2013 was a great year for comedy nerds. With so many comedy specials, albums and formats available, fans could exhaust themselves consuming comedy and still barely scratch the surface of what's out there. But it was also a year marked by lackluster efforts from great comedians. Thinky Pain, from Marc Maron, was little more than a punched-up episode of his WTF podcast, while on Caligula, Anthony Jeselnik seemed like his own shtick was eating him alive. Some comics, like Mike Birbiglia, merely re-released years-old content in a new format. Fortunately, 2013 also witnessed strong outings from two of today's most prolific comics (Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari), killer debuts (like Kumail Najiani's Beta Male) and welcome returns from veterans like Bill Cosby. Netflix has emerged as a player on the comedy distribution market in recent years, producing specials for several comics through their partnership with New Wave Entertainment. While the old guard of HBO and Comedy Central are still turning out great specials each year, self-distribution and new players on the scene have been a boon to fans who today enjoy access to a greater breadth of comic voices than ever before -- which made it tough to narrow this list down to ten.
See also: Five most Cusackian John Cusack movies
John Hodgman, Ragnarök
Taking its title from the Norse apocalypse mythos, John Hodgman's Ragnarök is at its strongest when sticking with the end-of-days theme. Recorded on December 21, 2012, for a crowd with Armageddon on its mind, the special is as much a document of millennial anxiety as it is a mostly funny hour of entertainment, stage-decorated like an apocalypse bunker stocked with such supplies as institutional-sized jars of mayonnaise and bottled urine. At times Ragnarök resembles performance art or a rambling TED talk more than an hour of standup comedy, and becomes all the more interesting by straying from genre convention. Hodgman, in full deranged-millionaire mode, takes the stage dressed in orange aviators and some type of cravat, and nails the tricky tone for his Brooklyn audience. With inventive digressions and a charming bit of crowd work with an unsuspecting British tween, Ragnarök is worth watching, even as the Mayan prophecy has been disproved by a year of continued existence.
Plaudits & Demerits: Ragnarök is among the most unique comedy specials of the year. Nonetheless, Hodgman earns two demerits for stopping the show not once, but twice for unfunny musical interludes. I also don't care to hear his thoughts on the Mac ads that made him famous.
Sarah Silverman, We Are Miracles
For her first comedy special in eight years, Sarah Silverman could have booked a massive arena, filled it with her adoring fans, and coasted off their goodwill. Silverman, however, has always maintained a deep commitment to the craft of comedy, and shot her special in a side room of Los Angeles's famous Largo nightclub, which only seats forty people. Though the cool intimacy of an evening in such a small venue doesn't really translate to the HBO broadcast, Silverman's emphasis on the substance of her jokes over spectacle is admirable.
Plaudits & Demerits: Even Silverman's detractors should check out this special; Silverman has evolved beyond the winking, knee-jerk offensiveness that characterized her last special, Jesus Is Magic! She also graciously decided not to include so many songs this time, though she still closes with a tuneless and jokeless ditty that all but buries the momentum she built over the previous hour. Side note: I don't automatically hate musical comedy, but I do think it tends to work better with acts like Flight of the Conchords and Garfunkel and Oates, who are solid musicians who just happen to have funny lyrics.
Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive
A comedian of Louis C.K.-like prolificness, Aziz Ansari has released three comedy specials in as many years. While his first two specials, like his debut, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, and the inferiorDangerously Delicious, both have plenty of funny bits that are carried off by Ansari's magnetic stage presence, they lack the connective tissue that makes Buried Alive one of the best specials of 2013. Before 2013, Ansari seemed like a charismatic TV star who could sell out theater gigs with ease; here he emerges as a standup and self-styled sociologist. Ansari riffs a particularly great joke extrapolated from a highly finessed bit of crowd work; it's a huge risk for a comedy special that pays off in spades here. Aziz Ansari is performing this month in Colorado, and fans would be wise to see him now, at one of the most interesting junctures of his career.
Plaudits & Demerits: Ansari is funnier than ever in this hour, though his material only seems substantive compared to his earlier jokes, which were often little more than stories of awkward celebrity encounters spiced up with bug-eyed exclamations in lieu of punchlines. While Ansari demonstrates real insight (and, more important, remains consistently funny from moment to moment), his jokes about relationships are sterling examples of light observational comedy done very well, but nothing earth-shattering.
Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil
With a routine that's equal parts comedian and exuberant youth pastor, likability is key to Pete Holmes's appeal. Audiences don't merely listen to his jokes, they follow his whims. Fortunately, said whims lead to a consistently hilarious special, packed with some bits that are conceptually brilliant -- like Holmes's assertion that humans should be traumatized from breastfeeding -- or sublimely silly. More than most comedians, Holmes knows the feeling of total freedom engendered by guffawing at something kind of dumb. He had a great year in 2013, culminating in the premiere of The Pete Holmes Show, which airs after Conan on TBS. With Nice Try, The Devil, Holmes proves that he's a comedian first and a TV personality second.
Plaudits & Demerits: Though Holmes's jokes have an admirable hit ratio, when the audience response is anything less than a belly laugh, his encouragement can start to seem like insistence. It also shouldn't be necessary to do so much coaxing for a room full of established fans, but that's a very minor demerit.
Bill Cosby, Far From Finished
Bill Cosby was the first comedian I ever heard. Cosby tapes were in heavy rotation during the Graham family's many road trips, and I can still remember giggling at Cosby's whistled Lamaze breathing routine from Himself while the Black Hills of South Dakota whizzed by outside our minivan window. Five minutes into Far From Finished, Cosby's first special in over thirty years, it's like he never left. All the distinct vocal tics and mannerisms that have established Cosby as the most inimitable comedian of all time are brought to full bear here, as is a style of joke-telling driven more by rhythm and identification than a traditional punchline structure. Students of comedy history and novice jokesters alike should also watch an accompanying in-depth interview between Cosby and filmmaker Robert Townsend, which contains a fascinating account of Cosby's early career and concludes with some great advice to new comics.
Plaudits & Demerits: Like most people born in the '80s, I give Bill Cosby a lifetime pass.
Doug Stanhope, Beer Hall Putsch
As a comedy nerd, I must admit that I'm a bit ashamed of the fact that it took me this long to finally give Stanhope a chance. After years of writing him off because he was the dude from The Man Show who wears those cheesy suits, I'm happy to report that 2013's Beer Hall Putsch has made me into a full-time convert. While many comedians claim to have a dark sense of humor, very few are as adept at finding laugh diamonds in the mines of sadness. Here, Stanhope tells a long story about assisting the suicide of his terminally ill mother. This bit, which builds on a somber premise to a crescendo of cathartic guffaws succeeds by never hitting an emotional false note before arriving at its howlingly funny punchline. Stanhope, who will be performing in Denver this month, is a master of the form who has the misfortune of being best known for his least-inspired work.
Plaudits & Demerits: Some of Stanhope's jokes have such a slow build that it can be easy to think, "Oh, man, he's lost everybody" but there's always a payoff.
(Technicality) Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff
So, technically, Mostly Sex Stuff aired on Comedy Central in 2012, but Schumer did release the material in an album format this year, so it still qualifies. Technically. Schumer's special is so funny that it's worth bending the rules to mention it on this list. Culling the majority of her jokes from the age-old absurdity of dating rituals, Schumer doesn't rely on topical references, and her humor is likely to age better as a result. It's certainly the most re-watched and frequently quoted special of the year around my house.
Plaudits & Demerits: I would argue that the focus of this special is too narrow, but then again, it's right there in the title.
Kumail Najiani, Beta Male
Shot in the same Austin venue during the same week his friend and peer Pete Holmes recorded his special, Kumail Najiani's long-awaited debut demonstrates how he became one of the most respected comics on the Los Angeles scene with a dearth of recorded material. While it's obvious that Nanjiani, who was born in Pakistan, brings a unique perspective to a field dominated by white dudes, it's the substance of his jokes that truly makes him stand out. Whether he's describing the conflicted feeling he gets playing a video game that uses his home town of Karachi as a level or getting a porn tape caught in a VCR, Nanjiani absolutely crushes in what is hopefully only the first of many specials to come. I can safely say, no other comedy special of this or any year features keener observations of monkey fighting. Nanjiani will be performing to a sold-out Denver with Jonah Ray and the Grawlix this month at the Bug Theater.
Plaudits & Demerits: Nanjiani's closer about a noisy home invader may have given him the title of his special, but it's nevertheless a pretty shaggy story that concludes his otherwise strong hour on a fizzled note.
Al Madrigal, Why Is the Rabbit Crying?
Al Madrigal is most widely known as a Daily Show correspondent, but he's been honing his comedic chops for years now. On Why Is the Rabbit Crying?, Madrigal addresses a variety of topics, from race relations to a hilarious story about the time his cleaning lady accidentally ingested mushroom chocolates, from a wryly engaging perspective. Unlike much of the comedy that gets cynically marketed to Latino crowds, Madrigal deconstructs stereotypes rather than enforcing them, milking the incongruity between expectations and reality to hilarious effect, like during a great bit about cholos on an a nature hike.
Plaudits & Demerits: Madrigal's material is strong throughout. I'm usually bored to tears by comedians who tell jokes about their kids, but Madrigal is engaging enough to make them work. The only demerit against this special is that I watched it on Comedy Central with commercial breaks, which completely interrupted the flow of the hour.
Louis C.K., Oh My God
I admit that I suffer from some of the Louis C.K. hero-worship that plagues most novice comedians, but the hype didn't arise from nothing. I generally anticipate C.K.'s annual comedy specials the way children look forward to Christmas, or drug dealers to New Year's Eve. Oh My God, which aired on HBO last year, is another hilarious offing from the comedy auteur. This special deserves to go down in history for the instant-classic bit "Of course, but maybe," wherein C.K. so adeptly slaughters sacred cows that by the end, everyone's guts are on the floor.
Plaudits & Demerits: The only real demerit here has nothing to do with the jokes themselves and everything to do with their presentation. On his FX show and in his prior specials, C.K. appears in the comedy clubs and historic theaters where he looks more at home. In Oh My God, he's in the center of a bland arena in Phoenix. Theater in the round is not a good look for C.K. He's released an annual special pretty much every year since 2009, and many comedy fans have begun to express Louis C.K. fatigue. While it's true that one C.K. special can be difficult to distinguish from another, as they're all tonally similar and feature C.K. dressed in his ever-present black T-shirt, the backlash is misguided. Oh My God does revisit many of the comic's pet themes and continue his tradition of exposing the heartbreaking absurdity at the core of human life, much like his other specials. Also like his other specials, it's the funniest hour of comedy produced this year, despite what some other top-ten list might argue. While Oh My God may not be funnier than Hilarious, C.K. can afford to make a lateral move creatively and still be ahead of everyone else in the game. A quick word on the methodology here: This is a list of the best comedy specials on television. Comedy albums are a different beast altogether, and many more are produced, so the selection process was whittled down to specials, which also gives readers a chance to check out video clips of the top ten. Building this list required watching dozens upon dozens of comedy shows from this year, tracking everything down, sometimes via less than strictly legal means. I even went far outside my normal purview, watching specials from Jim Norton and Iliza Shlesinger, before concluding that my normal purview is awesome and those comics shall remain outside of it. Clearly, this is a subjective list, but even people who disagree with my favorites can, at least, concede that I gave everyone a shot.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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