2021 has been almost as much of a rollercoaster as 2020 was. We began the year hoping that we could put COVID-19 behind us, before the devastating second wave in India sent us all scrambling for masks and vaccinations. Meanwhile, things did calm down a bit in the rest of the world, and comedians returned to the stage in front of smaller, socially-distanced crowds, gracing us with hours of new (and much-appreciated) material. Hopefully they also got enough experience of “the outside” to write more jokes because Omicron is here threatening us with yet another surge and lockdown.
But before we’re forced to look ahead to 2022, let’s take a moment to celebrate the comedy specials that kept us sane through this past year, providing a much-needed serotonin fix to millions of people around the world. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the best specials to hit our screens during this dumpster-fire of a year.
1. Inside – Bo Burnham (Netflix)
Bo Burnham’s third Netflix special comes five years after a series of onstage panic attacks forced him to take a sabbatical from live comedy. On Inside—written, directed and even edited by Burnham himself—the focus remains on the comedian’s mental health, which has taken something of a beating from the pandemic, the ever-growing threat of apocalyptic climate change, and the internet’s dopamine-fuelled manipulations.
Inside also showcases Burnham’s incredible musical talent with 20 tracks that offer vibrant social commentary and an insight into the psychological cost of creating this eighty-seven-minute special. In a subtle tribute to his comedy hero, Dutch absurdist Hans Teeuwen, How The World Works sees him playfully summarise the hard truths of class struggle and offer a view of the contemporary ideals of the left with the device of a sock puppet. A few disruptive cuts later, Welcome To The Internet sees Bo tackles cesspools of the internet with all the exuberance of a victorious Disney villain. My personal favourite is the sombre All Eyes On Me. With the camera zoomed in on his weary, burnt-out face, Burnham bares his soul, riffing on his panic attacks, the state of the world, and his doomed return to live comedy in April 2020 (no prizes for guessing what happened there).
Burnham’s cinematic, hyper-referential visual treatment elevates the special to a masterpiece, as he tackles issues like existential angst, online performativity and climate fatalism with disarming self-awareness and innovative skill.
2. Lubricant – Russell Howard (Amazon Prime)
Russell Howard’s sharp, manic energy shines in this two-part series as he performs at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Howard shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy of British society, from anti-vaxxers to Boris Johnson’s pandemic messaging (which, as we found out this month, the British PM didn’t even follow himself). He also touches on the ongoing culture wars around offensive humour, and reminds us not to get so caught up in them as to forget the many other serious problems we need to tackle. But most of all, the special reminds us that, as Howard puts it, “laughter is the lubricant that makes life livable.”
It’s a pretty good special, but the real winner is the second episode—titled Russell Howard: Until the Wheels Come Off—which serves as a companion documentary to the special (the first in Netflix’s history). It reveals Howard’s initial plans for a world tour, which met with an abrupt end due to the pandemic. His choice to move in with his parents for the next 18 months forms the crux of this second hour, which saw him play in front of multiple small crowds, having to adapt to different rules everywhere. The documentary is a sincere, insightful glimpse into the life of a comedian during a year when the comedy industry was struggling to cope with the pandemic.
3. Aalas Motapa Ghabraahat – Karunesh Talwar (Amazon Prime)
Karunesh Talwar kicks off his second special for Amazon by addressing the elephant in the room: the dwindling number of things that it’s safe for comedians to joke about. So Talwar decides to stick to the safest possible subjects: himself, his family and his girlfriend. And for the rest of the special, he lovingly lampoons all those subjects.
There’s a playful takedown of his father, whose initial anger at his son’s jokes gives way when he finds out how much money Talwar is earning. Another bit, ostensibly about the awkward start to his romantic relationship, turns into jabs at the men swimming in the Indian dating pool. The special’s title—Aalas Motapa Ghabraahat—is a reference to his family’s philosophy of life, one that he’s also internalised. Any similarities to our experiences during COVID-19 are purely coincidental.
Talwar’s easy-going storytelling style and intimate mastery of his material make this a special worth watching and re-watching.
4. Between The Lines – Azeem Banatwalla (YouTube)
For his third special, Azeem Banatwala decided to take on both sides of the political spectrum. You’ll enjoy his insightful anecdotes of life as a comedian with anti-establishment views, as well as the enthusiasm with which he dissects the many threats he receives online for daring to ridicule those in power. From cow vigilantes to teenagers with coloured hair, everyone’s a target. This doesn’t always come off well—intersectionality is complicated, and at one point we find Banatwalla echoing an anti-trans meme popular with the alt-right—but there are moments of brilliance.
In what he claims is his last stab at political comedy, Banatwalla speaks about the Muslim reality and the truth of that reality dwindling over time. This special often cuts away for a few seconds with the word “redacted” in the middle of the screen, whenever he names names that could get him in trouble. This serves as a tongue-in-cheek reminder that despite all his privilege, he still isn’t as safe as you’d think.
5. The Greatest Average American – Nate Bargatze (Netflix)
Nate Bargatze follows up his excellent 2019 special The Tennessee Kid with this hour of jokes focusing on what he thinks are the right things to feel as part of the “Oregon Trail” generation, giving us the only G-rated special on this list.
Bargatze avoids focusing too much on the pandemic, but there is a brilliant anecdote here about how his parents had made public coughing into a personality trait, which ended up being a bit of a problem once COVID-19 rolled in. Much of the humour comes from everyday experiences, from losing your phone to losing weight (at the cost of having a neighbour as your workout buddy).
Bargatze’s rant about schools—including a personal story being known as a “concussion veteran” during his adolescence, and another about his daughter’s school supposedly dumbing her down with “common core math”—is an astute example of his comedic chops. Nate Bargatze remains the go-to comedian for smart, family-friendly fun.
6. Mohammed in Texas – Mo Amer (Netflix)
Mo Amer’s new special kicks off with a bang as he is introduced by Black Adam co-star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. After that high-profile celeb flex, Amer launches into a series of jokes about a multitude of topics, from his divorce to the general panic and confusion around the pandemic.
My favourite bit of the hour is when he expresses his immense disappointment at how the humble hummus finds itself at the centre of culinary blasphemy. Amer is at his best when he’s exploring linguistic and cultural difference, such as his comparative study of curse words from the West and the Middle East.
Mohammed In Texas is meant to be a reminder of who Amer is and what he aspires to be, both as an artist and as a person. There’s a lot of love for his adopted hometown of Houston, but he reserves a special ending for his roots. He signs off with footage and an emotional description of a trip to Palestine, visiting his extended family, and how that inspired the writing of this excellent hour.
7. Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo) – Nicole Byer (Netflix)
The raunchiest special on this list, Nicole Byer’s debut doesn’t shy away from graphic and brash authenticity. Her storytelling skills shine as she narrates a true story regarding the harrowing US medical system, deflating the tense ordeal with her natural charm and wit. With a handy reputation as a voice actor and a successful podcast (Why Won’t You Date Me?), Byer displays those skills in hilarious impressions of her friends, acquaintances, and people she practically hates.
This special primarily revolves around her journey as she forged her comedic voice in New York as an improv artist, and how the city has been the epicentre of her absurd dating and sexual history. But Boyer is at her best when she takes on the ‘Karens’ of the world, from the nurse who tried to steal her lingerie to her outrageous takedown of “JKKK Rowling”. Bold and brilliant, this is a marquee debut from an accomplished comic.
8. Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 – James Acaster (Vimeo)
In what is easily the longest special on this list, James Acaster weaves a spell that leaves you engaged for over two hours of storytelling. The British comedian begins by diving straight into the scrum over Brexit with a brutal eight-minute restaurant analogy. There’s also a great bit about “edgy comedians” that went viral this summer, as Acaster rips into Ricky Gervais and his ilk for punching down with trans jokes.
But like Burnham’s Inside, this is at its heart a special about grappling with mental illness and self-loathing, as he highlights the way trauma is transformed into entertainment. Filled with detailed accounts from his worst ever year, Cold Lasgne… revolves around three unhappy separations from his girlfriend, agent and therapist, each of which he relates with inventive wit and excoriating self-awareness.
A masterful display of vulnerability and intelligent expression, this is a special I’ve returned to time and time again this year.
9. Michael Che: Shame The Devil – Michael Che (Netflix)
As Michael Che sits down on a stool he bought himself, you get the idea that his Netflix debut is not going to be an energetic one. As co-host of the Weekend Update, Che’s sardonic demeanour is his bread-and-butter and this hour of jokes seems like a hangover from his SNL experience. But what Che lacks in enthusiasm, he makes up for in introspective insight, such as when he thinks through the criticism he faced after dead-naming Caitlyn Jenner on SNL.
The comedian brings the same introspective energy as he unpacks the uncertainties of being single, talks about a fresh breakup, and even dispenses opinions about mental health that he knows might get him into trouble.
Inevitably, Che also touches on race in America. Addressing the carnage of the Capitol riots, he feels hard done by how easy the white insurrectionists had it compared to Black Lives Matter, joking that the latter was shown up and should learn how to make a splash from their ideological opponents. It’s not the most best material the comic has to offer, but there’s enough solid hits in here to keep you hooked.
10. Drawn – Tig Notaro (HBO)
It’s odd to think of Tig Notaro—a comic known for her deadpan, preternaturally cool stage demeanour—as the subject of a completely animated standup comedy special. But that contrast between Notaro’s understated delivery and the grisly whimsy of the on-screen animation ends up elevating the comedian’s anecdotes to high art.
Notaro and lead animator Greg Franklin make their way through a dizzying array of animation styles over the 50 minute set. So an opening bit about how creepy the Kool-Aid mascot is references Hanna-Barbara cartoons, while the show-closer about Dolly Parton shares an uncanny valley with Pixar’s CGI.
This is clean comedy at its best for all age groups, even kids, as long as they don’t mind a segment dedicated to a semi-horror dentist disaster and a one-sided love story rolled into one.