The comedy world is in the midst of a reckoning. Emboldened by one another, more and more performers are getting the courage to call out abusers in the industry, and audiences are starting to give more attention to acts that don’t fit the classic image of the standup comic—straight, white and male. But in an endless sea of original specials, it can be hard to sift through what’s actually worth watching, especially when everyone looks like a randomly generated white guy.
Below is a list of ten specials written and performed by comics who are women, queer, and/or people of color. Of course, this is by no means a definitive list—but hopefully it will be a useful starting point for those looking to broaden their comedic horizons.
Ali Wong – Baby Cobra
At this point, Ali Wong should be classified as a national treasure. We do not deserve her. Her debut special Baby Cobra premiered in 2016 and has since skyrocketed her career to dizzying heights and for good reason—she’s just as crude as she is witty. In one moment she’s refuting stereotypes of Asian female submission by openly talking about her sex life, then in another she’s excoriating feminism for making women have to have jobs instead of simply milking the system for all its worth. And to top it all off, she was eight months pregnant during taping, a fact she barely uses for material because she just doesn’t need to—she’s simply on another level.
Cameron Esposito – Rape Jokes
Historically, rape jokes by definition have been at the expense of survivors sitting in comedy clubs, always unsure if their trauma is going to be used as a punchline. Cameron Esposito wanted to change that narrative. Here she’s tried to flip the script, making rape jokes for survivors. The special is personal and relatable, run through with an all-too-real anxiety about how the world feels like it will end at any moment. But Esposito is a purveyor of hope—she has a remarkable ability to see the good in everything and won’t stop fighting for a better world.
Hasan Minhaj – Homecoming King
If there’s an award for best technical design of a stand-up special, Homecoming King takes the prize. It seems like a small detail, but every second of Minhaj’s debut special is perfectly sequenced—his jokes are animated behind him as he tells them, and he projects tweets and emails like he’s making a high-budget Powerpoint presentation. But what lies underneath the showy production and Minhaj’s fast paced political humor is a lot of heart. He talks about his experiences and family life in a charming and relatable way, and it gives the audience an hour of pure escapism.
Lucas Brothers – On Drugs
Comedy duos are vastly underrated these days. The comic pair is a formula that was popular throughout the twentieth century, featuring acts like Abbott and Costello, The Smothers Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy, but is now rarely seen in standup. Maybe that’s because it’s a tough format to master—great duos require a perfect synergy, a similar but not-too-similar sense of humor, and impeccable timing. The Lucas Brothers exemplify all of these qualities in their special On Drugs, where they turn an hour’s worth of jokes about weed and Richard Nixon into a fully animated closer that is unforgettable.
Sasheer Zamata – Pizza Mind
Some people say that everything we do is political—and comedy is no exception, especially in the context of the recent wide-scale examination of power and abuse in the industry. But that doesn’t mean it has to be all theory all the time—there can be a fart joke somewhere in there, too. In Pizza Mind, Sasheer Zamata mixes a cocktail of social commentary, stories of past jobs and relationships, and incredible animation and musical performances that don’t hold back.
Hannah Gadsby – Nanette
Everyone and their mother has probably told you to watch Nanette, but if you still haven’t seen it, let me tell you why you should. Nanette isn’t a comedy special, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a rejection of the industry and the formula—both a bittersweet love letter and a resignation letter from the comedy business. It’s hard to stomach and is so tightly scripted that there’s no room to laugh or react—you’re forced to sit in the discomfort Gadsby has constructed, and that perfect match of content and delivery has shaken up the comedy world in a much needed way.
Maria Bamford – Old Baby
Maria Bamford wants you to be a little uncomfortable—that’s how she knows she’s doing her job right. She talks about her battles with mental illness and creates ridiculous characters in a storytelling style that shys away from the false confidence projected by traditional comedians. In her most recent special Old Baby, Bamford challenges form by performing the special alone, then in front of a few friends, and then some strangers, until it finally balloons into a full audience.
W. Kamau Bell – Private School Negro
Private School Negro is W. Kamau Bell’s love letter to his daughter wrapped in a politically charged comedy special. Bell’s energy is contagious, and he puts the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions as he flips from talking about racism in America to the feminist masterpiece that is the children’s show Doc McStuffins. And perhaps most impressively, it’s the only time I’ve been happy to hear Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Wyatt Cenac – Brooklyn
If you told me one of my favorite stand-up specials was going to involve puppets, I would not have believed you. But that’s just one of the many things that makes Wyatt Cenac’s Brooklyn such a masterpiece. The show is a commentary on race and Cenac’s relationship with the city he lives in as it continues to change—for better and for worse. It’s so Brooklyn it almost feels like it might alienate anyone not from there, but Cenac mitigates this by taking on the persona of that one friend who always has a good story to tell at a party. It’s also intimate in format—it’s performed in front of a smaller crowd and filmed with hand-held cameras. And while it doesn’t build up to one uproarious laugh, it remains consistent in its humor and pacing—which is hard to say for a lot of specials caught up in gimmicks.
Tig Notaro – Happy To Be Here
Tig Notaro’s comedy is like a warm hug. It’s not aggressive or screwball—it’s an understated style of smart storytelling. Her stories come from her own experiences, often involving her marriage, her pets, and her relationship with presentations of gender and sexuality. It’s also just as calculated as it is deeply human—she spends the last fifteen minutes of the show making the audience wonder if folk band The Indigo Girls are backstage, and it’s honestly one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had in 2018. And I’ve seen Hereditary with the lights off.
Bonus: Charlie Demers – Fatherland
If you listen to one comedy album by a white guy this year, make it this one. Charlie Demers is a communist, feminist activist whose jokes poke fun at himself for his lesbian haircut, his appearance in contrast to his handsome gay family, and having to tell his mixed-race daughter that people who look like him are basically the worst in the world. At the same time, he never veers into the self-flagellation that many comics working in the space rely on. And on the important question of whether comedy is capable of resisting injustice or simply inures audiences to it, Demers once wisely said that comedy is indeed like an anesthetic—but, after all, you need anesthesia to perform surgery.