Watching stand-up in 2020 very quickly went from a pretty fun and normal activity to an escape from our terrifying, oppressive reality.
Luckily, there has been some truly fantastic comedy so far this year, giving us an excuse to laugh and smile at stories and observations from some of the industry’s most talented performers. It is a bit odd, though, to view these specials — which were filmed before the COVID-19 lockdown began in the U.S. in March — knowing everything that has followed this year (so far).
We’re living in a time when jokes can become dated very quickly, and that feeling only seems to have ramped up after March. In her special, Leslie Jones jokes about how 20 year olds shouldn’t be out marching for anything, they should be living their lives. That might have been a fine joke earlier in the year, but amid the civil upheaval happening across the world in response to police brutality and racism, it just doesn’t land properly. Similarly, Jerry Seinfeld’s already tired and banal musings about buffets and smartphones in his special 23 Hours to Kill feel especially unnecessary and trite.
On the plus side, the bright spots in comedy are so much brighter. The rest of Jones’ special, in which she takes us through the decades of her life and what she’s learned, is great. And the more nuanced jokes from the comedians on this list (who are much better than Seinfeld) float above the current of news our collective rafts are stuck in, transcending the day-to-day to bring us moments of happiness.
Here are the seven best stand-up specials of 2020 so far. Added bonus: They’re all conveniently streaming on various platforms right now.
1. Leslie Jones: Time Machine
In Time Machine, her first Netflix special after decades of performing, Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones brings a slightly subdued version of her intoxicatingly voluminous energy to a walk through the stages of life, plotted out in decades from her exuberant 20s to her current “don’t give a fuck” 50s. She relates tales of her past, including an ill-fated attempt to seduce Prince with a dance performance at a club. She calls out a woman in her 20s in the front row for wearing a Little House on the Prairie sweater when she should be showing more skin at that age. And she pleads for men to thoroughly wash their privates. Jones is clearly having so much fun on stage, and that enjoyment pours out addictively. By the end, when she finally gets off her feet and sits on a stool for the first time and talks about what she would say to her younger self if she had a time machine, she brings the audience in close for a more muted but shockingly funny hypothetical with a lesson: You can’t fix the past, can’t see the future. You might as well live in the present and have some faith.
Watch it on: Netflix
2. Fortune Feimster: Sweet and Salty
Seasoned comedian, actor, and writer Fortune Feimster’s first hour-long special is a showcase of flow and comfort on stage. She weaves stories about growing up Methodist and eating at Chili’s after church, her youthful experiences with the Girl Scouts and the school swim team, and discovering her sexuality while watching the movie The Truth About Jane. Feimster covers a lot of ground in Sweet and Salty, and she has the kind of commanding stage presence that allows every great joke to land with raucous laughter from the audience. She presents a life in juxtaposition, from an early birthday experience at Hooters to attending a debutante ball — also known as a coming-out party, but absolutely not coming out in the modern sense — to her current life with her partner and the sometimes unattractive comforts that come with love and familiarity. And then the moment she impersonates her father’s thick Southern accent in response to finding out she’s eating gluten-free: “Gluten-free? Pussy, I understand, but gluten-free?”
Watch it on: Netflix
3. Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One
The Golden One is an emo special. Whitmer Thomas, a 30-year-old musician/comedian/sad guy, takes the stage at a bar in Alabama where his mother, who passed away several years ago, used to perform music with her twin sister. The special revolves around the ache Thomas feels for his mother, the impact her death has had on him and his family, and some of the driest, shortest, funniest little jokes that are consistently surprising. The special is punctuated by Thomas performing songs with relevant themes and lyrics at the bar and footage of conversations with various family members, including his dad, who left when he was young but later returned, his older brother, and his mother’s twin sister. The Golden One is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious, a common duality in great comedy. But the emotion that drips through this feels entirely unique.
Watch it on: HBO
4. Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!
If you’re a vocal Insecure fan, shouting, “Do you have HAYCH-bee-oh?” at the unsuspecting, as Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, claims her mother does, you already count yourself among Orji’s fans. But Momma, I Made It! is a must-see supplement to that fandom, and to anyone looking to expand their comedy repertoire. Orji packs in a potent hour of observational humor, mostly about her family and Nigerian background. She’s so open and charismatic that you feel immediately in on the joke (if you aren’t chiming in on the “A whole me?” joke by the end, did you even watch?). The jibes at and also from her parents will resonate with any child of immigrants, and the interludes of Orji visiting Nigeria offer an intimacy few artists can create without divulging deep, personal details. —Proma Khosla, entertainment reporter
Watch it on: HBO
5. Marc Maron: End Times Fun
End Times Fun dropped on Netflix on March 10, right at the cusp of America’s reckoning with COVID-19 and a few months before the latest surge of protests against our abusive police system and racism. It seems prescient, as seasoned comedian, podcaster, and actor Marc Maron waxes in his seventh special (directed by the late, great Lynn Shelton) about signs of the end times and jokes about how we need something to bring people together, something big and bad to snap everybody out of their trances. Amid clever and relatable observations about turmeric and collections of old cables we can’t seem to let go of, Maron can’t ignore the big-picture stuff in global warming, clockwork California fires, and disturbing right-wing politics. He ends with a narrative story about an imagined return of Jesus, with wild and raucous twists that puts a big, brash, unforgettable cap on this hour of comedy.
Watch it on: Netflix
6. Hannah Gadsby: Douglas
Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comic whose first Netflix special Nanette made huge waves in 2018, opens up Douglas with an outline of what’s to come. Her prelude to what will be more than an hour of comedy shows just how meticulous her performances are, which is doubly amazing given how completely surprising they are with each turn. Douglas is inextricably tied to Gadsby’s previous special Nanette — which was lauded as one of the best specials of the year, if not the last decade — and while that is acknowledged here, it’s not used as a crutch but rather a launch pad from which she delivers an even more hilarious performance with jokes and revelations about her autism diagnosis, her issues with the principles of Where’s Waldo? (why does he need to be found?), and a short lecture about Renaissance art that is one of the funniest observational bits of the year.
Watch it on: Netflix
7. Maria Bamford: Weakness Is the Brand
Legendary comedian Maria Bamford has proven over the last decade-plus of specials and albums that she is the master of delivery. With jokes about alt-right trolls, suicide, sexual role-playing, and labor, Bamford’s points in Weakness Is the Brand are mesmerizing. She frames them within her own experiences and delivers lines with her fantastic impressions and excellent presence, occasionally looking straight into cameras to draw those not in the room into the intimacy she creates. She recounts her time on Worst Cooks in America: Celebrity Edition and a self-induced Bible fight/Christianity competition with her “religious” mother, making poignant remarks about compensation, altruism, and the human condition punctuated by astounding humor that feels so effortless. Bamford’s deft talent and weirdness just pulls the audience along. She flows through her set with imperceptible segues, mixing self-deprecation with self-affirmation and important takes with hilarious jokes in one of her best, most straight-forward specials of her career.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video