Thanks to streaming giants like Netflix, smaller (and embattled) competitors like Seeso, and traditional cable outlets such as HBO and Comedy Central, the stand-up comedy special genre is booming. At least 51 original concert films have been released since January, and though previous years resulted in similarly large numbers, we’re only halfway through 2017. Considering what veteran and up-and-coming comics alike have promised fans for this year’s six remaining months, everyone can expect at least a few dozen more before any best-of lists without the “So Far” qualifier pop up.
Until then, the sheer quantity necessitates at least a few comments regarding the better, funnier and more unique offerings among this massive crop. 2017 has already bore witness to explosive events like Saturday Night Live alum Tracy Morgan’s return to the microphone and Chappelle’s Show icon Dave Chappelle’s concurrent release of dueling hours. Plenty more is expected from luminaries like Ellen DeGeneres, Judd Apatow and Jerry Seinfeld. Yet the best comedy audiences have watched, DVR-er or streamed thus far doesn’t always have a big name attached to it.
For the sake of space, this list is organized around the first six months of 2017, and each gets a top pick and a bonus selection (for the sake of spreading the wealth). The inclusion of some, like the Bo Burnham-directed Jerrod Carmichael: 8, are unquestionable, while others may stir disagreement. Which is fine, as what we find funny varies as far and wide as Norm Macdonald’s non-anti-comic material and Maria Bamford’s willful exaggeration of the truth.
January — Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’?
While it looks and feels like a typical hour, Jen Kirkman’s second Netflix special, Just Keep Livin’? is anything but. That’s not because the former Chelsea Lately panelist manages to produce a surreal, genre-bending bout of humor, but rather because of how much time she evidently put into crafting her jokes and storytelling skills. As Vulture noted, Just Keep Livin’? ends with a “closer about street harassment that might go down as the best joke of the year.” Kirkman’s tale about “nice boots” remains uncontested nearly six months later.
BONUS — Neal Brennan: 3 Mics
After Kirkman’s tattooed tribute to Matthew McConaughey, Chappelle’s Show co-creator and Half Baked co-writer Neal Brennan flirted with experimentation in 3 Mics. The John Legend-produced special, which Brennan debuted in Los Angeles and took to New York as a one-man show, features him engaging in three different, distinct comedy styles. The eponymous 3 Mics are three actual microphones on stage, and Brennan uses each for a specific purpose: one for stand-up, another for confessional comedy, and a final mic for one-liners. It’s funny, but audiences will also learn something while laughing.
February — Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend remains one of the funniest stand-up specials of 2013 — and Mike Birbiglia‘s best contributions to comedy. It’s a personal, painful and humorous hour that, in many ways, prompted more recent offerings like Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide (see below). However, with this year’s Thank God for Jokes, Birbiglia astutely recaptures much of the former’s same comic energy and confessional angst. Like Kirkman, the performer turned director (Sleepwalk With Me, Don’t Think Twice) eschews extra artifice and gets right to the funny stuff, and it works beautifully.