As we close the book on 2017, The Laugh Button staff sets up shop in a room and slugs it out to determine the best comedy specials of the year were. This year was a tough one – not only was the output at an all-time high just by the number of releases, but the caliber of comedians was top notch. We saw great debuts from some really great newcomers, current kings and queens released new specials, and lest we forget some bonafide legends return to the artform after lengthy absences. This year Netflix won the quantity game by releasing a new stand-up special at least once a week for the entire year. But quantity doesn’t always equal quality as HBO crafted its releases and released two very high-ranking specials. In fact, all major networks on the air and off (R.I.P. Seeso) stepped and put out quality comedy material.
First, some ground rules we took into consideration when constructing the list.
1) We tried our damnedest to judge on the comedian’s work and keep personal issues, politics, and headlines out of the process.
2) If the special aired in December 2016 but received an album release in 2017, it was eligible.
3) Half Hours weren’t counted. There were many worthy candidates in places like Netflix’s The Standups and Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, but ultimately to keep things consistent, we just considered hours.
So with that, let’s get into it, here’s #40 – #31.
Trevor Noah is not only proficient as the host of The Daily Show, he’s also pretty great with the comedy specials, releasing one every two years or so. Ever since he took the highly coveted seat that Jon Stewart made famous, Noah’s spotlight has only been brighter, and when it comes to stand-up comedy Noah has deepened his political approach and also encouraged expansion. Noah filmed this special during the NY Comedy Festival just one week before the 2016 elections, so his politics take a more global view. Particularly asking his audience to get out of their comfort zones and take said view with him. It’s not exactly the Trevor Noah that we see every night on Comedy Central and it’s more the worldly Trevor Noah we discovered from his international specials.
39. Steve Byrne – Tell The Damn Joke (Showtime)
Steve Byrne’s fourth stand-up comedy hour feels simultaneously his biggest and most personal at the same time. As Byrne has broad jokes everyone can relate to while the special slowly spirals to a very personal ending. Byrne, the child of a Korean mother and white father, breaks down what it means to be an American. The thesis of Byrne’s special is about the “pillars of conduct” he’d like to impart onto his children as they grow up, and that prompted him to end his special with a missive about what it is to be an American. Maybe he was inspired by Billy Joel and wanted his own version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” or not. But what Byrne ended up doing is show just how vulnerable comedy can be while putting a smile on an audience’s face.
38. Laurie Kilmartin – 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad (Seeso/ASpecialThing)
Death is a great motivator. Some use it as a way to achieve their goals in the short life they have, some fear it, some chase it. In Laurie Kilmartin’s case, she harnessed it. As the title suggests, Kilmartin dove headfirst into the tragedy of losing her father to lung cancer into dark and funny tweets about the process, essentially live Tweeting her father’s last days on this planet. Thus the impetus to turn it into a stand-up special. Dark, brutal, and damn honest. Kilmartin used the timeless recipe of turning tragedy into comedy, something all the greats do.
37. T.J. Miller – Meticulously Ridiculous (HBO)
For most comedians calling your stand-up comedy special ridiculous means one thing. To T.J. Miller, well it’s on a whole different level. It’s unbelievable the lengths Miller will go for a joke, spending a large chunk of his special just dousing himself with water to prove points and accentuate a punchline. About halfway through the special, Miller uses wordplay that’s odd, that he uses as the litmus test of just how far along the ride is the audience willing to go with his absurd material.
On Meticulously Ridiculous Miller’s traditional stand-up is solid (though he might not admit it), but by the time the special wraps, it’s apparent Miller has fully embraced the weird and it’s there where you finally realize that is exactly where Miller wants to be.
Santino opens and closes Home Field Advantage with a slightly manic, over-enthusiastic tour of Chicago. He’s clearly excited to be home, and when he takes the stage the crowd is clearly excited to see him. With his red hair and pragmatic, sometimes politically incorrect take on the world, Santino gives off some Bill Burr-esque vibes, chief of which being his ability to calmly tread through sensitive territory. He dishes on the Los Angeles homeless population (spoiler alert: he’s not a fan), gender-neutral bathrooms, why no one should be pooping at a bar, why black people always liked him, and a host of other topics. Most importantly, Santino takes down Macklemore for ruining hip-hop, and that alone is worth the Showtime subscription fee. Santino give us some glimpses into his life. He talks about his childhood struggles with acne, being a ginger, how his Irish Catholic guilt affected his teenage masturbation habits, and doing white people sh*t as a newlywed. It’s in these stories that he best displays his skills as a performer. Home Field Advantage is a fun hour of stand-up from a talented young comic.
Amy Schumer as at a point in her career where she is testing the limits of her subject matter. As a comedian who got famous with material rooted in her being a party girl, Schumer amassed a huge following and success most comedians can only wish for. But about halfway through The Leather Special, we get material out of Schumer we might not’ve expected – socially conscious and even political. This could be due to her public support for Hillary Clinton, and perhaps more the case, her response to the unfortunate shooting at a Trainwreck screening in a movie theater that inspired her to act politically. Regardless of her reasons to taking a more worldly view in her comedy, The Leather Special will hopefully be seen as the transition from young Amy Schumer into an older, wiser comedian that wants to use her power to enlighten while making us laugh.
Sasheer Zamata wasn’t really known as a stand-up comedian prior to her tenure at Saturday Night Live, but since being cast on the show, she’s steadily honed her chops on stage. Zamata put all of these skills into Pizza Mind – a stand-up comedy special that in some ways channels the likes of Zach Galifianakis from his Purple Onion days. Blending traditional elements of stand-up while interjecting sketches that have her speaking as different personalities to herself and the animated moment here and there. Don’t tune into this expecting to just see her portray characters from SNL you’ll be sorely disappointed, but if you tune in to see a unique comedy performance from a burgeoning comedy voice, well you might just get peace of mind.
33. The Lucas Bros. – On Drugs (Netflix)
The Lucas Bros. have re-designed stoner comedy for the modern age. No longer is it about the burnout who just smokes and raids the pantry, it’s intellectual, it’s politically tinged and zigs where you think it’s going to zag. The Lucas Bros. are incredibly casual about their delivery, stopping every once-in-a-while to check on each other, and “smoke on it” when the topic needs further discussion. These two former law school twins have injected their special with animated clips, injected politics, and updated tired tropes, and in the process, set a new standard for what it means to be a burnout.
Sarah Silverman has always been a bit of a smartass. Not in a bad way, but you can tell by her smirk that there always seems to be an ulterior motive behind what she’s saying or doing. On Speck of Dust the Silverman smirk is full on and ready for display, but it’s less mischievous and more personal, as if she knows the answer to the questions she’s asking and just waiting for you to realize. Speck of Dust is full of running gags that Silverman deliberately weaves in an out, throwaway jokes, acknowledgement of said jokes, getting meta about stand-up. Silverman performs jazz – displaying the structure of stand-up while simultaneously having such complete knowledge of said structure to allow all the improvisation she wants.
31. Brian Regan – Nunchucks And Flamethrowers (Netflix)
There’s just something about Brian Regan that makes you root for him. He’s one of the biggest comedians on the planet so that’s clearly a sentiment shared by many. Regan has always operated around the fringes by choosing to self-release many of his specials. But when he’s called to the big leagues, it’s always for something major – a live special for Comedy Central and now a big special for Netflix. As always Regan delivers an incredible performance that’s silly, observational, and even gets slightly political. One of Regan’s most reliable traits is that he’s consistently a killer stand-up comedian, it also might be the same trait that makes many overlook him, but don’t because you’d be missing out on something truly special.