There are far too many stand-up comedy specials, thanks in large part to Netflix’s entry into the genre in 2012. Bill Burr, Iliza Shlesinger, Jeff Garlin, and many others lent their independently produced (or, in some rare early cases, Netflix wholly-owned) specials to the burgeoning streaming giant. Now, nearly a decade later, the outlet averages anywhere between three to five new stand-up titles a month. And while they’re supposedly going to stem the tide in favor of more nuanced sketch programming like I Think You Should Leave and Astronomy Club, their output is still going strong.
Meanwhile, HBO and Comedy Central, whose status as comedy’s masters of tastes informed the industry’s boom during the 1980s and 1990s, are back on the bandwagon with plenty of imaginative and innovative stand-up shows from comics both known and unknown. Other streamers — like Epix (previously) and Amazon Prime (recently) — are also getting involved with the market. So, despite the insurmountable supply they’re all providing, the demand for new comedy is seemingly unending.
As a result, the sheer weight of the genre’s output this year demands at least some kind of collection of its greatest hits, even if its judgment is based purely on the critic’s subjective tastes. The best anyone can hope for is, to borrow a bit of stand-up parlance, to avoid producing a list most would consider “hack.”
10. Michelle Wolf, Joke Show (Netflix)
It was a late entry to 2019’s deluge, but Michelle Wolf‘s Joke Show stands out as one of the year’s most technical and joke-heavy specials. (Perhaps the only other special that managed to surpass its technicality was Anthony Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward, which is why it occupies the next spot, but more on that later.) The former Late Night writer and The Daily Show correspondent spent the past few years roasting Trump (and all of Washington D.C.) at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, getting roasted for her performance, debuting a talk show on Netflix, and seeing said show get unceremoniously canceled. Yet despite all this, Wolf returned to her roots as an excellent joker writer and managed to produce a brilliant special that, aside from making viewers laugh, teaches them how to laugh.
9. Anthony Jeselnik, Fire in the Maternity Ward (Netflix)
From some of Comedy Central’s best roasts and The Jeselnik Offensive to Thoughts and Prayers and this year’s Fire in the Maternity Ward, Anthony Jeselnik has been crafting and telling purposefully offensive jokes for as long as he’s been on television. Of course, the comic’s intention isn’t to offend or shock as many people as he possibly can with a handful of lines. Rather, it’s more about the word choice, the particular phrases and the ideas they refer to, and how these are all strung together that pop. Like when dear ol’ Uncle Anthony quips, “My sister had a baby to try to ‘save the relationship,’ but I still don’t talk to her.” It’s perfection.
8. Nikki Glaser, Bangin’ (Netflix)
As the title no doubt spoils it, Nikki Glaser‘s Bangin’ is one of the past year’s crudest and most sexually explicit comedy specials. Much like her friend and colleague Amy Schumer, the comic and radio show host has absolutely no problem sharing incredibly personal stories about herself and her sex life — especially when they make for excellent joke fodder. Though as “crude” as Bangin’ might seem to some, it’s never done in a judgemental or demoralizing way. On the contrary, Glaser’s beautifully written and performed gags about when she first learned what a blow job was (as opposed to when she first performed the act) — along with many other similar topics — is as funny as it is empowering.
7. Ronny Chieng, Asian Comedian Destroys America! (Netflix)
Like Wolf’s Joke Show, The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng‘s Asian Comedian Destroys America! is another late entry to the list. (Incredibly late, actually, as it only dropped in mid-December.) But don’t let the new hour’s youngness fool you. Chieng, who originally got his start in the Australian comedy scene and toured internationally before coming to the United States, is an expert joke writer and performer, and it shows in his first American special. The extended riff on Amazon’s commercial dominance, and the logical outcome of its desire to use delivery drones, is brilliant enough to warrant Chieng’s inclusion here. As is his conscious desire to make it a “classic” special, stylistically.
6. Ramy Youssef, Feeling (HBO)
One of many stand-up specials directed by frequent Jerrod Carmichael and Bo Burnham collaborator Christopher Storer, Ramy Youssef‘s Feelings is an amazing hour for many reasons. For starters, it eschews many of the typical comedy special characteristics — crowd work, audience reaction shots, lengthy introductions and exits — in favor of a succinct, to-the-point style that’s perfectly aligned with Youssef’s comedy. He doesn’t walk out onto the stage in the beginning. He doesn’t banter all that much with the audience. And, frankly, the young comedian doesn’t dwell too long on perhaps one of the year’s best closers.
5. Jenny Slate, Stage Fright (Netflix)
Jenny Slate might be best known for her work as an actress, but she got her start in stand-up comedy, both traditional and otherwise, while she was a student at Columbia University. So, in a way, Stage Fright is a return to form for Slate, but it’s also not, as she and director Gillian Robespierre decided to create a collage of stand-up performances, documentary setpieces, and interviews. The result is not only one of the most authentic hours of comedy produced all year, but also one of the sweetest, silliest, and most endearing specials in recent memory.
4. Daniel Sloss, X (HBO)
The week before Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss‘s new HBO special premiered, Louis C.K. announced additional tour dates for his international “comeback” tour following the backlash over his admitted history of sexual misconduct. While neither comic is explicitly connected, the fact that Sloss spends most of his hour setting up his audience for a horrific revelation dovetails precisely with the many cultural and comedic aspects of the Louis C.K. story and its prevalence in the #MeToo movement — and beyond. However, even if the disgraced comic hadn’t announced his comeback then, X would still stand out for many reasons. Yes, because of its subject matter, but also because of Sloss’s evident abilities as a master joke writer and performer — even when he’s dealing with the rather unfunny subjects of sexual assault and rape.
3. Bill Burr, Paper Tiger (Netflix)
Many have compared Dave Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones to Bill Burr‘s Paper Tiger, simply because both comics address deeply problematic issues with their respective comedic lenses. “They’re both making fun of transgender issues, feminism, and related subjects,” some critics were inspired to declare. “Shame on them!” Maybe so, but in the end, Chappelle’s doubling down on his distasteful transgender jokes from the past came off as pure, unrefined emotion, while Burr’s belligerent snickering about toxic masculinity and women’s equality were the result of careful and precise joke-telling. Whether or not Burr believes what he says in Paper Tiger, it’s more about how he presents it (comedically) in a special that, as too few people noticed, was named for a Chinese concept regarding false pretenses.
2. Lil Rel Howery, Live In Crenshaw (HBO)
Like Slate, Lil Rel Howery is best known for his work as an actor, especially in films like Get Out and Uncle Drew. But, also like Slate, he got his start in stand-up — specifically, in Chicago. That’s where Howery first developed his particularly community-driven style of comedy, a kind of performance that’s meant to make those in attendance feel like they’re being included in something special. Hence Live In Crenshaw, Howery’s excellent HBO special that was directed by Jerrod Carmichael and filmed in a high school auditorium while the California sun was setting. It’s a weird thing to do, but the result is a beautiful hour of comedy that, more than anything, feels like a pep rally or a church service.
1. Wanda Sykes, Not Normal (Netflix)
2019 saw all kinds of innovation in the stand-up comedy special genre, and many of the best examples of this are listed above. The docu-comedy of Slate’s Stage Fright, the natural lighting and community setting of Howery’s Live In Crenshaw, the neo-classicism of Chieng’s Asian Comedian Destroys America! — all of these, and more, are brilliant in the technical sense. So too is Wanda Sykes‘s Not Normal, her fifth comedy special and first one to premiere exclusively on Netflix. In the strictest of terms, it’s a rather plain hour of stand-up that’s chock-full of audience reactions and other standard fares. This makes it the best special of the year, to be honest, as Sykes expertly rises above these self-imposed limitations to craft joke after joke about how America’s modern era is as normal as it isn’t. No other comedian could have accomplished such a feat. No one except for Sykes.