Yes, 2014 was a strange year for comedy, marred by scandal, controversy and the tragic loss of legendary talents. New comics seized the spotlight, blossoming into full-fledged stardom on the strength of career-best showcases, while others saw their acclaim diminish. Frankly, it made us shudder to see the lead-in photo of Bill Cosby from last year's list: Fittingly, Hannibal Buress, the comedian who launched a thousand think-pieces by refusing to remain silent about the accusations against Cosby, had a banner year. And then there were the specials: Whittling them down to the five best omits some fine hours of comedy: Specials like Patton Oswalt's Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time and Jim Gaffigan's Obsessed are worth seeking out, but lack the distinction of their finest work. Meanwhile, performers like Nick Offerman and Wyatt Cenac, whose American Ham and Brooklyn were released last year, seemed to merely coast off the goodwill of their TV careers, experimenting with interesting formats but mostly stumbling through laugh-free hours. All of the comedians listed here, however, are at the top of their respective games, turning in their funniest work yet.
See also: Ten Best Comedy Specials of 2013
5) Jerrod Carmichael: Love at the Store
The 26-year-old Jerrod Carmichael may be making his one-hour debut with Love at the Store, but he shows no signs of newbie trepidation in this HBO special. Filmed at Los Angeles's infamous Comedy Store (whose mirrored neon decor appears unchanged since 1987) , in this hour Carmichael swaggers through a confrontational set with disarming ease, stealing guffaws from the restive crowd before their brains have time to object. Directed by Spike Lee, Love at the Store benefits from Lee's experience adapting stage performances to the screen; the whole special has an appealingly dingy aesthetic whisked along by seamless editing. Though some of Carmichael's jokes fall flat --which he readily admits-- his special nevertheless heralds the arrival of a major talent.
Plaudits and demerits: While Carmichael has such an engaging presence that it's sort of a joy to just watch him fuck around, Love at the Store often feels rushed and underprepared. Including footage of Carmichael consulting his joke book and reacting to failed punchlines offers an interesting glimpse into his creative process, but lack the poise and sheen you expect from a televised comedy special. While the merits of Carmichael's vérité approach may be debatable, some of his weaker material --seriously? Michael Jackson jokes in 2014?-- is not. Despite the flaws, Jerrod Carmichael's batting average on his debut special, Love at the Store, is remarkable and comedy fans won't want to miss his next at-bat.
4) Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour
The premise of Todd Barry's latest special, The Crowd Work Tour, sounds like a dare. Do a cross-country tour with no jokes, gleaning laughs from nothing but interactions with the audience, who'll have microphones of their own. Then document all of it. Very few comedians working today could rise to this Lars Von Trier-ian challenge, and fewer still would impose it on themselves, but Barry keeps everything afloat with his wry zingers. The polished but unfussy direction from filmmaker Lange Bangs, whose facility in rendering live performances cinematic has earned him gigs with everyone from Marc Maron to LCD Soundsystem, keeps what could have been a formless roast-a-thon into a cohesive film that entertains minute to minute. Barry, a veteran standup best known for his appearances on such TV shows as Flight of the Conchords and Louie, as well as films like The Wrestler, has never been more at ease on stage.
Plaudits & demerits: It appears that sometime Barry picks easy targets from the crowd, be they earnest quirksters or fledgling performers. Regardless, the riffs are funny and the spirit is good-natured. This is a very unique special.
3) Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats
Chelsea Peretti has emerged from an MVP on the podcast circuit, celebrated sitcom writer and comedy nerd darling into a full-fledged star. From a recurring role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine to the debut of her first hour special on Netflix, 2014 saw Peretti reaping the benefits of honing her craft for years. It also produced one the the funniest and most inventive hours of standup we've ever seen. Cinematically speaking, there are very few ways to liven up the comedy special format. Standup is an inherently stagey art form; even great filmmakers struggle to make it visually interesting while capturing a fraction of a live show's energy. Peretti and director Lance Bangs found an elegant and hilarious solution by using audience cut-away shots for bits of surreal humor, like a row of fancy dogs sitting casually among the crowd. Visual flourishes and puppy motifs aside, what really makes the special work is Peretti's performance, mining her social awkwardness for laughs while still strikingly confident onstage. Few comedians play off their contradictions the way Peretti does; calling her special "One of the Greats," for example, is a jokey claim at once founded in her commanding stage presence and drenched with irony.
Plaudits & demerits: Some of Peretti's more topical material is unlikely to age well, but the main demerit is for the weird clown interlude. Keep reading for two more of the best comedy specilas of 2014.
2) Hannibal Buress: Live From Chicago
Hannibal Buress was everywhere in 2014, appearing on Broad City, The Eric Andre Show and in seemingly every editorial about Bill Cosby's descent into an ignominy he probably deserves. But standup has always been Buress's true gift, with his unpredictable timing, absurdist sensibilities and uncanny ability to make the words "penguin meat" inexplicably hilarious. Shot at the tony Vic Theatre in Buress's hometown of Chicago, the special features punchlines with a musical accompaniment and Buress gleefully concluding ""You just watched a man live out his dream."
Plaudits & demerits: Newly famous comedians often enjoy telling stories about meeting celebrities. It's exciting for them, and fun in a gossipy sort of way for the audience. Sometimes these jokes build to great punchlines, while others, like Buress's bit about meeting Scarlett Johannson, don't really build to anything. Still, two self-indulgent minutes out of a hilarious hour are easily overlooked.
1) Bill Burr: I'm Sorry You Feel That Way
Some comedian give laughs. They say some basic amusing things to a crowd of chuckling idiots and everyone leaves happy. Great comedians steal laughs by challenging audience's beliefs and subverting their expectations, making off like bandits with a sack stuffed with more giggles than any comedian could ever give. Bill Burr is an unrepentant larcenist of laughter, leaving audience rib-tickled and sore-bellied, wondering just how he stole a cackle out of us with a joke about the homophobe from Duck Dynasty. Shot in crisp and classy black and white in Atlanta's historic Tabernacle theatre, I'm Sorry You Feel That Way is a gorgeous document of Burr's confrontational act.
Plaudits & demerits: Like many of the comics listed here, Burr is also saddled with some already-dated Paula Deen and Donald Sterling material, but nearly every premise hides a dynamite punchline that justifies itself. Burr's sharp joke writing and legendary facility with hecklers has been known for years, but like never before, Burr puts on a truly grand performance here, bringing jokes to life with elaborate act-outs, including a hilarious bit where he mimics a snoring dog.
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.