Best comedy specials of 2022
In another year jam-packed with comedy, it’s always hard to pin down which specials we might actually circle back to when we remember the good times of 2022. Though we could be totally wrong about this (hear that, internet trolls?), there’s a short list of one-hour laugh fests that immediately called us back to moments that gave us genuine LOLs. Here is our list of the 10 best comedy specials we watched this year.
Bill Burr, “Live at Red Rocks”
“I really hope that by the time this f— thing comes out, it’ll be considered old,” says Burr in reference to his COVID material in the opening minutes of his July Netflix special “Bill Burr: Live at Red Rocks.” Thankfully, he seems to have gotten his wish as the days of lockdown get farther away in our rear view, yet the way he delivers truth like a misanthropic punch to the gut will always be timeless.
Pacing outdoors in front of the darkness of a sold-out crowd at the breathtaking Denver venue Red Rocks, the camera flips back and forth between scenic crimson surroundings and shots of Burr’s equally red-hot set. Whether he’s dumping on the social hypocrisy of cancel culture or recalling his mushroom-fueled thoughts on existential loneliness, Burr reminds us why we turn to a funny, foul-mouthed philosopher with a chip on his shoulder in times of trouble. Fully weaponizing his pissed-off energy to kill in front of this epic crowd, Burr roared back into the comedy conversation with a vibe that feels even more natural than his surroundings. —Nate Jackson
Taylor Tomlinson, “Look at You”
Flail through the cold, uncaring void? Or harness the power of comedy to help others feel less alone with mental health struggles? For Tomlinson, the choice is both clear and inspirational.
Still in her 20s yet already a veteran of “Last Comic Standing,” Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch,” “The Tonight Show” and Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” Tomlinson’s Netflix stand-up debut, “Quarter-Life Crisis,” focused on grappling with adulting. “Look at You” is even stronger and more fearless. Bits on therapy, emotional eating, strict conservative upbringings and suicide hotline memberships illustrate hard truths about how bipolarism affects relationships with family and partners. Elsewhere she’s vocally resentful about the harm organized religion wields, but quick to embrace ironic upsides of her mother succumbing to cancer when Tomlinson was 8.
None of us can change our pasts. At best, we only hope to laugh and move onward. These days millennial talents may be pegged as overly sensitive, yet Tomlinson happily proves going brutally dark is pretty effective healing too. —Julie Seabaugh
It was another weird year. This is the music, movies, theater, books, television and art that got us through.
Ronny Chieng, “Speakeasy”
When scrolling back through another saturated year of comedy specials to find something memorable, it helps to start with one that actually looks the part of a classic. Set in the belly of lush restaurant the Chinese Tuxedo in New York’s Chinatown, Chieng’s second special, “Speakeasy,” looks like a scene cut from a Rat Pack flick. It’s a great backdrop for Chieng’s mix of sharp, contemporary material with old-school joke construction. One of his best came when he tried to goad the audience into shouting out which race they think is the worst.
On top of a small stage in a white tux surrounded by a late-night lounge crowd, Chieng walks a tightrope of tension playing with race, politics and the ever-present threat of cancellation, which he takes pride in casually shrugging off throughout his hourlong set. “I’m here to talk s—, make money and bounce!” he said. Considering the Malaysia native’s recent run of appearances in blockbusters such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” he’s probably in a good position to do that, though we hope to see at least one more special of this classic caliber before he does. —N.J.
Norm Macdonald, “Nothing Special”
The title says it all. In the summer of 2020, there were no live stages. No packed crowds. Nothing much in the way of laughter either. Just Macdonald pressing record to run an hour set, eyes following his notes, a dog barking in a nearby room, his phone ringing and Macdonald faux-fuming, “I’m doing a special on the TV!”
He died a year later at 61, after a secret nine-year battle with leukemia.
This wasn’t supposed to be the final product. It was a placeholder until Normal Times returned. “Nothing Special” still finds Macdonald in his element: un-PC, meandering timing, pancaked punchlines, mispronunciations galore. Only now do his thoughts on the aging process, questioning doctors and the importance of making the most of precious time seem to hit harder.
At the end of the special, David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, Adam Sandler and David Spade spend the closing segment pondering their friend’s final footage. Muses O’Brien, “He’s constantly screwing with you on every level,” in the vein of Mark Twain, himself a created persona and one of Macdonald’s writing idols. Or as Letterman puts it, “It’s not a true test of anything, really, other than we all loved Norm.” —JS
Ali Wong, “Don Wong”
In her third comedy special, Wong returned with swagger and sharp humor tackling gender roles, love and sex from a married (now formerly married) woman’s perspective that came right on time for the Valentine’s Day release of “Don Wong.” But, of course, romance is far from the backbone of this special — unless we’re talking about your side piece. Despite having it all as a comic, Wong spends a lot of time unmasking her desire to cheat or at least have the option, which is often a liberty taken by her male counterparts, she says. Even the difference of groupie experience between male and female comics is severely unbalanced.
While successful male comics are drowning in admiration from gorgeous women (a.k.a. “chuckle f—”), Wong reminds the crowd that when it comes to her groupie options as a top-tier comic, “Fan d— is frightening. ... That’s why you don’t see more women doing stand-up, there’s no reward, only danger and punishment,” she said. Completing the cycle of jokes from Wong’s previous specials, “Baby Cobra” and “Hard Knock Wife,” about pregnancy, motherhood and now fantasies of infidelity, “Don Wong” continues to dig at the realities of life that leave us laughing at ourselves and questioning our choices. —NJ
Fahim Anwar, “Hat Trick”
In Comedy Store parlance, the “hat trick” refers to performing in the 50-year-old Sunset Strip institution’s three separate rooms over the course of a single evening. “I came up with all my bits at this place; why not shoot it here?” Anwar reasons up top before running sets in the Original Room, Main Room and finally, the upstairs Belly Room, with interstitial cameos from Tim Dillon, Theo Von, Anthony Jeselnik, Marc Maron and even Quentin Tarantino along the way.
The first special produced under the newly launched Comedy Store Studios and available via YouTube, Anwar’s second effort arrives in an era when traditional standard-bearers like Comedy Central feel archaic and streamers like Netflix only pry open their ample coffers for A-list comics. Fortunately, as fellow comedian Bobby Lee puts it, Anwar is “literally one of the best joke-writers in the country.” COVID, religion, weed, politics, dating apps, pronouns and corporate wokeness are all subject to his quizzical intensity. It’s just another night at the Store, warts and all. But when talents like Anwar grace the bill, there’s nowhere else hardcore stand-up fans would rather be. —JS
Fortune Feimster, “Good Fortune”
It’s rare to watch a stand-up special and feel like you’re in the writers room watching a live read for a script for the next hit box-office comedy. But that’s the energy Feimster is serving up in her latest one-hour live set from Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. She starts off talking about bucking stereotypes of what a butch lesbian should be, something that may surprise those quick to judge a woman with broad shoulders whose “favorite color is plaid.”
“This a preview to a whole different movie than what you think you’re about to watch,” she says. “As they say, the carpet does not match the drapes, two things I do not know how to install.”
One thing Feimster does know how to build is the opening scene or premise for every joke she delivers in “Good Fortune,” from getting her first (amazing) butt massage from a male masseuse to reliving the savage blood sports of grade-school recess.
The heart of the special is about Feimster’s proposal to her special someone — her partner Jacquelyn “Jax” Smith. However, as you can imagine, nothing goes as planned. It’s here where we truly see the outline of the next great lesbian comedy flick complete with a host of cartoonishly offbeat characters surrounding Feimster and Jax at their hotel in Big Sur as they go through hell to enjoy their romantic moment. Luckily for them, it all worked out and we got a great special out of the ordeal. At the end of the day, love and comedy wins. —NJ
Byron Bowers, “Spiritual N—”
In hindsight, it’s understandable that Bowers purposefully delayed the unique professional journey that is one’s debut stand-up special. The vision just needed to match the career realities. One of FX’s two initial forays into stand-up (along with Kate Berlant’s “Cinnamon in the Wind”), the Hulu-streaming hour initially features Susan Sarandon chilling in the ringside audience and only gets more otherworldly from there.
Bowers challenges humanity’s relationship with reality throughout. Religion, mental illness and the tenuous nature of personal bonds are circling themes. For example, the church’s solution to Byron’s father exhibiting signs of schizophrenia? Pray it away. Then blame the devil when the symptoms grow in severity.
“You want me to take a guy who has delusions about stuff that isn’t real to a place where n— worship some s— that might not be real?” Bowers asks through the haze of a Decatur, Ga., boxing gym. “Whooping and hollering and crying and about to pass out and s—, a white Jesus hanging up on the cross?”
Elsewhere, he pities how negating our emotions contributes to anxiety and depression and encourages viewers to chase their dreams. Because if Bowers was able to create his own reality, why shouldn’t the rest of us do it too? —JS
Hasan Minhaj, “King’s Jester”
One of the most valuable things comedy reminded us of this year is that money cannot buy your way out of ridicule. When it comes to roasting kings, jesters are still our most necessary resource. It’s a truth put on full display in the grand, slick spectacle of Minhaj’s “King’s Jester,” his first stand-up special in five years. In his one-hour of material, he wasted no time taking doctors, corporate tycoons, sultans and politicians down a peg — or two — while weaving in his own sick quest for clout and celebrity. As his career as a comedian and host of his own political comedy Netflix show “Patriot Act” began its meteoric rise several years ago before it was canceled, Minhaj was confronted with falling victim to the king’s disease he so often joked about.
The special is chock-full of big-budget bells and whistles on a grand stage with LED lights and well-produced visuals that keep the crowd laughing along with the comic during his personal trials and tribulations along with public feuds with the Saudi government, Jared Kushner and “vulture capitalism” pioneer Randall Smith. The stories toward the end of the special illustrate how even world-renowned jesters must find their own line when it comes to jokes and how it affects the ones they love. —NJ
Jerrod Carmichael, “Rothaniel”
Look, would anyone really call “Rothaniel” drop-dead hilarious stand-up? Probably not. But perched somewhere between Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” and any number of late-night Dave Chappelle pop-ins, the third special from the former “Carmichael Show” star has big things to say, even if the funny quotient remains naggingly incomplete.
Rather than a traditional comedy club or theater, New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club hosts Carmichael’s slow-burning reestablishment of self. Bo Burnham, who also directed Carmichael’s 2017 HBO special, “8,” keeps things intimate and uncertain. When long-simmering secrets are revealed — whether parental infidelity, his sexuality or true first name — there’s a gut-wrenching sense things might go south as cameras watch helplessly. (There hasn’t been a special anywhere near as vulnerable since Gary Gulman’s 2019 docu-hybrid “The Great Depresh.”) That’s just what happens when the hardships prompting the most transformative comedy are voluntarily exposed to public scrutiny, and that’s the exact same tightrope walked by the greatest comics in history.
It might not have been the funniest, yet “Rothaniel” remains the most impactful comedy release of the year. —JS
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