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The 13 Best Comedy Specials on Netflix

As Dave Chappelle cements the streaming service’s golden age of stand-up, these are our favorite performances

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

We are entering the final phase of Netflix’s plan for (comedy) world domination. Tuesday marks the release of not just one, but two new hours from Dave Chappelle, the reclusive master who hasn’t released a new recording in more than a decade. The specials join an already formidable archive of both originals and classics that Netflix has been building for years. It’s part of a tried-and-true strategy for a platform trying to establish itself as a prestige brand: start with cheap and easy-to-produce films by entertainers who write their own material, then expand into making your own.

As we bide our time between new Chappelle and the next slew of trump cards in Netflix’s deck, including specials from Chris Rock and Louis C.K., here’s a curated list of the very best stand-up available for your streaming pleasure. All the laughs of live comedy with none of the two-drink minimums, starting with:

Ali Wong, ‘Baby Cobra’ (2016)

No comedian has benefited more than Wong from the visibility boost Netflix provides. The hourlong Cobra was the 34-year-old’s first special, with no shorter, less-high-profile gigs like a Comedy Central half hour to gradually ramp up her national exposure. Factor in a magnetic hook (Wong recorded Cobra while seven and a half months pregnant), a perfect release date (right before Mother’s Day), and a masterfully filthy sermon on the virtues of “trapping” a man, and you have a recipe for a seemingly overnight breakout, complete with New Yorker profile. Cobra is a contradiction in terms — a working woman achieving her greatest success by joking about not wanting to work — and the sly, surface-level hypocrisy is part of Wong’s genius, building to one of the most skillful closers in recent memory. Wong is a veteran with more than a decade of stand-up experience and TV writing credits like Fresh Off the Boat under her belt, but the (richly deserved) magnifying effect of Baby Cobra on her career is undeniable.

Richard Pryor, ‘Live in Concert’ (1979)

Netflix’s library of classics isn’t as impressive as its catalog of originals, but Live in Concert is the most significant exception. Live is the only Richard Pryor work available to stream on the service, which is a shame — though if you’re going to watch only one Pryor special for the rest of your life, it’s a solid candidate. Clocking in at an hour and 18 minutes, Live was the first stand-up act to be theatrically released as a major-hit feature-length film. The supersize portion matches up with Pryor’s prodigious gifts: He fills the time with the racial commentary he’s known for (“White people do X, black people do Y” sounds stale from anyone but him), disarmingly personal jokes about a marital dispute ending in his arrest or about his grandmother walking in on him snorting coke, and an astonishing facility with impressions (I challenge anyone to hear Pryor slip into his patented White Guy Voice and not lose it). Comedy dates itself faster than virtually anything else in pop culture, but Pryor’s obvious influence is such that his staying power endures.

John Mulaney, ‘The Comeback Kid’ (2015)

Released in 2015, The Comeback Kid was widely interpreted at the time through the lens of Mulaney’s unsuccessful foray into the world of multicam sitcoms. (Never mind that the title actually refers to a bit about Bill Clinton.) A year and a half later, though, Mulaney’s career has been well fortified by a successful run on Broadway and a charming gig cohosting the Independent Spirit Awards, leaving us free to appreciate Comeback on its own merits rather than as a referendum on What This Promising Comedian Will Do Next. Here, Mulaney embraces his destiny as a clean-cut, old-school showman, sporting a sleek blue suit and delivering impeccably crafted lines with a practiced smoothness. The jokes themselves touch on marriage and mortgages, milestones that mark a clear evolution from the more hapless persona of his previous effort, the also-excellent (and also on Netflix) New in Town. Watch for the laughs, but also the pleasure of watching a masterful entertainer grow into his talents.

Zach Galifianakis, ‘Live at the Purple Onion’ (2006)

Produced in 2006, one of Netflix’s earliest original specials is also one of its strangest. There’s a retroactive joy to watching Galifianakis mumble one-liners over a piano with the knowledge that he’d become an unlikely bro darling with The Hangover just three years later. This is peak Galifianakis: a prickly oddball channeling a distinct strain of uncynical misanthropy, not Galifianakis as filtered through the studio comedy machine. The former is a version of him that scripted TV wouldn’t be able to support for another decade, when Baskets premiered on FX.

Bo Burnham, ‘Make Happy’ (2016)

Burnham stated his intention to take a hiatus from performing post–Make Happy while transitioning into writing and directing. (He was behind the camera for 8, Jerrod Carmichael’s latest special for HBO.) Make Happy, then, is the culmination of a remarkably young talent’s coming of age. Burnham rose to fame as a teenage YouTube star who made viral music videos in his childhood bedroom, but that label never felt like a natural fit for his restless, neurotic outlook — just the most readily available channel for it. Which is how you get Make Happy, a shockingly prickly, frequently meta medley of stand-up and song that challenges Burnham’s fans more than it caters to them. Even the most hard-boiled of musical theater cynics will see a kindred spirit in numbers like “Country Song (Pandering)” or “Lower Your Expectations (If You Want Love).” In fact, Burnham’s harshest ire is reserved for the worst abusers of his chosen form: He calls gambits like Lip Sync Battle “the end of culture.” Musical comedy doesn’t have to be hack work.

Aziz Ansari, ‘Buried Alive’ (2013)

Netflix has all of Ansari’s specials but Intimate Moments, my favorite. Buried Alive is more than a consolation prize, though. It’s Ansari at his most fully formed, but before he became enough of a superstar to headline Madison Square Garden (a flex; he was the ninth comic ever to sell out the venue). All of Ansari’s trademarks are present and accounted for: the acute insight into technology and modern dating; the free-flowing references to ’90s rap and R&B; the excitable energy that sends Ansari ping-ponging across the stage. Of his superstar peers, Ansari feels the most contemporary, folding the 21st century into his act in not just style, but subject matter. Buried Alive cements that reputation.

Anthony Jeselnik, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ (2015)

Jeselnik works in an insistently unfashionable vein of stand-up comedy. The first two-thirds of Thoughts and Prayers consist entirely of unconnected one-liners, stripped down and sharpened into compact doses of twisted humor. These aphorisms have their pleasures (on an attractive woman who’s also a brain surgeon: “I don’t know if this makes me sexist, but I was really impressed. … Most women can’t pull off sarcasm”); Jeselnik takes an obvious pride in the craft many comics take pains to obscure with studied naturalism. But the final third of Thoughts and Prayers is a thrilling break from his established pattern, a near-20-minute meditation on public performance of sympathy in the wake of tragedy. The darkness of Jeselnik’s sensibility survives intact even as it’s grafted onto a sincerity and length he typically avoids. Try looking at your Facebook feed after the next, inevitable tragedy and not thinking of Jeselnik.

Chelsea Peretti, ‘One of the Greats’ (2014)

Stand-up specials are utilitarian — record this live performance as faithfully as possible to advertise more live performances — and usually play out according to a staid formula: cutesy opening, triumphant walk onstage, alternating close-ups and medium shots. Props to Chelsea Peretti, then, for making the case for the stand-up special as a filmed object. One of the Greats opens with a montage that styles Peretti after her idols (including a certain iconic Eddie Murphy getup; more on that in a second), and the special itself is filled with cutaways to Peretti in character, often as a clown. It’s a fittingly weird and inventive approach for someone like Peretti, whose wit and dry delivery have made her a standout on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And somehow, it never distracts from the material itself, which includes a breathtakingly accurate impression of a male comic using his microphone as a phallus.

Louis C.K., ‘Chewed Up’ (2008)

Can you imagine opening your stand-up show with an extended bit defending slurs — even if it’s more an attack on liberal politesse than actual advocacy? Can you imagine pulling it off, then tempting fate with a tangent memorably listed on the album version as “I Enjoy Being White” — even though it’s careful to distinguish “being white” from “white people”? Welcome to Louis C.K. at the absolute peak of his powers, demonstrating them in a special densely packed with some of his most iconic material. (“The meal isn’t over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself!”) Chewed Up crystallizes C.K.’s comic persona, which is slightly different from the pensive sad sack he’d debut on Louie just two years later: frank, self-loathing, and coming to terms with the slow crumbling of his unearned privilege as he enters middle age as a straight white guy. No one should be able to get away with that opening, but once C.K. does we’re with him the rest of the way.

Eddie Murphy, ‘Delirious’ (1983)

That red leather suit! It’s the perfect visual shorthand for stand-up’s 1980s boom — sort of like our own, but with more brick walls and cocaine. Peretti referenced it in her fabulous cold open; it’s the indirect namesake of Amy Schumer’s Leather Special (as in, every comic has a special where they’re decked out in leather). And it’s the fire-engine hue that functions as a visual signal that we’re definitely no longer on NBC, where Murphy had established himself by almost single-handedly propping up SNL during Lorne Michael’s infamous five-year absence. The sheer volume of profanity is remarkable even by today’s standards, as is the way Murphy uses it: Delirious hails from a decidedly pre-woke era of homophobic, misogynistic comedy. But this is undoubtedly a master at work, a height Murphy’s recent career decisions have made all too easy to forget.

Bill Hicks, ‘Revelations’ (1993)

Hicks is remembered as much as a farsighted preacher as he is a comedian. Released just a year before Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at 32, Revelations sees Hicks deliver a routine-cum-sermon in his signature Texas drawl, even donning a 10-gallon hat for the remarkable closer, a five-minute rumination on the ultimately insignificant nature of human life. (Excerpt: “It’s just a ride, but we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice.”) Beloved of amateur philosophers everywhere, Hicks is almost certainly the idol of your most insufferable hookup from college — but he got that way for good reason.

Hannibal Buress, ‘Animal Furnace’ (2012)

Go to any one of L.A.’s billion or so nightly stand-up showcases and you’ll spot at least a couple of performers doing a questionably accurate Buress impression. That’s not a knock on them so much as a testament to the success and influence of Buress’s trademark laconic delivery, which smuggles deceptively sharp observations and witticisms under a thick cover of stoner mumble. (Buress guest-starred on an episode of High Maintenance the year after this special was released.) Animal Furnace is a time capsule of Buress’s work before he crossed over to mainstream appeal with his Broad City role, an unlikely role in Bill Cosby’s downfall, and his highlight set from the Comedy Central roast of Justin Bieber.

Maria Bamford, ‘Special Special Special’ (2012)

For years, Bamford enjoyed/endured a reputation as a comic’s comic, beloved by her peers — watch Stephen Colbert try to contain his inner fanboy — but little known outside their circle. (She’s even one of the title performers of Comedians of Comedy, the 2005 documentary following the unglamorous tour life of four alt-comics sharing a van. It’s on Netflix, too.) Glowing press coverage and a well-reviewed Netflix show have changed that somewhat, but Special Special Special captures what makes Bamford so beloved and what makes her so resistant to mainstream appeal. The gimmick is that Bamford recorded the 2012 hour not in a theater, but in her own living room, and for an audience of exactly two: her parents. The awkwardness is both compounded and transcended by Bamford’s deeply personal stories about mental illness, rendered in her eerily mimetic, freakishly versatile voice. It’s strange, uncomfortable, daring, and cathartic. If Mr. and Mrs. Bamford can sit through it, so can we.