harassment and the immigration debate. Haddish reasserts her hard-earned status as everybody’s newest favorite human by showing the same kind of candor and charisma that has made her a highlight of Saturday Night Live, the Oscars and every other place she’s been invited over the last year; her set feels less like stand-up comedy than a conversation with a hilarious friend who wants to tell you about that time she got to party with Beyoncé after the Academy Awards. And Mulaney’s set on Timothée Chalamet—or, as he calls him, “The Boy”—hits home for anybody whose significant other has ever set eyes on that kid. There’s a lot of nonsense to fast forward through, but the half-hour of stand-up here includes three of the best sets of the year.—Garrett Martin

19. The Comedy Lineup on Netflix

Photo courtesy of Netflix

It might be a cheat lumping all these 15 minute micro specials together, especially since some are much stronger than others. The value here is in the cumulative impact—The Comedy Lineup is a well-rounded, smartly balanced overview of the current crop of comedians ready for the national stage. It’s far from comprehensive, of course, but like any great, scene-defining compilation record it does a great job introducing you to comedians you should know about, including Ian Karmel, Jak Knight, Sam Jay, Emma Willmann, Josh Johnson, Tim Dillon, Kate Willett and more. And at 15 minutes apiece, it’s a perfect show to dial up on Netflix when you’ve got just a little bit of time to kill.—Garrett Martin

18. Iliza Shlesinger – Elder Millennial

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Few comedians who traffic in relationship material do it as specifically and deliberately as Iliza Shlesinger. From her live performances to the various TV shows she’s hosted in her time, she’s managed to elevate the familiar rhythms of “fellas, you know when…” and “ladies, you ever…” setups with more articulate observations and pieces of advice than you normally get here, with a performance style that’s just a more interesting version of the bravado comics usually employ to sell it. Her newest special, Elder Millennial, feels like the culmination of this, though I doubt she’s going to hang this particular hat any time soon. The main thrust of the special is that in advance of her impending nuptials, Shlesinger wants to pass along her collection of revelations on sex, dating and relationships from her 20s. It’s a nice slightly-narrative-mostly-not framing device for the whole thing, and it allows for particularly joke-dense segments surrounding Shlesinger’s questionable life choices, some more transparently fictional than others. “He broke up with me because I slept with his brother,” she says of one boyfriend. ”Well, they’re twins, they should wear different colored hats or something.”—Graham Techler

17. Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher – “The Honeymoon Stand Up Special

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

The enfant terrible dynamic between newlyweds Leggero and Kasher is the star of The Honeymoon Stand Up Special, a collection of half-hours, and is the element that holds the series tightly together when other elements falter. The main event is the collection’s third part, a series of improvised roasts/therapy sessions with various couples in the audience. Though it’s essentially a crowd work exercise, both Leggero and Kasher thrive on each other’s rhythms and clearly delight both in putting these poor people in the hot seat (their patients include a woman who admits to not feeling any emotion) and in giving them a thrill. This framing device plays to the couple’s strengths: a podcaster’s ability to draw a guest in and a roaster’s proclivity towards knocking them down as specifically as possible. Also, I don’t know, call me old fashioned, but there’s something beautiful in the real look of love Kasher gives a newly-Jewish Leggero when she refers to the Holocaust as a “membership dropoff.” These two are just in awe of each other’s abilities.—Graham Techler

16. Kyle Kinane—The Standups

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

Kyle Kinane’s no stranger to our year-end lists. He’d probably rank a good bit higher if we got a full special from him in 2018. Instead we got a fantastic half-hour of Kinane’s gruff but grounded storytelling as part of Netflix’s The Standups anthology. It’s a bit more timely and political than his usual material, and his trademark combination of mocking himself while also calling out the idiocy and bullshit of everybody else in the world is a perfect way to address the real problems facing the world we live in. From mass shootings to the KKK, Kinane somehow stomps all over third rails without ever getting shocked; he’s a smart and experienced enough comic to know how to joke about such fraught topics without coming off as too disrespectful or flippant.—Garrett Martin

15. Adam Sandler – 100% Fresh

Photo courtesy of Netflix

100% Fresh is incorrectly named. Not because it isn’t good, but because it suggests a tone of ironic bitterness that isn’t represented in the special. Directed by Sandler’s frequent collaborator Steven Brill (with some sequences filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson), 100% Fresh contains one small dig at Rotten Tomatoes (an aggregate website that collects reviews from outside sources), but is otherwise shaggy, earnest and inventive. Sandler grins and mutters his way through it all, but he seems to be having fun, and it unlocks much of his old charm in an instant. Sandler’s giggling rubs off on you. The off-kilter songs are back, with lyrics like “I guess that calls for a death pillow over your face.” There are duds every once in a while. But then Sandler does a song about Chris Farley. It’s funny, sweet and sad. And when he sings “I wish you were still with me, and we were getting on a plane to go shoot Grown Ups 3,” it’s chilling, but also humiliating. Because somehow we never thought to think about how a guy who lost someone so young like that might want to spend his adult life making as many movies with his closest friends as possible.—Graham Techler

14. Aparna Nancherla – The Standups

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Photo courtesy of Netflix

Maybe this says more about me than her, but Aparna Nancherla continues to be just about the most relatable comedian working today on her half-hour Netflix special. She’s basically an artist of awkwardness, finding new and more endearing ways to get confused by the world we’re living in today. Somehow it’s comforting for us, the viewer, to see how hilariously uncomfortable Nancherla is.—Garrett Martin

13. Demetri Martin – The Overthinker

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Demetri Martin has always been interested in pushing form, and he hasn’t gotten quite the recognition he deserves for it. He’s certainly well respected, but in the mid-2000s, with his Beatles haircut, guitar and live cartoons, some people misdirected the label of hipsterism onto him, instead of his imitators. Martin’s new special for Netflix, entitled, appropriately, The Overthinker, doubles down on those kinds of muted comic flourishes, with Martin providing soft voiceover to represent his own thoughts during his set (solely for the benefit of Netflix viewers, not the live audience) and having contradictory subtitles pop up every now and again to call him on his shit. But Martin earns every big swing he takes here, and sits in his choices so confidently that you can’t call them twee affectations. He’s staking out a little new territory for a comedy special in the way that the best of these new Netflix specials have done.—Graham Techler

12. W. Kamau Bell – Private School Negro

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Staged in the round (as was Jerrod Carmichael’s 8, which similarly breaks up the predictable proscenium rhythms a lot of specials fall into), Private School Negro gives off a town hall impression, and Bell effectively leads one. He wears his status as a voice-of-reason comedian like a loose shirt, presenting plenty of ideas that earn applause breaks but not without playfully undercutting them. For example, his salient points about free speech, namely that “you have the right of freedom of speech, but you don’t have freedom of consequences from that speech,” is only half of his characterization of the alt-right, the other half being “they wish they were a little bit taller, they wish they were ballers. If they had a girl they’d call her.”—Graham Techler

11. Jim Gaffigan – Noble Ape

Gaffigan’s massive crossover appeal is almost undervalued these days. He’s a sympathetic everyman who can poke fun at coastal elites in a way both those elites and citizens of the flyover states can appreciate (when faced with the possibility of a North Korean missile reaching the East Coast, he finally exclaims “well we gotta do something about this! Now we’re talking about real people!”) Noble Ape feels, and I don’t mean this as a reference to Gaffigan’s food material, like a full meal. Or at least, several different small, meatier courses. A big part of this is the presence of Jeannie Gaffigan, who has co-written all of her husband’s specials but steps into the director’s chair here. Given that much of the special concerns her cancer scare—during which Gaffigan re-purposes his eye for food material with a series of dark fruit-related similes—it’s appropriate that she’s helping pace the special, and does it with a deft hand.—Graham Techler

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