The 10 Best Standup Specials and Albums of 2015
Of all the things to celebrate in comedy this year, the resilience and power of standup’s cherished documents — the album and the TV special — remained impressively untainted by bite-sized viral videos, faux-documentaries, a flurry of late-night distractions, and a podcast landscape dotted with rabbit holes. Here are my favorites from a very good year of standup.
John Mulaney — The Comeback Kid
His failed Fox sitcom now the stuff of comedy infamy, former SNL scribe Mulaney mixes up his deceptively fresh-faced observational act on The Comeback Kid (yes, the title works on several layers; hold for the Clinton story). Here Mulaney is more aware of his powers than on modern classic New in Town, hewing perilously close to monologue or one-man-show with long, punchline-free stretches of storytelling. It’s not as stiffly earnest as it sounds, and when the odd blast of profanity or harshness appears, it’s like finding the crunchy bits in an ice cream sundae. That’s partly why his clean, straightforward persona makes for such an effective Trojan Horse of genuine wisdom. The other part is his innate mastery of standup, constantly on display.
Amy Schumer — Live at the Apollo
Schumer proved herself 2015’s most effective comic ambassador not only in the quality of her material but in its sheer omnipresence. Even if you overlook the Judd Apatow-directed Trainwreck and her yet-to-crescendo Comedy Central series, her HBO debut Live at the Apollo had enough momentum to grab plenty of new devotees. Directed by Chris Rock, Apollo is at its best when Schumer’s standup experience melds with stories about her childhood, Hollywood anecdotes, and, unsurprisingly, sex in all its expressions. Her former, decidedly more one-dimensional persona (a sort of Sarah Silverman/Lisa Lampanelli hybrid) is waning, but even when she goes for the easy joke there’s an invigorated professionalism here. How fitting that she should do it on a stage where for decades marginalized voices have been given a chance to test their potential.
Nate Bargatze — Full Time Magic
For all the attention the club vs. alt-comedy debate has gotten in recent years, Bargatze remains a glorious enigma. With an irresistible Southern accent and measured delivery he enters like a sleepy, clean comic and quickly dominates every audience (at least that this writer has seen). Full Time Magic could describe Bargatze’s subtle but rock-solid verbal prowess, his skillful storytelling, his ability to see silhouettes in incoherent situations, or the charming humanism at the root of everything he says.
Ian Karmel — 9.2 on Pitchfork
Woe to those on the receiving end of Karmel’s comic fury. Despite an agreeable, impressively calibrated stage presence, Karmel (another Portland-bred comic on the fast-growing Kill Rock Stars roster) reveals a philosopher’s disdain for American mindlessness spiked with the unstoppable force of a standup who can’t help but rant about his failings. Karmel’s self-conscious, self-effacing bits find perfect balance with his prickliness, looping back in on themselves or ending altogether in ways that make perfect sense in context. Turning the experience of waiting in line at a Taco Bell drive-thru into a brilliant treatise on anger, privilege, and (most of all) hunger is a humbling trick few standups can perform.
Tig Notaro — Boyish Girl Interrupted
Notaro’s tragic personal life, which has provided so much great material for her act in recent years, got its own spotlight in the Netflix documentary Tig. But fans-in-waiting needn’t absorb that to enjoy this patient, taut special, which offers a master class in comic timing and perpetually considered storytelling. Her mainstream renown has yet to catch up to her rep among comedy fans, but that matters little when she collapses the distance between the stage and audience so effectively. Removing her shirt to show the results of her double mastectomy could have ground the proceedings to a halt, but it’s a testament to Notaro’s skill that it’s only one of many memorable, achingly funny moments on Boyish Girl.
Aziz Ansari — Live at Madison Square Garden
It’s exciting to think that Ansari has yet to find his ceiling, even after selling out Madison Square Garden. From his Louie-aping but quietly revolutionary Netflix series Master of None to his increasingly political standup, Ansari betrays the influence of heroes Chris Rock, Mr. C.K., and other worthy sources without fundamentally sounding like anyone other than himself. His tool belt of bug-eyed expressions and yelps never draw attention away from the project at hand, which frequently involves being excited about his disappointment, or being disappointed at how excited he is. Live at Madison Square Garden is a heartening rebound from 2013’s underwhelming Buried Alive and more evidence of Ansari’s restless creativity.
Beth Stelling — Simply the Beth
I’ll admit my bias up top: like Stelling, I’m a Dayton, Ohio native and as such can’t help but project a certain Midwestern, Rust Belt kinship onto her material (not that it’s redolent of those subjects, but still). That’s only part of why her voice resonates so loudly in my head, shifting effortlessly from a faux-ennui to a gleaming sharpness that announces her as one of this decade’s hungriest new comics. At all points her most affecting construction is her voice, literally and figuratively, as she recounts family absurdities and tried-and-true observational topics with an irresistible chip on her shoulder.
Matt Braunger — Big Dumb Animal
Like his buddy Kyle Kinane, Braunger’s LA brethren have seen more mainstream success of late, and part of that may be due to the fact that as he evolves, his standup affects a tricky balance of weird and mundane, indignant and cocksure. That’s a bonus on Big Dumb Animal, which is all the better for its consistent willingness to be messy and strident in taking down patriarchy, or its relative girth as an album (breaking the hour mark with ease). His expressive voice conforms to subjects with shocking malleability, a horn, an electric guitar, and a guttural wail all emanating from the same lumbering progressive. To the casual observer, he just happens to be disguised as a beer-swilling dude’s-dude (well, a craft beer-swilling dude) blending silly and tragic in equal measures.
Eugene Mirman — Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store
Prior to this year, it was fair to wonder if Mirman’s playful, absurdist mind had changed much with fame, given that his eponymous New York comedy festival, his voice work on Bob’s Burgers, and his association with rock star scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson have inched him (however slowly and infinitesimally) toward household-name status. A definitive “no” arrived in his uneven but sporadically brilliant Netflix special, Vegan on the Way to the Complain Store, and his sublimely ridiculous, multi-disc Sub Pop release I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome). Both reasserted the New York comic’s willingness to experiment at the expense of commerce (but not laugh lines), and what better ambassador of the form could we ask for?
Ron Funches — The Funches of Us
This Undateable co-star has been playing with us since he burst onto tastemakers’ lists five years ago, offering gentle observational comedy with the occasionally dark, surreal twist. The Funches of Us may not be his Is This It (or, more relevant to his style, his I Have a Pony), but it’s the clearest distillation yet why the Portland, Oregon-bred comic counts so many recent converts. In another era Funches may have also felt pressured (from within and without) to resort to more appearance-based jokes, but the fact that he’s perpetually finding new angles on seemingly flat topics is a growth chart of both himself and his fans. The vocal cadence and fragility is a delicious red herring; Funches of Us is more delightful and energizing than almost anything out there. And it’s only his first album.