The relationship between comedy and 2020 can best be described as contentious. The year started off strong then very quickly forced many to adapt to a pandemic which saw the comedy world (like many) flipped upside down. While there’s an end in site, it still might not be fast enough for many as we saw countless houses of comedy temporarily shut their doors (some for the last time), comedians lost months of work, and even sadder we lost some pretty big comedic voices. Yet through all this, 2020 also gave us a tremendous amount of specials and albums, some expected, some out of nowhere.
From debut hours (Taylor Tomlinson, Sam Jay, Michelle Buteau, and Pat McGann) to fresh ones from vets (Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Lewis Black, Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Hart, Doug Stanhope, and Kyle Kinane), we were surprised when we stepped back and took a look at just how many comics had specials in 2020. Also of note is just how many comics took to the self distribution model this year when it came to getting their work out to the people.
Each year and after hours of watching and listening, the TLB editorial team usually gathers in room and debates this list. But since we were all socially distant, those IRL debates took to Zoom where our editorial staff discussed and debated we emerged with our favorite 35 stand-up specials and albums of the year.
35. Felipe Esparza – Bad Decisions
We’ve all made bad decisions. Felipe Esparza is not just talking about them, but he’s embracing them. Whether it be the abusive fight he watched his family get into, or his “drug days,” himself as a father or husband, or just being “a stoner,” there’s a lot here that will both make you laugh as well as feel better about yourself in the process. Also, he managed to brush up on his Spanish just to film the special in both English and Spanish. To do so, he would regularly travel to Tijuana to try out his new Spanish jokes. That’s commitment.
34. Pete Davidson – Alive From New York
Since his last special in 2016, Davidson’s life has been… well, interesting. We all know the whirlwind Davidson’s life has become. So safe to say there was tons of material to talk about. From pissing off Louis C.K. to a Weekend Update bit that went wrong, to his relationship/breakup with Ariana Grande. Davidson puts it all on front street. And while special is definitely raw and feels like it could have much more potential in certain places, the “this will do,” nature seems perfectly in tune with Davidson’s persona, and so it manages to work quite nicely.
33. Dan Cummins – Get Outta Here; Devil
There’s a part of Dan Cummin’s latest special where he talks about an embarrassing moment from his youth that involved a banana peel. That alone shows just how brutally upfront Cummins is about everything. Nothing can be sugarcoated. Whether he’s talking about his wife, his kids, people who get so easily offended, what bothers him about society in general, or even himself, all seems to be fair game in the name of comedy. And that unabashed, no-holds-barred honesty that Cummins works best with is here in all its glory.
32. Pat McGann – When’s Mom Gonna Be Home?
Pat McGann filmed his first special at The Vic Theater in his native Chicago. And while there is certainly a home field advantage for that audience (not to mention an introduction from fellow local boy Sebastian Maniscalco), you quickly realize that it extends far beyond that. McGann has a charming relatability that is very universal. He‘s your neighbor, your brother, your mechanic, whomever. The jokes are funny on their own, particularly when they are revolving around his dynamic with his wife and kids. But it’s the familiarity with which McGann delivers them that makes everything pop all the more.
31. Michelle Buteau – Welcome To Buteaupia
Described as the “scene stealing queen of Netflix,” this is a stand-up special that seems way overdue. Buteau takes the stage with all the confidence in the world, a goblet in her hand and ready to say some sh*t. She touches on how her life has changed after having twins, how her personality differs from her husband’s, filming a movie with J-Lo, and her dream of playing Meghan Markle on The Crown. It’s less like a comedy show and more like a really fun party. If you haven’t seen Buteau before, you’re definitely in for a treat with this one!
30. Mike Cannon – Life Begins
Before COVID-19 hit, the trend of comics releasing their specials directly to Youtube was starting to emerge. Mike Cannon was one of the first to do it as the calendar year turned to January. Life Begins was taped at the Comedy Cellar in NYC and captures Cannon straddling the line between his new fatherhood future and the carefree “34 year-old boy” present. Cannon seemed to be still wrangling personal and familial hang-ups then someone came along and handed him a child. How would you react to that? The special breaks traditional stand-up format by introducing interstitial clips as veteran Comedy Cellar comics (his Tough Crowd idols) weigh in on Cannon’s skill as a comedian including how he “lucked” into performing at the legendary club in a weird part due to Colin Quinn’s ailment. While some of that veteran power will draw a curious viewer, Cannon’s terrific jokes and delivery will make him one of your new favorites.
29. Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz – Middleditch & Schwartz
Improv can generally be summed up in one sentence… “you had to be there.” Seldom have we seen improv translate well to another medium, Whose Line Is It Anyway? being the notable exception. But nevertheless, Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz decided to give it a try with three hour-long specials for Netflix on the heels of a national tour in 2019. The most surprising part of these three acts is how well they work, pulling belly laughs out of the home audience. This can be attributed both to the talent of the performers and their overall engagement with the audience. They won’t just ask you for “a location.” They’re going to ask for you an intricate backstory, that will further feed the joke. Middleditch & Schwartz is what the full potential of improv specials can be, then we’re all in for more.
28. Kevin Hart – Zero F*cks Given
So many comics are doing shows from their homes right now. Basically, it consists of just a webcam and Zoom. Kevin Hart took it a step further for his latest Netflix special, where he invited an audience, built a stage in his living room, performed in his pajamas. What really stands out besides his material is the “anything goes” approach to the special. Hart gives us insight into how he tests new jokes, deciding that alone was worthy enough of a special. Being one of the only specials on our list that was filmed post-pandemic (there’s been a few others that didn’t make the cut), it’s definitely noteworthy for that.
27. Ian Bagg – Everybody Wants Some
Do yourself a favor, pay attention when other comics talk about Ian Bagg – it will tell you everything you need to know about him. He’s a comedian that other comics make a point to watch when on stage. Bagg works a crowd with a delivery and pace like no other, he rolls the room with a barrage of jokes and zingers that are as relentless as they are funny. If there were any justice in the world Ian Bagg would be a household name. The good news is there’s still time to make him one of your favorites.
26. Sam Jay – 3 In The Morning
Despite only having been performing stand-up since 2011, Jay has quickly raised up the ranks with a Comedy Central half hour and comedy album, Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, a writing job at Saturday Night Live, and now an hour special. The wildly The Masquerade in February, Jay talks about her memories of living in Atlanta, the last dick she ever f*cked, gift exchanges with her significant other, taking shrooms at the British Museum, and thinking she was going to get abducted by aliens when she was 11. The special was named after the late night conversations Jay would have with her fellow comics, which is a vibe that successfully translates here. The unique “fly on the wall” vibe really helps the special stand out as a big fish in a pretty huge pond.
25. Sarah Tollemache – Voluptuous Boy
In March, the weekend before live venues shut down, Sarah Tollemache recorded her debut comedy album at the NY Comedy Club. The result is the documentation of a razor sharp jokewriter with an extremely unique perspective of the world, turning the tables on the wide chasm between topics like Marie Kondo to eating ass. The result is one of the strongest debuts into the comedy album space of 2020.
24. Whitmer Thomas – The Golden One
Tragedy doesn’t always work for comedy. But a good comedian will do whatever he can to find humor in even the most dire situations. The half-special/half-documentary starts with Thomas introducing us to his late mother by going through some of his old stuff. Onstage, Thomas manages to give the audience an insight into his family life through jokes about his upbringing, some twisted yet-still-somehow-touching songs, and even explains why she called him “the golden one”. Offstage, he reconnects with his estranged family in moments that make the special even funnier and more poignant, The child abduction joke alone makes this worth checking it out.
23. Joe List – I Hate Myself
When a comic tapes their first hour special, location is everything. For instance, watching a club comic out of their natural habitat and in a theater, you don’t always get the full experience. List gives us the full experience as he slays it in a club, tackling airplane anxieties, dining in at McDonalds, watching a fight break out in Dublin, and why he thinks the dental industry is an outright sham. List decided to
22. Matt Braunger – Please Hold Me
Matt Braunger’s been pretty damn productive the last few years – new specials, a new podcast, TV roles, and fatherhood. He’s also given us his first proper comedy album in about a decade. Braunger is great “on wax,” because his joke delivery is efficient, not wasting time with stories that go nowhere rather opting to keep strong his economy of words, setting out to make an album a listener wants to revisit with memorable punchlines. Nothing is wasted in his storytelling, providing for a most-excellent experience.
21. Beth Stelling – Girl Daddy
As one of the first of 4 specials to kick off HBO Max’s stand-up catalog, Beth Stelling’s Girl Daddy manages to be the biggest stand-out. Girl Daddy also happens to be her first stand-up special. Stelling covers topics such as men vs. women when it comes to buying condoms, getting laid with another man’s name tattooed on her, struggles with her weight, and choosing penis as a superpower. While some of the premises might feel familiar, it’s Stelling’s fresh take and distinctive voice that allows everything to run like clockwork.
20. Jesus Trejo – Stay At Home Son
Let’s face it, parents can be a goldmine of wealth for any comic and Jesus Trejo’s are no different. In his first Showtime special, Trejo delivers a killer opener about calling up an hour glass company to running his first marathon. However, it’s Trejo’s material revolving around living with and helping care for his parents that pull the best laughs of the special – his conversation with his dad about running said marathon is especially noteworthy. Comics have championed Trejo for years, so its fantastic to see him finally get his own moment to shine.
19. Jerry Seinfeld – 23 Hours To Kill
It might be hard to believe, but 23 Hours To Kill is actually Jerry Seinfeld’s first comedy special featuring all new material since 1987’s Stand Up Confidential – his last two revisited vintage material. Here you get a good feeling of what it’s like to see an evening of the comedian’s Beacon Theater residency shows in New York. Whether he’s talking about what an ordeal it is to make plans for a night out with friends, what “sucks” versus “is great,” or how phones are taking us over, there’s definitely some future classic Seinfeld bits here.
18. Mark Normand – Out To Lunch
And speaking of Jerry Seinfeld, last year he called Normand one of his favorite comedians of the moment. And now, those who were unfamiliar prior to that can now see why that is. An undeniable favorite in the New York scene, Normand tackles wanting to pick the person he sits next to on a plane, why white people are worried about looking ignorant, dating as a comedian, and why calling a woman fat is worse than calling her “the C-word”. Normand’s quick delivery of the joke-heavy material makes it all flow together smoothly, and makes him someone you should definitely keep an eye on.
17. Eddie Pepitone – For The Masses
If you’re looking to hear a comedian go on a wonderfully hysterical tangent about how sh*tty the world is for an hour, Eddie Pepitone is your guy. Surrounded by prop bookcases full of books, Pepitone shouts his frustration away about hopelessness, society, Trump’s middle America, and even living in “end times”. Much like Maron’s special that also came out this year, it feels all the more surreal watching it in the pandemic. But also, that unexpected added punch only drives it home further, as you find yourself thinking “If he thought things were bad before, one can only imagine what must be going on in his head now”.
16. Tim Heidecker – An Evening with Tim Heidecker
A Tim Heidecker entrance is exactly what you’d expect. At the start, he spends about five minutes fumbling with the mic, trying to get it to stay in the stand. What follows is his “improvised” special, that essentially flips the conventions of what you expect from a stand-up special on its ear. Whether he’s messing up a joke intro or showing off a hack Jack Nicholson impression, it feels like a critique on special clichés just as much as it is a special itself. Also, he literally corners an unsuspecting couple into getting engaged, going as far as to provide his own ring. If you’re looking for some irreverent fun, look no further.
15. Kyle Kinane – Trampoline in a Ditch
When Kyle Kinane announced a new album release this summer, we got really excited. A new hour (which actually is over 90 minutes) from Kinane is an early Christmas for a comedy fan. And he certainly didn’t disappoint, bringing us an full of stories featuring his unique life outlook, leaving you on the edge of your seat for where he could possibly spin this one. Kinane touches on being a grown man named Kyle, being an aging partier, his love of bats, knowing he has white privilege because he believes in ghosts, and an epic 23 minute story about getting kicked out of Canada. To accompany the new album, he also released an animated short film that we also recommend checking out.
14. Sam Morril – I Got This
Back in February, Morril decided to release his stand-up hour, I Got This, via his YouTube channel. As of this writing, the special has nearly 5 million views. While it’s a testament to good marketing and word of mouth, at its core, it’s a solid special and Morril is a fantastic joke writer. Morril touches on positive porn categories, the Cleveland vigilante The White Knight, and of course his now-infamous bad weekend in Naples, Florida. In a testament to his desire to write jokes and perform, Morril bookended is pandemic year by writing and performing enough to release a second 2020 special, recorded during the summer on rooftops around the city.
13. Maria Bamford – Weakness is the Brand
There’s few stand-up comics that are as unique and killing it in the way Maria Bamford does. She explores the unconventional, whether she’s performing for just her parents in their living room, in front of park benches and a bowling alley, while in the process proving funny is funny no matter where. Here, Bamford is in a more traditional setting, but she still manages to bring the same quirky charm as she addresses audience member critiques, giving 11 percent of her income away to charity, getting asked to give a commencement speech, and even have her husband join her onstage for a duet. Maria Bamford shows us here that she can knock it out of the park anywhere, even on a stand-up stage.
12. Doug Stanhope – The Dying Of A Last Breed
Doug Stanhope has always walked on the outside of showbiz – someone whose always wanted to do his own thing and with his follow-up to 2016’s No Place Like Home he’s done just that by self-releasing his special, Dying Of A Last Breed. The special is the comedian’s signature assault on societal sensibilities with nihilist undertones. Stanhope has always tackled taboo subjects. While those framing him within 2020 sensibilities might label him with ridiculous titles such as “problematic” Stanhope has no time for such things as he’s too busy finding the most dark subject matter possible and spinning hilarity out of the most uncomfortable of places.
11. Marc Maron – End Times Fun
Few specials sum up 2020 better than Marc Maron. Afterall, he did name his special End Times Fun, and it wound up being released right before the lockdowns started. Here, Maron is in his true curmudgeon form, taking us on a journey detailing how doomed we are as he talks about doing all that we could (by using reusable bags), what Jesus and Marvel superheroes have in common, being a “mid-level celebrity,” and how he sees the apocalypse going down. Obviously, the timing was all coincidental. But that allowed it to be all the more poignant, and serves as perhaps the hilarious eye-opener we all need right now.
10. Hannibal Buress – Miami Nights
A lot happened since Hannibal Buress’s last special, Comedy Camisado. Among other things a highly publicized 2017 run-in with Miami Police, that inspired the title of Miami Nights. He also started releasing raps, moved back to Chicago, got sober, and left fans wondering if they’re ever gonna see a Hannibal Buress special again. Much to our delight, it happened. The special, which has a feeling of being far more epic and larger-than-life than your standard comedian onstage telling jokes, was supposed to premiere at SXSW earlier this year before the festival was canceled. So Buress took it to YouTube and streamed it himself. There’s autotune, green screen, clips, and more, all taking place amidst Buress’s trademark knack for storytelling.
9. Lewis Black – Thanks For Risking Your Life
Lewis Black walked onto the stage on March 13th for the last time before the pandemic shut everything down. That night there was an inkling that it might just be something special. Fortunately, there were some house cameras at the venue and the decision was made to roll tape. What was captured was a specific moment in a very surreal time that we might never again experience in our lifetime. Black greets the audience with the now famous line, “Thanks for risking your life,” and just riffed on the state of things before transitioning into his pre-COVID set – material loaded with foretelling parallels, including people’s reluctance to trust science, terrible politicians, and even the joys of 2-day free shipping. Black manages to remain in true form with an unplanned and intimate special that will certainly serve as a time capsule of this moment.
8. Leslie Jones – Time Machine
There’s two types of SNL alumni who make it big. Those that have their careers launched because of the show, and those who struggled to find a place on the show but thrived after they’ve left (Chris Rock anyone?). Time Machine makes it clear which camp Leslie Jones is in. As she explodes onto the stage, you realize that this is her natural habitat, and she can let loose without those SNL confines. From aging to dating to being at a party with Prince, she’s finally going full Leslie Jones and there’s absolutely no stopping her once she gets going!
7. Taylor Tomlinson – Quarter-Life Crisis
After spending the last few years rising up the ranks in the stand-up world, Taylor Tomlinson truly shined this year. In her first hour-long Netflix special, Tomlinson manages to give us an insight into some of the anxieties (and hating) being in your 20s. However, her age does not define who she is as a comic. Tomlinson is as polished as a stand-up vet twice her age. She manages to both identify and outright criticize her generation, and completely nails it in her assessment of how older people will tell her to “enjoy being in your 20s”. If you’re looking to see what a solid first hour looks like, look no further, this is it.
6. Patton Oswalt – I Love Everything
While we’re all waiting for the vaccine to make its rounds, what better pick-me-up is there during this wretched year than Patton Oswalt? In the aptly titled I Love Everything, Oswalt tackles his sexual prowess at 50, the scariness of “healthy cereal,” his youth spent as a wedding DJ and the backstory for the Denny’s kids menu Grand Slam. In such dark times, Patton Oswalt is here to provide us with the light that we need. And we’re certainly all the better off for it.
5. Bert Kreischer – Hey Big Boy
After more than two decades slugging it out in stand-up, things are finally going well for Bert Kreischer, even in 2020. His second Netflix special begins with what Kreischer describes as “the best joke he’s ever written” about being recognized at Starbucks. As the special progresses, we see Kreischer revealing more of his signature stories about his daughters, his wife, and his parents. His closer, about the time he was left in charge of them for 2 weeks, is a classic comedy of errors in a category all by itself that makes this special an essential watch.
4. Jim Gaffigan – The Pale Tourist
When a comic performs in a city, they may have one or two anecdotes or jokes about said city to share before moving onto their prepared set. For The Pale Tourist, Jim Gaffigan’s prepared set is those anecdotes. In this two part special, Gaffigan takes to Toronto and Barcelona to deliver his interpretation of their cultures. His insights include Saskatchewan “perverts,” poutine, seeing a late night Drake concert, when Paella time is, a statue of the devil, and why “tourist” is such an ugly word. It’s nothing but classic Gaffigan here.
3. Jim Jefferies – Intolerant
The title Intolerant, stems from the night Jeffries decided to eat dairy, despite being lactose intolerant. Of course, it also does have the added bonus double meaning for someone like Jefefries, and just how much he can possibly tolerate (or not) in any given situation. Jefferies talks about a variety of topics including his father’s “acceptance” of gay people, makes a point about fat shaming in regards to his mother’s death, and even mocks germaphobes, which admittedly hits a little bit differently now. Yes, even in 2020, Jim Jefferies still gives not a single f*ck and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
2. Eric Andre – Legalize Everything
For his first ever stand-up special, there was absolutely no doubt Eric Andre would give us something completely out left field. Rest assured, you’ve never seen a stand-up special like this. From talking about Cops to being high at a Snoop Dog concert to a “bukkake break” (rest assured, there’s no actual bukkake taking place), Andre’s special isn’t so much centered around jokes as it is his brand of fun-loving, enthusiastic chaos. And in our opinion, it’s never been more on point than it is here.
1. Tom Segura – Ball Hog
He walks right out onstage. No pleasantries. No overstated stroll to the mic. Just right into the jokes. Because with a pro like Segura that’s all you need. And while he spent the last few years impressing us more and more with his specials, Ball Hog manages to take it one step further and landing the top spot on our list in the process. Within this hour, there are jokes he states will test whether you’re with him or not (asking what kind of slave you’d be, how one could justify killing a dog, and a new “R” word being among the standouts). But we also dare you not to laugh at his bit about catch a woman “pleasing herself” at the hotel bar. By the end of the hour, there’s no question that you’re going to wind up being right there with Tom Segura.