May 2017’s Best Standup Specials: Hasan Minhaj, Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, and More

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We’re in the middle of a comedy special deluge, and May brought nine new hours of standup to the spate. In case you missed it, here’s a rundown of what dropped last month.

Maria Bamford – Old Baby (Netflix)
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Continuing her run as the most inventive comedy special creator working today, Maria Bamford’s Old Baby expands on the theme of 2012’s The Special Special Special (wherein she performed only to her parents in her living room). This time Bamford spreads out the material over a series of changing venues including a park bench, a bookstore, a backyard, a bowling alley, and a theater. Each change of location grows in size, as do the audiences, until rapidly reversing all the way back to the beginning during the final moments of her closing bit. Sorry to be cliché but, WHAT WILL SHE THINK OF NEXT?

Al Madrigal – Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy (Showtime)
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Following up his 2013 release Why Is the Rabbit Crying? Al Madrigal’s Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy draws its title from a hilarious and incriminating story about an elaborate seafood revenge stunt he pulled at his daughter’s dance studio. It’s worth watching just for that bit, but Madrigal also has some solid long takes on immigrant workers, the struggles of being a good husband and father, and some very revealing tales of his crazy family.

Chris Gethard – Career Suicide (HBO)
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In what might be one of the most personal, touching, and darkly funny specials in the last few years, Chris Gethard’s one-man show Career Suicide gets very real about his intimate experiences with depression, anxiety, a suicide attempt, and therapy. Plenty of other comedians dabble in the pond of mental illness, but Gethard transcends most of his peers by bringing everyone along with him for a plunge into the ocean. This special looks and feels different than most others, due largely in part to the fact that it ran as an off-Broadway show last fall before being filmed for HBO. Gethard has a knack for making the darker parts of his brain refreshingly endearing in a show that I think will prove to actually help people, beyond just providing laughs.

Norm Macdonald – Hitler’s Dog, Gossip and Trickery (Netflix)
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In his latest special Norm Macdonald compares himself to a “cheap magician” and asserts that nothing he says “is of substance.” As funny as it is to hear him say it, it’s less a joke and more of an honest admission of a comedian doing the only thing he really knows how to do: be funny. Despite his self-deprecation, there is substance in both Macdonald’s act and in his unique, bare bones word choice. Take, for instance, his bit on considering suicide (which is clearly a big theme for aging male comics this year) wherein he describes the ease of shopping for materials as visiting “the rope store” and then heading to “the rickety stool store.” He delivers his observations like a sage who can’t believe we can’t all see what he’s been seeing all along.

Mark Normand – Don’t Be Yourself (Comedy Central)
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In his first full-length special Mark Normand proves to a wider audience what fans and fellow comedians have been saying for quite some time now: this dude can write jokes. If listening to green open mic comics is any indicator, Normand has crafted a voice, timing, and delivery that is already proving to be influential on comedy. But don’t waste your time with flattery. As Mark told us, “I’m incapable of accepting it…I don’t know if it’s low self-esteem or whatever, but the compliments go in and right out. But the insults stick to me.”

Tracy Morgan – Staying Alive (Netflix)
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After an accident caused by a Walmart truck put Tracy Morgan in the hospital with multiple broken bones and a coma-inducing brain injury, many wondered what would happen to the veteran comedian’s career. Staying Alive marks Morgan’s official comeback, while simultaneously proving that he may still have a way to go. His account of the ordeal is entertaining, but a lot of his jokes, like his take on Caitlyn Jenner, feel like they’re coming from the perspective of someone who has been living in cave – or a coma – for a while. But if Morgan can forgive Walmart, we can forgive this effort and hope for a full recovery in the future.

Hasan Minhaj – Homecoming King (Netflix)
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Coming off his buzzworthy appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Hasan Minaj dropped Homecoming King, a one-man multimedia show about his life as a first generation Indian-American. Recorded in his hometown of Davis, California, the special has drawn critical acclaim for its heartfelt, emotional glimpse into the life of the young comedian. Minaj made it clear to us that Homecoming King is to be viewed from his perspective and not just a generalization of every brown person’s experience: “It’s less about being an ambassador for the whole community, because for me…this is my life and, whether you get the references or not, you can’t deny that.”

Sarah Silverman – A Speck of Dust (Netflix)
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Rounding out a packed month of comedy specials was Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust, a loose, authentic 71 minutes of standup that shows that as a comedian, she can strike a sturdy balance between confrontational and compromising. With a legal pad of notes placed visibly on the stool, Silverman weaves in and out of bits, often asking the audience to “put a pin” in one thought before casually shifting to another, with no promise of returning to the original idea. Highlights include a wonderful use of misdirection involving a tense college experience of her sister’s and Silverman’s recounting of a recent near-death experience.

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