2010s in Review: The Best Comedy Specials

Stand-up grew into a major cultural force this decade, thanks to Netflix and its willingness to spend money on many comedians, including some that hadn’t gotten a shot at the big leagues yet. It was boon for the comedians as well, as the specials drove ticket sales, raising their profiles even further. These were my 10 favorites.

Neal Brennan in 3 Mics
Neal Brennan: 3 Mics (Netflix)
Using three microphones to tell one-liners, stand-up and harrowing true stories, Neal Brennan finds a truly creative way to be emotionally naked without being cliché.

Dave Chappelle in The Age of Spin
Dave Chappelle: The Age of Spin (Netflix)
One of four specials to hit in 2017, this is Chappelle reclaiming his throne as one of the greatest stand-ups ever. While the one filmed in Austin meanders and gets into some ugly political bits (that aren’t that funny and don’t really have a point), this show filmed in L.A. is much more focused, but still as unapologetic and hilarious.

Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays
Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays (HBO)
This one hit me right in the feels. Billy Crystal takes his book about his all-too-brief time with his dad and turns it into a poignant but hilarious one-man show. His recreation of a family video is priceless visual comedy, but his recollection of treasured memories makes this a classic.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie in Flight of the Conchords: Live in London
Flight of the Conchords: Live in London (HBO)
A kiss is not a contract, but it’s very nice. And while this isn’t another season of the New Zealand folk comedy duo’s brilliant HBO show, this delightful concert is a worthy substitute. Playing lots of old favorites, as well as two killer new tracks, this was a fun hour that left you marveling at the band’s intricate wordplay.

Hannah Gadsby in Nanette
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix)
Is it still comedy if there’s not a lot to laugh about? Hannah Gadsby proves it doesn’t matter. Her raw one-woman show is disarmingly low-key in its first half, all the better to devastate you with her tales of survival in the second half. It’s groundbreaking and important television, even if you’re not cracking up.

Chris Gethard in Career Suicide
Chris Gethard: Career Suicide (HBO)
One of the most important pieces of art ever made. Chris Gethard explores his history with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts with a frankness and sense of humor that’s so honest and tender that I truly think it should be shown in every school in America, so that kids who feel this way know they’re not alone, and that friends with kids who feel this way can see the signs and help.

John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid
John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid (Netflix)
After his sitcom crashed and burned, John Mulaney could have gotten bitter. Instead, he took the experience (along with buying a house and other adult responsibilities) and turned it into this magnificent special, which touches on his admiration for Bill Clinton (aka President Buddy Garrity) and his love of the 1993 adaptation of The Fugitive.

John Mulaney and Nick Kroll in Oh, Hello on Broadway
Oh, Hello on Broadway (Netflix)
Though the extremely specific humor of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll as a real-life Statler and Waldorf is an acquired taste, I acquired it quickly and loved every bit of it. Interacting with the audience much more than their previous bits, this filmed play is gut-busting from start to finish, especially when one of them forgets his lines, or the audience gets offended not at racially charged jokes or Holocaust references, but at a line that implies a dog got eaten. Their quick wit keeps what ordinarily would have just been a sketch and makes it last, deepening it and giving it some pathos.

Patton Oswalt in Annihilation
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation (Netflix)
The first half of this set, filmed by Bobcat Goldthwait, is straightforward stand-up about what a nightmare it is to live under the Trump administration, knowing every day we wake up, our toddler-in-chief could have said or tweeted something offensive, incomprehensible or just plain stupid. The second half finds Oswalt exploring the aftermath of his wife’s unexpected death, the sorrow he felt and the joy he found in the worst of situations.

Chris Rock in Tamborine
Chris Rock: Tamborine (Netflix)
The legend’s first special in a decade was a no-holds-barred reflection on what led to his divorce. He’s no less funny than he used to be, but he’s a whole lot wiser. That only comes after learning some hard lessons. But at least on stage, Rock proves he’s taken those to heart and not lost a step.

The Louis C.K. Problem
Hilarious, Live at the Beacon Theater, Oh My God, 2017
Eventually, we were going to have to talk about the elephant in the room. We’ll talk about him more when I get to the best TV shows of the decade. C.K. was one of the very best stand-ups, producing these four stellar specials and more. But he’s also an unrepentant piece of shit, and his legacy is forever tainted. It feels gross to honor him, but it would also feel weird to completely ignore his body of work.

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