Upon starting this list and without much effort we were able to quickly ramble about 100 comedians that put out an hour since December 2017 ticked past us. This is not including all of the half-hour specials and 15 minute ones that were also released. It’s a lot of stand-up comedy to consume via TV, streaming, CD, Netflix, or however else we can consume comedy these days. The point we’re trying to make is 2018 saw a lot of outstanding comedy and to make a list ranking it all is quite simply a fool’s errand. Art is subjective by nature and nobody will agree 100% with this list. So rather than attempt to make a definitive list of the best comedy of 2018, let’s treat this as the specials we enjoyed the most this year.
First, some parameters to keep us on track.
- We focused on the standard hour of material whether by video or comedy album. While there were unbelievably fantastic half hour and 15 minute sets in 2018, the comedy hour is still the best representation/benchmark for a comedian.
- Variety/one-man shows did not count. Though the likes of John Leguizamo, Steve Martin & Martin Short, Seth Rogen, and Trevor Moore released great comedy shows, for the purpose of this list they were excluded.
- Duo shows were aplenty this year but they weren’t considered. Specialty shows like Dave Attell & Jeff Ross, Moshe Kasher & Natasha Leggero were fantastic efforts. But they were smaller, multi-episode specials as opposed to the stand-up hour.
- The general timeline for consideration is December of the year prior to end of November the next.
So without further adieu, here are the 20 best comedy specials and albums of 2018.
20 – Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars
Ali Siddiq provides an archetype of what cool can be. While some comics spend a lifetime trying to figure out who they are onstage or what sort of comedy they want to perform, it appears that Siddiq was always the way he was. From the moment he takes the stage you know this isn’t going to be your ordinary comedy special. Filmed at the same prison (Bell County Jail) Siddiq once was an occupant of, Bigger Than These Bars shows just how far he’s come as a person, pure storytelling that pulls back the curtain on his brain. There is nary a fake moment from the comedian on stage. Siddiq does a seamless job of blending together Ali onstage with real, personal moments of those who are currently incarcerated. Additionally gives an insider look of the prison and offers real insight into what life behind bars is actually like. Bigger Than These Bars provides moments of true hilarity while letting us walk away learning something as well.
19 – Jim Gaffigan: Noble Ape
On Gaffigan’s 6th stand-up special he starts by taking a bit of a departure from his affable jokes about food, kids, and paleness. Why? Because the comedian’s world was rocked recently with a health scare (brain tumor) that fell onto his wife and writing partner Jeanie, forcing him to cancel some shows and nearly into retirement. Rather than that though, Gaffigan gave us Noble Ape tackling this topic as comedians do, harnessing tragedy for the sake of comedy. But it’s not long until Gaffigan puts a pin in the tension and relieves the pressure with some of his trademark material that proves to us all that levity is sometimes the best medicine.
18 – W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro
W. Kamau Bell has always taken a perspective on the political views that plague society. It’s evident Bell spent time writing the material for Private School Negro because the jokes hit hard and last with you long after watching. Bell is good at breaking down things like race and the consequences of freedom of speech, material that’s been covered over and over again unfortunately still needs to be addressed in these current times. Bell is as relevant as ever and for better or for worse might be a few years from now as well. It’s his strongest effort to date.
17 – Big Jay Oakerson: The Crowd Work Sessions 2: I Promised Myself I Wouldn’t Ask
Big Jay Oakerson released his second crowd work album the same year his Netflix half-hour premiered. This is a re-affirmation that Oakerson is one of the best comedians working today. Dirty, stream-of-conscious, and incredibly hilarious, Oakerson continues to own the status down as one of the best to have ever performed crowd work in stand-up, while other comedians have taken a stab at the art, there’s nobody better at it than Big Jay Oakerson. Juxtaposed with his written out stand-up set on The Degenerates, it’s extremely easy to see how incredibly well-rounded a comedian like Oakerson is.
16 – Tom Segura: Disgraceful
On his third Netflix special Disgraceful, Tom Segura is full on loveable jerk. There are some people that can jerk and others can do loveable, but Segura manages to walk that line others can’t really do as well. Unfortunately, when you walk that line sometimes you get burned. For Segura it was when he launches a discussion about what words can’t be said these days Segura took heat from some about the use of words like gay, retarded, or midget. Those that understand where the comedian was going with the bit saw it for what it was. Those that didn’t, exercised civil discourse and managed to confirm the premise of the bit in the first place… the ultimate irony.
15 – Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife
Ali Wong exploded with Baby Cobra a special where she delivered a wildly raucous act while very late in her pregnancy with her first child. On Hard Knock Wife Wong went the same route for baby #2 – inspired raunchiness that was just given an exclamation point because of her pregnancy. The subject of the raunch has evolved from her and her husband to now include the struggles a new mom has, baby bodily fluids, pot shots at maternity leave, and the role reversal the newfound fame has injected into her family. Wong is surprisingly animated on stage and she was once again able to spin a pregnancy into comedy gold.
14 – Mike Vecchione: The Worst Kind Of Thoughtful
Mike Vecchione writes a lot of jokes and and on his latest album, The Worst Kind of Thoughtful he packs more of them on it than you can imagine. The album is 35 tracks and it moves at a speed that is almost too fast for you to catch everything on one listen. The topics are nothing that hasn’t been walked over before like travel and food. But Vecchione masterfully finds new material in these subjects because he attacks them with an unrelenting force and rapid-fire delivery. Vecchione has long been praised by his peers as one of the best joke writers out there and he wonderfully showcases that fact on The Worst Kind of Thoughtful. It’s a fresh take on the comedy album because it’s just funny for the sake of funny without any pretense or agenda other than to make you laugh.
13 – Sam Jay: Donna’s Daughter
Sam Jay has one of the freshest views of the world and that’s full on display on her debut, Donna’s Daughter. As a gay woman of color, heading into the album you’d expect one point of view on a topic only to have that preconceived notion dashed with an almost stream-of-conscious delivery about gay stereotypes, gender norms, and her reluctance in appreciating Donald Trump. It reminds us a lot of hearing a comic like Patrice O’Neal for the first time. The album has interludes like your favorite hip-hop album that meld Jay’s cultural experience with her real life experiences as she openly discusses honest and compelling material such as a physical altercation at the end of her marriage that we don’t often hear on a comedy album.
12 – Brad Wenzel: Sweet Nothings
Sweet Nothings is a wonderful debut by a comedian that clearly studied at the feet of Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg. Witty one-liner jokes that hit you fast and hard when they land. The album starts off with a few rolls of laughs but somewhere around the third track on the record you realize just how many jokes are being tossed and how many are landing to create a thoroughly enjoyable debut from a budding comedy mind.
11 – Sam Morril: Positive Influence
Sam Morril made a huge splash with Positive Influence, it’s a killer combination of great joke writing and perfect delivery from the comedian. This special was an “Amy Schumer presents” special for Comedy Central but in reality Morril doesn’t need Schumer’s tap of approval. It’s good she gives it to him, but pretty fast into the special we learn he doesn’t need it. Morril’s point of view comes left-of-center and his hilarious making you laugh at things you don’t want to – baby’s can’t dunk so they aren’t miracles, not serving seltzer is a form of anti-semitism, online trolls, the need to perform for his therapist all with a gravely smirk that wins you fast.
10 – Joe Rogan: Strange Times
Ask anyone who knows anything about podcasts and they’ll rave about Joe Rogan as being the gold standard in that space. But along the way as Rogan was clearing a path for himself at the podcasting medium, he’s also become a fearless comedian, particularly with his last 3 stand-up specials. Rogan walks the edge in his act, switching gender roles to point out our ridiculous customs, how a random vegan can be a moron, homo-erotic undertones in professional wrestling, and re-evaluating the Presidential race since the 2016 election. Rogan doesn’t hold back and comes off like a stoner college kid with all the conspiracy theory answers at his fingertips. It’s a wild ride and Rogan knows it, openly acknowledging that some of the things he’s going to say on this special are going to get him in trouble, but he doesn’t care because it’s funny.
9 – Chris Rock: Tambourine
It’s been nearly a decade since Chris Rock produced a stand-up comedy special and like most of the elders on this list, Rock was lured out of “stand-up retirement” with a lucrative deal from the folks over at Netflix. A lot has changed for the 53 year old comedian and it’s produced one of his most inspiring and honest stand-up specials Rock’s ever made. There’s a bit of melancholy to Rock’s persona and he knows it – the special’s title coming from the statement that “nobody wants to see a mad tambourine player.” Directed by Bo Burnham, the special showcases Rock in perhaps his intimate and most relaxed environment, opting for jeans and a t-shirt instead of wearing suits and the multi-continent destinations of specials past and it works for him. This special can be split into two distinctive parts, the first half with the comedian addressing edgy topics of the day – to him, the world’s gotten too soft (we don’t know how to handle bullies, so when a real one came along in Donald Trump, we didn’t know how to handle it). Rock has never been one to shy away from controversial topics like racism, bullying, or our political leaders and he’s his best here when he nails you with a surprise twist and outrageous punchline, often with the followup phrase, “yeah, I said it.” The second half of Tambourine goes a bit more personal for Rock and it’s all the more powerful. He talks about what it’s like as a dad raising a black child in the world, he talks about how he took his marriage for granted, how he wasn’t a great husband who had a pornography addition and wasn’t faithful to his wife as well. Rock gets super-personal and in turn vulnerable, something we don’t usually get from a man known for yelling and stomping on stage.
8 – Iliza Shlesinger: Elder Millennial
If you haven’t noticed already, Iliza Shlesinger is a killer comedian and he has been for a long time. Iliza’s exploded within the circles of young ladies eager to feed their party goblins. But she’s since become one of the most consistent stand-up comedians in the game. Producing a super-loyal fanbase that turn her bits into t-shirts and give her homemade treats and wares (check out her Instagram for proof). But besides a loyal fanbase, her last three Netflix specials have been testaments to high energy, fully relatable, stand-up comedy. On Elder Millenial, Iliza is now 35 and feels compelled to pass along the relationship learnings she’s accumulated. As someone on the older spectrum of her generation it’s not only her desire but her duty and she’s damn good at it.
7 – Paul Virzi: I’ll Say This
Paul Virzi’s been killing it at stand-up comedy for the last few years with and served as Bill Burr’s opener for just as long. That opportunity has prepared him to hone killer material for large crowds for some time now. With his first stand-up special I’ll Say This, Virzi was ready and boy did he deliver. An hour of solid joke writing and storytelling that’s about as infectious as you can get. Virzi is a family man who filters the modern social landscape through that lens tackling everything from juggling bears to the president – while his biggest anxieties in his life aren’t necessarily geopolitical, rather how does he get rid of the downed peach tree in his backyard (thankfully his trusty landscaper Hector is amazing). It’s finding the funny moments in his life that make Virzi such a endearing comedian, and it turns out that people agreed as Virzi’s special is setting all kinds of streaming records for Comedy Central. Networks take note, more of this can happen when you take chances on comedians with chops.
6 – Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Love it or hate it but you have to admit that Hannah Gadsby had the comedy world buzzing this year with the release of her special, Nanette. The story goes that Gadsby, a popular comedian in the Australian region of the world decided to quit the biz and before retiring on what was supposed to be her final stand-up special, took the opportunity to dedicate the back end of her special about what she dislikes about the business – taking on the toxic masculinity, how it effected her, and how she was done with it. In the height of the #metoo movement, Nanette was a rallying cry for many and a bone of contention for others, launching countless “angry man” thinkpieces. Folks debated everything from the facts Gadsby utilized in her act, whether it could even be considered a comedy special, its impact on comedy, and even her appearance. No matter where you land on the conversation, the fact that you were having it is a testament to the impact Nanette had in 2018. We’ll catch shit for putting this special on this list from those that feel it doesn’t belong anywhere on it and also from those angry it didn’t rank higher on a male-dominated top 10.
5 – Jim Jefferies: This Is Me Now
Jim Jefferies has things to say and depending on how you feel politically will effect what parts of his act you love him for. Jefferies is an unsettled comic mind with a boozy pub persona, because of this he has liberal agenda when it comes to rules about alcohol, drugs, religion, and politicians. But it’s the same persona that hilariously makes him stumble through fatherhood or can rub you the wrong way if you’re a feminist hoping he’d launch a major takedown on other men. It’s the sign of good comedy, because it all comes from the same place. Jefferies loves to skew political agendas and when it hits, it hits hard. Take his gun control bit that seems to go viral every time there’s a mass shooting. Jefferies updates us on what’s happened since becoming a viral sensation and a mid-level celebrity – Rich and famous vs. poor and famous, money negotiations, and how it hilariously produced a cringeworthy brush with celebrities like Eddie Murphy at Mariah Carey’s house. Showbiz, amiright?
4 – Bert Kreischer: Secret Time
After years of plugging away at his comedy career, Bert Kreischer is finally having a moment. Over the winter of 2016, Kreischer’s Russian Mafia (aka The Machine) story went viral, like super viral, like 50M+ views on Facebook alone-kinda viral. After the special wasn’t really watched on Showtime, the power of the internet injected some much-needed life into Kreischer’s career. This lead to every other aspect of his life taking off – ticket sales, podcast subscriptions, and most importantly in this instance, a call from Netflix. Netflix higher-ups asked him to put out his next special with them and with it a special that is finally the best representation of the type of comedian Kreischer is. In short, he’s a loveable goofball, a family man, former frat guy, and total embracer of the silly. Kreischer likes to giggle and the material on Secret Time does just that, makes him and us giggle. He addresses the ridiculous things his kids say and do (deodorant in the fridge?), how screwed he’d be if his family needed to be his Seal Team 6, the one time he made his dad laugh by managing to give his wife the worst and best Christmas present at the same time, whipping those true life stories into comedy yarns the only way Kreischer can. He wraps Secret Time by telling how he inadvertently became the king of basketball camp as a kid by not being able to read the room. It’s events like this that endear us to Bert Kreischer, who without really trying becomes part of the funniest series of events imaginable.
3 – Dave Chappelle: Equinamity + The Bird Revelation
On the very first top of 2018 Dave Chappelle dropped two comedy specials on us. For a comedian who was off the grid for 10+ years, he’s given us 4 in the last 2 years. The most recent of those 4 came Equinamity + The Bird Revelation, two complementary specials that represent two different sides of Chappelle. Equinamity showcases the large venue affair of Chappelle moving a crowd. It’s Chappelle’s rock concert – animated, moving around on stage, at times confrontational in tone. The Bird Revelation is the counterpart, Chappelle’s late night afterparty jazz session recorded in front of a small audience of people at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Chappelle is laid back, chain smoking cigarettes and he adjusts his stand-up set in a similar manner – lesser energy, slower paced stories, more cerebral ideas and a relaxed tone fill this set. In it, Chappelle uses a terrific analogy to finally address (in a stand-up special at least) why he left his Comedy Central show. Utilizing an intense hooker story from Iceberg Slim’s legendary book, Pimp. Hell, even made the book a best seller again after 50 years. The power of a good story and from a surprise second stand-up special to boot.
2 – Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh
If in 2018 any of us believed that Adam Sandler would not only return to his stand-up comedy roots and at the same time excel we’d all be lying to ourselves. Sandler’s had a extremely successful run with Netflix the last few years, inking a lucrative deal with the streaming giant to produce new and original movies, but a new comedy special? Well, it turns out we all wanted more from Sandler. 100% Fresh is classic Adam Sandler, making those who grew up listening to They’re All Gonna Laugh At You smile with pure joy at his classic Sandler songs and delivery style. But rather than rehashing juvenile jokes a 20-something would make, he updated the material that an older man, husband, and father would tackle. Perhaps the most important part is experiencing the sheer fun Sandler is having in the process – giggling at his own jokes, donning props for some songs, and having that good time on stage we haven’t seen since his SNL days. Sandler builds his goofy, weird, and silly special with a tribute to his late friend Chris Farley. A comedy star like Adam Sandler didn’t need to make a special this many years after the fact. But he did and it was more than we all expected and we loved him for it.
1 – John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
John Mulaney released his stand-up special at the top of the year and it was a masterpiece in showcasing his joke writing. Pound-for-pound, John Mulaney is the best the business has to offer, a mastery of the language, great premises, and terrific delivery. Like previous specials from Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous produces instant classic bits such as JJ Bittenbinder, a detective who was in charge of educating children about “Street Smarts” and what to do in emergencies like being attacked by a potential pedophile. It’s bits like this that highlight Mulaney’s uncanny ability to mine common experiences for comedy gold. We all experienced an officer of the law teaching us in our schools, but none of us are able to paint a picture so vividly and hilarious as Mulaney. The comedian stretched his comedy muscle even more this year by hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time (after years of writing for it) which produced one of the buzziest sketches of the year (save for a late year Weezer-inspired entry). Mulaney also voices the terrific animated series, Big Mouth and provided some levity to the film Spider-man: Into The Spiderverse. So it was a year of John Mulaney, who spent the entire year writing jokes while fully knowing there is a horse loose in a hospital.