You may have noticed that as part of their ongoing effort to permanently annex our living rooms, Netflix has significantly ramped up production of original comedy specials in recent years; after dipping their toes in the water (they only produced six original specials in 2014, for example), they’ve produced so many comedy specials that this year they decided to try and kill me by releasing a new special almost every single week.
But the joke is on Netflix, because I watched them all (as of August 1, 2017, at least) and I’m still here!
Some specials were good. Some were… not as good. Some used to be good but for whatever reason didn’t age well. But a few stuck with me. These few are, for one reason or another, the specials that I found particularly entertaining, or exciting, or that I just can’t stop thinking about and will definitely discuss with you at a party:
Matching Joke to Persona: John Mulaney, The Comeback Kid (2015)
Though I love John Mulaney, I wasn’t sure I wanted to include The Comeback Kid in this list. For starters, there’s an argument to be made that it’s not even his best stand-up special on Netflix, as his 2012 special New In Town (which is not technically a Netflix-produced special) may be more entertaining; I also considered using this slot on Oh Hello On Broadway (which Mulaney did with Nick Kroll), which I also love.
But then I remembered the rule.
There is a rule that some comedians talk about, which is that a comedian doesn’t get to decide what jokes are funny coming from them: that’s up to the audience. In other words, based on the way the comedian looks, sounds, their persona, and so on - all of this is part of the comedic equation, part of what helps decide whether or not the joke ends up working.
John Mulaney may be the best comedian alive right now in terms of telling jokes that fit his persona. He addresses it early in his act, setting the tone about his youthful, innocent looks, but his babyface and his cheerful demeanor cut perfectly against the ruthless efficiency of his jokes, as he moves quickly, hitting you with punchline after punchline and peppering it with just the right amount of self-deprecation, building the laughs line by line and squeezing laughter out of your body even as your brain is playing catch up. It’s sharp and intelligent and whips along.
And OHMYGOD that closer. Mulaney’s final story, which is roughly twelve minutes, is so powerful and distinct that it may very well define the entire special, because as good as he is for the first forty-plus minutes of the show, those final twelve are what make me come back. The story, which is nominally about the time he, as a child, met Bill Clinton, is twelve minutes of twists and turns. Twelve minutes that feel like you’re in a horror movie, and the joke is the unkillable evil force, because just when you think it’s over, the fucking joke appears again, still not dead, still chasing you, ready to attack you again with another punchline.
Striking with Precision: Ali Wong, Baby Cobra (2016)
If I were looking for an Asian comedian to put on this list, Ali Wong would almost certainly be it. After all, her reference points (growing up Asian, living in Los Angeles) are similar to my own. She manipulates her voice in a way that, at times, sounds familiar, reminiscent of some of my friends and cousins and aunties, leaning toward stereotype without diving into it. And a number of her jokes fight the good fight against Asian stereotypes - for example, when she extols the virtues of dating Asian men, or speaks openly about her sexual exploits, playing against the fetishized innocent otherness of Asian women.
But Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra is not on this list because I wanted to pick an Asian comedian. She’s on this list because she’s put together one of the sharpest, funniest specials available right now.
Her timing is impeccable. Her phrasing and word choice deliberate. There’s such precision in the way she speeds up and slows down, letting our emotions rise and fall along with her, that it’s hard to believe she doesn’t have a teleprompter hidden in the audience somewhere. Her jokes veer from personal to universal, from Asian to American, and in doing so, she pulls off that trick where she is both unique and a stand-in for all of us.
But that’s not even Wong’s biggest trick: By the time we reach the end of the hour, she manages to flip the premise of the entire show on its head, and only after it’s too late is it clear that she’s been distracting us from the real joke this whole time, a joke that has been staring us in the face for the entire show. It is shocking that this is her first special, but also wonderful, because it means that there’s so much more to come.
The Aging Vet: Dave Chappelle, The Age of Spin (2017)
In 1996, I remember watching Comics Come Home 2 on Comedy Central (which I think I am now legally required to inform you was a benefit for The Cam Neely Foundation). By this point, I had begun to study comedy, but as this was the ’90s, and I was stuck in Hawaii (where our comedians generally remain regional, even in success), much of my exposure to national comedians was limited to the ones who were already in movies or on television. So I tuned in for those comedians, like Denis Leary and Anthony Clark and Steven Wright and Colin Quinn.
And then came this skinny 23-year-old I had never heard of named Dave Chappelle.
The sets were short - five minutes, or seven, maybe, which means that the comedians had distilled their acts down to the purest laughs they could generate, but even so, I was not prepared for Dave Chappelle.
He started in. And I started laughing with this goofy, lanky guy, who somehow seemed so casual and yet in complete command, moreso than many of the more seasoned comedians, comedians I already knew and loved. By the time he got to his infamous bit about being taken hostage, I was on the floor, gasping for air like a goldfish that leapt out of the bowl. My parents heard me and wandered over to see why I was making so much noise, and just left the room, shaking their heads.
Now it’s twenty years later, and Dave Chappelle is in his 40s. He’s married, and has three kids, and is probably past his prime. These days he’s not the Dave Chappelle who generates the same kind of laugh. He rambles, he meanders, he slaps the mic on his knee when he cracks himself up. These days, there are other comics who are sharper, who are probably more on the pulse of what’s happening right this second. Other comics who may very well be more relevant to 2017.
But if there’s one thing his specials (and The Age of Spin in particular) show, it’s that he’s still got his fastball. It may not be Dave Chappelle at his best, and it may not be your favorite Dave Chappelle, but he can still bring it, and in his older, looser, meandering sort of way, he lulls you into letting your guard down, into believing that maybe he just isn’t that funny anymore.
And it is then, when you are not prepared for Dave Chappelle, that he gets you.
The Surprise: Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King (2017)
I didn’t know much about Hasan Minhaj before watching this special. Unlike a lot of the comedians I watched, I had no sense of his comedic style, other than that I had occasionally seen him on The Daily Show. Truthfully, I was going into it expecting a sort of stock immigrant experience type of show - which can certainly be entertaining, but sometimes can feel like familiar ground.
And then he punched me in the face.
Minhaj’s special is, indeed, about his immigrant experience, but performed in a way that’s so personal, so powerful, that you’re just struggling to keep up. He has the energy and enthusiasm and pace of youth that would be annoying in a lesser performer, but Minhaj is so earnest that you’re rooting for him as you try to keep up. And then, just when your brain is calibrated to match his pace, he slams on the emotional brakes, and all of a sudden you’re crying and laughing and upset and happy and emotionally spun out. His special is funny and cathartic in a way that few standups ever strive for, let alone reach.
Homecoming King is also one of the most exciting comedy specials to see as a technical achievement - normally, visual flourish isn’t something that you might pay that much attention to when watching someone tell jokes, but Minhaj times his punchlines with animations slamming up on the screens behind him, and he knows just when to spike his close-up with his large, expressive eyes, all of which end up making this special come closer to letting you feel the energy of the performance at home.
Your Cool Best Friend: Sarah Silverman, A Speck of Dust (2017)
Sarah Silverman’s most recent special is the opposite of Hasan Minhaj’s, in the best possible way. It feels loose, relaxed. It feels like she’s practicing, like she’s trying things out, like she hasn’t decided yet which of these jokes is going to make it in the special that she’s filming. She captures, better than any other special on Netflix right now, the feeling of seeing a headliner drop in at a comedy club, of hanging out with the comedian who is both making you laugh and asking “is this okay?”
Of course, this is exactly what she had planned the entire time.
Some comedians, by the time they get to their special, are perfectly paced, perfectly worded. The showmanship is flawless. The timing is impeccable. Everything has been thought of and planned down to the punctuation. Ali Wong’s special is like that. And those shows are great, because it’s the culmination of years of long, hard work, of getting everything just right.
This is different. It’s messy, but it’s messy on purpose, a show that evokes the sense of what a comedian goes through to get to the special. Instead of running at you full speed, forcing you to reckon with how funny she is, Silverman’s jokes feels effortless. It’s warm and inviting and a completely different (but just as entertaining) experience, and one that’s almost impossible to convey without actually seeing someone live in a smaller comedy club. The other specials on this list make me want to see these comedians live on stage. Sarah Silverman’s special makes me want to somehow become her friend.
My Obsession: Mike Birbiglia, Thank God For Jokes (2017)
Up to this point, I’ve been telling you about my favorite specials in chronological order, but Birbiglia’s special was released in February of this year, meaning this should, technically, be in the middle of this piece. Instead, I’m putting it at the end.
Because I can’t stop thinking about this show.
I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, it is about Thank God For Jokes that I’ve become obsessed with. I think it has to do with the fact that this special feels like it encompasses all of the elements I love about the other specials I’ve written about in this piece.
Birbiglia is fascinating in his normalcy: his shoulders are slightly slumped, his plaid shirt and black jeans the unassuming, unofficial uniform of comedians who came up in a certain era. He comes across as quiet, thoughtful. His performance feels simultaneously relaxed and precise, stream-of-conscious and impeccably structured. He tells a story about hosting the 2012 Gotham Awards, only to follow every meaningful tangent and side story before coming back around and wrapping the whole thing in one beautiful, tidy package. He is casual and cool and laid-back when it suits the joke. He is explosive and energetic when it suits the joke. He is able to improvise beautifully, yet return to the script at just the right moment. He calls back every punchline. His work in this special is so comprehensive that it is somehow perfect, then, that the real topic of Thank God For Jokes is the very idea of jokes themselves, and what it means to be a comedian.
I love comedy. I love the way it can work like a highlighter, pointing out truth and absurdity while still entertaining. I love the way it can expose you to different points of view, while also showing that we’re not nearly as different as we think. I love the way it can, sometimes, provide an audience with a shared moment, an experience that they and only they will truly understand.
Of the 70-plus original comedy specials on Netflix (so far!), these are my favorites. The ones I keep thinking about. But one of the fun things about comedy is that there is always so much more to discover, so many other points of view to consider and hear from and laugh with.
So share your favorites. Let me know what I might have missed. There are no wrong answers; there are only things that make us laugh.