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 #20 – #11.
20. Jen Kirkman – Just Keep Livin’? (Netflix)
One of the first stand-up specials of the year came from one of comedy’s most outspoken people. Jen Kirkman brings a seething special of biting honesty and social commentary. But, she starts things off by describing her attempt to relieve stress by meditating. We learn that falls apart pretty quickly, ending with her screaming at another motorist while flipping them off. All in a day’s work for Jen Kirkman. Just Keep Livin’? has its light moments but things get really compelling when she takes a turn for the serious in feminist topics, like why it’s such a big deal to vacation without a boyfriend or explaining to a friend why shouting something like “nice tits” to a woman is wrong on so many different levels. Kirkman is having the battles that we’d later learn would define much of the conversation of 2017.
19. Jim Norton – Mouthful Of Shame (Netflix)
Jim Norton is the current king of the tasteless joke and in 2017 those seem to be in short supply. Norton has made his career on discussing topics that might make some grasp their pearls in shock, but his fans, well they eat it up. Norton tosses out tasteless jokes about tasteless topics like AIDS and Charlie Sheen and he does it because he’s just so good at it. While you might think nothing is off limits to Norton, he does have a line and he states it when the topic of Jared Fogel comes up. It’s easy to toss of Jim Norton as nothing more than a gross-out comedian, and to do that would be shameful, perhaps not a mouthful of it, but shameful nonetheless.
18. Jo Koy – Live From Seattle (Netflix)
Jo Koy took it upon himself to self-finance Live From Seattle and it turns out it was one of the best decisions he’s ever made with Netflix taking note and releasing it this year. Seattle is home for Koy and because Koy was responsible to no one at the time of the taping of the special, the only person he thought of was himself and his family. Koy’s other specials are solid but he leveled up on Live From Seattle while re-introducing himself to those that might’ve overlooked him. He’s ready for most of it, save for his son growing up and finally becoming a man… awkward moments for a dad, hilarious ones for comedy fans.
Dave Smith has been refining his political comedy act long before the ascension of Donald Trump made it cool. Libertas is the first special for Smith, a loud and proud Libertarian, who is a key member of the GaS Digital team, hosting the political podcast Part Of The Problem and co-hosting the wildly popular Legion of Skanks podcast. It made sense to have GaS tap Smith to be the first person for them to produce a special for, the result was Libertas, a stand-up special that spent nearly 2 months atop the comedy charts in 2017. Smith dives headfirst into his political comedy which is simultaneously rational and presenting of viewpoint that actually pulls a laugh. While it’s easy to float a half-handed anti-Donald Trump statement to get an applause reaction, Smith understands that his job as a comedian is to get a legitimate laugh. Therein lies what separates Smith from other “political” comedians, he understands that the laugh comes first above all else, once you master that, you can take any political viewpoint you want and you’ll have the crowd eating out of your hand.
Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King has a lot more going for it than the average stand-up comedy special. From the way it’s filmed, the material Minhaj kicks out, which honestly, gets dark and not really funny at times. The reason Minhaj is able to pull it off is because he has a great grasp on the art of telling a story. Homecoming King could easily be classified as a one-man show, as he wisely and smartly tells his stories unique to his plight as the son of immigrants. We can relate to it more than you can think.
15. Rory Scovel – Tries Stand-up For The First Time (Netflix)
Rory Scovel often takes a completely absurdist approach toward his comedy and on his first Netflix special he just goes for it. To judge this special as a traditional stand-up comedy special will be tough because if you aren’t interested in what Scovel is going for, you’ll find it hard to like. But if you’re ready to get weird, you’d be hard pressed to find a more refreshing special this year. There’s a lot of meta comedy happening that simultaneously manages to insert political material. Walking the tigthrope in between both of these worlds is Scovel, in a maroon Members Only jacket.
Dream Occupation is the first album from New York comedian Anthony DeVito. One to watch in comedy as his career is burgeoning. He’s immensely funny, charming, and doesn’t take life too seriously. DeVito taped a Half Hour for Comedy Central due to premiere this fall on the network. On Dream Occupation, we get self-effacing anecdotes, left turns into absurdity, satire, impersonations and wordplay never feel highfalutin or overindulgent. He’s refreshingly to the point. The quickest way between two points is a straight line, and the quickest way to a laugh is to call out the obvious. Anthony DeVito gives it to you straight every time.
Jim Gaffigan is completely aware of his act in his fifth stand-up comedy special, in fact one of the first thing he says as he takes the stage is a call for the audience to lower their expectations. Gaffigan mocking himself is a key part of his stand-up utilizing the side whisper that in many ways acts as the voice of the audience. The comedian is more comfortable than ever in his skin on stage and beyond relatable to the point that you feel like he’s simply narrating your life with geo-targeted positioning. Originally from the mid-west, he discusses how his family must have been tricked into moving there because of the misery it has brought upon his family. Binge watching, fairs, and of course food are all additional subjects slayed by pinpoint accuracy only Gaffigan can provide. Sarcasm, wit, self deprecation, honesty, and just the right amount of awkward reliability are all in abundance on Cinco.
12. Al Madrigal – Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy (Showtime)
There’s a really specific reason Al Madrigal named his stand-up special, Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy. It involves being a father going to extreme lengths in the name of sticking up for his family driven by his desire to be a better dad and husband. After missing a few too many of his daughter’s ballet recitals due to work (on The Daily Show), it culminates in a 20+ minute story about revenge that might go too far. In fact, Madrigal’s special is bookended by two incredible chunks of material – the aforementioned shrimpin’ story and one about the (perhaps) misguided efforts of cilantro field workers working on a plan to execute some payback toward Donald Trump. Those two stories alone earn Madrigal a spot high on this year’s list.
11. Mike Birbiglia – Thank God For Jokes (Netflix)
With each passing special we find ourselves asking how Mike Birbiglia can get any better, then lo-and-behold we find ourselves blown away by the one-upping of each new special. At this point in his career, Birbigs has full grasp on pacing, timing, and how he needs to tell a story for maximum impact. He’s slow when he needs to be, deliberate when the story calls for it. From mundane moments of marriage to talking about The Muppets. The thesis of this special is Birbiglia brings us closer with jokes, not in a “we need laughter” kinda way, more in the relationship between the person telling said joke and the person hearing it. Thank God for Mike Birbiglia.