The 20 Greatest Standup Specials of All Time
6. Louis C.K., Shameless
The most visible comic of the moment set the stage for his ascendance with a series of rock-solid specials, including 2006’s effortlessly assured Shameless. C.K. himself might be the first to mock his not-so-riveting stage presence, but here his malleable expressions and surprisingly physical performance make the rampant misanthropy all-the-more appealing.
Given its mix of outrageous material (think barrels of duck vaginas and AIDS trees) and plainspoken cultural jabs, Shameless bears the deceptive stamp of a free-form conversation. But since C.K. is unmatched at taking dumb, angry ideas to their (il)logical conclusions, waiting in line at the post office becomes a scat-torture fantasy, and a soon-to-end marriage the platform for rattling off a variety of sexual dysfunctions. Cringe-worthy, feral, and brilliant from start to finish.
5. Eddie Murphy, Delirious
Building on the groundbreaking material, profanity, and stage prowess of the previous decade’s standup innovators, Murphy took the comedy special to new heights in 1983 with a generous helping of rock star charisma.
There’s little to no neurosis in Delirious, a title that accurately captures the then-22-year-old Murphy’s raging ego and lumpy material as much as his appealing physicality. Recorded at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall and aired on HBO, Delirious is not the best example of standup writing, or even a particularly flattering example of the early ‘80s cultural mindset. Unironic bits on “faggots” and a general, running homophobia, for example, have aged terribly.
But when Murphy was good — as when describing his drunken father, or reenacting the uncontrollable joy that children feel when confronted with an ice cream truck — he swerved and kicked like a downed power line, intimidatingly energized and liable to come after you next. Despite the dissonance between the quality of the material and the quality of the performance, Delirious is required viewing for standup fans who wonder where the tone, pacing, and visceral performance style of many of today’s best comics originated.
4. Steve Martin, A Wild and Crazy Guy
Martin’s 1978 NBC special, which featured not only bits from his arena-filling standup set but sketches with celebrity guests like Johnny Cash and George Burns, is exceptional on a number of levels. It’s an example of kind-spirited humor that still manages to be surreal and groundbreaking. It’s also an exception to the idea that comics must continually build up to their best work with complicated, life-threatening personal tumult.
Martin’s fame at the time no doubt gave him a good deal of creative control, but he nonetheless undermines variety-show cliches and live-comedy expectations in equal measure on this network curio. It’s pretty much impossible to find this as it originally aired, save for an old VHS copy, but 2012’s The Television Stuff DVD boxed set presents the material that comprises it: the sketches, plus the exemplary Universal Amphitheatre set that provided the standup footage.
Even the seemingly slight moments of A Wild and Crazy Guy — such as Martin’s mock outrage at the audience misinterpreting his use of the word “pussy” (following a character-heavy treatise on sex and dating) — continue to resonate. It’s as charming as Martin’s overall standup career was influential and criminally short-lived.
3. George Carlin, Carlin at Carnegie
Carlin’s prolific nature makes it nearly impossible to pick a defining work. His 1977 USC performance crackles with youthful electricity as much as 1992’s (relatively) mature HBO special Jammin’ in New York showcases his growth, aggression, and stage mastery. But when it comes to classic Carlin, this 1983 HBO special is a perfect mix of his fierce social critiques and casual, devastating wit.
Dressed like a Sesame Street extra on a stage covered in a massive rug and backed by towering stacks of wooden chairs, Carlin lays bare the artifice and contradictions of Comfortable America. His loose-limbed impressions, bug eyes, and Noo Yawk accent help sell bits that range from pet psychology and abortion to an updated “Filthy Words.” The dynamic set dressing makes it look like an academic lecture as daydreamed by stoned, goofy intellectuals.
Like plenty of other defining moments in artistic careers, it’s a return to form for Carlin after a trip through the ringer — in this case, stepping away from constant touring in the late ‘70s and recovering from a series of heart attacks. Carnegie also plays like an hour-long highlight reel (sans jarring edits) by presenting a tight version of material from Carlin’s ninth album, A Place for My Stuff, while working in a greatest hit or two. Fortunately, the man’s legendary ability to find philosophical truths by dissecting, for example, the habits of fussy eaters has never been stronger.
2. Chris Rock, Bring the Pain
Like Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, the (then) 31-year-old Rock shattered expectations while reinventing his persona on Bring the Pain, a commanding example of what happens when a middling sketch player and actor throws everything away to focus on writing and performing material that matters to him.
Filmed at Washington, D.C.’s Takoma Theatre, Bring the Pain is the result of two years of laser-like focus following 1994’s underwhelming Big Ass Jokes, which itself followed Rock’s disillusionment from Saturday Night Live and other TV/film projects. At the start of the hour, Rock swaggers out of his dressing room onto a stage bearing his giant initials, dressed all in black, grinning.
He wastes no time in savaging idiocy and hypocrisy, from in-the-news topics like D.C. mayor Marion Berry to dating and marriage. The now-classic (and still potent) “Niggas vs. Black People” leaps out of the shadows of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy by subverting and exploding assumptions that many lesser comics continue to base their acts upon.
It’s easy to see Rock’s fingerprints on any number of currently active performers, from Dave Chappelle to Aziz Ansari, but what distinguishes Bring the Pain is its relentless determination to present ideas that are not only uncomfortable and brutally hilarious, but as exciting to their creator as they are to the audience.
1. Richard Pryor, Live on the Sunset Strip
At the time of Live on the Sunset Strip‘s release in 1982, 42-year-old Richard Pryor was not only a veteran comic, he had already endured enough personal and professional turmoil (including a bleak upbringing, multiple divorces, addiction, fights with NBC censors, and a devastating, drug-fueled fire that almost killed him) to erase a lesser artist. But even as the backstory informs and deepens Live on the Sunset Strip, it never dominates it.
Pryor’s genius rests in part in his ability to switch moods invisibly. Filmed before an adoring crowd at the Hollywood Palladium, the special starts slow and unassuming as Pryor regains his confidence after a couple years away from the limelight. But as it picks up steam — whether in a largely improvised bit starring Pryor’s Mudbone character, or in exploring sex, race, and his life-changing trip to Africa — it develops an unstoppable momentum. Credit is also due to director Joe Layton, a Broadway and TV veteran who presents a natural mix of tight, medium, and wide shots to portray his subject’s riveting (and, at this point, more measured) stage presence in subtly narrative fashion. It helps that Pryor’s fire-red suit practically explodes against the black curtain, turning every angle into an iconic image.
On stage, Pryor is like a skinny, nervy Jimi Hendrix, an effortless physicality (see his animal impressions) and dexterity saturating the material. It’s remarkable how fresh and funny Sunset remains: It’s bawdy but full of subtext, brutally honest and personal but also thoughtful, socially conscious, and provocative. If anything even comes close to cliché or convention in this lean, 82-minute film, it’s because hindsight obscures the fact that Pryor was setting the standard in real time.
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic for The Denver Post who has contributed to Rolling Stone, The Spit Take and SXSWorld.