The comedy industry’s new boom time of podcasts and eye-popping deals for A-listers has now lasted nearly a decade, and it doesn’t look like the outflow of material will slow down anytime soon. This is due, in part, to the presence of Netflix, whose dominance in the field of stand-up comedy verges on monopoly. The streaming service accounts for four out of the five selections on this list of the best stand-up offerings of the year so far, with the sole exception being the product of an independent distribution designed to benefit a charity. Such an omnipresence might be cause for concern if the results of Netflix’s free-flowing spending didn’t result in such a strong and diverse set of offerings. The comedic highlights of 2018 so far range from a fourth-wall-breaking meditation on what stand-up can and can’t accomplish to a gloriously filthy riff on the indignities of motherhood. From New York to Sydney, these hours will make you think, cry, and most importantly, snort-laugh.
John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City: Unlike the other specials on this list, there’s no real hook to Kid Gorgeous. Mulaney’s third hour-long special isn’t pegged to a specific time in the performer’s life, nor does it zero in on a specific subject. Instead, Kid Gorgeous continues and elevates Mulaney’s now-familiar themes: his strict father and devout Catholic upbringing, both terrifying in the moment and hilarious in retrospect; his wife and marriage, where he avoids the trap of sexist mockery by confronting its specter head-on; and the bits and pieces of everyday life he just happens to find funny. Kid Gorgeous does introduce a new dimension to Mulaney’s act in the form of an extended bit about the present political moment, though the now-iconic “horse in a hospital” routine never mentions the president by name. For the most part, however, Kid Gorgeous is a polished, whip-smart, joyful offering from a midcareer comic who’s made all three of those descriptors a signature. To be great, a special doesn’t necessarily have to be a game-changer—it just has to make you laugh.
Ali Wong, Hard Knock Wife: It’s remarkable just how different Ali Wong’s debut special, Baby Cobra, and its follow-up, Hard Knock Wife, actually are, given the incredibly rare quality that unites the two: during the tapings of both hours, Wong was heavily pregnant. In Baby Cobra, which transformed the San Francisco native from a virtual unknown into a cultural phenomenon, the pregnancy forms the crux of her act, a tirade about “trapping” her now husband and quitting stand-up to be a stay-at-home mom. In Hard Knock Wife, she doesn’t so much as mention her pregnancy, focusing instead on radically graphic descriptions of childbirth and early parenthood. Wong marries the razor-sharp timing of a classic, seasoned road comedian—one would never call her style experimental—with a substance that’s so new to the setup–punch line treatment that there’s a new transgressive thrill to be found in every joke. The only thing more hard-core than taping a stand-up special pregnant is taping a stand-up special pregnant and acting like it’s no big deal.
Hannah Gadsby, Nanette: Australian performer Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is the mic drop to end all mic drops—a cross between comedy special and one-woman show that’s actually a 69-minute Dear John letter to the entire enterprise of stand-up. Gadsby is a veteran (American viewers may recognize her from the wonderful dramedy series Please Like Me) experienced enough to know what she’s talking about when she tells the audience stand-up is no longer a sufficient vehicle for working through her trauma. A survivor of sexual assault and violent homophobia, Gadsby takes issue with her chosen art form’s incentive to channel her pain into a tightly wrapped package with easy resolutions. So she’s quitting while she’s ahead, going out with a blistering, emotional, and sometimes even silly mission statement delivered at the Sydney Opera House. This may be the first time many stateside audiences have heard of Gadsby, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. We’ll see her again, even if she’s not making cracks about her native Tasmania with a microphone in hand.
Cameron Esposito, Rape Jokes: On paper, Rape Jokes and Nanette are almost eerily similar: both hours are the products of queer female comedians, and both unabashedly center themselves on the thorny and seemingly un-comedic subject of sexual assault and its aftermath. But Gadsby and Esposito—a Chicago-born, mullet-sporting entertainer known for her excellent Seeso series Take My Wife, cocreated with her spouse Rhea Butcher—come to very different conclusions about their chosen art forms. Where Nanette is all about stand-up’s limitations, Rape Jokes celebrates its potential as a way to emerge victorious from the trials of one’s past. (Esposito self-distributed the special on her website, where fans can pay what they want with the proceeds to benefit RAINN.) Between more straightforwardly funny anecdotes like a story about nearly shitting herself on tour, Esposito takes on both her own experience with assault and the deeply flawed ways our culture reckons with it, maintaining her insouciance throughout. If a comic needs certain words to be funny, she smirks, “Then I am a better stand-up comic than you.” It’s braggadocio used for good.
Chris Rock, Tamborine: Tamborine is not the best of Rock’s specials, which is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the legend taking a nearly decade-long hiatus between new hours. It is, however, a Chris Rock special, and a disarmingly personal one at that, guaranteeing a level of expertise that places Tamborine among the best of the year. Rock applies his decades of hard-won skill to his own divorce, a painful and perspective-altering process that’s finally far enough in his past to serve as fodder for the comedian’s observational prowess. Rock frankly accounts for his own failings as a partner, largely avoiding the poorly aged misogyny of his earlier work in favor of making himself the butt of the joke. By the end, Rock positions himself as an advice columnist begging his audience to learn from his own mistakes, urging them to play backup in the metaphorical band of their relationship in the analogy that gives the special its name. Tamborine is the first of two specials Rock is signed on to deliver to Netflix, and more than any other entry in his oeuvre, it leaves one wondering where he’ll go next.