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 here are the top 10.
10. Jerry Seinfeld – Jerry Before Seinfeld (Netflix)
If you’ve never really taken a dive into the catalog of Jerry Seinfeld, this is a special to cut your teeth on. Jerry Before Seinfeld is just that, a walk down memory lane for one of the history’s most successful comedians, opening up his joke book archives to show his roots. It’s fitting the special was filmed at The Comic Strip, where young Seinfeld first took the stage in NYC. Seinfeld works the small stage of his old haunt effortlessly like an old pro. The material is classic Seinfeld, as he brings out material from said jokebook with breezy delivery. There’s more to Seinfeld than meets the eye and that’s where this magic lives, from how he finds the small things in people that make it to his act. There’s a great scene in the special that places Jerry in the middle of a side street in New York among full legal pad-sized pages of jokes he’s handwritten and stored in the same folder since the 1970s. Highlighting that Seinfeld is a comedian who has more than put in his 10,000 hours to master his craft and Jerry Before Seinfeld lets that master take us on a walk down memory lane.
Mark Normand has landed on countless lists over the years – comics to watch, most deserving of a comedy hour, best comic living in New York, you name it. All the while, Normand spent his time sharpening is act in clubs around the country and opening arenas for Amy Schumer for years and it’s done him well. In fact, it was Schumer who presented this special, helping to secure Comedy Central’s airing of the special and putting her public stamp of approval on Normand. The New Orleans native has one of the best cadences in comedy, often selecting specific phrases or language that help accentuate points and a nice guy demeanor allows him to deliver material with a mischievous intent. Underneath the easy-going attitude and smile you’ll find a comic that rails against growing PC culture, discusses overindulgence in alcohol, tackles his anxiety, and might just acknowledge classic gender roles. Normand is doing nothing but telling jokes and he loves that, more specifically he loves the art of the joke and takes great care in crafting them. That in and of itself is worth your time.
8. Norm MacDonald – Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery (Netflix)
Norm MacDonald delivers sly, deadpan comedy better than any human on this planet. He’s so good at it that you can sometimes overlook the genius in it. For decades now, we’ve seen MacDonald work a comedy audience in his signature way, working them on topics from the simple or mundane to heavy like the death of his father. This time around he revisits well-worn topics like Hitler, the moon landing, and LSD trips and finds completely new angles on them. Minimalism is the key to Norm’s power and this special, from the angles its filmed, how he takes the stage, and lack of audience shots help heighten the effect. Norm is the king of the minimalist and deadpan this time he’s older, and dare we say it, wiser?
7. Ari Shaffir – Double Negative (Netflix)
Ari Shaffir hatched a plan for a unique stand-up comedy special and he executed it. Double Negative is essentially two stand-up specials in one revolving around themes. If you’re at all familiar with Shaffir’s work, you’ll know that themes are a big deal to his output, hell, he even created a TV show with stories based on them. In Double Negative, Shaffir tackles both childhood and adulthood with each end of the special rotating around said themes. Shaffir set up shop in Cap City Comedy Club in Austin and taped the specials in one night with the intent on grabbing the essence of a live stand-up show in a comedy club. The result is one of the most-interesting comedy specials of the year from one of its biggest rebels.
Jerrod Carmichael is one of the most adventurous comedians working today with a fearless thought process we’ve seen it many times over on The Carmichael Show. Not since the days of Archie Bunker had sensitive topics about race, sex, and other human activities been discussed so frankly and so open-ended. 8 is an extension of this path that Carmichael is currently taking, he does not take a position you’d expect him to on race, politics, animal rights, love, and relationships . His delivery is slow, methodical, and quiet, bringing you into his thought process as he walks you through it’s honesty. He makes things uncomfortable for the exact reason that he needs to – to make you think, to make you engage. Even the visual of the special is unique, Carmichael recruited Bo Burnham to enact his vision. Starting off on a tight shot of just Carmichael as he’s asking if we as a nation are going to be okay. He’s filmed in the round at a masonic temple in NYC, requesting the audience to look sharp while he stood on stage in an all-denim outfit and Timbs. Jerrod Carmichael easily released one of the most interesting comedy specials of the year, and he did it by following his muse.
The return of a comedy titan after an extended break is no small feat and Dave Chappelle made the largest splash possible with 2 stand-up comedy specials with Netflix, one from his vault taped in Austin, TX a few years back, and one taped in Los Angeles. Watching Chappelle perform is like watching jazz or a freestylist spit bars. Chappelle is almost frisky on stage, turning hot button issues into social quandaries. Unexpected segues take us down delightful paths of discovery and all we want is to follow him wherever he takes us –
Chappelle doesn’t really seem to care what his critics might say, all he wants to do is create thought-provoking conversation that makes you laugh. With Age Of Spin and Deep In the Heart Of Texas, we got two excellent representations of what the art of stand-up comedy is, and they’re delivered to us by a master of the craft.
4. Bill Burr – Walk Your Way Out (Netflix)
Bill Burr apologizes for very little, like how he’s wearing a cowboy shirt in Nashville yet knows very little about the city he’s taping his special in which might be a bit off-putting to the crowd. He also openly acknowledges the silliness of taping a new stand-up special right before the 2016 Presidential election comparing it to the first week of American Idol, “You either got a racist dope or the devil.” What makes Burr so incredible is that he lets his voice of an un-checked id run wild, running on the edge of all things politically correct and finding a level of joy in the discomfort he can put an audience in. Who else can make the argument for population control by suggesting we sink cruise ships? It’s here Burr whips up magic, you can see instances (dare we say it glee?) on his face when he hits those spots in his act, pulling no punches and holding nothing back.
3. Michelle Wolf – Nice Lady (HBO)
To say Nice Lady is an of-its-time special is an understatement. Had Michelle Wolf come 6 months earlier or later, it might not’ve had the same resonance. In many ways, the special is a perfect summation of what 2017 was for many of us – a battle for workplace equality, birth control, and societal expectations are all covered by Wolf. She taped the special in August and released in December, between that time all hell broke loose with the downfall of many high-profile men. Wolf couldn’t have predicted this, but she did identify an issue just bubbling under the surface – something she managed to do times over. Wolf’s commentary on the world is equal parts feminist, comedy club shouter, and cocky comedian. Wolf spent a lot of time in and out of NYC clubs and writing for late night shows, sharpening and refining her act and Nice Lady is the result of all that hard work. Wolf is one of the youngest comedians to rank this high on the list but with a debut like Nice Lady, we fully expect a promising career out of Wolf.
2. Chris Gethard – Career Suicide (HBO)
Chris Gethard’s first HBO special, Career Suicide was produced by Judd Apatow and based on an Off Broadway one-man show. Gethard recounts his life story about all the funny parts of life like suicide, depression, and alcoholism. Perhaps that would be a bumout, but Gethard’s specialty is taking the darker parts of life and turning them into something beautiful. Gethard’s never been a typical comedian, so it stands to reason that he wouldn’t create a typical comedy special. Over the course of 90 minutes, Gethard takes us from the moment when he reveals his depression to his mother, how he tried to self-medicate it, how doctors both failed and helped him, and how it’s something he still actively works on. Career Suicide sets a very high bar for what a stand-up comedy special can be.
1. Patton Oswalt – Annihilation (Netflix)
About halfway through Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, the comedian wraps up a bit of crowdwork (which is unusual for a special) because he’s stalling, he admits it. Patton Oswalt, a comedian with nearly 30 years of stand-up under his belt, a half-dozen specials, TV, film, tours – a man who has done pretty much everything that can be done in entertainment business is admittedly stalling. Why? Because the material he’s about to launch into is easily the most personal and honest material that he can reveal to an audience. Up until that point Patton spent the last year wrapping his head around the sudden and unexpected death of his wife Michelle McNamara. Like all great comedians do, they turn tragedy into comedy and find the humor in the darkest of places. Oswalt tells stories about his
healing journey numb slog to get back on track. Recounting how his wife won their constant argument about this chaotic world in the shittiest way possible, how everything he normally uses for escape (particularly pop culture) failed him. When Oswalt recounts the worst day of his life being breaking the news to his daughter, it’s both tear-jerking and hilarious. More comes, he visits his wife’s grave for the first time – a moment he wanted to be sentimental – yet doesn’t turn out that way. Or when he plans a Mother’s Day trip to distract his daughter goes really great, until it doesn’t. Patton Oswalt reveals the pain, beauty, love, and most importantly, humor in having his heart ripped out of his chest, distilling it all down to one of his wife’s favorite phrases… it’s chaos, be kind.