10. Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?
After relocating and taking his weekly Hot Tub show to LA, Kurt Braunohler signed a deal with legendary indie label Kill Rock Stars to release his first stand-up album. How Do I Land? combines his famous knack for unsettling performance art with more traditional stand-up comedy. Braunohler describes his recent antics with skywriting and greeting cards before settling into a more comfortable groove about halfway through.
Though he excels when highlighting the decay of human interaction on “Chat Pack” and “Three Fun Things,” Braunohler is also a gifted storyteller, as exhibited by his memorable story about a horrendous audition with Sacha Baron Cohen. His IFC series may have been short-lived, but Braunohler has moved on to develop a distinctly interesting style as a stand-up.
Best One-Liner: “Don’t ever race a dude who’s driving a PT Cruiser, because that guy has got nothing to lose.”
9. John Hodgman, Ragnarok
John Hodgman has been a Daily Show correspondent, a commercial star for Apple, and a co-star in one of the most underrated TV series of the last decade, HBO’s Bored To Death. But this year, he struck out on his own as a stand-up, refining much of his material at his weekly Secret Society shows at Union Hall.
In his first stand-up special Ragnarok, which premiered on Netflix in July, we see Hodgman transitioning between his “deranged millionaire” character and jokes about his personal life. For the most part though, he stays loyal to an apocalyptic theme, offering ridiculous tips to doomsday preppers in the vein of his satirical book series.
Scott Adsit from 30 Rock introduces the special, taped at the Bell House, and Hodgman doesn’t waste a second throughout. His elegant command of language is particularly unmatched in the comedy world. But the theme seems to limit the scope of material presented, and having seen Hodgman a couple times since Ragnarok was taped, I can say with certainty that he has some better jokes up his sleeve for the future.
Best One-Liner: “People make jokes about my mustache to me all the time. You look like a pornstar. You look like a child molester. These aren’t so much jokes as they are accusations, only one of which I am comfortable with. ”
8. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
Nanjiani is well known in LA for his weekly show the Meltdown, which recently got its own series at Comedy Central. His recent appearances on Portlandia have been also been flawless, but Nanjiani’s first hour-long special presented a more tender side of the comedian than we’ve come to know.
In Beta Male, Nanjiani points out the differences of living in Pakistan and the United States by discussing a Pakistani birthday party that featured a dancing monkey and a fight to the death between a mongoose and a snake. There’s also a poignant story about seeing his hometown of Karachi through the eyes of American video game designers by playing Call of Duty. In all, Beta Male makes a great case for Nanjiani being one of the most talented up-and-comers.
Best One-Liner: “So my plan was to ride it out on the streets of Karachi, which CNN once dubbed “The City of Terror.” BBC was much kinder. They called us “City of Nightmares,” which at least implies that we have dreams.”
7. Al Madrigal, Why Is The Rabbit Crying?
Al Madrigal is one of the newest correspondents to the Daily Show, but he’s been a staple on the stand-up scene for ages. In terms of subject matter, Why Is The Rabbit Crying? bears some similarity to Aziz Ansari’s Buried Alive, but Madrigal speaks on marriage and children from the perspective of a seasoned veteran, familiar with the pitfalls of both single and married life.
Much like his 30 minute special, which contains an excellent bit about taking his kid to the sandbox, the best parts of Why Is The Rabbit Crying? are story-driven and often involve keen observations on race. The first story in the special, about watching gang members interact with nature in the park, might stand out as unforgettable, but just wait until the end, when he gets to the time he accidentally gave his housekeeper magic mushrooms.
Best One-Liner: “You know the strip mall: a bunch of shitty businesses that got together to become roommates.”
6. Marc Maron, Thinky Pain
Though he’s gained notoriety through his podcast and TV series, it’s been quite some time since Marc Maron has released a taped stand-up special. Though he has released a steady stream of albums over the years, none have been quite as good his new Netflix special, Thinky Pain, where we finally see him relaxing into a more lighthearted persona.
At an hour and half in length, the special is considerably longer than most of the others we saw this year, but the extensive opening segment with Maron talking to Tom Scharpling backstage makes the extra time well worth it. Most of the stories and jokes are tied together by the concept of aging, and through these glimpses at his childhood, his parents and his girlfriend, you get the sense that Maron has come to terms with certain parts of his identity. In the past, I would’ve never referred to Maron as lighthearted, but on Thinky Pain, it’s clear that his cynicism has eased a bit, which makes the material all the more relatable and enjoyable.
Best One-Liner: “So what’s up? Want me to do the act? Or let’s not. Let’s just work through some stuff. ”
5. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
If you could use one word to describe Maria Bamford’s singular brand of stand-up, it would be fearless. In the months leading up to the release of her new album, critics and fellow comics could be heard singing the praises of Bamford’s new act, which focuses largely on her her depression and subsequent hospitalization — Mike Birbiglia, for one, tweeted that he wanted to give her 25 standing ovations after seeing her at Caroline’s in March.
Though Ask Me About My New God! also revolves around the broad concept of aging, Bamford presents an entirely separate host of issues she’s had to come to terms with over the years. Among 33 tracks, she leaves room to address less personal issues like celebrity worship and the vacuity of new age wisdom, but Bamford is at her best when discussing the stigma of mental illness, somehow managing to turn her brief stay at a mental hospital into one of the funniest parts of the album.
Best One-Liner: “That is not my mental illness. I am bipolar 2, which is the new gladiator sandal.”
4. Louis C.K., Oh My God
Louis C.K.’s stand-up specials rarely disappoint, but his latest failed to match the energy and resonance of his previous work. Maybe it was the stiff competition from his peers. Maybe it was the high bar he set with his last two specials. But it can’t be avoided that the material on Oh My God, loosely linked by the concept of miracles and pure astonishment at everyday life, just felt unprepared in parts.
Oh My God offers a few flashes of C.K.’s observational brilliance on topics such as aging and divorce, and towards the end, there’s a lengthy bit about entertaining the idea of the opposite of conventional wisdom. But these profound meditations we’ve come to expect from C.K. are numbered and practically overshadowed by cheap jokes with no other purpose than to fill time. Hopefully, this just means he’s putting more time into his TV show these days.
Best One-Liner: “Marriage is for how long you can hack it, but divorce just gets stronger like a piece of oak. Nobody ever says, “My divorce is falling apart. It’s over. I can’t take it.”
3. Simon Amstell, Numb
After becoming a household name in the UK through his popular TV series Grandma’s House, British comedian Simon Amstell was introduced to an American audience in 2013 through appearances on Letterman, The View, and The Craig Ferguson Show. In every appearance, he sampled bits from his terrific new stand-up special Numb, in which he deftly tackles personal matters ranging from anxiety to a recent break-up to long-running family disputes.
Amstell’s sharp wit and unique subject matter are a constant throughout Numb, but what really stands out is his knack for storytelling and the way he intricately weaves different stories together under a relatable narrative: that of trying to become less anxious and emotionally distant. They all culminate toward the end in an uproariously funny story, where Amstell tells of flying to Peru to rid himself of his anxiety by using Ayahuasca.
Best One-Liner: “She was beautiful and she knew she was beautiful, but I think that was all she knew.”
2. Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive
Over the past few years, Aziz Ansari has become more and more well known for his stand-up comedy. Throughout 2013, he was seen preparing for his third special at clubs all over New York City, and the early response was overwhelmingly positive. Buried Alive finally premiered on Netflix in November, and the final product was better than a lot of fans could’ve ever imagined.
During the hour and a half long special, we see Ansari more relaxed and grown-up than ever before, waxing poetic on a variety of topics relating to marriage, children and relationships in the modern age. While his jokes about the gay marriage debate, dick pics, and reality shows like 16 and Pregnant border on profound, most of the material shares a common thread of skepticism for traditional institutions like marriage, which seems to be an increasingly common sentiment among people of Ansari’s generation.
Ansari is expanding on his marriage and dating material for a book, which he describes as a “Malcolm Gladwell Freakonomics-style analysis” of modern romance and technology. Whether the material will translate to another medium remains to be seen, but with Buried Alive, it makes up a major part of his best special to date.
Best One-Liner: “Sometimes you meet people that aren’t even Comic Sans. They’re straight up Wing Dings.”
1. Sarah Silverman, We Are Miracles
While she’s been a vocal supporter of President Obama in the past two elections, Silverman made her voice heard this year as an opponent of the devastating anti-reproductive legislation in Texas. In We Are Miracles, her first special in eight years, she addresses the legislation by castigating conservatives for their hypocrisy on abortion.
The bulk of the special is far from political, though, and Silverman manages to maintain an uplifting undercurrent of self-love and personal responsibility, which is also where the special derives its title. Considering the fact that she’s had years to perfect these jokes, it’s no surprise that pretty much every single one lands with the audience.
While she offers some hilarious commentary on subjects such as Scientology, growing up Jewish in New Hampshire and her recently deceased dog, Silverman excels when touching on more serious topics like body image issues and destructive marketing. In short, We Are Miracles shows Silverman at her best, analyzing topics using crudity and deep contemplation, while still saving time to show off her musical talent toward the end. Filmed at the Little Room, a 40-person theatre connected to LA’s legendary Largo, We Are Miracles isn’t just the most intimate special of the year, it’s also the most captivating.
Best One-Liner: “Don’t forget. God can see you masturbating, but don’t stop. He’s almost there.”