Best Comedy Special is one of the most coveted awards every year, and in many ways more meaningful than even Comedian of the Year. If you’re even nominated for this award, your talents are at the very top of a long list of performers who put out hours every year. And this year we watched dozens of specials before narrowing down our list down to about 50 strong specials that ultimately became this list of ten exceptional hours. Or 11. Let me explain. Just four days before we were set to release our 2021 list, a new special popped out out of the blue- a total surprise. We had already recorded our top 10 list with SiriusXM’s Bennington Show, so eliminating another nominee was out of the question. But there was also no question that the new special was one of the year’s best, so we made some room.
A special is the truest representation of a comedian’s talents. An hour is the culmination of years of work: writing, performing in clubs, touring, reworking. The jokes have to be honed till they are the best they can be, set orders decided, venues selected, and in most cases, a network and/or a distributor has decided that the comedian is ready to be marketed to a larger audience. Although there are directors, camera operators, ticket wranglers assisting with the night, the content of the special is 100% in the comedian’s control.
As we’ve mentioned in the past, a few years ago we decided that Dave Chappelle was too good to include in our comedian of the year and special of the year categories, or these would just be the Dave Chappelle Awards every year, and that’s boring. Chappelle tours more, makes more specials, sells more tickets, drops in to more clubs, and even charges so much more than any other comedian, so we retired Dave to be the first member of our Stand Up Comedy Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievements. If he’s not the GOAT of stand up comedy, he’s clearly the GORN (greatest of right now). THE CLOSER was the most famous and most likely the most viewed special of the year. It was certainly the most discussed. If you haven’t watched it yet, what are you waiting for?
We have to list some honorable mentions here, because we have more than ten (eleven) favorites this year. Dave Hill has a great new hour, THE PRIDE OF CLEVELAND. Recorded at Brooklyn’s Union Hall, Dave is on stage with his band the entire hour, and it’s great fun. Put it on the biggest screen in your house, invite some friends over, and feel like you’re at the taping, with music, laughs and all the irreverence you can handle. It’s available for free on YouTube. Bo Burnham’s revelatory INSIDE is not exactly stand up, but Burnham’s hour burns with creativity, it’s funny and its a great watch. As comedy evolves, he is one of the forces driving the revolution, speaking to young people in new ways. Watch it on Netflix. Pete Lee released the long awaited TALL DARK AND PLEASANT via Showtime this year, and it’s beautifully crafted, and hilarious. Pete has fine tuned his midwestern good boy (with a touch of a dark side) character so well that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. Chris Gethard’s HALF MY LIFE is another favorite. Gethard takes us on the road with him, hitting up some great venues and some sad looking spots, while he talks about becoming a dad, handling the birth of his son, poorly, while enjoying the birth of his son greatly. He’s generally trying to get through a time full of monumental life changes. The shows are weird and creative, which is exactly what you want them to be. Decidedly un-showbizzy, unadorned, unflashy, just funny. We also adore Aida Rodriguez‘s new HBO hour, FIGHTING WORDS, part documentary, part stand up. Two things make this special, “special”. Aida’s no bullshit approach to wokeness, colorism, and Karens– fresh and funny takes on topics that you thought you were tired of hearing about. And in the documentary part of her hour, Aida explores her Puerto Rican and Dominican family roots, with trips to visit both sides of her family. The catch here is that she has never met her father before, and shares that moment and all its imperfections with all of us. The meet is presented with stark naked honesty and its incredible.
If you’re looking to discover someone new, or at least potentially new to you, you should check out Danny Jolles, SIX PARTS on YouTube. Jolles filmed it in six parts at six different unusual locations during the pandemic including a surf shop, a barbershop, a recording studio, a gym, an art gallery and yes, a conventional comedy club. And if you’re not already on board with Sam Tallent’s tremendous stage skills, you’re in luck because he just put out his first hour special, WAITING FOR DEATH TO CLAIM US with Comedy Dynamics. For those unfamiliar, Sam is an excellent writer, a commander of the stage, and although he’s young, his comedy has all the markings of old school stand up- the kind of comedy that made most of us fall in love with the art form. Tallent could have been a top headliner in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and and of course he is a top headliner in the ’10s and ’20s. Sam takes us through 13 venues ranging from sold-out theaters, to house parties and rib-joints, practically moments before all of those places shut down in 2020 during the pandemic. And finally, please check out Loyiso Gola, an up and coming South African stand up who has conquered on other continents and is only beginning to rise through the American market. UNLEARNING has Gola questioning all he has been taught, re-evaluating what school, family and society has told him. Loyiso is a great thinker. With searing wit and great stage skills, he roasts America right off the bat for that whole greatest-country-in-the-world shtick we’re still slinging. From there, Gola goes on to blow your mind on a long list of topics you thought you had a handle on. Why are we the way we are? From our parents and teachers to movies like the Godfather, Gola will surprise you with his thoughtful and funny observations on how we’ve become conditioned to be who we are.
Now, before listing the nominees, let’s take a quick look back. In 2014, you picked Jim Jefferies “Bare” as the comedy special of the year. In 2015, the honor of best special went to Jim Norton’s “Contextually Inadequate.” In 2016 the late great Barry Crimmins took the award for “Whatever Threatens You.” In 2017 our champion proved to be the World Champion Judah Friedlander, for his Netflix work of art “America is the Greatest Country in the United States.” In 2018 you chose Gad Elmaleh’s “American Dream.” In 2019 you overwhelmingly voted for Dan Soder’s “Son of A Gary” as the best special of the year. And last year Mark Normand “Out to Lunch” was voted the best special of 2020.
Go through our list and vote for the Best Hour Special of 2021! Voting is open!
RICKY VELEZ: HERE’S EVERYTHING. HBO MAX. This is not only Ricky Velez’s first hour special, its the first time he’s put his comedy out there on television ever. Velez is known for his blend of street sensibility with consummate professionalism and Here’s Everything reflects that duality beautifully. Ricky has been honing his comedy for well over a decade and his professionalism shows in every choice he makes, but to the viewer, this is a whip smart street kid from Queens: “I’m Irish and Puerto Rican. I’m just glad I’m not gay because that would be way too many parades to go to.” Ricky isn’t worried about offending, as he delivers jokes about the uselessness of the elderly, ugly babies, and the culture clashes that comes along with marrying someone from a different background. His bits about figuring out first time fatherhood are hilarious, and a highlight of the hour, as is his story about a trip to the Dominican Republic. Velez also gets into some dark personal topics, but always finding the funny side of experiences. Do not turn this special off when you see the credits roll, you’ll miss the world’s sweetest introduction to Ricky’s son, who grabbed an opportunity for some stage time during rehearsals. On Ricky’s team for this hour was his good friend Pete Davidson, and his new friend and colleague Judd Apatow. Not bad for a first hour. Ricky Velez: Here’s Everything is a strong contender for best special of the year and a phenomenal introduction to new fans.
Director: Michael Bonfiglio Produced by: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson Ricky Velez and More.
BRIAN REGAN: ON THE ROCKS. NETFLIX. One of the most consistently great comedians in the business, Brian Regan is back post-pandemic with what may be the first traditional special taped and released after the lockdown. On the Rocks is a return to normal life, regular audiences, gorgeous theaters, and proper budgets, It’s also a return to everything that made comedy fans around the world fall in love with Regan. On the Rocks is an hour-long stream of nonstop quotable instant classic Regan bits, and one of his best specials so far. Brian opens the show with a surprise, he’s let his hair go natural and he’s gone all white! It looks great, but more importantly gives Regan a terrific pushing off point to start the special- the absurdities of aging. Plenty of comics talk about aging, but they’re not Brian Regan. Brian’s always been very open with his audience about his discomfort navigating life’s most basic events, and now we get to enjoy that same energy applied to a new slate of experiences, like doctors visits, and pharmacy navigation. All hilarious. The special peaks when Regan lets his guard down, maybe for the first time in his career, and jokes about some more personal forms of discomfort. Brian has what he calls minor OCDs like his unusual method of arranging books in his home, his hand washing technique and how he feels about calendars. If you’re not crying laughing by the time he starts talking about why he doesn’t like parties, then you may be dead inside. Watch Brian Regan On the Rocks and get yourself some new lines to quote. It’s a gold mine.
Director: Troy Miller
NATE BARGATZE: THE GREATEST AMERICAN AVERAGE. NETFLIX. Nate Bargatze’s third hour special is proof that he is no flash in the pan, Bargatze is a power player who has earned a place among other greats. Further evidence that he’s here to stay… Nate just got nominated for a Grammy for this special, and his name joins the ranks of a very exclusive group with names like Lewis Black, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Chris Rock who have all been nominated in recent years. Bargatze filmed The GREATEST AVERAGE AMERICAN outdoors at the Universal Hollywood Lot, kicking off the hour talking about 2020, summing it up perfectly with this thought: “they said there’s UFO’s and nobody cared.” Nate is so incredibly relaxed on stage that he is able to disarm his audiences and move in for the kill, catching them off guard every time. He makes it all look so easy, but don’t be fooled, it takes a lot of work to be this comfortable and command an audience without a trace of aggression. Nate’s delivery is magical and incredibly rhythmic, and whether he’s talking about being terrible in school, the death rattle of Chuck E Cheese or a touching story about getting a concussion as a kid, he has us laughing every time.
Director: Troy Miller
JACKIE KASHIAN: STAY-KASHIAN, YOUTUBE via 800 POUND GORILLA. Just released via 800 Pound Gorilla Records on their YouTube channel, Stay-Kashian is free to watch anytime. Is it an album that offers a video version? Or is it a special with an accompanying album version? It’s not really clear but since the video was released first, we’re treating it as a special. But whichever you classify it as, it’s a top ten. Jackie is such a pro on stage. She’s one of our great headliners, she has over 10 million listens on Spotify and Pandora, she has two popular podcasts, The Dork Forest and the Jackie and Laurie Show and yet she still remains such an underrated gem. She’s been performing stand up for over three decades, has five albums and two specials in the rearview, and Stay-Kashian is her best hour yet. Jackie’s material is great, and her delivery is so uniquely Jackie, that nobody could ever perform her material. To quote her here would never do the jokes justice. You have to hear her timing, inflections, pausing and phrasing rhythm to get the full payoffs. When she’s dissecting and skewering ridiculous cultural phenomena she is absolutely at her best. Do you think you’re an empath? Jackie will shame you and you know she’s right. Anyone who has been around since the 80’s will love Jackie’s take on map usage, and perhaps the highlights of the hour are her takes on flirting and sexuality. Jackie Kashian is a tour de force with Stay-Kashian, watch it on YouTube, stream or buy the album when you’re driving and thank us later.
JOYELLE NICOLE JOHNSON: LOVE JOY. PEACOCK. This is Joyelle Johnson’s first hour, and it only takes a few minutes before you understand why Jimmy Fallon decided to executive producer her special. Johnson also has the love and respect of many comedy greats, and her special kicks off with some well wishes from a few of them including Fallon, Seth Meyers, Maria Bamford, and George Wallace. For the last few years she’s been crushing it on stages all over New York City, and getting stronger every year. The timing is perfect for her comedy chops to get exposed to a wider audience, and she shines on stage at The Bell House in Brooklyn. Joyelle is magnetic oozing confidence as she launches into material about the culture shock of moving to Georgia from NYC, navigating an interracial relationship, getting therapy, and living with bad roommates. Joyelle’s storytelling skills crush while she’s recounting a tale of a being seated next to a chatty 90 year old white lady on a plane trip. The story just gets funnier and funnier as it goes, until you feel like you experienced that crazy flight, yourself. Joyelle’s terribly awkward and uncomfortable experience translates perfectly to the stage and her discomfort is all of our gain. What’s a “throwblack”? You’ll have to watch Love Joy to find out. Streaming now on Peacock.
Executive Producer: Jimmy Fallon
MICHAEL CHE: SHAME THE DEVIL. NETFLIX.. How the hell did Michael Che find the time and energy to put together a new special this year? He’s been a little busy but that didn’t stop him from putting out one of the best specials this year. Not going to pull punches here, the special starts off on a low note. Not that low, but let’s just say less than you might expect from Che. But don’t tap out, because the rest of the hour is well worth the wait. Filmed in September in Oakland California, just before Che had to head back to the SNL writers room, Shame the Devil is Che’s second special. There’s a lot of material about race, filled with Che’s always unique perspectives. Like why he doesn’t trust the Covid Vaccine, and the reason he didn’t go to any Black Lives Matters protests this year. He has a hilarious bit about why black leadership can’t seem to get enough done. “They’re all celebrities and people on Twitter. Celebrities are too busy to be actual leaders, we need full time leaders. Know why MLK got so much shit done? Cause he wasn’t also small forward for the Lakers.” The same talents that makes Che a perfect fit on Weekend Update are at play in Shame the Devil, Come for the sharp cultural commentary, stay for his love letter to the Asian community and the New York City bodega. Shame the Devil is thoughtful, packed with laughs, and and the result is one of the best specials this year.
Director: Kristian Mercado
RORY SCOVEL: LIVE WITHOUT FEAR. VOD.
Recorded in 2018 at Atlanta’s Relapse Theater, Live Without Fear is one of the craziest, most unique, and one of the most ambitious specials in recent history. There are three separate elements to this hour, First, is the part referenced in the title, Rory Scovel takes a huge risk to go on stage every night for six nights with no material. And he means it. This is live without a net experimental comedy, drawing on Scovel’s stand up and improv skills. Initially there’s a good deal of crowd work and reliance on audience participation, but as the week goes by, he gets more daring and goes into character work with monologues, small improvised one man plays that start and end somewhere in the middle, and the kind of funny that could only come from Scovel’s quick and unique creative process. Things go off the rails on a regular basis. There’s an impromptu simultaneous arm and thumb wrestling contest (why isn’t this a sport?), there are musings about the implications of AI, there are shocking revelations from audience members, lots of masturbation talk, accents, and more. Interspersed with the stage performances, Rory offers offstage thoughts. How does he feel about how it’s going? What has he learned from the previous nights show? What will he do the next night? And then there’s the third element. A seperate documentary about the room in which he’s performing and how it came to be, is broken up into short segments and scattered throughout. If you don’t know the story of Atlanta’s Relapse Theater and its founder, Bob Wood, it’s a wildly unlikely tale that just gets crazier as it goes. Is this real? Is this a character? Is Bob comedy’s most dedicated servant? Or is he just out of his mind? That’s for you to judge, but you’ll hear the whole story from Bob’s own mouth. Live Without Fear is a captivating highwire act, a runaway train, and a lesson in taking risks, for better or for worse. Watch with friends, because there’s lots to discuss.
Directed by Scott Moran.
SHANE GILLIS: LIVE IN AUSTIN. YOUTUBE. Everyone knows who Shane Gillis is. You either know him from the stage, as the kid from Philly who immediately became a club favorite when he moved to New York. (and you probably call him the young bull) Or you know him as the controversial figure who almost skyrocketed to national fame with a shot at Saturday Night Live, before an article from a bird poet amplified some controversial podcast recordings, and Shane got cancelled from the show before he even started. But Shane is the real deal, and so being fired from SNL only delayed his shot at a gigantic national audience. This year he released his first hour special, recorded in Austin at the new Creek and the Cave. Live in Austin was self-produced, and self released on his own YouTube account in September. As of this writing in mid December, the hour has already racked up 3 million views, a tremendous start. Above all else, Gillis is brutally funny, and so is his first hour special. If you dismiss him as a certain type of dick-joke funny, or low hanging fruit funny, then you haven’t actually watched Gillis perform. In Live From Austin, Gillis expertly navigates topics like Fox News, conservative politics, and whether or not you are a racist. “Being racist isn’t a yes or no thing,” he says, baiting the audience. “Being racist is more like being hungry. Yeah, you’re not….right now. You’re not hungry right now, but a cheeseburger could cut you off on the highway. And you get hungry. ” He also has a great bit explaining the civil war to people who didn’t pay attention in school. You won’t guess where he’s heading with this, but it’s not only hilarious, it’s also a sophisticated takedown of racism in the south and athletics programs and capitalism. Not bad for someone accused of being racially insensitive. Shane isn’t afraid to say some of the words that scare people, or joke about things that make us uncomfortable. In fact he thrives in those spaces. Shane’s a sharpshooter on stage way ahead of his years in comedy. Despite being one of the youngest comics on our list, Live in Austin is undoubtably one of the best specials of the year.
Directed by John McKeever.
ROY WOOD JR: IM-PERFECT MESSENGER. COMEDY CENTRAL. The only thing that was a disappointment about Roy Wood Jr.’s latest hour, is that not enough people know about it, and you have to see commercials when you watch. Im-perfect Messenger is Wood’s third hour, filmed in Denver Colorado only two weeks before it debuted on Comedy Central, and its one of the year’s best. Roy starts strong, stays strong, ends strong. Early on, referencing the rough year and half we’ve all been through Wood sums up perfectly how we’re all feeling. We’re just trying to feel good, he says, comparing life to a crab leg. “We’re all trying to work that thing and find that one little nugget of feel good.” Roy is so gifted at taking the horrible feelings we all have, examining them, twisting them like a rubik’s cube and delivering a take that makes you burst out laughing. Like his perfect encapsulation of how we’re all starting to feel about the American Flag in 2021, and how we feel when we’re somewhere with a few too many American Flags. When you’re listening to Roy Wood Jr. do his thing, you start giggling during the setup even though he has given you zero clues to where he is going with it. I’ll give you an example. After setting up a particularly brilliant bit about White Allies, which I won’t even try to summarize, Roy pauses and tells us that one of the unsung heroes in the white ally movement is evil white actors in Civil Rights movies. You don’t have a clue where he could be going with this, but you know it’s going to be great. When Wood says that the best civil-rights movie of all time might just be the first Fast and Furious, you’re already starting to laugh and you have no idea how he’s going to connect it all, but you trust that he will, and you’re right. And even when he takes a moment to talk about something very important to him, he’s able to share a more serious story, while getting laughs through little sidebars, delivered flawlessly. Im-perfect Messenger is so good, it’s worth sitting through commercials. Comedy Central has it on demand now, or you can watch it on the Comedy Central App, or on the network’s website. You won’t regret it.
Director: C. Craig Harrison
ROSEBUD BAKER: WHISKEY FISTS. YOUTUBE via COMEDY CENTRAL. Rosebud Baker’s debut special, Whiskey Fists opens with an interviewer asking people on the street if they’ve ever heard of Rosebud Baker. 100% of them say no- and lets face it if you had heard of someone named Rosebud Baker you would remember it. This is not a name you forget. And watching that is funny because if you’re a a hardcore comedy fan- the kind who check out festivals and look for stand up online and go out to comedy clubs, then you are very aware of who Rosebud Baker is. And everyone who knows her comedy is betting on her to have a big career. The first time I saw Rosebud at a new talent showcase, it seemed like there must be some mistake-she was so far ahead of everyone else. She filmed her first hour special at Zanies in Nashville earlier this year, in March, when there weren’t even a lot of clubs open. We’re literally still deep in the lockdown, and Rosebud immediately establishes how fearless she is, by opening her special with a joke that unapologetically goes after NYC healthcare heroes. “Sorry for going after the healthcare workers but we’ve been sucking their dicks for so long,” she says after declaring that the clapping for healthcare workers every night has run its course. Now that you’re thoroughly uncomfortable, wait a beat, because she’s about to hit you again with the unexpected, and again, and again, and again right through to her closing bit about how straight guys could learn a lot about the art of seduction from Michael Jackson. Hear her out! She will get there, and it will be worth the wait. Watch Rosebud Baker’s debut special available now on the Comedy Central YouTube channel.
LOUIS C.K.: SORRY. The official word is that Louis C.K. is cancelled. And he is. He’s 100% cancelled from any distributor with corporate ties touching anything he produces. He’s cancelled from favorable press from mainstream media. And he’s cancelled from the wider audience he once enjoyed, and who once enjoyed his shows. But comedy is the last refuge of the cancelled man, and Louis C.K. has not been cancelled from writing jokes, performing them, recording his performance and selling his special independently. There are reasons you may not want to watch or promote C.K., and there are reasons you might dislike the bravado of his performance in Sorry, because it’s clear that if he ever was sorry, he’s over it. But it’s equally clear that Louis C.K. remains one of the best writers, and one of the best performers working today. Released just one year after his last hour special, Sorry is phenomenally written, structured, and performed. This special is ballsy in a few different ways, and there are risks that C.K. takes for sure. Louis wants to be sure we know he’s not hiding or tempering his comedy, so he opens the hour swinging with material about as controversial of a topic as you can take on: pedophiles. He pulls it off in ways that only he could. Later, he closes the show taking a different type of risk given that his current audience isn’t exactly progressive. He’s talking about gender identity, inclusivity and the spectrum of sexual orientations, mocking those fearful of change and unwilling to accept. And it crushes, both comedically and ideologically. In between, C.K. covers more moderate grounds- a hilarious track about Good Will Hunting, a unique take on YouTube commercials, and he makes the case that we should be doing a better job defending the rights of the morbidly obese. His material about death and dying would have– in the before times– been heralded as genius. Sorry is replete with Louie’s signature style– a set up that makes you nervous, no, not just nervous, certain that he’s heading for disaster followed by a grand slam punchline. Clearly one of the top 10 (or 11) specials released this year. Available on LouisCK.com.