A version of this article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Netflix has quickly become the foremost place to discover new stand-up material.
The streaming giant is on track to release over 50 exclusive specials in 2017 alone, signing big names (with big checks) from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
There is a downside to this remarkable release schedule, though. With so many new specials out there, instantly accessible, it can sometimes feel like the smaller fish in the pond are getting short shrift. Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, and Jerry Seinfeld have all been featured this year alone: with only so many column inches (and so much screen space) to occupy, it’s been easy for less widely-known names to fly under the radar, for casual clickers to be intimidated by the sheer volume of material added.
That’s a huge shame, because there are overlooked gems from comedians of all styles and stripes lurking just a click away. No longer will we let it stand. Here are 25 of the best Netflix-commissioned stand-up specials you can watch right now.
25. Norm Macdonald – Hitler’s Dog, Gossip And Trickery (2017)
The titular “gossip and trickery” is Norm Macdonald’s assessment of his own act. During this special, he concedes he’s little more than “some cheap magician,” deceiving his audience at every turn in the name of generating a cheap laugh. Of course, all performing arts are, to a degree, predicated on pomp and fluff, but Macdonald is deliberately underplaying his hand here.
His deadpan delivery, occasional flights into absurdism, and cynical stage presence – it’s never quite clear whether it’s the “real” Norm talking or not – belie his remarkable observational skills, his magnificent ability to hone in on his comedic prey. Part idiot savant, part genuine savant, Macdonald has since reported he’s not a fan of this special, but I disagree with his assessment: anyone looking for a sardonic take on topics old (“Hitler’s Dog”) and new (smartphones) will find much to love here.
24. Tracy Morgan – Staying Alive (2017)
Beloved by TV aficionados for his self-deprecating role on 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan’s near-fatal car crash in 2014 sent shockwaves through the comedy world. Two years later, Morgan was finally recovered and ready to reflect on his traumatic experience: the lengthy road to physical recovery, and the inevitable reflection on his own mortality. Staying Alive mines both wells deeply, imbuing Morgan’s stand-up with an introspectiveness unusual for the comedian. There are moments of genuine emotion amidst the hilariously bellicose, occasionally near-the-mark humor that made Tracy Morgan’s name. Moments where he discusses his wife and daughter rate among the most endearing moments of his career.
23. Maria Bamford – Old Baby (2017)
Taking the traditional stand-up set-up – a stage, a microphone and an audience – and turning it on its head, the first thing you’ll notice about Maria Bamford’s latest Netflix special is its location shooting. There’s a sequence filmed at a bowling alley, a segment at a hot-dog stand. We kick things off in a mirror, her reflection the only audience; and end in a lavish theatre (still only part-full). It’s a compelling visual metaphor for the arc of any stand-up’s career: the slow climb to the big time, and the compromises you make along the way. Self-deprecating, open-book, and heavy on peculiar tangents, it’s fair to say that Bamford hasn’t made any concessions to popular taste along her career path, and Old Baby is all the better for it, a challenging – yet utterly uproarious – gem. If you find yourself a taste for Bamford’s unusual comic stylings, her surreal Netflix series Lady Dynamite is also well worth a watch.
22. Anthony Jeselnik – Thoughts And Prayers (2015)
Anthony Jeselnik is as un-PC as they come, a stand-up comedian villain if ever there was one. Mocking tragedy after tragedy, atrocity after atrocity, nothing’s off-limits Jeselnik – well, his on-stage persona – delivers an incredibly dark set, often genuinely shocking in its choice of subject matter. Jeselnik is a master of pulling the ground out from under the audience, though, and few of his trains of thought arrive at the destination you might predict: These are whirlwind jokes with punchlines that shock. Maybe even prompt a cringe or two. His deadpan sincerity throughout ramps up the tension, the knowledge that this Jeselnik isn’t quite the real Jeselnik the only solace – think Stephen Colbert, peak-Colbert Report, turned up to 11 and armed with molestation gags.
21. Jen Kirkman – I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) (2015)
As you might expect from the title, this special is something of an extended paean to the single life. Jen Kirkman’s extended thesis on the benefits of being alone – in her case, post-divorce – is told through a series of extended anecdotes that head to places and analogies you would never have anticipated. Some dabble in the embarrassing, or the crude (a masturbation bit trades in both); others are driven by pragmatism and logic. The casual, conversational manner in which Kirkman delivers them is the perfect through-line for the material, entirely plainspoken and matter-of-fact throughout: cynical and world-beaten but never bitter or angry. Even in the face of a world that judges women for being divorced and childless, Jen is feeling fine.
20. Aziz Ansari – Live At Madison Square Garden (2015)
It’s unusual for a comedian to thrive in a venue as large and intimidating as Madison Square Garden, traditionally home to showstopping rock concerts and high-level basketball. Aziz Ansari takes it all in stride, though: despite the remarkable setting, he delivers an intimate show, largely free of bells and whistles, holding the audience in the palm of his hand regardless. His most interesting material stems from his fascination with the minutiae of human relationships, and the unscripted sequence in which he invites an audience member to share the text-message conversation she’s been having with a new romantic interest – cue in-depth analysis by Ansari – is a marvellous highlight. As affable as ever, Aziz isn’t afraid to dig deep into the darkest depths of the contemporary human psyche, offering his darkest material in the context of his most mainstream, widely-seen performance.
19. Chelsea Peretti – Chelsea Peretti: One Of The Greats (2014)
UK viewers may first have stumbled upon Chelsea Perretti as Jonathan Ross’ team-mate on Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz Of Everything before welcoming her into their hearts as “the Paris of people,” Gina Linetti on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. One Of The Greats is a terrific showcase for Peretti’s very funny mean-cool persona, with great material, honed delivery, huge laughs cut in with oddball and ironic moments. Highly recommended.
18. Hannibal Buress – Comedy Camisado (2016)
Hannibal Buress is probably best known for his material on Bill Cosby: in a 2014 set, Buress cited sexual assault allegations that had previously flown under the radar, a topic that garnered substantial attention from the mainstream media and presaged Cosby’s fall from grace. It thrust Buress into the spotlight: he’d carved a formidable career on late-night shows and in TV writers’ rooms, but this made Hannibal Buress a household name. It’s no surprise, then, that much of his next special, Comedy Camisado, reflects on the upshot of that. It’s an unusual position for a comic to find themselves in, and he has much to say on the subject, musing on his newfound notoriety and his continued cynicism towards the media. Elsewhere, he tells a marvellous story about forgetting his ID at a hotel, an extended anecdote that delivers punchline after punchline: like the titular camisado, his jokes land when you least expect them, explosive laughs emanating from the strangest of places.
17. Amy Schumer – The Leather Special (2017)
Were you to glance at IMDb prior to checking out Amy Schumer’s latest stand-up special (her first for Netflix), you might find yourself second-guessing your decision. It’s currently rated at a lowly 2.9 out of 10, on a par with the likes of Jaws: The Revenge. “Surely,” you would imagine, “this must be a terrible hour of stand-up.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Amy Schumer clearly isn’t for everyone, and The Leather Special probably isn’t her strongest hour – Mostly Sex Stuff is a modern classic – but it’s still a genuinely hilarious performance, one that puts many of her contemporaries to shame. Ignore the abhorrent sexism and the political bias of so many of Schumer’s detractors – browse that IMDb reviews section if you need proof – and judge Amy’s work on its own merits. She skewers gender stereotypes with aplomb, she delivers filthy jokes and sexual observations as smoothly as ever, and she even takes the opportunity to delve into the subject of gun control. It’s a special that deserves to be remembered for more than that titular leather outfit.
16. Jerry Before Seinfeld (2017)
Easily one of Netflix’s highest-profile stand-up sign-ups, it’s perhaps surprising that Jerry Seinfeld’s first special for the platform is unconventional in format – part stand-up, part autobiography; a one-man show with both elements bleeding into each other. Jerry takes the stage at Comic Strip Live in New York – the club at which he honed his act forty years ago – and puts a new spin on some of his earliest material, placing it in context and discussing his creative process. The material itself is fantastic, and the metatextual analysis often – somehow – even funnier, even more suited to Seinfeld’s obsession with minutiae. A must for any fan of Seinfeld, this special is the first in a multi-faceted deal with the legendary comic: a second, more conventional stand-up special is to follow, along with new episodes of his excellent Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee chat show – and he’s also nabbed a development deal.
15. Iliza Shlesinger – Freezing Hot (2015)
Iliza Shlesinger’s stage presence is something to behold. She takes already-great material – here, primarily relationship and gender-focused – and elevates it to something truly special with her impeccable ability to command attention. It’s not about the quick and snappy: these are well-thought-out observations, with context and layers and callbacks. She’s characterful, too, handy with a funny voice and really diving into her performance, never content to just stand and recite punchlines aimlessly. There’s definitely a future for her in comic acting, should she wish to diversify. For now, though, Freezing Hot is her best work yet: look out, in particular, for a superb sequence on Pinterest and wedding planning that Shlesinger delivers with aplomb.
14. Trevor Noah – Afraid Of The Dark (2017)
Best known for succeeding Jon Stewart as regular host of political satire powerhouse The Daily Show, Trevor Noah has also enjoyed a lengthy and successful run as a more traditional stand-up comedian. Hailing from Johannesburg, much of Noah’s comedy is informed by his experiences growing up in South Africa, his Xhosa heritage, and the time he spent travelling the world (Noah only moved to the US permanently in 2011). This is very distinct from that of his regular gig: yes, immigration and race are discussed, but this isn’t a platform from which Noah delivers incisive blows at politicians or celebrities. This is far more personal material, authentic and anecdote-driven. Trevor comes to life on the stage: freed from the constraints of that Daily Show desk, he thrives, his remarkable storytelling skills – and an impressive talent for accents – enrapturing the audience.
13. Jim Jefferies – Freedumb (2016)
With HBO specials, his own TV show (Legit), and multiple panel show appearances under his belt, Aussie Jim Jefferies is nevertheless best known for his segment on gun control from his stand-up special BARE, which went viral throughout 2015 and 2016. His commonsense approach to America’s problem with gun violence struck a chord with substantial numbers on the internet. Here, pre-Presidential election, he sets those same sights on Donald Trump, and his characteristically blunt tone is perfectly suited to the target. Jefferies is by no means exclusively political, though: there’s plenty of material here on the perils and plights of fatherhood, all shot through with his trademark swears-as-punctuation. It’s often vulgar – even the ostensibly family-friendly material delves into the treacherous world of toilet habits – but it’s always hysterical.
12. David Cross – Making America Great Again (2016)
The title tips David Cross’ hand a little: there’s a lot of Donald Trump in this politically-charged special. Cross skewers discriminatory politics, irrational patriotism and gun supporters with characteristic verve. If you’re only familiar with Cross as Tobias on Arrested Development (a possibility he skewers during the show), you might not know what to expect here: think Bill Hicks-style sardonic vitriol meets the surreal vignettes of Monty Python. He’s intense and sometimes provocative, delving into incredibly dark material with ease. Pace-wise, Cross is a master of both the quick-fire – his encore here is snappy and sharp – and the more relaxed – the introduction to the show is a slow-build, meandering tour through what’s on his mind before we start the show proper.
11. John Mulaney – The Comeback Kid (2015)
As stand-up comedians go, John Mulaney’s style is pretty classic and unadorned. There’s nothing too political, nothing too controversial, nothing too abrasive here. Instead, Mulaney trades on masterful storytelling, an eye for detail, and a little touch of physical comedy here and there, to create an all-around joyful hour of comedy. Anecdotes are the driving force here, and Mulaney has a lot of tales to tell: the time he met Bill Clinton – aged just 10, back in 1992 – is a highlight, even on repeat viewings; lower-key stories about his childhood, his father, his marriage, and his anthropomorphised French bulldog are equally amusing; and everything coalesces neatly at show’s end. Mulaney is made for stand-up comedy, and this special demonstrates that.
10. Sarah Silverman – A Speck Of Dust (2017)
Sarah Silverman’s reputation is for edgy, sometimes shocking material. While sexual content stills figures heavily in A Speck Of Dust, this is a far lower-key special than you might anticipate from Silverman, conversational and amiable rather than aggressively outrageous. It ebbs and flows naturally – Sarah often advises the audience to “put a pin in that,” before adventuring down an amusing digression. She definitely still has a mind for vivid, original comedic imagery – it’s just put to subtler use. It’s a performance that reveals there are many levels to Sarah Silverman’s abilities, and it might just be her most impressive show yet.
9. Dave Chappelle – Deep In The Heart Of Texas/The Art Of Spin (2017)
Maybe it’s a little bit of a cheat to cite two specials under one entry, but Dave Chappelle’s latest sets – released as a two-pack Netflix “collection” earlier this year – are both essential viewing. His long-awaited return to the world of recorded stand-up – following a decade of self-imposed exile from celebrity, at the height of his fame – saw expectations set incredibly high, and these two hours deliver on that promise. The Age Of Spin, the more recent of the two, is marginally stronger, as Chappelle feels a little more confident, delivering his penetrating commentary on race and celebrity in contemporary America around a structured framework of magnificent OJ Simpson anecdotes.
Deep In The Heart Of Texas is a little more free-flowing, a little less fully-formed, but Dave’s unparalleled rapport with his audience is still very much in evidence: as he puffs away on a cigarette borrowed from an audience member, musing on the origins of sexual terminology, you feel as if you’re watching an intimate club set, not a Netflix special filmed in a 3,000-seat theatre. Throughout both specials, Chappelle navigates some incredibly tricky subjects – race, yes, but also sexuality and gender, often pivoting around opinions that aren’t necessarily in alignment with the liberal consensus. But it’s always breathtakingly funny stuff.
8. Christina P – Mother Inferior (2017)
Despite considering myself fairly up-to-date on who’s who in the world of stand-up, I hadn’t heard of Christina P – short for Pazsitzky – until her special hit Netflix. Yet Mother Inferior proved itself to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, a perfect illustration of Netflix using its mass platform to draw attention to a gem that might otherwise fly under-the-radar. Pazsitzky’s special, as the title hints, deals primarily with motherhood, and the ever-shifting expectations of the role in 2017. At turns sharply observed and wonderfully filthy, it’s pleasingly un-PC, but Christina P never feels like she’s being graphic for the sake of it – the pregnancy and birthing sequences are uproarious.
7. Bill Burr – I’m Sorry You Feel That Way (2014)
One of the most technically adept comedians on the circuit, Bill Burr’s stand-up shows are a masterclass in raw energy, a deceptively fine-tuned outpouring of unhinged verve and spirit. Burr ruminates on go-to topics like religion and relationships, but his unusual persona – a surprisingly effective combination of the energetic, the outraged and the abrasive – sets him apart from the pack. His style is more confrontational than most, but once you’re used to his manic cadence and on-stage attitude, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Presented in black-and-white, with no concessions to extraneous distraction, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is Burr’s finest hour.
6. Jim Gaffigan – Cinco (2017)
Jim Gaffigan is little-known in the UK, which is a real shame. He’s noted for his relatively clean, family-friendly material – but that lack of adult humour doesn’t define him, and it doesn’t leave his shows feeling inhibited. No, Gaffigan simply deserves attention because he is a master of observational humour, a natural successor to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. He carves a jocular, light tone – often focused around the stresses and anxieties of his five-child household, and the solace he finds in junk food – that suits his inherently likeable, deadpan persona perfectly.
Religion – the Gaffigan family are devout Catholics – also features prominently, but his shows are no sermon: Cinco riffs on Jesus’ bread-making skills and airport smuggling. Jim’s wry observations have something to offer anyone who considers themselves a stand-up comedy fan, regardless of age, religion or belief, and that’s no mean feat in our increasingly divided political landscape.
5. Bo Burnham – Make Happy (2016)
Musical comedy is a very Marmite genre, but when it hits, it can really hit. Heavily influenced by the marvellous Tim Minchin, Bo Burnham’s particularly frenetic, even avant-garde, brand of music-imbued comedy is utterly inspired. Rising to prominence on YouTube while still a teenager – he’s still only 27 now – Burnham quicksteps from genre to genre, theme to theme. Some songs are jumping-off points for incisive social commentary, others are magnificently meta philosophical de-constructions on the nature of performance. My personal favourite is a satire of a contemporary country song – “I write songs for the people who do/jobs in the towns that I’d never move to,” he sings in an impressive Southern accent. Make Happy is far more than just one man on a stage performing funny songs, though: in addition to both live and pre-recorded music, there’s traditional stand-up, poetry, complex lighting and an altogether theatrical feel – it’s an impeccably structured, perfectly-timed performance.
4. Patton Oswalt – Annihilation (2017)
Patton Oswalt’s wife, Meredith, died in April 2016, unexpectedly. It’s probably something of a surprise to find that tragedy at the epicentre of a comedy special just over a year later, but it’s clear from watching Annihilation that the creative process has been inextricably entwined with the grieving process for Oswalt, publicly wrestling with the complex emotions wrought in the aftermath of such horror. The first half of the set deals primarily with politics and Donald Trump, before segueing into an extended riff with the audience members, at which point Patton acknowledges the elephant in the room: “I’m killing time here, because this next section’s very hard for me to get into.”
What follows is one of the bravest pieces of stand-up comedy I’ve ever seen, a heart-on-sleeve recollection of the worst days of Patton’s life (Meredith’s death was the second-worst; the worst? “Telling my daughter what had happened, the next day”). Deeply poignant and utterly breathtaking, it made me cry and laugh – sometimes simultaneously – delving into emotions rarely laid bare on such a public stage. The profound final message, Meredith’s motto – “it’s chaos [out there], be kind” – is one for the ages. A fitting tribute to a wonderful woman, it caps off Patton Oswalt’s finest work to date.
3. Mike Birbiglia – My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (2013)
Mike Birbiglia is a consummate storyteller, and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is the definitive example of his remarkable powers. It’s a 75-minute film that marks the point at which one-man playlet and stand-up comedy intersect. He tells his the story of his love life, from his teen years to adulthood, driven primarily by his relationship with a woman named Jenny. Skipping back and forth in time, he speaks with painful honesty and in painstaking detail. It’s a slower burn that most stand-up shows, but it’s ultimately incredibly funny and profoundly moving, a deep reflection on a lifetime of love peppered with particularly amusing memories and spectacular insight into the human condition. If you’re looking for something different from your stand-up comedy, Birbiglia is utterly essential.
2. Katherine Ryan – In Trouble (2017)
Turns out that Taskmaster win was only the second most exciting thing to happen to Katherine Ryan this year. The Canadian expat, who’s lived in the UK for a decade, has carved a formidable repertoire of panel show work across the years, but In Trouble is her first fullly-fledged hour-plus special. To which the only sensible response is: what on Earth took so long? This is a confident, assured set, sensibilities firmly in tune with a millennial audience yet delivered with the command of an old pro (Joan Rivers, anyone?). The most memorable material is when Ryan takes us back to her hometown, growing up with her sister, from which she draws some instant-classic anecdotes – but what also impresses is the audience interaction, with which Ryan is incredibly nimble and adept, delivering undoubtedly improvised material like it’d been honed for months.
1. Hasan Minhaj – Homecoming King (2017)
Hasan Minhaj is best known to regular viewers of The Daily Show, a correspondent on the programme since 2014. On the evidence of Homecoming King, though, he’s on the cusp of becoming stand-up royalty: this is one of the most powerful stand-up specials I’ve ever seen, a striking presentation of the contemporary immigrant experience that’s at turns utterly hilarious and breathtakingly poignant. Born in the USA to Indian Muslim parents, Minhaj reflects on parental pressures and external rejection, through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.
Coming-of-age material isn’t new to stand-up, but the way Minhaj dovetails his charming, pop culture-loving personality with stories, experiences and even phrases specific to his heritage feels truly fresh. The show’s apex, an extended anecdote centred around his teenage prom date, is marvellous: a masterclass in demonstrating the potential of storytelling as part of a live comedy show, it’s often hilarious – and sometimes heartbreaking. Homecoming King won’t just make you laugh, and it won’t just make you think: it will make you truly feel.