What are your classic comedy bits? You know, the ones you’ll reference in twenty years when sitting around a table discussing comedy with your friends? What are those comedians and bits that come to mind whether they be influential, hilarious, or just stuck with you because of subject matter.
It’s a tough question to answer as comedy is completely subjective. But this doesn’t keep us from trying!
We locked ourselves in a room and just started naming instant classic comedy specials from the last decade or so. Albums with bits that people will repeat years from now.
After yelling matches, many tears and near fistfights we came up with our list of 10 modern comedy specials that can already be considered classic. It’s true, we couldn’t get the list down to exactly 10. So we made some room for honorable mentions. Regardless, there’s still going to be people that disagree with us but that’s what the comments section is for.
Dave Attell – Skanks For The Memories (2003)
Let’s just go on record to say that Dave Attell might be one of the most mimicked comedians out there. His mannerisms and style resonate so well with people that you almost can’t help but subliminally pick up on them.
Skanks For The Memories was an instant classic upon it’s release as it captured Attell’s razor-sharp wit, observations, and terrific ability to take any left of center idea and make it downright hilarious. Attell owns crowds and can take them on any journey he wants.
Though he’s worked on a ton of projects in the decade since Skanks’ release, Attell has yet to release a proper follow-up album. Rumor has it he’s yet to like anything he’s recorded since. If this is true he’s probably harder on himself than any of his fans ever could be. But if there were a tortured genius in comedy Attell would probably be it.
Mitch Hedberg – Mitch All Together (2003)
The legend of Mitch Hedberg has only grown since his untimely death in 2005. A large part of this lore comes from Mitch All Together. His first album, Strategic Grill Locations was a terrific outing of the young comedian showing off his witty relaxed attitude and sometimes scatterbrained thoughts as a bass player rocked out smooth jazz to accentuate the one-liners.
However, it wasn’t until a few years later when Mitch All Together showed how much the comedian had honed his style, upped the one-liner ante and delivered his swan song. He had such a loveable charm that even if he stumbled on a line or two he was able to pull it off with a grin and a smirk.
Mitch All Together is a documentation of a career that should’ve been longer and greater than it was. Still 7 years after his death, Hedberg’s impact on the comedy world is felt.
Zach Galifianakis – Live at the Purple Onion (2007)
Released long before many knew how to properly pronounce Galifianakis, Live At The Purple Onion is Zach having a field day with his imagination. Part stand-up, part hilariously deconstructed themes, idiosyncratic buffoonery, unhinged piano play, and even a little bit Vegas lounge act.
Uncomfortably close camera angles help keep the viewer engaged as Galifianakis lays one-off zingers and random stream-of-consciousness thoughts as he haphazardly tugs on his hair and beard almost to keep the demons at bay.
The special does jump between brilliant stage antics and on the street actions with Galifianakis in character as his brother Seth. It’s fun and breezy but not nearly as devastating as the stand-up it intermingles with.
Purple Onion is a hodgepodge of material as it blends stage antics taking down crowd members for being ridiculous hecklers. He jumps in the crowd to rant to the old ones and mock the Millennial ridiculousness of others. He lures the crowd to watch him pace around the stage, as he’s near the edge of losing it and the crowd eats it up.
It’s a documentation of the growing cult of Zach Galifianakis just years before he became the gifted geek breakout star we now know.
Dane Cook – Harmful If Swallowed (2003)
Dane Cook gets credit for elevating comedy in the modern setting by fully embracing burgeoning social media. Early MP3 download sites helped him amass a huge following that were the impetus of releasing some of the most successful albums of the 00’s.
Cook was able to launch wildly successful arena tours that brought him all the way to sold out Madison Square Garden shows. His rise was so meteoric that the backlash kicked in just as fast and out came the haters. Was it warranted? Of course not!
Harmful If Swallowed was Cook’s first and highly quotable album. It captured Cook’s high energy performance and funny observations on wordplay and scenarios. Fans could not get enough about bits about tires murdering Mary or hanging at the BK lounge. In fact, approach any 30 something and and yell, “Fuck This Game! It’s 4 in the morning! YOU win nana!!” and they’d more than likely understand exactly what you are talking about.
Cook followed up Harmful… with the double disc, Retaliation. It crushed the Billboard charts and went gold in less than a week, making it the best selling comedy album since Steve Martin’s Wild And Crazy Guy in 1978. This success was not possible without the performance delivered on Harmful If Swallowed.
Louis C.K. – Hilarious (2010)
The trajectory of Louis C.K.’s comedy career seemed to slowly simmer over the years until it completely and absolutely boiled over with the release of Hilarious.
Sure, he’s had amazingly terrific specials before this that could easily make the list. But it was not until the release of Hilarious when C.K. made the full transition from well-respected comedian to those “in the know,” into a full-fledged cultural and critical phenomenon. Gaining universal praise and compliments declaring him to be the best comedian working today.
Hilarious is where C.K. delivered instant classics such as his take on advancements in technology being wasted on this generation, which he performed on The Tonight Show and exploded virally. It was also the first stand-up comedy film that was accepted to Sundance and spread to the explosion of his FX TV show. Then, then at the peak of his rising career, C.K. decided to buck traditional comedy trends and self-release his follow-up albums and tour.
The era of Louis C.K. rightfully began with Hilarious.
Jim Gaffigan – Doing My Time (2004)
What did the world know about the Hot Pocket before Jim Gaffigan released Doing My Time? Well they probably ate them with a bit less knowledge of what exactly they were putting in their mouth for one. Gaffigan was just talking about his love/hate relationship with all kinds of food but he ended up creating a defining moment in his stand-up.
Doing My Time is Gaffigan running through tales of his Midwestern upbringings, boughts with laziness, and of course food. It also was the full realization of Gaffigan’s now signature style which includes his “aside” voice, that of an easily offended and naive audience member. It also introduced us to his signature bit, “Hot Pockets.”
Doing My Time kicked off a string of unbelievably consistent and great Gaffigan releases. Each release upping the next with terrific material and a bigger and bolder joke teller in Gaffifan. This will not be the only classic Jim Gaffigan album but it’s his first.
Patton Oswalt – Werewolves and Lollipops (2007)
“Thank you guys for coming out. I’m drunk. Here we go!” is how Patton Oswalt begins his second comedy album, Werewolves And Lollipops. To this day it’s one of the best opening lines of any comedy album. Werewolves was released post Oswalt’s Comedians Of Comedy tour. A grand experiment to push the boundaries of what the comedy show and tour looks like. Oswalt decided he didn’t want to tour comedy clubs, opting to take the rock band approach and get his friends into a van and perform at rock clubs. The experiment was a success and helped draw the blueprint for the type of comedy fan we’d see in the “alternative” scene in the years afterward. The album’s release on a non-traditional comedy label (Sub Pop) that in a small way helped people re-think how comedy can be presented to the masses.
On Werewolves, Oswalt is a wordsmith, meticulously deciding the proper phrases to say in what situations. He spent time re-arranging and re-working this set until it was polished and perfect. It’s just as much a monologue or poetry as it is stand-up comedy. If you’ve never heard Werewolves, you might be surprised to recognize a lot of the material on it. Frankly because it’s the well which pulled many of his infamous material like the KFC Famous Bowls, Birth Control and Costco, Physics for poets, Wackity Schmackity Doo!, and Death Bed.
Werewolves also contains one of the realest moments in heckling. During his Costco bit Patton has the room at complete attention building to an amazing peak, as he sets up the tale things get quiet (a referenced Pixies, quiet-loud moment) with the intent to peak with a terrific payoff. It’s at that critical moment that a heckler disrupts the flow. Unable to contain himself Oswalt smashes the heckler with such funny precision it’s unclear if the heckler even realized how much he “didn’t get it.”
Dave Chappelle – Killin’ Them Softly (2000)
Released right at the beginning of the new Millennium, this special ushered in the era of Dave Chappelle.
Killin’ Them Softly is an abundance of highly refined and absolutely devastating material that showcases a young comedian becoming the master. Peaking just before his TV show took him on a sonic boom of a ride to become one of the pop-culturally relevant shows of the cable era.
Recorded in Washington D.C. Chappelle plunges into a wealth of anecdotes and observations about race, drugs, and culture. He re-tells wild takes of dealing with cops with a white person in the car, taking a limo to a crack house, and suggesting that some of our favorite childhood cartoon characters might be sex criminals.
Chappelle has been known for performing marathon sets and its easy to see seeds of that with this special. He thoroughly enjoys being on stage and telling tales and there aren’t many better than Chappelle.
Lewis Black – Rules Of Enragement (2003)
It’s really difficult to select one of Lewis Black’s early releases for this list. They are all lengthy missives delivered by the Black and his head-scratchingly ability to pinpoint the exact moments when his head might explode. For the sake of narrowing things down we’ll go with Enragement. It’s the album before Black started off a string of Grammy nominated stand-up comedy records.
Black rages against the absurdities of life and modern politics which often bring him to the limits of sanity. While using sarcasm and hyperbole he twitches, shouts at the top of his lungs, uses well-timed curses and grunts through his teeth. Black has edge-of-a-nervous breakdown energy for 60 minutes, as if he’s the only sane person in the room.
On Engragement, Black is as topical and biting as anything George Carlin or Bill Hicks would ever rail about. Black has become one of the most prolific and successful comedians of our generation. Starring in movies, TV shows, and a long-running segment on The Daily Show.
Greg Giraldo – Midlife Vices (2009)
The first 15 minutes of Midlife Vices are so side-splittingy hilarious it should be illegal. Greg Giraldo was so refined and concise with this performance that it’s Goddamn heartbreaking to realize this is the last album we’ll ever get from the man. Giraldo was razor sharp and too smart for his own good sometimes. Vices dissects social taboos, political commentary, and racial stereotypes with such thought and sarcasm.
Giraldo launches the offensive, rather than sitting back on the “have you ever noticed” vibe he decides to pick it all apart leaving no stone unturned. There are also moments on the album where he addresses his addictions which he unfortunately wasn’t able to conquer.
Giraldo was a comic’s comic, the type of comedian who had intelligence, style, and delivery down so well that it appeared nearly effortless. There are comedians that may have reached higher levels of success than Greg, but there are very few we can think of that were more respected by peers and critics or better on the stage.
If someone were to ask us how to do stand-up comedy we’d immediately hand them a copy of Midlife Vices and reply, “like this.”
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