As with most years, 2013 saw an overwhelming amount of excellent standup, far too much to ever catalogue. But the greatest specials of the year were unique and inventive; many played with the very idea of a special itself, while others featured profoundly personal stories spun into brilliant standup. What they share is their distinctness — each of these comics has made a special that captures their own undeniable form of genius. Here are the most distinctive, memorable standup specials of 2013.
Bo Burnham – what.
As much a one-man theatrical extravaganza as a standup special, Bo Burnam's latest special is involves pre-taped pieces, music, dancing, and poems addressing the meaning of art, God, and fame. But no one else could make that combination as crazy funny as Burnham – and likely, no one else would have released it on YouTube for free.
Myq Kaplan – Meat Robot
Myq Kaplan is, without a doubt, one of the smartest comedians on the planet. His latest album is fast-paced and dense, full of pinpoint turns and endless detours that demand the listener's full attention. The reward is an album that is as thoughtful as it is joke-packed and clever as it is funny.
Kevin Hart – Let Me Explain
Released into theaters in July, Let Me Explain made $32 million at the box office, making it the fourth highest grossing comedy film of all time. Recorded in front of 30,000 people at Madison Square Garden following an international tour, it's the proof that Kevin Hart deserves to be the megastar that he undoubtedly is, and his magnetic but vulnerable energy will continue winning over new fans.
Doug Stanhope – Beer Hall Putsch
Just as brutal and unapologetic as ever, Doug Stanhope clearly loves to challenge absolutely everyone. Beer Hall Putsch (named after a failed Nazi coup) never fails to surprise, never relies on shock value, and never preaches to the choir. With it, Stanhope sets the gold standard for politically-engaged standup in the 21st century.
Kristen Schaal – Live at the Fillmore
Known as much for her acting work and occasional appearances on The Daily Show, Kristen Schaal's standup is clearly rooted in her sketch and improv background, as well as her “surreal brand of whimsy." Her theatrical special is silly and filthy and magical until the halfway point, when it all goes a little off the rails in the best possible way.
Mike Birbiglia – My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
Mike Birbiglia is a master storyteller, and his latest special is an intricately woven tale of love and car wrecks and marriage. Like its predecessor show/film/book Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend doesn't let its sweet stories or poetic moments get in the way of it being very funny.
Sarah Silverman – We Are Miracles
There has always been a lot more depth to Sarah Silverman's material than her many "cute-but-shocking" emulators have grasped. In her latest special, a more mature version of her hubristic stage persona delves easily into topics like religion and feminism without losing the sharp wit and fearless vulgarity that makes her such a necessary part of the stand-up community.
But also, don't miss…
Marc Maron – Thinky Pain – Lucky for us, it seems Marc Maron's success will never get in the way of his comedy. His latest special is a loose and appealing rambly set that is the perfect encapsulation of his comedy at this moment in time.
Bill Cosby – Far From Finished – His first special in 30 years, the living legend that is Bill Cosby returned to our screens this year with a very long (the extended version runs well over two hours) show. His stories may be long-winded and old-fashioned, but there is no one better at it than him.
Louis C.K. – Oh My God – Perhaps the best praise for Louis C.K. at the moment is that while Oh My God is far from his best special, it is still a very strong hour well worth checking out. There are enough moments of brilliance, particularly when talking about dating and his own personal failings, to make clear he will not be ceding his title as the best working standup anytime soon.
Patrice O'Neal – Unreleased – Obscene and brutal and spectacularly unplanned, this newly-released set from the late Patrice O'Neal captures what was so uniquely brilliant about the unapologetic comic genius. As with all his material, it certainly not for the faint of heart, but his legions of fans will love it.