The top 10 stand-up comedy specials on Netflix
The best in comedy on Netflix, courtesy Dave Chappelle, Hasan Minhaj, Jen Kirkman and others
Over the last year, Netmflix has delivered a high-profile comedy special every week. Not that all comics deserve their own hour of your time. After mercilessly culling the shows from the last 12 months, here is my ranking of the sets that truly deserve to be called special.
10. Judd Apatow: The Return
Influential producer Apatow performs this set with the infectious glee of a man whose dream is coming true in front of us, in real time.
9. Jerry Before Seinfeld
Arguably the wealthiest comedian in the world, Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t care if he makes you laugh. Here’s how (and why) he started.
8. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation
Oswalt starts sharp, a funny man riffing on the usual, but this show soon turns intimate as he meditates on love and loss.
7. Katherine Ryan: In Trouble
If all comics had the exceptional improvisational skills of Ryan, there would never be a weak stand-up set.
6. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
Nobody quite sums up the modern immigrant experience like Minhaj, an Indian-American Muslim who delivers joy and anguish in a superlative special focused on what people will say. “Log kya kahenge?" he asks, exasperated, of us and himself.
5. Neal Brennan: 3 Mics
One microphone is for stand-up, one for emotional bits, and one for one-liners. Brennan shines at all three, a stunning feat when you consider how many endings and beginnings he needs to nail. The majority of his comedy is about race—“The only way a black dude can openly express sadness in public is if he does it with a saxophone"—and he even comes up with a way to end racism itself: with a planetful of mixed-race babies.
4. Marc Maron: Too Real
The angry comic is ageing well, as evidenced by this effortless set about mortality. He talks, for example, of how leaving a Rolling Stones concert ahead of the rest of the crowd (while missing a great encore) feels better than the show itself. And in one sensational section, delivered in the voice of a squawking child, he takes a story about hipsters and hats and turns it, plausibly, into a children’s book. Speaking as someone who has written a children’s book, I’d be envious if I wasn’t as tickled.
3. Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’?
The name of Kirkman’s terrific show comes from Matthew McConaughey’s mantra in life, inked inconveniently on her ankle. Kirkman is not one for gimmickry, and hilariously discusses her own life and love for loneliness. She wears her brilliance lightly as she speaks of the perils of accidentally booking a private walking tour in Italy, or the time she forgot she had lied about her mother having died simply in order to “win" an argument.
Her set climaxes with an epic 10-minute stretch about street harassment. She deserves her own show and movie roles alongside Tina Fey. When told women aren’t funny, Kirkman righteously bristles: “Women is not a type of comedy."
2. Bo Burnham: Make Happy
“Original does not mean good." Bo Burnham does not mince words or ideas. He is a remarkable talent, who looks (and occasionally sounds) like a Backstreet Boy but, unlike Alanis Morissette, knows what irony means. He is an intimidatingly gifted performer, with a singing and rhyming and relentlessly clever routine.
His ideas are sharp and insightful, and his stagecraft fierce. At one point he sings a suicide song worthy of Monty Python, lyrical suggestions including “Let Oprah sit on your face" and “Marry Courtney Love", flaunting his power of crowd manipulation. At one point he makes the audience yell things to him, with him saying Macaroni and the crowd saying Cheese. It’s harmless for a couple of go’s till he talks about a favourite potato chip flavour and says “Salt and Vi-" and the crowd can’t believe what he’s made them yell.
An astounding show, it starts off too meta to be real and ends up too real to be meta. “A boo is also approval," Burnham explains, all of 27 years old and admirably refusing to “coast off the inertia of past jokes". He may be a singular Conchord, but he flies dizzyingly high.
1. Dave Chappelle: The Age Of Spin
“Are you pro-choice? Are you anti-consequences? What does it all mean?"
Chappelle gave Netflix four incredible specials in the last year, and this one wins owing to the sheer mastery of structure and performance. It is a special to learn from.
With Chappelle, offensiveness is an art form. It is easy to dismiss him as someone who hates a section of people—we could call him transphobic—but that would be to miss the point. Chappelle pushes the line constantly, keeping his audience balanced on the knife edge between a guffaw and a gasp. The fact that we react adversely to some of his inappropriateness and not all of it speaks more about the arbitrariness of our prejudices than what we believe to be his own.
He is accused of punching down, whereas we must note the statement inherent in his positioning of himself: as a rare black man who has amassed enough wealth and credibility to be able to punch down with reckless impunity. Befittingly, The Age Of Spin is about the very nature of celebrity. Chappelle structures the show around his encounters with O.J. Simpson. This is massively savvy, since OJ is back in the spotlight because of the excellent TV shows about him, and Chappelle’s perspective as a comedian who gained massive fame during the rise and fall of the footballer is fascinating. He uses these OJ stories as chapter-breaks, as matchsticks that set different tangents afire, and the stories show off the history of both men, as Chappelle looks at Simpson with awe, indifference and eventually loathing. It is a bulletproof and irresistible structure.
His comedic cape flutters brightest when he speaks of the heartbreak he felt facing the facts in the Bill Cosby scandal—“It’s as if chocolate ice cream itself had raped 54 women"—and goes on to list Cosby’s superlative cultural achievements, culminating with a superhero parable that is both a cheeky false equivalence as well as a phenomenally satisfying pay-off. It is a flourish that brings the house down, yet Chappelle isn’t done.
Like a band that makes you shriek without cueing up its greatest hit, he’s saved one for the encore—and he’s so good he made us forget we’d been waiting for it all along. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a magic trick.
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Raja Sen tweets @rajasen