Funny and Fearless: 8 Great Comedy Specials By LGBTQIA+ Comedians

By DA Staff 5 June 2024 6 mins read

Here are some of the best standup specials that tackle issues of sexuality and identity with the utmost sincerity, while never straying far from the brief of "keeping things funny".

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Comedy Central’s Out There was one of the first ever comedy specials to feature LGBTQ+ comedians. The show aired in 1993 and things were a lot different back then. “They wouldn’t even speak to me in the green room. I was invisible to them,” remembers Flame Monroe at the beginning of her 2019 half-hour set on Netflix’s Tiffany Haddish: They Ready, referring to the who’s who of 1990s comedy. Since then, we’ve seen a necessary and definite shift in LGBTQ+ representation on the standup stage. 

A cohort of queer comedians have taken the standup comedy form and made it their own, using humour and the standup’s format natural intimacy with the audience to explore different aspects of their lived experience and identity. Proud and true to themselves, these torchbearers have helped make standup comedy a more diverse, welcoming space for queer comedians, and for anyone else who doesn’t fit into easy, mainstream boxes.

It’s not all roses. Looking at A-list comedians like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle get applauded as “brave” for punching down on queer and trans people, it’s easy to see that we still have a long way to. But it’s undeniable that standup comedy today is a more colourful, vibrantly diverse space, with plenty of comedians using their talents to break down stereotypes and make us rethink our assumptions about gender and sexuality. Here are just a few of the many amazing standup specials that explore the many facets of sexuality and identity with the utmost sincerity, never straying far from the brief of “keeping things funny”. 

Flame Monroe – They Ready (2019)

“I was invisible to them,” Flame Monroe tells Tiffany Haddish at the beginning of this special. “I was ostracised and unwelcome.” The comedian, who identifies as transgender, is talking about A-list comedians from the 90s and the discrimination she has faced across her 20-year standup journey. Despite all the time she’s put into the craft, this special—a part of Tiffany Haddish’s They Ready series—was the comedian’s first. And she’s rocking those stilettos and coming out all guns blazing. 

The 30-minute special is packed to the brim with criticism about the system’s discrimination against minorities. As a black trans-woman in America, and a drag queen raising three rambunctious children on her own, she’s seen that discrimination first-hand, in its myriad forms. All of those experiences are now ammo for her comedy. She jokes about airport pat-downs, and dialing things up a notch to get a rise out of airport security. There’s bits about Jess Bezos’ dick pics and the female staffers who work for Donald Trump. It’s funny, it’s furious, and on occasion, downright inspiring.

Available on Netflix. 

Jerrod Carmichael – Rothaniel (2022)

For many comedians, being on the stage is akin to therapy. They dig deep into their feelings and present them to the audience with disarming honesty, eliciting laughs that are sometimes directed towards the situation and sometimes just a nervous reaction to the discomfiting anecdotes they tell. Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel is a masterclass in this genre. 

Coming out as gay is hard. Carmichael takes on the added pressure of doing it for the first time on stage in front of an intimate crowd at New York’s legendary Blue Note Jazz Club. Seated on his low stool, Carmichael slowly dissects the last 30 years of his life, his complicated relationship with his father and the ripples caused by coming to terms with his sexuality. Directed by another stellar comedian Bo Burnham, this Emmy-award-winning special blurs the line between comedy and confession. 

Available on HBO Max. 

Tig Notaro – Happy To Be Here (2018)

Tig Notaro is a name that most comedy aficionados look forward to. The comedian has cemented her place in the scene with her whimsical and dry approach to dealing with potent topics such as being diagnosed with cancer—a set which garnered tons of critical acclaim—and parenting. 

Similarly, in her Netflix special Happy To Be Here Notaro stays true to her vulnerable self but never takes it too seriously. The special takes a look at her sexuality, gender miscommunications and marriage through a comedic lens while skewering her own celebrity status and offering a breakdown of the nature of her work. At Happy To Be Here’s core lies her theory of performing comedy just as a means of fun and not to become a canonical figure in the process. But in typical Notaro style, she keeps things casual, teasing the audience with the possibility of a musical performance and letting them in on her child’s hilarious first words. 

Available on Netflix. 

Hannah Gadsby – Nanette (2018)

Hannah Gadsby’s inaugural standup special Nanette started a much-needed conversation about the craft. Can comedy be about political and social commentary? Does it have to be funny all the time? Nanette is a scream of visceral soul-baring, addressing the challenges of being a queer woman in this world and taking aim at internalised misogyny, homophobia and the patriarchy while redefining the art of standup comedy. 

The hour-long special will make you feel heard and seen as a woman, and make you look inward and rethink your thoughts and actions as a man. Gadsby dives deep into her emotions and wrenches out all her trauma with masterful ease and obviously, incredibly crafted humour. It’s a no-holds-barred, in-your-face piece of truth-telling which goes beyond the typical laughs-per-minute paradigm of comedy. 

Available on Netflix. 

Simon Amstell – Set Free (2019)

You don’t need to know much about Simon Amstell in order to enjoy his special Set Free. He is a moderately famous gay man who is a child of divorce. These are the subjects that take centre-stage in this taut 50-minute special. A young comic who has a bit of awkwardness that we all can relate to, Amstell’s comedy often borders on the uncomfortable. 

Amstell is boldly confessional, existential and at times unexpectedly crass as he slices through topics such as the modern royal family, having a religious fanatic for a father, therapy and an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. The special is a highlight reel of his search for happiness, with the odds heavily stacked against him. At the midway mark, you’ll find him clutching his microphone like a teddy bear while lying in a foetal position exclaiming, “I thought I was gonna be happy.” That’s when it dawns upon you that this is a self-help seminar and the stage is Astell’s therapeutic playground. 

Available on Netflix. 

Wanda Sykes – Not Normal (2019)

With 30 years in the standup game, Wanda Sykes is a veteran with razor-sharp wit and a hilarious outlook on life i.e. she finds humour in the bittersweet limbo of existence. On her fourth standup special Not Normal—and the first one for Netflix—Sykes lands many blows at pressing political and social issues at the time, mainly Trump’s presidency. 

As the comedian has grown older and wiser, she’s realised she doesn’t have the energy (or the time) to self-censor her thoughts and make her opinion more palatable for larger audiences. On Not Normal, we get to see a rawer Sykes who balances the personal and political with the nous of a seasoned professional, never making her commentary sound heavy-handed. She doesn’t shy away from putting herself under her comedic scrutiny, finding laughs in her own vulnerability, not just with menopause but also with a potentially severe case of sleep apnea.

Available on Netflix. 

Sam Jay – 3 In The Morning (2020)

It’s shocking that even with Sam Jay’s stage presence and confidence, she was limited to writing sketches during her time on Saturday Night Live! and not put in front of the camera. It was only after watching her debut special 3 In The Morning that people realised Jay’s full potential, as she tackled issues of race and gender with unfiltered candour.

The special offers us a peek into Jay’s uniquely twisted brain as she talks about her girlfriend, travelling, and everything else in her life. She goes beyond the personal and brings in plenty of political critique to this hour, chewing over ‘the discourse’ with the familiarity of barside chat.

Available on Netflix. 

Navin Noronha – The Good Child (2023)

Navin Noronha is one of the most prominent queer voices in Indian comedy, and the brain behind Queer Rated Comedy, India’s first all-queer lineup show. Last year, Noronha again broke new ground by releasing the country’s first-ever queer comedy special, called The Good Child.

On The Good Child, we get to know Navin Noronha, the person, bit by bit. He describes growing up in a Mumbai chawl, talks about coming out to his mother and lets us in on his other qualities that Indian society would consider equally irredeemable—being a vehement atheist and an incorrigible stoner. With this special, Noronha pushed the envelope and has definitely made it more accessible for other comedians to speak about their journey to self discovery.


DA Staff

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