What is it about the end of the year and people making lists? If it’s not Santa making the naughty and nice list, it’s people making ill-fated lists of their New Year resolutions, or the Delhi police making a list of which civil rights lawyers to raid in 2021. We’ve programmed ourselves to approach the end of the year like a stock-taking exercise, categorising and processing the events for the last 12 months to make space for what’s to come. And boy oh boy, 2020 sure did give us a lot of things to process—pandemics, riots, even a plague of goddamn locusts!
On the bright side, that just means that stand-up comics have never had so much to work with. Sure the pandemic brought release schedules and live tours to a grinding halt, but the steady stream of dark, bleak headlines is great fodder for jokes. And so, despite the challenges, 2020 has given us some great comedy specials—some recorded before the pandemic, others inspired by the chaos around us. So many, in fact, that we couldn’t just stick to ten (and also we like the number 13, we’re cool like that.) Good thing it’s the weekend, eh?
1. Dave Chappelle – 8:46
Recorded live in the middle of the lockdown and released on YouTube soon after the country erupted in protest against the police murder of George Floyd, 8:46 is more testimony than comedy, as Chappelle weaves a compelling history of racist violence in the USA. Advertised as a “talk with punchlines”, the set is more of a group therapy session. But Chappelle’s directness and honesty make the laughs, when they do appear, seem that much more earned.
2. Eric Andre – Legalize Everything
Eric Andre brings his nihilist punk sensibility to the standup stage in his first ever special Legalize Everything, which is full of the same provocative, daredevil energy as his cult anti-talk show. Things kick off with a street sketch featuring Andre as a New Orleans cop high on stolen contraband as he searches for “glory-holes” around the city, and things escalate from there. Legalize Everything is just one wild, hilarious (and occasionally uncomfortable) rollercoaster.
3. Hannah Gadsby – Douglas
If Nanette was supposed to be an attempt at career suicide, it failed spectacularly. The 2018 special, in which Gadsby ‘quit’ standup after excoriating the form for making her complicit in her own oppression. It was a sensation. Thankfully, the retirement didn’t take. In Douglas, Gadsby continues with per project to deconstruct and demystify the foundational structures of standup, re-assembling its pieces into a swaggering, self-confident hour-or-so of incandescent comedy.
4. Patton Oswalt – I Love Everything
While 2017’s Annihilation—written and released after the 2016 death of Oswalt’s then-wife Michelle McNamara—was a masterpiece of comedy-as-elegy, this year’s I Love Everything centres on how he found love against all odds in the form of actor Meredith Salenger. Domestic bliss hasn’t blunted Oswalt’s razor-sharp mind one bit, and the special is full of endearingly free-wheeling bits about organic cereal, wedding DJs, and Denny’s.
5. Rohan Joshi – Wake N Bake
Remember January 2020? Back when all we had to worry about was authoritarian governments and New Years’ Eve credit card bills? Rohan Joshi’s existential crisis about turning 36 seems a little quaint here in December. But the special—which won Best Online Special at the 2020 DeadAnt Comedy Awards—is still an effortlessly fun watch, largely due to Joshi’s painstaking attention to the craft on display here. Full of fresh perspectives and unique takes on “relatable” topics, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a holiday wake ‘n bake.
6. Maria Bamford – Weakness Is The Brand
Who better to help you process the stresses of a pandemic and self-isolation than Maria Bamford, a comic who once performed a special to an audience of two—her mum and her dad. Bamford has always mined her own struggles with anxiety and mental health for humour, and though the last few years have taken the edge off a little bit, “weakness is still the brand”. Bamford takes the audience on an epic journey of self-acceptance, buoyed along by complex, masterfully crafted bits about marital foreplay, therapy and keeping your expectations low.
7. Kanan Gill – Yours Sincerely
Kanan Gill’s second special—the first on Netflix—reaches many highs, as Gill spends 70-odd minutes building up to a Tyler Durden-esque reveal about his mental health. The loose structure of Yours Sincerely allows for Gill to go on observational tangents at will, playing to his strengths as a story-teller who excels at finding the absurd in the everyday. Despite a tendency towards over-writing and self-indulgence, it remains one of the standout Indian specials of the year.
8. Hannibal Buress – Miami Nights
Eric Andre Show co-host Hannibal Buress makes his 2017 arrest for ‘disorderly intoxication’ the centre-piece of Miami Nights, giving us a play-by-play commentary as he dissects the entire incident, taking potshots at everyone from the police and the media, to his fellow detainee in the drunk tank and, of course, himself. It’s a difficult bit done with masterful subtlety, adding substance and heft to the special’s predilection for surreal segues and elaborate displays of formal experimentation.
9. Vir Das – Outside In
While most of us spent the lockdown eating comfort food and making our way through the Netflix catalogue, Vir Das spent it conducting a virtual world tour and recording a crowd-work special that’s now out on Netlfix. Indian comedy’s overachiever-in-chief focuses exclusively on crowd-work in Outside In, putting his diverse and wide-ranging audience front and center. It’s back to the basics stuff, but Das manages to keep things fresh and wholesome as he draws out and builds on everyone’s 2020 stories. An apt special to end the year with.
10. SAM MORRIL – I GOT THIS
“I got 0 offers on my new special so I shot and edited it with friends.” When Sam Morril released I Got This on YouTube, we couldn’t understand it. But then it hit 5 million views and, well… Shot in the intimate setting of an NYC comedy club just before lockdown kicked in early this year, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable tight hour in which he compares wearing a condom to doing volunteer work, wonders if murderers critique each other’s work and recalls befriending a vigilante in Cleveland. More recently, he released another hour On The Roof, shot on multiple rooftops of New York City (once socially-distanced shows became a thing), giving us another great special for the watch list.
11. Amit Tandon – Family Tandoncies
Amit Tandon has cultivated a reputation for being a family guy, for being relatable, and for “clean comedy”. He is all those things, but Family Tandoncies also showcases his storytelling skills and his ability to draw terrific insights and fresh takeaways from the otherwise tired trope of the everyday life of a middle class Indian man. He frames the hour around his now 17-year-old marriage and teenage kids, but weaves in all kinds of family dynamics (parent and child, husband and wife, siblings) across the three generations that he’s tied to. When you choose not to rely on the bounce and swing of swear words to help land your punches, elicit some lazy laughs, your writing, timing and delivery come into sharp focus. And in Family Tandoncies, Tandon sets a high bar. Watch it with your kids, or your parents, or both.
12. Talyor Tomlinson – Quarter Life Crisis
We cannot think of a better advocate for an existential crisis in young adulthood than Taylor Tomlinson, herself 26. In Quarter Life Crisis, she approaches the craft the old school way, with easy-to-watch, straightforward standup. Except, instead of hot takes on trending topics, she’s right there with you in the greeting card aisle, wondering what kind of very specific message we need on a card for our parents. Or ridiculing the self-important, redundant concept of announcing a social media break… on social media. Or being confused at older people stuck in the perpetual nostalgia of their youth (“what you miss is a time in your life where you didn’t have a lot of responsibilities because nobody expected anything from you.”). Basically it’s about how we have no idea what we’re doing when we’re young. So every young person should watch it. (If you’re older, punch in for the nodalongs and nervous relief of being past it.)
13. Mark Normand – Out To Lunch
Another great special that released on YouTube this summer, Out To Lunch is a speedy special with Normand laying premises and punchlines one over the other without bothering with distinct segues. His own description reads: “drinking, anxiety, gays, naughty words, trans, race and the ladies” and it plays out almost exactly as fast as it reads. Which means you barely have time to get used to the discomfort of jokes on darker themes like shootings and pedophilia (“school shootings are like the menstruation of America—it happens once a month, it’s bloody, and every kid goes, ‘well, I guess it’s my turn now!’”) before swerving to scraps on playing Monopoly and growing up fat. Never a dull moment.