Mandatory Best of 2019: Ranking the 10 Funniest Stand-Up Specials of the Year
Is humor subjective? Or are certain jokes unequivocally funnier than others? And what is the purpose of a comedian? Is it to please the audience, push the envelope, or speak truth to power? Stand-up comedy had an interesting year, a lot of it spent reconciling with all these questions, as a judgemental and highly reactive social sphere has thrust those in the joke business under a microscope. While some comics fought for more autonomy, viewing containment as a form of holy roller censorship, others carried on unblinking, building on past works without paying any lip service to the current constructs. The last year of the decade will surely go down in history as one suffering from growing pains, but even with the toe cramps and spasms, there were plenty of laughs. Without further adieu, here are the 10 funniest stand-up specials of 2019.
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10. Michelle Wolf - 'Joke Show'
Michelle Wolf is funny and she knows it. With thoughtful, well-articulated premises, Wolf weaves through the landscape of modern life with her filter turned off. She says what she wants, twisting presumptions on their head as she shows flashes of comic brilliance. She may not own the stage yet, but with a unique voice and biting wit, she's got a bright future ahead.
9. Daniel Sloss - 'X'
The spastic Scot spends an hour of his new special lulling the audience into what we think is a fine comedic armor, only to spend the final act piercing below the surface with a deeper personal tale. For a young comedian who's made a name riding the edge of controversy, he constantly manages to defy expectations with a humanistic landing that sticks.
8. Wanda Sykes - 'Not Normal'
Watching Wanda Sykes make fun of Donald Trump is one of our new favorite things. The spitfire comic wastes no time jumping right in, letting everyone know that business-as-usual in America is not normal. And if we don't do something about it soon, we'll all develop permanent, resting what-the-f*ck face.
7. Gary Gulman - 'The Great Depresh'
Splicing together documentary footage of Gulman's life, interviews with his mom, a glimpse into his therapist's office, and an intimate standup performance straight from the heart, The Great Depresh manages to be an emotionally cathartic performance with loads of laughs. It's a reminder of how we best our personal demons. This HBO special will (hopefully) be a stepping stone to a wider audience (Netflix) for the talented Gary Gulman.
6. Lil Rel Howery - 'Live in Crenshaw'
Known more for his acting than his stand-up, Lil Rel Howery delivers a down-home twist on the classic debut stand-up special. Playing more like a pep rally than your typical comedy show, Howery's powerful oration enchants a local crowd inside the gymnasium of Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Shot during golden hour as the sun sets behind him, Howery's insightful musings are wrapped in an ethereal light, outmatched only by the glow of this energized performer at work.
5. Ramy Youssef - 'Feelings'
This year marked a few notable arrivals into the arena of stand-up specials, and Ramy Youssef's Feelings is one of the most endearing. With a laid-back style and wide-eyed wonder, Youssef intelligently examines cultural realities, wealth inequality, and religion. It takes a while for the young comic to hit cruising altitude, but once he's up there, time flies.
4. Bill Burr - 'Paper Tiger'
In classic Bill Burr style, the Boston comedian comes out the gate roaring in Paper Tiger. He's a boisterous, freewheeling man with a microphone who quickly unleashes his fury onto a sold-out crowd at London's Royal Albert Hall. But feeling the freedom of a foreign crowd, he's able to get a little pent-up anger off his chest, and begins to settle down into a worthy reflection of American life, the knee-jerk chaos of over-correcting social ills, and the disconnect between what we say as commentators and what we do as humans. Unlike some critically-panned stand-up specials of 2019, he examines the current battle of the sexes not as a doubling-down of sexism, but as an amenable man who just wants his slice of peace and quiet so he can flail about yelling humorous observations unencumbered, which, at the end of the day, isn't that what we all want?
3. Roy Wood Jr. - 'No One Loves You'
Known mainly for his appearances on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, Roy Wood Jr. serves up some delicious comedy in his new special No One Loves You. Though some of the ingredients are borrowed, the recipes taste fresh, as Wood wraps the jokes in a brand new context. The result is a consistently hilarious performance with nuggets of wisdom that serve to capture the current melting pot of American strife.
2. Anthony Jesselnik - 'Fire in the Maternity Ward'
Jesselnik manages an interesting feat. Even though you know his punchlines will constantly pivot away from his set-ups, his jokes still land every time. His sardonic misdirection maintains its freshness in large part to the plodding delivery Jesselnik has mastered, while his arrogant persona only grows more likable with each dastardly barb. Fire in the Maternity Ward shows a champion joke-teller owning the ring in an effortless, shoulder-shrug style that comes and goes before you know what hit you.
1. Mike Birbiglia - 'The New One'
Maybe it's the wear and tear of the past few years, but it's pretty telling that the most controversial special of the year was about whether or not to have a kid. You know, because New York City is sinking into the ocean. Mike Birbiglia has always been a solid comic, often rising above the pack with humor that is relatively hypoallergenic. But with The New One, he has created his magnum opus, utilizing all the skills in his seasoned arsenal to mine the gold of his journey into parenthood.