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The 20 Greatest Standup Specials of All Time

greateststandupspecialsModern standup has been around in one form or another since vaudeville, but it’s only been since the late ‘70s that the standup special has gained traction as the crowning achievement of a successful comic. Fortunately, the beginnings of the standup special were as fertile as rock ‘n’ roll’s birth 25 years prior, with many of the all-time greats setting templates right from the start.

The material always comes first, of course, but as a video document of a honed act it’s also important to appreciate the visual elements — the framing, editing, and backdrop — and how they enhance or detract from the pacing and quality of the jokes.

Whether it was released on HBO or Netflix, streamed or screened theatrically, filmed specials remain arguably the most accessible example of standup. Here are the best of the best. READ MORE

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The Enduring Legacy of Phil Hartman

philhartmanAs much as Phil Hartman's work and influence lives on, the Ontario native has so far escaped the kind of mainstream legacy re-appraisal that so many other late standups and sketch players have enjoyed.

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman, which takes its name from the catchphrase of The Simpsons mainstay Troy McClure (voiced by Hartman), aims to right that. The long-overdue appreciation of Hartman's genius, which will be published tomorrow by St. Martin's Press, looks at the arc of his career — from his little-known stints as a rock 'n' roll roadie and album-cover designer to his comedy work with the Groundlings and beyond — as well as the off-stage, off-camera details: Hartman smoking pot, surfing, writing poetry, laughing.

Given his tragic fate, it's tempting to reduce Hartman's personal legacy to a tortured artist with a smiling persona, a man who endured private agony and professional highs but never quite found his star vehicle — despite creating roles that no one else could fill on Saturday Night LiveThe Simpsons, and NewsRadio.

But author and Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Thomas paints a more symmetrical, often brightly-colored picture of Hartman's life. His detailed, reporting-driven approach yields a less sexy but far richer portrait of this consummately professional comedian who improved the prospects of every sketch, sitcom, and series he touched.

Hartman, who was tragically shot to death by his coke-addled wife Brynn on May 27, 1998, would have been 66 years old this year, so I also picked Thomas' brain about where he thought Hartman's career was going, what he would have been like in 2014, and more. READ MORE

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Jokes on Wax: Inside Comedy's Vinyl Resurgence

Marc Maron hasn't exactly built his career on happy memories. But when the WTF host thinks back on his comedy education, he fondly remembers sitting on shag carpet in his bedroom in the 1970s listening to Cheech and Chong and Richard Pryor albums on vinyl.

"I grew up with vinyl," says the 50-year-old, who frequently praises the format on his podcast and on stage. "You can hold the cover while you listen to it and open it up on your lap and look at the pictures. Vinyl wants you to sit down and focus."

Maron's Thinky Pain, which was released on CD, DVD, and digital on May 6, even includes the track "Vinyl Midlife Crisis," in which Maron obsesses over his record collection and the sanctity of tube amps for playing records. It's appropriate, since Thinky Pain also enjoyed the gatefold vinyl treatment from Comedy Central as a 180-gram double LP — something normally reserved for music releases and the audiophiles who gobble them up.

"There is a much bigger overlap between comedy and music than people realize," says Steve Raizes, senior vice president of enterprises for Comedy Central. "We've had requests from specific artists to do vinyl albums and it's a really fun canvas for all of us to paint on. You get more space to play with art, you can do something that is a bit more intricate, that pops, and I think that everyone loves the ability to hold and create something."

Until a few decades ago, before the rise of HBO, podcasts and standup radio, most recorded comedy was consumed on vinyl. Comedy fans of a certain age will recall poring over Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, and Steve Martin albums on wax, listening rapt with headphones, or stoned at parties, or anywhere that had a turntable and a decent collection. Despite the dominance of the digital format in recent years, vinyl's import and visceral impact remains. READ MORE

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'The Humor Code' and the Science of How Comedy Works

Writing about comedy has become a cottage industry in recent years as the swelling popularity of live and online humor has birthed a new audience for comedy journalism, whether it's Jason Zinoman's New York Times pieces or Splitsider's own blow-by-blow reporting on the industry.

But outside of the standup, sketch, and podcast worlds, there's also been a larger, centuries-long search to understand the fundamental nature of humor. It's the sort of quest that electrifies certain comedy nerds while making others wince at the idea of slicing open something as mysterious and subjective as laughter. It also begat E.B. White's famous 1941 quote: "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."

Fortunately, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner don't shy from that challenge. Their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, opens with the E.B. White quote, followed by the bold-faced declaration, "Let's kill some frogs." It helps that McGraw actually is a scientist — more specifically a marketing professor at the University of Colorado who runs the Boulder-based Humor Research Lab. Warner is his translator, a freelance journalist who has written for Wired and Slate, and one whose fascination with McGraw's academic work led to their collaboration.

What makes The Humor Code work is its wide-eyed approach to the subject. McGraw and Warner are beholden to no particular scene or set of performers, and their whistle-stop education in the world of humor is both accessible and endearing. Instead of writing solely about McGraw's experiments, they literally travel the world (91,000 miles across five continents) to explore the intersection of humor with politics, psychology, economics and, yes, hard science. It's part buddy-comedy road trip and part deftly-woven nonfiction, and it ultimately succeeds not on its format but its ideas and inviting tone. READ MORE