A good stand-up special serves as a time capsule of sorts for the comedian. We’re not really referring to it being topical (that isn’t always the best approach). But rather, it is a representation of where that comedian was at that moment in life. Going into 2021, we were prepared to hear a lot of “How crazy was last year” in the majority of the specials, much to our delight, we were more-or-less spared that sentiment, and instead got treated to a pretty solid year in the world of stand-up comedy.
This year marks some milestones; Bo Burnham’s Inside became a cultural phenomenon we hadn’t seen in years. While Dave Chappelle managed to generate the most think pieces and attention given jokes deemed too controversial by some. Additionally, Shane Gillis delivered a very impressive debut hour that will no doubt prove he’s a talent to watch out for. In the case of Roy Wood Jr. we also saw an industry veteran delivering some of his best work. In general, it could have been a lackluster year given the limited live stage time comics were able to get. Yet 2021 proved to be a banner year for new talent that was able to adapt to the world and put out some work we hope helps define their careers.
A lot of specials on this list will dedicate maybe 5 or 10 minutes to talking about their experience with 2020. (Save for Bo Burnham). Lavell Crawford for that matter, dedicates the entirety of his new Showtime special, The Comedy Vaccine, to the pandemic and the election. It’s an interesting approach, but Crawford makes it work by talking about relatable elements such as wearing masks in public to using the pandemic to his advantage to having a dog during the pandemic and beyond. One highlight is the ending, where he talks about what the insurrection must have been like for the on-site officer who before then had “the most boring job ever.” While it clearly isn’t a good way to forget about what we’ve collectively been through, if you’re instead looking to laugh at it, this is the special for you.
It seems hard to believe that it wasn’t until this year that Nicole Byer got her first stand-up special. And yet that seems to be the case. Nicole wastes no time as she charges the stage and jumps right into it, declaring “I know everyone’s tired of talking about Corona and the pandemic, but we’re going to talk about it because it took a year out of my f*cking life!”. Before the special even starts, we see Byer pole dancing in hamburger lingerie. That right there gives you full indication of what you are in for with this special. Byer is determined to make a splash with her first outing, doing whatever it takes to make sure you know - perhaps all to well - just who Nicole Byer is by the end of it.
Recorded outside in a Brooklyn courtyard Gianmarco Soresi crafted a perfect time capsule of the COVID era, referencing the pandemic throughout, without wallowing in the contemporary performer’s pity. Shelf Life shows a modern comedian finding is voice and coming out on the other end of things stronger and wiser. We have high hopes for Gianmarco and feel this is the first of many specials that will be required viewing for comedy fans. Soresi's has stoic silliness with the cynic comic resignation one might expect from a New Yorker delivered with a tone and pace that suggests John Mulaney after multiple Mochachinos.
In 2018, Drew Michael did something with his first HBO special that, at the time, was still a novelty: he performed it without an audience. Of course, that would become par for the course only two years later. And here we are in 2021, and he’s dropped the audience gimmick to perform in front of a small crowd. The more intimate vibe works well for Michael’s brand of stand-up, which feels like you’re a fly on the wall for the most intense therapy session of someone’s life. Within the first few minutes, there he is, on the dimly lit stage talking about his childhood trauma. That raw nerve factor is sort of the charm of Drew Michael. And as long as he keeps sharing deep and personal secrets from his past, we’ll keep paying attention.
A lot has been said about The Closer and we’re not here to get into the controversy that surrounds it, but rather, take a look at the special for what it is as a whole. In what is being billed as the comedian's fifth and final special for Netflix, Chappelle manages to echo some of his later specials in calling out his critics, praising his loyal followers, and also details his bout with COVID and how he overcame it. The irony is, naturally, that he was looking to defy the same culture of cancellation that would start attacking him the moment he dropped the special. Whether or not that his intention was to get a ruse out of those folks, however, is not for us to say. And while it may not quite live up to his first batch of specials Chappelle was putting out on the streamer back in 2017 and 2018, it’s fair to say that any Chappelle special is definitely far better than no Chappelle special. And for that, fans of him and comedy as a whole are far better off.
Maz Jobrani’s Pandemic Warrior is the first stand-up special released by Peacock and had already been filmed before the pandemic hit. However, Jobrani decided to go back and get a second bite at the apple with the special he had filmed under the title Peaceful Warrior in December 2019 in Dubai. Thus, he added in a monologue up top before the special in which he addresses the pandemic and how much things had changed since the original special he planned to put out. The original set is intact, but the overlapping monologue adds a layer that surprisingly doesn’t distract, but enhance. It is unique in how he chose to make adjustments to something that he was already satisfied with upon completion, and therefore feels like it’s packing two specials into one mega special, Pandemic Warrior.
For years now, Rosebud Baker has a comic to lookout for. She's popped up in places like Just For Laugh’s New Faces of Comedy in 2018, on Comedy Central’s This Week at the Comedy Cellar, and HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay. So it seems about time that she should get her own special, which she did this summer. Filmed in Nashville at Zanies comedy club and distributed through Comedy Central's digital platform, Baker questions the narrative COVID patients might have when the attention healthcare workers received, her being sober, and why she didn’t participate in the women’s march. If you haven’t heard of Rosebud before, you’re in for a treat with this one!
Since its inception, The Daily Show has been a consistent launching pad in the careers of some of your favorite comedians - Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, Michelle Wolf, Roy Wood Jr., and countless others. The latest to join the ranks of Daily Show players to branch out with their own is writer Josh Johnson. Johnson's Comedy Central debut was presented by Trevor Noah and the comedian uses his first time out to discus all that free time he got during the pandemic, three things women can expect from their partners, and the possibility that his friend’s bird could be racist. Johnson’s routines bare a resemblance more of a conversation between friends than just telling jokes, which in turn makes him more effective. Johnson also simultaneously released a hybrid comedy/music album that we also recommend checking out.
If you’re looking for a good indication for what it’s like to be on the road as a comedian, this is the special for you. This docu-special showcases the frustration, excitement, monotony, and overall weird environment that comes with being a touring comic. As Gethard states at the top of the special “I think I still love comedy. But I’m tired and my back hurts and I’ve been in this car for too long.” And in addition to seeing the ups and downs of life on the road - it literally opens with him playing a breakfast show that almost ran out of pancakes at 9am. Gethard also manages to ask large questions with his audience like what is the first thing they’d do when the apocalypse hit. Ya now, the tough questions.
It makes sense that Jo Firestone’s first special out of the gate would be as unique as she is as a comic. But we weren’t quite prepared for just how unique an experience it would be. In Good Timing, we get a look at Firestone’s comedy class that she teaches every Monday for seniors. The special was supposed to highlight an average class, that sees her getting them ready for a big comedy showcase. However, COVID pushed all the classes into Zoom and featured Firestone doing everything she can to have them prepared to eventually do their big showcase this year. It’s a special as touching as it is funny, and shows that it’s never too late to take up a new project.
Jon Fisch recorded Hinged at Gotham Comedy Club in the summer of 2021 and shows a different side of the veteran comedian. Fisch has been making people laugh in some of the best comedy crowds in the city for decades now. But the onset of the pandemic brought a new challenge to the veteran comedian – marriage and fatherhood. Hinged shows the comedian at a pivotal moment in his life, transitioning from a single man in the city to husband and father. Fisch is so well loved by other comedians the likes of Tim Dillon, Mark Normand, Joe List, and Jessica Kirson came out to endorse the comics, encouraging people to watch it. Hinged shows an older (and hopefully) a bit wiser Jon Fisch in a new chapter in his life might present new challenges, but his sense of humor about it is as sharp as ever.
Fighting Words is as accurate title as we’ve encountered. From minute one, Aida comes out swinging, using jokes as her ammo. It’s one of those first specials that we seldom see, where we feel like all the elements come together in just the right way to represent what it actually feels like to be in the room with the comic. As good as the material is, it’s once she starts talking about herself and her upbringing as both Puerto Rican and Domican that stands out the most for us. At the end, she even brings a camera crew to Puerto Rico to capture her reunion with her estranged father. The reunion-atmosphere wasn’t needed from a special standpoint, and it feels more personal than anything else, but we’re still into it.
James Acaster has been making waves for years now. The British comedian was perhaps first introduced to American audiences via his 2018 Netflix show Repertoire, which consisted of four separate one-hour stand-up sets. In 2021, Acaster decided to release the special himself via Vimeo. His latest special, Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999, - which he named after getting drunk and eating cold lasagna, is a two and a half hour tour de force by Acaster. It also features arguably one of the best breakdowns and insights into depression that we’ve seen on this side of The Great Depresh. Acaster is one of those comedians that you can’t really do a whole lot of justice but attempting to describe. You just need to witness the man in action to judge for yourself.
Ricky Velez was supposed to have a breakout year in 2020. In addition to co-starring in King of Staten Island with his best friend Pete Davidson, he was also supposed to tape his debut special for HBO in April. That… Never ended up happening. Instead, he got to do the special this year, and it was well worth the wait. Here's Everything opens up with a shot of Velez in a pre-show meltdown, and there’s perhaps no better introduction to the raw vulnerable and honest journey that Velez is about to take you on than that. Velez’s jokes and stories are sharp punches that don’t suffer fools, such as when he describes his friend’s ugly baby, a friend's coming out story, or his drug-filled adventures with an idiot at Cheesecake Factory. As far as a debut special goes, Here's Everything is damn near perfect.
The student has become the teacher. After years spent serving as an opener for Dave Chappelle, Mo Amer has taken everything he’s learned from all his years in stand-up and mastered it. His special itself is incredibly funny as he talks about the first time he thought his career was over after 9/11, how Chappelle gave him COVID, swearing in Arabic, why he doesn’t “fuck with Russians,” airline safety procedures, and what exactly the proper hummus etiquette is. But what really made the special stand out is the final touching story he shares at the end. A few years ago, Amer was finally able to do something he had always wanted to do: visit and pay tribute to his family’s Palestine roots. For anyone that hasn’t seen Amer’s work before, this is a great one to start off with!
Nate Bargatze has been one of our favorite comics for years now. Spending years working his way up the ranks at various clubs throughout the country. The the hard work definitely shows off in his second Netflix special and now Grammy Nominated, The Greatest Average American. Bargatze kept up with the same dry sense of humor for which he’s become known. It was one of the first specials filmed post-pandemic, so naturally, it was taped outdoors. Proof of the logistical nightmare of such a task is present when a helicopter derails his set multiple times. Only in 2021 can you watch a comic get heckled by a helicopter. Luckily, Bargatze managed to keep things moving along with his trademark charm and we forgot about the bizarre circumstances surrounding his signature jokes.
Pete Lee is impossible to not like. His Midwestern charm is second only to just how funny his jokes are. And his first special, Tall, Dark, and Pleasant, served as the best introduction you could get to Lee’s brand of humor. Lee best describes his comedic point of view as “just how much it sucks to be nice.” Whether he’s talking about the downside of being nice, following a random couple mid-argument off an airplane, or about trying cocaine, it is clear that he is the new style of every man comic we’ve been missing. Anyone that has seen Pete Lee over the years should not be surprised that Lee’s charisma effectively made the transition from the club to the screen, which is something that cannot be said for every comedian.
Roy Wood Jr. is doing work and comedy fans out there need to pay attention to that if they have not already. His comedy is wise, insightful, and often presents a perspective that isn't what was expected. While Dave Chappelle grabbed a lot of headlines in 2021, it was Roy Wood Jr. doing the work to make comedy that would've been associated with that comedian 10 years ago. Roy Wood Jr. has consistently been releasing great stand-up special after great stand-up special and it's almost criminal how he hasn't been getting the type of ink he deserves for his body of work. We're here to say we see Roy Wood Jr. and we respect the sh*t out of him. Wood tackles complex situations with humor, because that's his chosen profession. He's doesn't want to preach about complex subjects like race and politics, he wants you to laugh at them, and Imperfect Messenger is a masterclass in how to do it. His act is conversational and easy going, something comedians take years to perfect and sometimes never do. Wood has plenty of stage experience and it shows. In a time when Comedy Central seems all but have abandoned comedy, one of its shining moments is that its rewarded Wood's loyalty with 3 stand-up specials, hosting gigs, and tv shows. We're here to say we see you Roy Wood Jr. and as comedy fans, it's an absolute pleasure to watch you work.
Mark our words, Shane Gillis getting fired from Saturday Night Live will be one of the best things that's happened to him. While the circumstances at the time were probably completely terrifying for the Young Bull. The attention they gave the comedian allowed him to show what he really could do. The result is easily the funniest run of sketch comedy (Gilly & Keeves) to hit the web in years. While it made us slightly nostalgic for what could've been on SNL, it also made us realize the bite from those sketches would've been removed had they gone through that institution. Gillis leaned into this new exposure and just nailed it, releasing buzzy sketch after buzzy sketch. Then, at peak anticipation dropped Live In Austin; one of the strongest stand-up debuts in a decade. Gillis is unassuming, with a salt-of-the-earth demeanor that makes political punchlines hit even harder. Gillis is smarter than you think from first impressions and that's what makes him so lethal, because it's unexpected. It's easy to see why Lorne Michaels wanted him on the SNL cast, because Gillis would've been a champion of working class, conservatives out there. Just to be clear, Gillis gives no indication of his political stance, rather his demeanor allows the audience to project their assumptions upon him. By the time the punchline comes it just hits harder because of this. Gillis released Live In Austin directly to fans on Youtube and to date has netted over 2.8 Million views. An incredible metric to reach in 3 months. Made even more impressive considering it grew to those numbers as a debut comedy special, bases on the merit of the content, and unsupported by any major network. Right now Shane Gillis is limited only by his ambition and the next decade for him should be a wild ride.
What more can be said about Bo Burnham’s special that hasn’t already been said in 500 think pieces that have come out since its May 31st release? Comedians spent the good portion of a year trying to figure out how to keep doing comedy throughout the pandemic. Then just as things were starting to open up again, Bo Burnham unleashes the ultimate pandemic comedy special upon us that manages to capture what we all went through and our mental states without ever saying the world "COVID." Through his unique prism we get an accurate reflection of the internal struggle a lot of us went through in 2020, all the while never losing sight of the fact that it’s a comedy special. It's particularly more impressive a feat knowing that Burnham pretty much handled the entire production of the special himself. The pacing may not be your ordinary special, but then again, 2020 wasn’t an ordinary year.