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.
BONUS — Gina Yashere: Ticking Boxes
American comedy aficionados usually aren’t as familiar with international comics. This can change whenever a performer breaks through thanks to a film role or a television appearance. Gina Yashere, who became The Daily Show‘s new British correspondent this year, is bumping her American profile thanks to the latter, but as she told Uproxx in March, it’s all for the purpose of doing more stand-up. Like Ticking Boxes, her most recent hour, which Seeso picked up just before Yashere’s Comedy Central debut. Her fourth special, Yashere’s latest offers newcomers a preview of what the rest of the world already knows.
March — Jerrod Carmichael: 8
Jerrod Carmichael was already on a roll when his HBO special 8 premiered in March. (The Spike Lee-directed Love at the Store in 2014 and The Carmichael Show‘s success on NBC helped make this possible.) Yet that didn’t stop Carmichael and fellow comic (and real life friend) Bo Burnham from making the best stand-up special of 2017 so far. The 30 year old delivers his particular brand of edgy, Richard Pryor-esque commentary on the ins and outs of being a young Black man in modern America, but with an artful touch, as 8 literally throws viewers into the middle of the live show like an eavesdropped conversation.
BONUS — Sasheer Zamata: Pizza Mind
Whether or not Seeso survives remains to be seen, though hopefully it does for the sake of comedians like Sasheer Zamata. The former SNL cast member, who left the variety show this season, closed out the month of March with Pizza Mind, another fantastic stand-up special that didn’t trail too far behind Carmichael’s triumph. Though largely a traditional comedy hour complete with stage, mic stand and audience, Zamata’s humorous exploration of her life and career evolves into a collage of sketches, cartoons and musical numbers.
April — The Lucas Brothers: On Drugs
Zamata’s Pizza Mind wasn’t the only new stand-up special to make use of animation. Identical twin brothers Keith and Kenny Lucas, otherwise known as “The Lucas Brothers,” debuted their first hour in April with plenty of purposefully drug-addled cartoons. Then again, On Drugs isn’t simply a meditation on drug use for comedic punchlines, as the intensely political concert film takes aim at former President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs (and similar efforts of Donald Trump’s administration). The end result is one of the shorter stand-up specials this year, but it’s also one of the best.
BONUS — Louis C.K. 2017
Fans can, and will, argue about what the best Louis C.K. special is long after their lack of breath transforms them into the very mouth-breathers he lampoons in 2010’s Hilarious. Since this article isn’t dedicated solely to C.K.’s oeuvre, however, this entry will only discuss 2017, the first of two new Netflix specials he announced in February. Unlike Hilarious and the majority of his past specials, C.K. doesn’t waste too much time in his performance, though his trademark awkward pauses remain intact. As do his stated opinions about everything from abortion to homosexuality, which C.K. expertly designs here to shock with laughter.
May — Chris Gethard: Career Suicide
Technically, Upright Citizens Brigade alum Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide isn’t a stand-up special, but a one-person show. Like Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Career Suicide thereby delves deep into Gethard’s own biography (which stand-up often does), but without the explicit purpose of making the audience laugh. Yet the improv aficionado — whose Chris Gethard Show remains one of television’s oddest, most endearing talk shows — manages to convert his personal tragedies into humor, and it’s wonderful.
BONUS — Maria Bamford: Old Baby
Just because a comic decides to try something new doesn’t always make for a great hour of comedy. What’s more, the more surreal versions of these approaches to stand-up don’t always go over that well with general audiences. Thankfully, Maria Bamford has her Lady Dynamite following to thank for the increased number of eyeballs that likely saw Old Baby, which was filmed at six different locations. While linearity has nothing to do with Old Baby‘s progression of jokes and places, Bamford expertly displays her penchant for funny over-exaggeration with great success.
June — Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time
Though previously expressed in a recent Comedy Now column, it bears repeating: Rory Scovel is a mad genius. 2015’s The Charleston Special earned widespread acclaim among critics, and judging by the even more ridiculous Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time, chances are they’ll be singing the South Carolina native’s praises once again. Like some of the more zany specials on this list, this hour includes plenty of added bits beyond the comedian’s time on stage. (In this case, fictionalized bookends and a talk show sketch with guacamole connoisseur Jack White.) Yet the stand-up stands on its own with ease.
BONUS — T.J. Miller: Meticulously Ridiculous
T.J. Miller’s departure from Silicon Valley, the manner in which his beloved character Erlich Backman was dispatched, and subsequent speculation have clouded the comedian’s career as of late. Thanks to his new HBO special, Meticulously Ridiculous, however, Miller’s star won’t be fading anytime soon. Both the material and the presentation will likely divide viewers into two distinct camps — those who appreciate what Miller’s doing, and those who don’t get it — and the comic is totally fine with that. Even so, Meticulously Ridiculous offers comedy fans something different to chew on in 2017.