Love it or hate it, “Peak TV” has flooded our broadcast antennae, cable subscriptions and streaming services with a lot of content. The result is an “addiction to more” that critics and audiences alike must contend with by sifting through the masses to watch what they can — the expense of otherwise excellent newcomers. Yet it’s not just scripted television, as one could say the same about the stand-up comedy special.
In decades past, these typically hour-long program became the exclusive property of Comedy Central and its premium counterpart HBO. Comedians who wanted to transform their material into something more permanent had to make it past Viacom and Time Warner’s gatekeepers. Thanks to Peak TV, however, comics today can produce and distribute their own stand-up routines through more outlets and with less studio interference.
Hence why whittling down the dozens of new specials released this year into a “best of” list is so difficult. A lot of really funny people put out some genuinely fantastic material, and the inclination is to award them all with at least a brief mention. But doing so would belittle the whole purpose of writing a “best of” list, so without further ado here are the 10 best stand-up comedy specials of 2016.
9. The Goddamn Comedy Jam
Josh Adam Meyers’ Goddamn Comedy Jam live show was already a fixture of the Los Angeles stand-up scene when Comedy Central picked it up for a one-off special in August. Watching comics belt out their favorite songs seemed like a great idea. Both the comics who participated (Pete Davidson, Jim Jefferies, Natasha Leggero, Adam DeVine and Jay Pharoah) and the viewers who watched agreed — convincing Comedy Central to order a series (albeit with a Goddamn-less title). Judging by what Jefferies told us in August, Comedy Jam‘s variety show could be just as popular as its panel show counterpart, @midnight: “I think comedians will be lining up to do it. Like, ‘In this episode, Steve Martin!’ You know what I mean?”
8. Jim Jefferies, Freedumb
Speaking of Jefferies, the Australian stand-up followed his wonderful 2014 special Bare (and its viral 15-minute segment on gun control) with another fantastic feature dubbed Freedumb. Premiering a few weeks before the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Freedumb lampoons everything from the 2016 presidential election to Jefferies’ best efforts to be a good dad. Despite all the fuss about his viral guns bit, however, the comedian told us he didn’t mind the audience’s expectation that he address it again and again in his newer material. “It’s something I’m fairly passionate about,” he said. Anyone who’s watched Freedumb‘s lengthy 84-minute runtime would agree.
7. Pete Holmes, Faces and Sounds
As funny as political comedy can (and should) be, sometimes silly is best. Case in point: Pete Holmes’ followup to the wonderful-yet-canceled Pete Holmes Show, Faces and Sounds. The HBO special spends less time on major topical events and more on the titular faces and sounds that make Holmes and his audience giggle incoherently. One example: when everyday English speakers use the phrase “edited it” in conversation, which the stand-up presents as evidence that “we fucked up as a language.” Whether these observations will make it into Holmes’ Judd Apatow-produced scripted series Crashing remains to be seen, though considering how high his writing can elevate something like a linguistic oddity, let’s hope so.
6. Reggie Watts, Spatial
Those familiar with Reggie Watts’ work as The Late Late Show‘s bandleader probably didn’t know Scott Aukerman’s former Comedy Bang! Bang! sidekick was also a self-described “disinformationist” comic. Or as Watts put it while discussing his Netflix special, “I love it when people are totally confused and don’t know what the fuck is going on” because it “lets me introduce more strange elements into the mix.” Spatial is precisely that, as the musician splices irreverent sketches and lyrical interludes with impromptu band performances, professional tap dancers selected “at random” from the audience, and numerous other send-ups of the sitcom, stand-up, and variety show formats. It’s one of the year’s most surreal comedy hours, which makes it wonderful.
5. Cameron Esposito, Marriage Material
Cameron Esposito had a really great 2016. Her stand-up special Marriage Material came out in March, she and her comedian wife Rhea Butcher’s fantastic show Take My Wife premiered, and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Take My Wife went on to score a few points and a spot on the Uproxx 2016 Television Critics’ Poll, as well as a second season order from Seeso. But Esposito’s stand-up act remains undimmed, as evidenced by Marriage Material. From her amazing ability to turn her marriage to a fellow comedian into a stand-up set, to her intelligent commentary on things like Oscar-bait films depicting lesbian relationships, the 35-year-old comic proved 2016 was her year.
4. Patton Oswalt, Talking for Clapping
The late April release of Patton Oswalt’s Netflix special Talking for Clapping was tinged with tragedy when his wife, true crime writer Michelle McNamara, passed away the day before. Yet the celebrated comic went on to win an Emmy Award for the utterly fantastic special, while proving again and again just how much of a decent human being he is. Talking for Clapping is a wonderful hour of comedy in which Oswalt perfects his nuanced eye for pop culture while riffing on parenting, how complicated maintaining political correctness can be, and the absolute horror felt while watching a paid clown emerge from the woods at a children’s birthday party.
3. Hannibal Buress, Comedy Camisado
Aside from gifting fans with comedy’s longest stray hair of 2016, Hannibal Buress’ stand-up special Comedy Camisado did far more than propel the 33-year-old funnyman beyond a few jokes about a guy that went viral in 2014. The new hour ushered in another series of watershed moments for Buress, whose laid back style of delivery and occasionally uncontrollable fits of laughter deserve even more airtime in 2017. The perfected carefree persona Buress demonstrates on Comedy Camisado‘s stage also found a counterpart in the comedy tour film Hannibal Does Edinburgh, which documented the comic’s time in Scotland for the world renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Taken together, the two movies help solidify Buress’ place on this list, though Comedy Camisado stands tall enough to nab him the third spot.
2. Pete Davidson, SMD
What more is there to say about SNL‘s Pete Davidson? Just about everything he does on NBC’s weekly live variety show is amazing, so when the 23-year-old comedian from Staten Island released his first stand-up special on Comedy Central, he didn’t disappoint. SMD is just as gritty and honest as Davidson often is during interviews — especially when the particular “shitty” nature of his hometown is brought up in conversation. “There’s good people everywhere,” he tells his audience in a seemingly rare moment of benevolence, “but not in Staten Island.” Despite the overtly negative character of Davidson’s jokes, however, his demeanor both on and off the stage never waivers from its apparent wealth of honesty. As a result, not even the Staten Islanders in his audience were mad about his jokes at their expense.
1. Ali Wong, Baby Cobra
To demonstrate how good Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra is, skim through this quick list of terms coined by the Fresh Off the Boat writer and American Housewife costar in her stand-up comedy debut: “snail trail,” “Chewbacca bread,” “MacGyver baby wipe.” It would be possible to offer quick explanations for each, but that would rob readers of the chance — no, the necessity — to watch Baby Cobra this very second. Wong, who was seven months pregnant when Baby Cobra filmed in Seattle, smashes the audience’s expectations about becoming a mother with hilariously awful jokes about bodily fluids, sexual proclivity and racism. Yet none of her stories or bits were written or executed for pure shock value. What’s more, a few of Wong’s more confessional moments provide Baby Cobra with some of comedy’s sincerest moments in 2016.
BONUS: Tracy Morgan, Picking Up the Pieces Tour
Technically, Tracy Morgan didn’t release a comedy special in 2016. He did, however, embark on an extensive tour titled Picking up the Pieces that promised fans a fully fledged comeback by the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock alum. The raw, unadulterated and often emotional result that took what Morgan previewed during his SNL hosting gig in late 2015 and exploded it in a serious of potent, hilarious jokes about staying alive after almost dying in a horrific car accident. The show was still brand new when we caught its third performance in Boston (and fifth overall) in late February, and it was nowhere near as fine-tuned as Bona Fide (2014) or Black and Blue (2011) were when Morgan taped them. Even so, the tour proved Morgan still has it.