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.