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.