PICKS OF THE YEAR

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10 Favorite Stand-up Comedy Specials from 2020

Published January 12, 2021

1
Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything

((released 19 May, Netflix))

 

THIS one-hour show already got our top applause in June 2020 not because it was louder (or funnier) than any of the other English-language stand-up specials from early 2020 but because of its top-notch subtlety.
    You see, on the whole I Love Everything does not overtly touch political stuff, except in some parts. Then again, it's actually as if everything here is a prologue towards quick statements of political fact.
    [THE FOLLOWING INCLUDES SPOILERS]
    In a routine, for example, Oswalt's nerdy comedy pulls us towards a commonality where we all get to laugh at the comic generalizations we have about people in their respective age category, including that one about 50-year-olds who listen to 20-year old podcasters "whom nobody wants to fuck." That's still vaguely political, right? Sure, but, suddenly, after he'd established a state of comfort in that space between us, Oswalt drops the serious fact that the vaguely anti-Moslem among us would mostly belong to those in their 60s. Even in the very beginning of this gig he already joked that he's not angry at having turned 50 that year in 2019, and that in fact he can't wait to get to 90 so that he can relax, do crossword puzzles, and live a contented life as a racist.
    This is followed by a routine about his being 50 and consuming healthy brown cereal in a box colored . . . white. You can't suspect that to have a racial context, until he tells us his bowl would be beige, "bargaining beige." And that suspicion of yours would be proven correct, as the routine would end with Oswalt implying that this cereal had been produced in farms run by the ghosts of black slaves or underpaid brown immigrant workers. Then he points to another delicious healthy cereal that has indulged in name-dropping the Bible on its inside novelette, similar to the wont of many companies, and Oswalt just found this worthy of ridicule, if only for its ignorance.
    Here and there are stories, too, about businesses being run by con artists. He tells us that contractors are mostly a con job that just uses subcontractors, subcontractors who―it turns out―can't be contractors because they're made up of talented but crazy men with neo-Nazi tattoos and live in the forest. Then he tells us a story about working as a teenager for a company that gave shitty wedding DJ services and how all the weddings it serviced turned into divorces. Sounds like the title of a political book, doesn't it?
    But here and there are also stories of family love, marriage love, albeit sprinkled with such things as his worry that the note his wife left him on his windshield after their fight might have been from one of those alt-right MAGA assholes who probably got irked by something he said on Twitter and has now found him. His routine about putting daughter (or one's entire family) above self may be quite funny and touching, but in our time it's already quite political, as a matter of fact.
    But, of course, okay, the whole thing actually gets political after 37 minutes, which part of the show we think you ought to see for yourself. Especially as it does the entire thing trying to avoid being political, know what we mean? It does it by trying to be clownish inside it instead of trying to make a clown out of others. Well, okay, a little bit of that other one, too, but . . . and it lasts for 12 minutes.
    He finishes off with a diss on an American diner chain serving high-calorie food to families. Denny's discrimination record aside, that is already a political thing to do in the fastfood-endorsing Trump era, wouldn't you say?
    But what's the point behind all this subtlety, you ask. Well, there are those who don't want to talk about politics anymore and just want to hear about things that they can love. So, there you go. Subtly put the politics somewhere where those who want them can actually still see them, then.
    Here's Garrett Martin of Paste: "On I Love Everything Patton Oswalt seems about as well-adjusted as he’s ever been. He’s always had the ability to take personal anecdotes and observations and turn them into long, increasingly hilarious stories with a larger ring of truth and a tinge of the absurd, and that’s still true on I Love Everything. He also delivers the Trump stand-up routine that should officially end all Trump stand-up routines, and criticizes Louis C.K. and other #MeToo comics in the kind of bit that too few comedians have done. Oswalt’s previous special, Annihilation, was a respectful and darkly hilarious way to deal with the tragedy of his wife’s untimely death, and on I Love Everything Oswalt deals with the lives he’s rebuilt since—both his and his daughter’s. The result is a thoroughly entertaining hour from one of the most consistent comedians of his era."

2
Marc Maron: End Times Fun

(released 10 March, Netflix)

 

IF you want something overtly political, or sociological, so to speak, then the also subtle satire of End Times Fun would tickle you.
   Vulture: "The whole thing is fantastic, but it’s worth watching especially for Maron’s Book of Revelation–style closing segment, a mishmash of spiritual systems that combines Jesus, Iron Man, and current politics into a bizarre fantasy sequence."
   Uproxx: "It only feels right that we appreciate the filthy, dark, doomsday humor of Marc Maron’s latest Netflix special. The comedian, who gave UPROXX an eye-opening interview about what goes into crafting a Mike Pence penis joke, covers everything from doomsday prepping to the saturation of politics in the media and vitamin hoarders."

3
Dave Chappelle: 8:46

(released 12 June, YouTube)

 

THIS is just as amazing for a totally different reason.
    Chappelle uses the live comedy performance medium to deliver an oratory of a well-written serious Chappelle essay, all because one CNN dude named Don Lemon announced that he expects celebrities to contribute a sentence or two to the most recent Black Lives Matter cause to street-protest. What resulted was a surprisingly strong j'accuse speech from Mr. Chappelle, strong, yes, thanks to our expectations of an evening of comedy that ultimately were given a good reason to be disappointed and yet thankful for it at the same time, at least for this one night. On this night, Chappelle became an African-American version of Hasan Minhaj doing an angrier Patriot Act.
    Here's Paste: "This short YouTube special is a furious, righteous, impassioned monologue on the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have sprung up throughout the country. In what’s easily the best work of his Netflix era, Chappelle doesn’t try to give voice to the movement or the justified rage rippling through America—as he says, 'this is the streets talking for themselves, they don’t need me right now'—but focuses on his own rage, his own disgust, which drips from almost every word he says. It’s searing, powerful, and proof that Chappelle is absolutely still one of the most vital comedians around, no matter how disappointing and regressive his most recent special was."

4
Jim Jefferies: Intolerant

(released 7 July, Netflix)

 

SO, here's a lesson in how to be a progressive and an asshole at the same time onstage and get away with it.
   With Intolerant, Sean L. McCarthy of conservative website Decider believes that ". . . Jim Jefferies somehow managed to offer a perspective on comedy (that) allows for progressives and stubborn old-fashioned types to see and understand each other a little better, while also acknowledging that no real comedian actually wants to fall out of favor with the masses, no matter how much they may gamble by pushing the envelope onstage."
   That's sort of being like the James Kelman of the comedy stage, rough and provincial and yet somehow ending up still miraculously PC.

5
Fortune Feimster: Sweet & Salty

(released 21 January, Netflix)

 

DIGITAL Trends: "Fortune Feimster is a Southern, lesbian, full-bodied woman, which is to say she is fairly unique in stand-up comedy. In her Netflix special debut, she shows off why she’s such a rare talent with an original perspective. Though she sometimes ventures into well-traveled stand-up topics, Feimster does it with unabashed brashness and unapologetic fury — a tour de force you don’t often see on stand-up stages."

6
Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-life Crisis

(released 3 March, Netflix)

 

THE Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "At age 25, Tomlinson is relatively young to get her own Netflix special, but she has been working at her craft since age 16, including a stint on 'Last Comic Standing' and multiple late night talk show stints. / With cheerful aplomb and old-school polish, Tomlinson approaches life like someone far wiser than her years, noting people her age generally have poor judgment. 'That’s why you’re thin in your twenties,' she says. 'You don’t have a gut to listen to yet!'"
    That's like a challenge to 20-somethings to wise-up and then maybe vote or something.

7
Beth Stelling: Girl Daddy

(released 20 August, HBO Max)

 

GARRETT Martin of Paste: "Beth Stelling’s sets are lean and sharp, even when she’s expounding on a single topic or story for minutes on end. She peppers her observations with pointed one-liners that often twist in unexpected directions, or that quickly reframe a familiar premise in an original and keenly observed new light. How many times have you heard a comedian talk about the differences between how men and women view sex? Yeah, that’s like Stand-up Stereotype #1, something so thoroughly strip-mined by decades of comedians that it almost feels like an act of genius when Stelling is able to put her own personal stamp on it."

8
Michelle Buteau: Welcome to Buteaupia

(released 29 September, Netflix)

 

SEAN L. McCarthy of conservative website Decider: "From the opening introduction by Cardi B, all the way through to the end, wherein Buteau gives thanks for her 18-plus years in comedy, this is an hour of exuberance and joy that’s infectious. When Buteau jumps up and down with joy afterward, you’ll be filled with joy, too. And unlike hearing Ellen or Melania tell you to be kind, you really feel that Buteau backs that s— up."

9
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

(released 26 May, Netflix)

 

IF stand-up comedy constructs today are to be written as text, one could argue that they'd all display the characteristics of postmodern literature. While telling their jokes, they all seem to be not only concerned with their authors' and audience's role in the narrative, but also with the interplay of truths and fictions inside these constructions. If so, it might be fair to say that Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby's Douglas is one of the most postmodern of them all, not only for being self-reflexive all throughout, but for going as far as letting people know at the beginning that she's going to be managing their reactions in all the chapters of her gig. With that, as shown in this filmed Los Angeles leg of the Douglas Tour, a sort of announced manipulation occurs―which displays the height of irony (or sublime parody), the manipulation being aimed at the most rightist of reactions within American conservative culture, an intolerant culture that has of late been moving further and further to the death-threats-flaunting international fascist right.
   Also, America's overall take on community living or nationhood can be seen from an examination of the most mundane of places. And so Digital Trends wrote: "Hannah Gadsby’s second Netflix special follows in the success of her first special Nanette, and takes the Australian comic to whole new heights. Gadsby ponders the intricacies of popularity and identity and takes a deep dive into the strangeness and wonder of everyone’s favorite place: The dog park."

10
Jesus Trejo: Stay at Home Son

(released 29 May, Showtime/Hulu/Apple TV/Vudu/DirecTV/Amazon Prime)

 

SEAN L. McCarthy of Decider: "An impressive debut from this Southern Californian who isn’t exactly hopeless, although he always finds himself quite helpless. And in tears. Sad for him. Funny for us. Trejo found himself becoming a caregiver to both of his immigrant parents for a while, for a time even giving up comedy to take over his father’s landscaping business. 'I felt like I lived the American Dream backwards,' he realizes, having graduated from college and pursued his comedy dreams, only to wind up mowing lawns."